The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

I just finished reading The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith [Rosaria Champagne Butterfield].  I recommend this book for anyone interested in thinking deeply about how the church looks to those outside it – and to those who are interested in reaching people outside the church with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

It’s the story of a professor from Syracuse University who converts to a very conservative stream of Christianity. What makes it particularly interesting is that she starts at a place of pretty significant hostility toward Christianity. She was deeply steeped in a value system shaped by feminism, atheism, lesbianism, Marxism, postmodernism, and relativism. She journeys fairly far away from this value system and lands in a Reformed Presbyterian congregation (no hymns, no musical instruments, strict psalm-singing only, no women pastors or elders, and certainly no celebration of gay marriage).  It’s a pretty wild story – but it is told in a very honest, humble, straightforward way.  Her story moves from her conversion, to her marriage (to a man), then to her vocation of being a foster mom to a very diverse group of children.  She has lots of thoughts about Christians who treated her well and Christians who treated her badly – so it really helped me to think a lot about what kind of pastor I am called to be – and how churches can better fulfill our calling to practice hospitality.

The story starts with an editorial Butterfield wrote criticizing the PromiseKeepers movement. The editorial was carried in the local paper and Butterfield received a lot of letters and emails in response. Lots of attacks on her views, and lots of fan-mail for her views. But one letter was hard for her to categorize. This particular letter was not fan mail, and it wasn’t an attack. Instead it was an invitation to a conversation. Butterfield threw the letter in the recycle bin a few times but kept fishing it out and thinking about it. It turned out that the letter was from an elderly Presbyterian minister and his wife who offered to talk about her views and to hear about her reasons for condemning the PromiseKeepers movement. After a few phone conversations, Butterfield was invited to their house for dinner – this began a fascinating spiritual journey. It reminded me a bit of the conversion of C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy where he describes himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

Butterfield describes her conversion as a train wreck, as trauma, as crisis. Later she says “Conversion put me in a complicated and comprehensive chaos.”   I think we often cast conversion as a kind of fluffy innocuous event, but truthfully conversion is a radical restructuring of our entire life – and if it’s not traumatic then I wonder if it is authentic when it happens.

Here are a few intriguing quotes from the book:

“Ken and Floy did something at the meal that has a long Christian history but has been functionally lost in too many Christian homes. Ken and Floy invited the stranger in—not to scapegoat me, but to  listen and to learn and to dialogue.  Before I ever set foot in a church, I spent two years meeting with Ken and Floy and on and off “studying” Scripture and my heart.… If they had invited me to church at that first meal I would have careened like a skateboard on a cliff, and would have never come back…. Knowing that going to church would have been too much, too soon, Ken was willing to bring the church to me.”

 “Even though I’m no longer a lesbian, I’m still a sinner. I’m redeemed, but still fallen. And sin is sin. I believe that the Lord is more grieved by the sins of my current life than by my past life as a lesbian. How did the Lord heal me? The way that he always heals: the word of God got to be bigger inside me than I.”

“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. I think that many of us have a hard time believing the God we believe in, when the going gets tough.”

 “The lesbian community was accepting and welcoming while the Christian community appeared (and too often is) exclusive, judgmental, scornful, and afraid of diversity.”

 “I believe now that where everybody thinks the same nobody thinks very much.”

 “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.”

So I’m hoping these quotes will whet your appetite to seek out some of the other zingers the book contains.

The story bogs down a little bit for me in Butterfield’s discussion of psalm-singing vs. hymn singing in the middle of the book —  but her conversion story at the beginning and her stories of adopting children and creating a mixed-race family at the end of the book were so moving, so powerful – I found myself with tears in my eyes in the closing paragraphs of the final chapter.  Her reflections on the nature of community and hospitality are also helpful for those of us disturbed by our increasing isolation in American society.

I give a hearty recommendation to this book. I think you will learn a lot from it and be challenged by it – no matter what your views are on the current culture wars.

I would be happy if everyone in our church read this book. My hope is that Westminster will work on finding loving ways to respond to people in our culture with whom we may disagree – and this needs to start with us finding loving ways to respond to one another inside the church when we disagree.  If we can’t do that well, how will we do it with those outside the church?  I also hope that God will call more of our church to the ministries of hospitality, foster care, and adoption.   These approaches to human struggle have a long history in Christianity and they have been somewhat neglected in our hurry-up lifestyles.


The Bill of Rights and the Ten Commandments

Sacred documents have a way of shaping the communities which revere them. The United States of America has certainly enshrined the Bill of Rights as a sacred document upon which our understanding of ourselves rests. The Bill of Rights was key part of the bargain that helped the original colonies come together to forge a union with one another to create “these United States”. The Bill of Rights is woven into DNA of our nation (I have inserted the list at the bottom of this blog if you are interested).

Neither I, nor anyone I know, wants to do away with the Bill of Rights. We see it as an essential protection that the individual has against the coercive power of government. Having said that, my concern is with the way that the emphasis on rights has gradually overshadowed our emphasis on responsibilities (or “duties”) in the internalized value system within the soul of our nation.

We often hear,  perhaps multiple times each day, that we have a “right to happiness,” a “right to be yourself,” a “right to health care,” a “right to a living wage,” a “right to higher education,” a “right to privacy,” a “right to gun ownership,” a “right to affordable housing,” a “right to marry who we want,” a “right to a comfortable retirement,” a “right to freedom,” a “right to internet access,” “a right to (fill in the blank).” Most of us value most of these rights and some of us might cross some off the list – calling them “privileges” rather than “rights.” But my point is to note the nearly obsessive emphasis placed on rights in our national conversation. I think of it as having the “volume turned up extremely loud” on “my rights!”

We Americans are certainly shaped by the Bill of Rights. In fact it would seem that our understanding of the many “rights” we think we deserve is expanding at an almost exponential rate.

I am not against most of these “rights” – I’m generally in favor of helping people achieve them when possible. My concern is twofold. One concern is labeling something a “right” when perhaps it should be seen as a “privilege.” The other concern is that if our sense of rights is not balanced with a corresponding sense of responsibility, the soul of America will be off balance.

The problem with labeling something as a “right” when it is really a “privilege” is that it creates a sense of anger if you don’t have it – and it prevents a sense of gratitude if you do have it. Why should any of us be thankful or grateful when we simply “get what we deserve“? It was something that was owed to us by the government or by our fellow citizens or by God or by fate. When everything is a “right” then we have very little for which to be thankful and a lot to be angry about if we don’t currently possess things which we deserve as a right.

The problem with emphasizing rights and ignoring responsibilities is that it diminishes another essential piece that will help our nation to thrive (or even to survive). When I listen for anyone to speak up about responsibilities, what is noticeable is the sheer absence of this concept.

If John F. Kennedy were to say today in one of his speeches: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Most people would consider it some kind of political joke. We have turned up the volume so loud on our sense of rights that the idea of obligations has been lost in our generation.

080615_1718_TheBillofRi1.jpgWhich brings me to the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:4-21) is a very different sacred document from the Bill of Rights. The preamble contains an affirmation that the people have received a blessing from God that they did not necessarily deserve: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” And then what follows is a list of duties, obligations, responsibilities that are laid upon the people. The duties are to both God and one another. Each person is to obey the commands to worship God, to honor parents and marriage vows, to respect life and property of others, etc. Implied in the commandments is that people have a right to life, a right to private property, a right to not be lied about in court, etc. However the volume is turned up on our sense of duty and obligation and the volume is turned down on what our “rights” are in the grand scheme of things.

I started this article by saying that sacred documents have a way of shaping the communities which revere them. My question is this: Has the American emphasis on rights reduced or eliminated our sense of obligation and duty to God and to one another? I would of course answer the question with a resounding “yes!” I believe this reduction in our sense of obligation and this emphasis on rights is an illness which is damaging the soul of our nation. It is not that rights are wrong – it is that an undue emphasis on them creates citizens who are immature, demanding, ungrateful, and unhelpful.  They are reluctant to make the kinds of sacrifices that previous generations were willing to make for the well being of the larger community.

In a message from John Adams to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts dated October 11, 1798, he declares: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Though Adams was willing to stake his life defending the newly formed constitution – and especially the Bill of Rights – he acknowledges here that the constitution simply cannot bear the weight of governing a people who are immoral and irreligious. This is a powerful and telling statement from one of our most highly regarded and  well-educated founding fathers.

With the latest Pew Research reports that the fastest growing religious group in our nation are called the “Nones” (people with no religious conviction or affiliation) I am left wondering who will right the American ship which is listing drastically in the direction of “rights” and rapidly offloading the ballast of “responsibilities.” The vision of our founding fathers was that strong religious institutions would teach the people morals and religion – so that the Ten Commandments would be instilled in people from an early age. It was assumed that communities, families, schools, churches, synagogues, colleges, entertainment, arts, literature would all tend in the same direction of advancing our sense of duty and morality – toward God and toward one another. How surprised our founding fathers would be today at the way our entertainment industry has eclipsed our religious institutions in the area of morality and ethics. Today the prophets of mass media scoff at all things religious and flaunt their disdain of morality, duty, and obligation. Our young people adore these ‘stars’ and see them as far superior to anything religion might have to offer.

Perhaps it was inevitable from the start that since our nation enshrined the Bill of Rights as our most sacred text, we would eventually arrive at this place. We are a nation deeply devoted to our rights. We are losing any sense of what responsibilities we have to God and to one another. I hope and pray that God will raise up people, churches, institutions, and movements which will be devoted to restoring the delicate balance between rights and responsibilities which is so essential to the long term health of individuals and our nation.


If you would like to view a short video (1:39) that fleshes out a bit more what I’m writing about here, check out Dr. Clayton Christensen’s (Harvard Business School) observations on the need for religion in American society.

I know he’s a committed Mormon, but his observations here are on target. You may have to skip the ad to get to the actual video. If you read the comments about his video you may be astounded to see how many people mock and ridicule this man for saying things that simply and clearly reflect the beliefs and values of our founding fathers. We have fallen so far away from a sense of duty to God and others that even thoughtful people who point this out are mocked and attacked by this generation which simply has no concept of the obligations described in the Ten Commandments.


The Bill of Rights

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II
A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Amendment III
No soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.

Amendment VI
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Amendment VII
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.