‘The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert’, by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield is an unusual name and this is the remarkable account of her conversion. Butterfield’s conversion was very thorough, and very costly. As a lesbian English professor specialising in Queer Theory and Women’s Studies, becoming a Christian was no mere lifestyle adjustment, but a radical overhaul of everything she had known and found security and identity in. Her radical background, and radical conversion, gives Butterfield’s writing a sharpness of insight, and there are many quotable lines in the book. She gives short-shrift to shallow American cultural Christianity:
“It’s such a blessing” always sounds like a violation of the Third Commandment (“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain”) or a Hallmark card drunk with schmaltz. It seemed to me that the only people who could genuinely be satisfied with this level of reading and thinking were people who didn’t really read or think very much – about life or culture or anything.
Because so much of evangelicalism is characterised by this refusal to think, Butterfield believes it has lost the war of intellectual integrity on American university campuses – a war which the feminists have won. This makes for uncomfortable reading and Butterfield challenges other typical evangelical assumptions with her depiction of life within the gay community, a community “given to hospitality,” who were happy to sit around a table and discuss ideas.
By the grace of God Butterfield came into contact with a pastor and his wife who did not try to deny the culture and identity that she inhabited, but graciously interacted with her, taking her values and opinions seriously. This, combined with in-depth Bible reading, was the means of Butterfield finding a new identity in Christ.
This transformation was by no means easy, and Butterfield is withering about ‘the sinner’s prayer’ being the means of salvation, singling out Rick Warren for a savaging for claiming it is. Rather than an easy believe-ism, Butterfield experienced “two incommensurable worldviews [clashing] together: the reality of my lived experience and the truth of the word of God… At this time…obeying in faith, to me, felt like throwing myself off a cliff. Faith that endures is heroic, not sentimental.” To throw herself off this cliff not only affected Butterfield personally but all those who had trusted her as a leading member of the gay community in the university where she worked. Butterfield expresses this viscerally, “Each Lord’s Supper makes me experience my traitorship to my gay friends and to the person that I once was.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her background, Butterfield is insightful about sex, and offers some profound exegesis on the sin of Sodom. “Sexuality isn’t about what we do in bed. Sexuality is more a symptom of our life’s condition than a cause, more a consequence than an origin.” Butterfield renounced her lesbianism – a costly thing to do emotionally and financially, meaning as it did separating from her partner – but did not simply plunge back into heterosexuality. Instead, commitment to Christ meant “going forward to something entirely new.”
This is a remarkable story, and it is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the pastor Butterfield met, and the church she was re-born into, is the highly conservative Reformed Presbyterian Church. This is a church noted for its academic rigour, and it was the intellectual thoughtfulness of its members that gave space for Butterfield to work out her own thoughts. It is also a church committed to the regulative principle, and exclusive psalmody. For those readers not familiar with this kind of ecclesiology the story might become hard to follow here, and for me it is a weakness (or, rather, a limitation) of the book as Butterfield describes her transition to pastor’s wife, home-schooling mum, and psalm-singer. The first half of the book would be brilliant to give out to intelligent unbelievers; the second half is interesting, but I should imagine would be utterly perplexing to those with no understanding of Presbyterian ecclesiology and polity.
There is no doubting the genuine fruit of Butterfield’s conversion though, as demonstrated by her and her husband’s adoption of four African-American children. Rather than hide behind the white picket fence of respectable Christian America, Butterfield decides to expend herself for the needs of others. “We noticed, as our attention focussed more on families and children, that many people in our community protect themselves from inconvenience as though inconvenience is deadly. We have decided that we are not inconvenienced by inconvenience.”
For me, Butterfield’s story raises several challenges. It does question the evangelical approach to salvation, and whether in a desire for ‘results’ we try to make this too easy. There is a real cost to conversion, something that we perhaps gloss over too frequently. The nature of the Christian community with which Butterfield came into contact also raises questions – how good are our churches at listening to the concerns of unbelievers, and helping them to genuinely work those things through? How well would we do, if a lesbian English professor turned up on the door? And whatever ecclesiological differences we may have with the RPC, are our churches the kind of communities which are strong enough to replace the kind of community from which Butterfield emerged?
I would say this is a must read. For UK readers, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert is available on Kindle, but hard copies are hard to come by. I eventually managed to track one down at the Free Church Bookshop, Edinburgh. It was worth the hunt.