Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert really touched me. In the book, Butterfield shares the story of her conversion to Christianity after being an outspoken feminist who used to speak at gay pride parades and lead the charge for progressive change in the United States.
I greatly appreciated her honesty in sharing many of the messy details of her conversion and post-conversion life. Biographies have a tend to teach about way more than a single person, and this book is no exception. In addition to hearing how this former lesbian professor saw (and sees) flaws in Christian cultural engagement, the book challenged me in a number of ways. Specifically, I was challenged to be more hospitable by learning about the hospitality in the LGBT community and the many great examples of Christian hospitality Butterfield shared. She also peaked my interest in singing Psalms as a lover of singing the psalms. (Learn more at Psalter.org.)
You can watch Rosaria Butterfield share her Christian testimony below, or see my Kindle highlights that serve as a poor man’s book summary.
Quotes from The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert
Had a pastor named Ken Smith not shared the gospel with me for years and years, over and over again, not in some used-carsalesman way, but in an organic, spontaneous and compassionate way, those questions might still be lodged in the crevices of my mind and I might never have met the most unlikely of friends, Jesus Christ himself.
My life as I knew it became train wrecked in April 1999, at the age of 36—just a few weeks shy of 37. At that time, I was an associate professor at Syracuse University, recently tenured in the English Department, also holding a joint teaching appointment in the Center for Women’s Studies. I was in a lesbian relationship with a woman who was primarily an animal activist and a nature lover and also an adjunct professor at a neighboring university.
We were members of a Unitarian Universalist Church, where I was the coordinator of what is called the Welcoming Committee, the gay and lesbian advocacy group.
My historical field in English studies was 19th century literature and culture. My historical interests in 19th century literature were grounded in the philosophical and political worldviews of Freud, Marx, and Darwin. My primary field was Critical Theory—also known as postmodernism. My specialty was Queer Theory (a postmodern form of gay and lesbian studies).
Success comes when we build on our strengths.
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 structures 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. “The Bible says” always seemed to me like a mantra that invited everyone to put his or her brain on hold. “The Bible says” was the Big Pause before the conversation stopped. Their catch phrases and clichés were (and are) equally off-putting. “Jesus is the answer” seemed to me then and now like a tree without a root.
[Pre-conversion Butterfield’s thoughts on Christians:]
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.
A life outside of Christ is both hard and frightening; a life in Christ has hard edges and dark valleys, but it is purposeful even when painful.
Christians still scare me when they reduce Christianity to a lifestyle and claim that God is on the side of those who attend to the rules of the lifestyle they have invented or claim to find in the Bible.
Feminism has a better reputation than Christianity at all major U.S. universities and this fact really bothers (and confuses) many Christians.
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. Like it or not, in the court of public opinion, feminists and not Bible-believing Christians have won the war of intellectual integrity. And Christians are in part to blame for this.
The gay and lesbian community is also a community “given to hospitality.” I honed my hospitality gifts serving pasta to drag queens and queers—people like me. I prefer discussing matters of disagreement around a private table. Plus I really wanted to see how Christians lived!
At the beginning of any project, I read and reread the book that I am trying to understand. At this point, I read and re-read the Bible. I read it voraciously and compulsively—as I do all books.
With these Christians in my life, certain aspects of my life had started to lose the sharp edges that it had before. With these Christians in my life, my life became a little kinder and a little safer.
Plus, truth be told, I was getting tired of my relationship with T. Something in my value system was changing. While I continued to find T attractive, I no longer found her compelling. The things she cared about seemed shallow. I thought that maybe I was just bored.
Just a few summers ago, when I read through John Calvin’s Institutes, in pen, in my friend’s handwriting, are cautions, notes to self: “Be careful here; don’t forget Romans 1.” Romans 1, especially verses 24-28, contains the most frightening lines in Scripture to anyone struggling in sexual sin:
The following Sunday, I started to go to the RP church—and not for research. That morning—February 14, 1999—I emerged from the bed of my lesbian lover and an hour later was sitting in a pew at the Syracuse RP Church. I share this detail with you not to be lurid but merely to make the point that you never know the terrain someone else has walked to come worship the Lord.
I prayed, and asked God if the gospel message was for someone like me, too. I viscerally felt the living presence of God as I prayed. Jesus seemed present and alive. I knew that I was not alone in my room. I prayed that if Jesus was truly a real and risen God, that he would change my heart. And if he was real and if I was his, I prayed that he would give me the strength of mind to follow him and the character to become a godly woman. I prayed for the strength of character to repent for a sin that at that time didn’t feel like sin at all—it felt like life, plain and simple. I prayed that if my life was actually his life, that he would take it back and make it what he wanted it to be. I asked him to take it all: my sexuality, my profession, my community, my tastes, my books, and my tomorrows.
I learned the first rule of repentance: that repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin.
I learned that we must obey in faith before we feel better or different. At this time, though, obeying in faith, to me, felt like throwing myself off a cliff. Faith that endures is heroic, not sentimental.
My lesbian friends had to learn that not all Christians are bigots. My Christian friends had to learn that Christians have a lot to learn from gay and lesbian folks about mercy work. At first, I missed the power in this fruitful exchange, and instead felt deeply uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to bridge the two groups.
How did the Lord heal me? The way that he always heals: the word of God got to be bigger inside me than I.
Shortly after becoming a Christian, I counseled a woman who was in a closeted lesbian relationship and a member of a Bible-believing church. No one in her church knew. Therefore, no one in her church was praying for her. Therefore, she sought and received no counsel. There was no “bearing one with the other” for her. No confession. No repentance. No healing. No joy in Christ. Just isolation. And shame. And pretense. Someone had sold her the pack of lies that said that God can heal your lying tongue or your broken heart, even cure your cancer if he chooses, but he can’t transform your sexuality.
“Rosaria, 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 that they do.”
I think that churches would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin.
And I suspect that, instead of seeking counsel and direction from those stronger in the Lord, we retreat into our isolation and shame and let the sin wash over us, defeating us again.
When I became a Christian, I had to change everything—my life, my friends, my writing, my teaching, my advising, my clothes, my speech, my thoughts. I was tenured to a field that I could no longer work in. I was the faculty advisor to all of the gay and lesbian and feminist groups on campus. I was writing a book that I no longer believed in. And, I was scheduled in a few months to give the incoming address to all of Syracuse University’s graduate students.
I wondered: If my life was the only evidence that Christ was alive, would anyone be convinced?
What does a Christian habitus look like, especially one run by a single ex-lesbian with a now-defunct PhD?
Repentance and the Sin of Sodom Syracuse, N.Y., April 1999–August 2000
In April 1999, I felt the call of Jesus Christ upon my life. It was both subtle and blatant, like the peace inside the eye of the hurricane. I could in no way resist and I in no way understood what would become of my life.
[Butterfield shared in this section four observations about Ezekiel 16:48-50’s description of the sins of Sodom.]
I found this passage to reveal some surprising things. In it, God is comparing Jerusalem to Sodom and saying that Sodom’s sin is less offensive to God than Jerusalem’s. Next, God tells us what is at the root of homosexuality and what the progression of sin is. We read here that the root of homosexuality is also the root of a myriad of other sins. First, we find pride (“[Sodom] and her daughters had pride”). Why pride? Pride is the root of all sin.
Second, we find wealth (“fullness of food”) and an entertainment-driven worldview (“abundance of idleness”). Living according to God’s standards is an acquired taste.
Third, we find lack of mercy (“neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy”). Refusing to be the merciful neighbor in the extreme terms exemplified by the Samaritan traveler to his cultural enemy left to die on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:25-37) leads to egregious sin.
God calls us to be merciful to others for our own good as well as for the good of our community. Our hearts will become hard to the whispers of God if we turn our backs on those who have less than we do.
Fourth, we find lack of discretion and modesty (“they were haughty and committed abomination before Me).
Sexuality is more a symptom of our life’s condition than a cause, more a consequence than an origin.
But God is a God of mercy, redemption, second chances, and salvation. And therefore, when Jesus uses Sodom as an example during his ministry on earth, the example reveals that God is angrier at the religious people of Jesus’ day than the inhabitants of Sodom.
Jesus’ injunction that God is more greatly grieved by the sins of those who claim to know him than by those who know him not, struck a chord for me.
These passages also convicted me that homosexuality—like all sin—is symptomatic and not causal—that is, it tells us where our heart has been, not who we inherently are or what we are destined to become.
My lesbian identity began in nonsexual ways: I have always enjoyed the good communication that women share. I also found myself bonding with women over shared hobbies and interests and feminist and leftist political values. I’m not given to pornography in any form, and therefore visual attraction never motivated my friendships or responses to other people.
My heterosexual past was no more sanctified than my homosexual present. God had revealed that to me powerfully as I sat under the preaching of his word, as I read the Bible, and as I talked to other Christians in my church about what sexuality meant in God’s economy. In understanding myself as a sexual being, responding to Jesus (i.e., “committing my life to Christ”) meant not going backwards to my heterosexual past but going forward to something entirely new.
Each woman reminded me that knowing God’s forgiveness in a real and vital way is the root of all godliness—for men or for women.
The purpose-driven movement makes conversion a simple matter of saying the magic words, a mantra that makes Jesus the Mister Rogers of the conscience. In his popular book, The Purpose Driven Life,2 author Rick Warren represents conversion in these words: “Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you” (p. 59). There is a pit of false hope in placing our faith in our words rather than in God’s compassion to receive sinners to himself. Warren falsely (and dangerously) assures us of our salvation. He writes: “If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God!” (p. 59).
When I read something like this, I do not recognize Jesus, the Holy Bible, my conversion or myself at all. Recently, on vacation in South Carolina, my husband and I went to a “community church.” My conservative Reformed Presbyterian pastor and husband noted when we got back to the hotel room that we had just witnessed a service that contained a baptism without water, preaching without Scripture, conversation about disappointment and pithy observations about financial responsibility without prayer, the distribution of flowers and trinkets without grace, and a dismissal without a blessing.
Sin is not a mistake. A mistake is taking the wrong exit on the highway. A sin is treason against a Holy God. A mistake is a logical misstep. Sin lurks in our heart and grabs us by the throat to do its bidding.
At the 2004 Reformed Presbyterian International Conference, I heard Pastor Ted Donnelly put it this way. Imagine, he said, if the U.S. declared that we were going to send one soldier to Iraq. One soldier! Even with the best equipment in the world, how could one little soldier survive? His point resonated with me and reminded me of Floy’s counsel about church membership: Nobody goes into battle alone. Sanctification—growing in Christ—is always both personal and communal. We need one another. Our faith struggles and our successes are part of the Body of Christ, not possessed by our own little kingdom. This Christian life was war—of this I was certain. Who in her right mind, Floy asked, would go to war without an army?
“Rosaria, I’m a gay man because the GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered) community is the only safe home I have, a home made safe by you. How could you not know this? How dare you not know this!
I prayed that I would be strong for the task at hand. Yes, I was still a laughingstock in the gay community. Yes, I was still a traitor and an example of what not to be. But so too was Paul the Apostle shamed among the Pharisees, and I trusted that God would take my life and make a place for me.
I’ve come to note that normally moderate non-pretentious Christians tend towards extreme emotional excess in the areas of weddings and baby showers.
Faith and worldview are intimately intertwined. Our peace, love, courage, longsuffering, and lifeworks lock-step with our Christian worldview and the faith that undergirds it.
There is no finer resolution to a faith test than genuine Christian ministry.
This was my conversion in a nutshell: I lost everything but the dog.
Which is the greater of God’s gifts, being made in God’s image or being saved, or both? Are we to rank-order these? Are we to treat the visibly saved with greater honor than all of humanity, made as it is in God’s image?
The fact that God is sovereign over the good and the evil does not necessarily make the evil any less frightening.
It was Psalm 15 that got me to Beaver Falls and Psalm 23 that kept me there.
My most sincere prayer that morning at this church was that no one would ask me a question whose depth or merit extended beyond “Would you like a cup of coffee?
God allowed me to rise as high as I could and fall swiftly and publicly. Had my sin not preceded me in a public way and had my repentance not been my lifeboat, had I found myself neatly protected within the confines and choice-making of Christian family and community, I today would probably have been the greatest of all Pharisees.
I came to believe that my job was not to critique and “receive” a sermon, but to dig into it, to seize its power, to participate with its message, and to steal its fruit.
Students at Geneva presented a wider range of college preparation compared with my Syracuse undergraduates. The students welcomed me with an intensity that surprised me. They shared with me the many conflicts that are universally faced at Christian colleges: denominational fighting and cultivation of sin, both big and small. One big issue was how the Catholics and Protestants would get along.
All of the testimonies that I had heard up to this point were egocentric and filled with pride. Aren’t I the smarty-pants for choosing Christ! I made a decision for Christ, aren’t I great? I committed my life to Christ, aren’t I better than those heathens who haven’t? This whole line of thinking is both pervasive among evangelical Christians and absurd. My whole body recoiled against this line of thinking. I’m proof of the pudding. I didn’t choose Christ. Nobody chooses Christ. Christ chooses you or you’re dead. After Christ chooses you, you respond because you must. Period. It’s not a pretty story.
life? In English studies we have a mantra: A culture is comprised of its stories. “We are the stories we tell,” I’ve said to my students year after year. I was critical of the stories I heard from my churchy friends and my evangelical culture. But could I be more than just critical of the stories that encompassed me? Could I start a new conversation? What would happen if I just told the truth? Was anybody else out there ambivalent about conversion? Did anyone else see it as bittersweet?
Marriage does not redeem sin. Only Jesus himself can do that.
What we did, these students and I, for a whole academic year, is very simple. It is called “Sabbath keeping,” and my denomination values it highly. We simply took a day off from real life so that we could explore and expand our spiritual lives.
It seemed to me that, in worship, God wanted me to sit down, shut up, and listen—so that I could go and use my gifts out there in the world. It did not occur to me that God wanted me to show off or bring attention to myself.
These questions led me back to my first intellectual love—hermeneutics—and to a book by a Christian scholar named Kevin Vanhoozer, entitled Is There a Meaning in this Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge
“Hermeneutics” is an old Greek word that refers to how we interpret life, text, and events. That is, hermeneutics is the study of how we make meaning out of text. Another word that often interchanges with hermeneutics is worldview. Hermeneutics focuses on the details; worldview takes the point of view of the frame. These two terms need to be understood in relationship.
I don’t mind being offended if I grow in grace through the sock in the chops.
In singing the Psalms, we always have a song in our heart that provides us with direction, redirection, rebuke (when needed), and encouragement. After years of singing the Psalms, and because the word does not return void, we listen, we respond, and, as part of God’s training of our hearts, we grow in grace and sanctification.
Sin, when unrestrained, infantilizes a person.
Adult children can appear obedient when they are tuning out instead of acting out.
Desiring children can be a noble pursuit, but if it’s not God’s will then it is simply a more sanctified form of covetousness.
AJ fears discipline the way a fish fears dry land.
Mercy ministry always comes down to this: You can help, but only Jesus can heal. This can be a tough lesson for adults, and a much tougher one for adopted children.
the bottom line of the Christian life. Jesus is the word made flesh, and our faith and our deeds of love puzzle together with the Lord of lords and King of kings setting the sequence that makes the pattern of grace-filled life.
We wonder how we can experience church growth, but that is not the issue. The issue is, how can we minister the gospel to hurting people?
One aspect of this whole saga should not be missed. The Lord was using many more people than Floy and me to meet Rosaria’s many inquiries.
You can work on your own lifestyle, not to imitate us, but to evaluate whether or not your schedules and routines have space for “strangers.” You can do something about that and begin to cultivate friendships with those not naturally like you. And to begin, pray that God will lead you to someone who needs what you have to give in Christ.
When I learned in early days of ministry that my fruit flowed from my union and communion with Christ, He gave me a new confidence in his using me as his servant to affect others’ lives. That meant that, for effective ministry, my daily walk with Christ was crucial. Jesus gives the ministry!
We always balanced this reading and talking with doing. In all of my pastorates, we have developed relationships—deep, abiding, and real—with people in the local nursing home and within the community.
The influential southern theologian of the 19th century, R. L. Dabney, remarked that more teaching is done by the pastor outside the pulpit than in the pulpit. I have found that to be true time and time again.
Yes, homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia. Homophobia is the irrational fear of a whole people group, failing to see in that group God’s image diminished but not extinguished by sin, and that God’s elect people linger there, snared by their own sin and awaiting gospel grace.
[In regards to battling sin:]
Do not misuse Christ by asking him to baptize your feelings; instead, ask Christ to fill up your heart and soul and thereby create your feelings.