Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosario Champagne Butterfield

One of Them became one of Us and wrote a book about the experience - Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.  In doing so, Rosario Champagne Butterfield has chastened and offered correction to how We interact with Them.  However, her book is more than a manual for evangelical interaction with the LGBT community.  Butterfield's stark honesty and service-oriented heart challenges Christians to fully grasp what it means to live what we believe.

Butterfield, a tenured Syracuse literature professor grounded in "the philosophical and political worldviews of Freud, Marx, and Darwin" whose specialty was "Queer Theory (a postmodern form of gay and lesbian studies)," was radically transformed in her 37th year of life:
How do I tell you about my conversion to Christianity without making it sound like an alien abduction or a train wreck?  Truth be told, it felt like a little of both . . . I didn't read one of those tacky self-help books with a thin coating of Christian themes, examine my life against the tenets of the Bible the way one might hold up one car insurance policy against all others and cleanly and logically, "make a decision for Christ."  While I did make choices along the path of this journey, they never felt logical, risk-free, or sane . . .Heretical as it might seem, Christ and Christianity seemed eminently resistible.
Nothing in this book is sugar coated - not her pre-conversion life or the pain and loss she experienced with her conversion, nor the glaring deficits and flaws she sees (pre- and post-conversion) in the experienced life of the evangelical community.  Often her critiques ring so true the evangelical reader feels his/her face sting from the literary slap across the face the pages have just delivered.
Christians always seemed like bad thinkers to me.  It seemed that they could maintain their worldview only because they were sheltered from the world's real problems, like the material structure of poverty and violence and racism.  Christians always seemed like bad readers to me, too.  They appeared to use the Bible in a way that Marxists would call "vulgar" - that is, common, or, in order to bring the Bible into a conversation to stop the conversation not deepen it. . .Their catch phrases and cliches were (and are) equally off-putting.  "Jesus is the answer" seemed to me then and now like a tree without root.  Answers come after questions, not before.  Answers must answer questions in specific and pointed ways, not in sweeping generalizations.
While the left side of your face is still burning, here comes a swat across your right cheek:
Too often the church does not know how to interface with university culture because it comes to the table only ready to moralize and not dialogue.  There is a core difference between sharing the gospel with the lost and imposing a specific moral standard on the unconverted.
Butterfield's recounting of her journey to Christ is riveting.  I often felt I couldn't turn the page quickly enough.  It began with a pastor and his wife whose lives she couldn't easily pigeonhole:
During our meal, I remember holding my breath and waiting to be punched in the stomach with something grossly offensive.  I believed at the time that God was dead and that if he ever was alive, the fact of poverty, violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, and war was proof that he didn't care about his creation.  I believed that religion was, as Marx wrote, the opiate of the masses, an imperialist social construction made to soothe the existential angst of the intellectually impaired.  But Ken's God seemed alive, three-dimensional, and wise, if firm.  And Ken and Floy were anything buy intellectually impaired. . .If Ken was the "Bible-thumping" pastor, he was also a good listener, a balanced interpreter, a lover of good poetry, a reader of culture and politics, and a husband who clearly adored, relied upon, and valued his wife's counsel.  These people simply didn't fit the stereotype and I simply didn't know what to do with this.
This pastor and his wife met this unlikely convert where she was - unconverted - and put in practice the biblical call to "Come now, let us reason together."  It struck me how often we expect the unconverted to interact with us as if they were converted.  We tsk tsk their unconverted lifestyles, unconverted language, etc., oblivious to the fact they are unconverted!  Ken and Floy Smith accepted Rosario the person where she was, while not compromising convictions.  That's a very hard path to walk successfully.

Butterfield shares a conversation she had with a closeted lesbian in a Bible-believing church that broke my heart.  This woman had shared her struggles with no one and had no one supporting her because, "Rosario, if people in my church really believed that gay people could be transformed by Christ, they wouldn't talk about us or pray about us in the hateful way they do."  Butterfield doesn't let this passive reproach suffice: "Christian reader, is this what people say about you when they hear you talk and pray?  Do your prayers rise no higher than your prejudice?"

Butterfield makes it clear the transition from radical lesbian to being a member of a Reformed church was anything but easy.  "Because conversion, in scripture and in my personal experience, is arduous and transformative, I fear the consequence of easy believism that typifies modern evangelical culture."  She warns of the dangers in "the Disneyland of evangelical culture" and what she sees as "misrepresentations of the gospel [that are] dangerous and misleading" in self-described purpose-driven and seeker-friendly churches.

This book has helped me apprehend anew what the process of sanctification truly requires.   She writes, "I would learn how to grieve through repentance without feigning false innocence . . . Even when faced with the blinding sting of someone else's sin,it really is not someone else's sin that can hurt us.  It is our own festering sin that takes the guise of innocence that will be the undoing of us all."

Butterfield's conversion cost her.  She was viewed as a traitor by the community she called home.  Her career  trajectory was threatened.  In the fall after her conversion, as a new and still questioning Christian, she gave an address to the incoming graduate students at Syracuse University.  The planned lecture on Queer Theory was scrapped.  This lecture would be her coming out as a Christian woman.  "Thousands of new students would hear my first, fledgling attempts to speak about Christian hermeneutics at a postmodern university.  I was flooded with doubt about my new life in Christ.  Was I willing to suffer like Christ?  Was I willing to be considered stupid by those who didn't know Jesus?"

She does more than write of her conversion.  As she continued in her Christian life, Butterfield married and she and her husband became foster parents and adoptive parents.  Her writing on adoption is beautifully written, as one would expect from an English professor.  It is also starkly honest and enlightening for Christians who have all been adopted into the family of God:
A man walked up to me, not knowing I was the preacher's wife, and said, "So is it chic for white women to adopt black kids these days?"  I took a deep breath and stood up to meet his gaze. 
Are you a Christian?" I asked him. 
"Yes, ma'am," he replied. 
"Did God save you because it was chic?"  We locked eyes until he dropped his head.  He stammered something unintelligible and backed away slowly, seeming to understand that even when the bear does not look like the cubs, the trauma of having one's head ripped off by a protective mama can be bloody business.
I loved her a little more after reading that.

Rosario continued to use her gifts of hospitality and service she had exercised while in the LGBT community, this time in her community of faith.  She speaks of how exhausting that can be at times, an honest admission that resonated with this reader.  She writes eloquently of her interactions with students and why we need to be culturally aware to be able to reach our communities.  She writes,
We encountered families who feared diversity with a primal fear.  They often told us that they didn't want to "confuse" their children by exposing them to differences in parenting standards among Christians.  I suspect that they feared that deviation from their rules might provide a window for children to see how truly diverse the world is and that temptation might lead them astray."
About students at a local Christian college, she writes,
The students were smart and devout in their faith.  They also were sheltered.  They imparted to me in a firsthand way the serious dangers of isolating our children from real life.  Adult children can appear obedient when they are tuning out instead of acting out.  College life tends to bring out all the fears and doubts and perceptions of contradictions and hypocrisies.  Between this hypersensitivity to authority and rules, and a growing sexual awareness, we met students who were struggling with real moral issues.  Their unsuspecting parents had no idea how their over-protection had dangerously ill-prepared their beloved, overly-protected children from all this.  Sin - especially sexual sin - has a sneaky way of triumphing in an environment of secrecy and shame.
I am profuse in my praise for this book; however, it is not without flaws.  While I respect how much the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North American has meant to her and the perspective she has on the regulative principle of worship, her defense of that denomination and particular perspective at times felt like brow-beating.  I, too, label myself an adherent of the Reformed faith.  I believe in the regulative principle of worship, just not as she defines it, and I have several strong disagreements with her definition of that principle.

With the above small caveat, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  It will move you to tears and laughter.  It will shame you and strengthen you.  It will make you very glad you read it.