Openness Unhindered is Rosaria Butterfield’s second book. Her first, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, was largely autobiographical and took the Reformed community by storm. Her story of how God worked to turn her life from that of a very liberal, lesbian professor of English and Queer Theory to a conservative, Reformed Christian who is married to a Presbyterian pastor. Her book succeeded in annoying many who are not conservative, Reformed Christians. They made some faulty assumptions, like that she think God makes every Christian a heterosexual. In many ways she was a threat to the narrative of the gay community.
Her second book really isn’t like the first. It covers some same ground as the subtitle indicates: Further Thought of an Unlikely Convert- Sexual Identity- Union with Christ. But how it covers it feels very different to the reader. There are portions that seem more like the section in the first advocating for exclusive psalmody. She’s writing much more like a professor teaching us what she used to believe and how it is incompatible with Christianity.
She steps into the sexual identity debate that is going on in the church. The concept is a “gay Christian” is becoming popular on one hand. And one the other some think that a Christian can’t even struggle with same sex attraction (SSA), confusing temptation with sin itself. This is what much of the first half of the book is about.
In the preface, she explains the title in terms of union with Christ. Paul’s union resulted in his being open and unencumbered about his life and struggles. If we are united in Christ, we can be open and unencumbered about our struggles instead of acting as if all is well though your inner life is filled with chaos.
“Even our struggles, our failures, and our suffering are redemptive in Christ. But there is blood involved. There is a cutting off and a cutting away that redemption demands. Stepping into God’s story means abandoning a deeply held desire to make meaning of our own lives on our own terms based on the preciousness of our own feelings.”
She sets up the method, so to speak, in the preface. She argues for God’s created order as one that includes norms and boundaries for life which includes sexuality and gender. They are not social constructions, but about essence. Many, however, are pragmatists and think these boundaries and norms don’t exist and can be manipulated to please ourselves. These people deny the authority of Scripture. But there are also some who while affirming the authority of Scripture “unbiblically believe that the struggle is the sin (pp. 7).” They believe that conversion experientially restores all boundaries and norms sooner rather than later.
In other words, Christians can struggle with SSA because they are still sinners. The desires they experience are wrong, but they are not themselves sin. Those desires are not innocuous, but neither are they impossible for a Christian. The Christian, when experiencing them, is to put them to death in the power of the Spirit, as they would any other temptation. Christians can experience SSA just like opposite sex attraction, temptation to greed, revenge and any other sin.
14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1
There is a method as she covers conversion, identity, repentance and sexual orientation. She works through these theological categories. At times she brings us back to her story, but this book is more theological than autobiographical. As she notes, life stories, including her own, “are messy, contradictory, and humiliating. (pp. 12)” She says she had a heterosexual adolescence. The sexual meat market of college threw her for a loop, and she felt out of control and her sexual desires became tangled and confusing. For 6 years she dated men, but fantasized about relationships with women, “especially my friends from my growing lesbian and feminist community base” (pp. 13).
Here for instance she distinguishes between homosexuality and homosociality. The latter is “an abiding and deep comfort afforded in keeping company with your own gender, and finding within your own gender your most important and cherished friendships. (pp. 31-32)” Lines get blurry at times.
She then moves into identity. So often we carve out our identity from the wrong things: vocation, past experiences, social status etc. Today people build theirs on their sexuality. We have a tendency to hold to Sola Experiencia- where our feelings and personal experience shape our identity, forming the lens through which we see life. These, for instance, judge the Scripture instead of Scripture evaluating our experience.
She argues that a homosexual identity is not removed by a heterosexual identity, but by Christ. We are converted to Christ, not heterosexuality (though that is a norm by the created order). A person may never be free from SSA until glorification, but they are to find their identity in Christ, not their desires.
One of the issues I had with the book was some of the terminology she uses for sanctification. She follows Vos’ commentary on the Westminster Confession and using “infuse”. This is idiosyncratic. Protestants typically use imparted because Roman Catholic theology talks of us being infused with grace through the sacraments. She doesn’t say this, but this former-Catholic struggles with the use of the term. Vos and Rosaria are the only Protestants I know that use it. Not sure why.
Because God gives us grace, we are able to say ‘no’ to our desires for sinful things (see Titus 2). In Christ we have been sanctified and are being sanctified. We don’t have to act on our lust, hatred, envy etc.
She ends the chapter discussing shame which leads her into the chapter on repentance. Shame is about being exposed, reveled as dirty, disgusting and disobedient. Shame for past actions refuses to stay in the past. We feel it now afraid people will discover what we did back them. She points us to confession of sin that we may be cleansed of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). She distinguishes this from admission. Confession not only admits our actions were wrong, but also appropriates God’s grace.
In all of this she talks about original sin, which she sees as the great equalizer. We all suffer under it. Sin continues to dwell in us, and produces actual sins. She is highly dependent on the Puritans such as John Owen and Anthony Burgess. Because sin dwells in us, we experience temptation internally. We can either say ‘no’ to it, or ‘yes’ to it and sin.
In the 4th chapter, Sexual Orientation, she gets into theory and the history of sexual orientation. Prior to Freud no one thought in such terms. They thought in terms of behavior: that is a homosexual act. They didn’t think of themselves in terms of identity: I am a homosexual. She argues for this precisely because many Queer theorist and postmodernists argue for this. As a former English professor and Queer theorist she talks about why words matter, building a case against terms like “gay Christian”. This continues in Self-Representation or What Does it Mean to Be Gay?.
While she is very black and white, very theoretical, and sounds dogmatic (not necessarily a bad thing), she isn’t drawing lines in the sand. The next chapter, Conflict, is about her disagreement with other Christians about this. She recognizes that while these terms find their basis in a movement in which she was a mover and shaker, younger people don’t come at it with the same theoretical underpinnings and don’t mean by it what she believes it means. They agree to disagree without consigning one another to the region of hell.
She then moves into the living of the Christian life, focusing on community and hospitality. Her understanding hospitality “starts with adoption and ends with keeping the Lord’s Day together, because the purpose of our adoption is worship. (pp. 150)” She starts with how community begins, which is important for Christians to remember. Community begins with a group of strangers, who have different ideas, passions and interests. True community is not homogeneous. We have Christ in common, but differ in many ways. Community recognizes that it is dangerous. We are in community with people who are sinners of all kinds. We can get hurt! But the perfect love of God is intended to cast out our fear. Open and unhindered, we share life together even the unpleasant parts of life like grief.
She then talks about how they have practiced hospitality in their neighborhood. I don’t think it would work in mine. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. That just means it is an example, not the only way. It is also shaped by her Covenanter convictions. In some ways it seems similar to her defense of exclusive psalmody in the first book. It all seems a bit too perfect (to this admittedly cynical soul).
She then moves into church membership, and why we should take it seriously. She is standing against the consumer approach to membership. She quotes from G. I. Williamson about how there is no perfect congregation, and no perfect denomination (oh that more people in my denomination would understand that!).
“As a pastor’s wife, I have seen the ugliest side of people when they start to believe that the sins of others in our church are intolerable, or when they pack up and leave instead of receiving the repentance of other, or sticking around long enough to work on reconciliation. The people who leave the church because they think they are too good for it have no idea that hurt that they cause- for the people who love them and miss them, and for the people hurt by the things they said and the things they didn’t say when they broke fellowship.”
This is a good book. It is not as easy to read as her first book. It does get more deeply into some very important ideas, theologically and philosophically. It gives those of us who haven’t read gay theorist a summary of sorts from a former-gay theorist.