I don’t know when 148 pages of someone’s life story has impacted me more. There are sections where I have sticky tabs and markings on several pages in a row.
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey Into Christian Faith is Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s story of how she, as an atheist, leftist, feminist, lesbian professor specializing Critical Theory, or postmodernism, and whose specialty was Queer Theory, who hated Christians, encountered and embraced the truths of Christianity in what she calls a “train wreck” of a conversion.
After a few pages detailing how she came to her professorship and worldview, she describes a kind and inquiring letter from a pastor in response to an article she had written.
The Bible makes it clear that reason is not the front door of faith. It takes spiritual eyes to discern spiritual matters. But how do we develop spiritual eyes unless Christians engage the culture with those questions and paradigms of mindfulness out of which spiritual logic flows? That’s exactly what Ken’s letter did for me – invited me to think in ways I hadn’t before (pp. 8-9).
The letter had invited her to call him, and after a week, she did. He invited her to have dinner with him and his wife at their home, and she accepted. She was also at this time doing research for a book on the Religious Right and figured he could answer some of her questions. “Even though obviously these Christians and I were very different, they seemed to know that I wasn’t just a blank slate, that I had values and opinions too, and they talked with me in a way that didn’t make me feel erased” (p. 10). Thus began two years of regular meetings and studying Scripture before she ever set foot in a church, which Ken and his wife knew would probably be “too threatening, too weird, too much” (p. 11) for her. “Good teachers make it possible for people to change their positions without shame. Even as Ken prayed for my soul, he did it in a way that welcomed me into the church rather than made me a scapegoat of Christian fear or an example of what not to become,” (p. 14.)
Gradually she came to believe, but she knew it would cost her. “I clung to Matthew 16:24, remembering that every believer had to at some point in life take the step I was taking: giving up the right to myself, taking up his Cross (i.e., the historicity of the resurrection, not masochism endured to please others), and following Jesus.” “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” (p. 22). “One doesn’t repent for a sin of identity in one session. Sins of identity have multiple dimensions, and throughout this journey, I have come to my pastor and his wife, friends in the Lord, and always the Lord himself with different facets of my sin” (p. 23).
She tells of a woman she knew and counseled who was in a Bible-believing church but was in a secret lesbian relationship. Her secret denied her the help and prayers of other believers and only resulted in shame and pretense. When Rosaria asked why she didn’t share her struggle with anyone in her church, she replied, “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” (p. 25). Rosaria then asks readers, “Do your prayers rise no higher than your prejudice? 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” (p. 25).
Rosaria was a tenured professor in subjects that would now radically change because of her conversion. When she let it be known that she was now a Christian, both she and her gay friends felt she had betrayed them and turned traitor. “I…was alert to the reality that God had ministry waiting for me. I prayed that I would be strong for the task at hand. Yes, I was still a laughing stock 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 Pharisees, and I trusted that God would take my life and make a place for me” (p. 50).
The rest of the book tells how God did just that, both in her career and ministry to others, leading her to marry a pastor, to eventually adopt four biracial children, and to become a homeschooling mom.
Along the way, she shares an eye-opening perspective of what Christianity looks like to others. For instance, when she moved to a community where there were Bible verses on bumper stickers and placards, instead of it looking like people were sharing a bit of light, it looked to her like the community was for “insiders” only. Christians seemed like “bad thinkers” or even anti-intellectual to her before this journey, using Scripture to shut down conversations rather than to shed light. Unfortunately, that is too often true: instead of truly discussing what the Bible has to say and being “ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (I Peter 3:15b), some Christians take offense at being asked and use Scripture to bludgeon. One of my own family members has been turned off, not so much to all Christian truth, but to Christian community because of this experience.
One theme that comes out throughout the book is the willingness to engage people who are different from us in any way. Thank God the pastor and wife who first shared Christ with her looked past her butch haircut and gay and pro-choice bumper stickers to the need of her heart. But even after she became a Christian, she ran into this phenomenon in various churches. When her husband was the guest speaker at a church and she was getting out of the car holding one of her children while the other was asleep in the car seat, a man said to he, “So, is it chic for white women to adopt black kids these days?” After asking him if he was a Christian, she said, “So, did God save you because it was chic?” When her husband started pastoring a small church plant made up mostly of college students, families would come for a month or so and then leave because of a “lack of fellowship” with people just like themselves. I could step on a small soapbox here: I get so discouraged when people within the same church only want to fellowship with people just like themselves — same age bracket, some marital or parental status, same way of educating or disciplining children, etc., etc.
If I shared everything else I marked, I’d be nearly rewriting the book here, so I can’t do that. But here are just a few more things that grabbed me:
“Since all major U. S. universities had Christian roots, too many Christians thought that they could rest in Christian tradition, not Christian relevance” (p. 7).
“When we read in the book of Romans, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (8:28), we are not to be Pollyanna about this. Many of the ‘things’ we will face come with the razor edges of a fallen and broken world. You can’t play poker with God’s mercy – if you want the sweet mercy then you must also swallow the bitter mercy. And what is the difference between sweet and bitter? Only this: your critical perspective, your worldview. One of God’s greatest gifts is the ability to see and appreciate the world from points of view foreign to your own, points of view that exceed your personal experience” (p. 125).
“Many people in our community protect themselves from inconvenience as though inconvenience is deadly. We have decided that we are not inconvenienced by inconvenience. The needs of children come up unexpectedly. We are sure that the Good Samaritan had other plans that fateful day. Our plans are not sacred” (p. 126).
When a teenage girl in foster care with mental illness heard a pastor speaking about God’s call, afterward she “approached Pastor Steve and said, ‘Steve, I hear voices all the time. How do I know the difference between hearing the voice of God and hearing the voices of my own sick mind?’ Pastor Steve said, ‘Dear one, we all have the check the voices of our own sick mind with the Bible. Daily. You are no different'” (p. 128).
One thought that came to mind while reading the book was, “Why don’t we see this happening more often?” If the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and it is, then why don’t we see such transformative conversions more often, and why are those raised in Christian culture often so anemic? Sometimes I long with the Psalmist “To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary” (Psalm 63:2). Is it because we don’t share the gospel in a kind and loving way enough? Or is it because not many people are truly willing to examine the claims of the Bible and bring themselves under its authority? Maybe both. I’ve seen online encounters where non-Christians have as much of a “smackdown” way of encountering Christians as Christians do encountering them. I know I would have been scared to death to engage someone like Rosaria before she was saved: I’d have been afraid that I wouldn’t be able to answer her questions and she’d be able to run rings around me with her reasoning ability. But I have to remind myself that those whom God brought across her path with just the right thing to say at the right time were operating under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, not their own wisdom and insight. Sometimes we look for a formula: we see articles or pamphlets about “How to witness to atheists” or whomever else, and those can have some helpful points, but we can’t memorize a script and then present it to people. We need to share a Person and show His love to others and trust Him for the right words to say and pray for His working in hearts.
Rosaria writes now from a Reformed Presbyterian perspective, and since I am not from that perspective, I’d disagree with a few minor points here and there, but I am not going to nitpick about them. I do believe Christians can agree on the big issues and agree to disagree about smaller ones.
There is a condensed version of her testimony here, but I do encourage you to read the book as well. I believe it’s going to go down as one of my top ten of the year.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)