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.