Much Better Than The Daily Mail
August 20, 2012
A Review of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown and Covenant Publications, 2012).
With the exception of Augustine's Confessions, I am not a big fan of Christian testimonies and autobiographies. Generally, they exhibit one of two problems (sometimes both). The first is the tendency towards a simplistic formula as shaped by the expectations of the specific Christian community to which the author belongs. So experiential Calvinist autobiographers tend to suffer long periods of conviction of sin followed by blessed, if sometimes mystical, assurance. I imagine the current trendy manifestations of reformed hipster theology will probably produce its fair share of people who found that conversion liberated them to watch exactly the same derivative and crass movies they did before, but now with an uncanny, Spirit-filled capacity to spot the redeemer figure in The Dark Knight Rises or The Expendables II.
The second problem is what I call 'The Daily Mail protocol.' For those who live in blissful ignorance of Britain's newspaper, The Daily Mail, it is an absurdly right wing production which covers exactly the same kind of bedhopping kiss-and-tell scandals as the other, more notorious tabloids, but it always does so with an air of moral outrage and splenetic indignation. Thus, the reader has access to all of the prurient details of the latest activities of some ghastly boy band but without feeling that they have dirtied themselves in finding out the information. Such, it seems to me, are many of the Christian memoirs that become popular with plotlines such "I was a murderous biker/a porn star/a drug addict/a politician but then I found Jesus." If we are honest, most of us read such books for the salacious details of the preconversion life of the author, not the testimony to God's grace. Indeed, I have often thought of writing my own Christian autobiography: 'I was a basically well-behaved studious teenager from a good home and then I found Jesus and continued to be basically well-behaved and studious.' Unlikely to make it to the Barnes and Noble Top Ten, I suspect.
Yet now I find there is another book of Christian autobiography that is well worth reading: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Covert. The book is unusual for a variety of reasons, not least because of the identity of the author: Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. Dr. Butterfield is now married to a pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, a small denomination which is perhaps most distinctive for its practice of singing only unaccompanied metrical psalms in worship. What makes her so interesting, however, is her career before marriage: she was a successful English literature professor at Syracuse University who specialized in Queer Theory and was herself a committed lesbian. This book is the story of how she came to be who and where she now is.
To give details of all that she writes in this book would be to spoil it. So here instead are a number of reasons I would give as to why every Christian should buy this book and read it:
First, it gives painful insights into how gays and lesbians perceive Christians. Sadly, as she herself points out, the perceptions of hatred, intolerance and ignorance are too often rooted in reality. There is nothing here to give us comfort or grounds for complacency as we face the great social and political challenge to Christians of our day. Most of us are probably guilty as charged. But thanks to Butterfield, we have a former insider's precious insights to help us think through our attitudes and behaviour.
Second, the book brings out beautifully how the gentle vulnerability of a humble RPCNA pastor and his wife over many months were used by God to bring her into the kingdom. As others either scream and shout from the barricades and the trenches of the culture war or else so water down their Christian testimony as to remove all offence from it, a quiet RPCNA pastor did neither but rather took the very citadel of the enemy by storm through nothing more than opening his house to a radical feminist lesbian English professor.
Third, it shows how conversion often does not immediately solve problems. Butterfield's description of the impact of her conversion is 'comprehensive chaos.' It shattered her career, her network of friends, her reputation with those she loved. It left her confused and at times lonely and depressed. This is no Hallmark Channel production; it is raw and real, chaotic and messy.
Fourth, for those satisfied with the broad evangelical type of reformed evangelicalism, it is a paean to the delights of deeply rooted, confessional Reformed Christianity. For instance, Butterfield's knowledge of social and critical theory means that she understands at a profound level how world-view communities are formed, how the intricate network of ideas, social conventions and narratives combine to forge identity and outlook. It reminded me of why I am myself a 'sectarian' as some have said, and happy to operate in a small, culturally irrelevant denomination. I need roots, I need stable, biblically based, historically tested and ecclesiastically responsible theology. That is what confessional churches provide. And only such provide.
In this context, I found myself saying 'Amen!' out loud when I read her declaring that there is no such thing as the Christian worldview (singular). Biblical Christianity is confessional Christianity; and confessional Christianity does not actually exist as some centre-bounded set of pious generalities; it is specific, concrete, detailed and definite; it exists in the real particular not the general ideal; and it makes its greatest impact not on the blogs or at the mega-conferences, still less through endless tweeting and other similarly docetic activities. It makes its impact at the local level, where real people interact with other real people.
Fifth, her treatment of sexual sin and gender politics is fascinating and so much more sophisticated than the kind of simplistic drivel which passes for discussion in evangelical circles. Chapter Two, 'Repentance and the Sin of Sodom' along with her accounts in Chapter Three of talking to students at Geneva College about sexuality, are worth the price of the book. Every pastor should read these chapters and take her analysis to heart. Two things struck me here.
First, she makes it clear that sexual dysfunction in society is symptomatic of much deeper ills. This seemed to me entirely consistent with Romans 1, where many of the things Christians most decry in society are themselves constitutive of God's judgment on sin, not so much provocations to judgment.
Second, her observation that sexual sin is not solved by a change of context seems to me to be a most relevant and apposite point. I remember reading a few years ago a minister's account of counseling a man with a pornography problem. The advice amounted to 'Get married and have sex with your wife.' The advice may have been ironic; but if not, it is surely dangerous. The use of pornography is not simply a result of overactive glands than need some relief; it is a form of sin which is complex in origin and manifestation. Simply finding an outlet for legitimate physical relief of sexual urges does not begin to address the deeper problems. To quote Butterfield (p. 83): "What good Christians don't realize is that sexual sin is not recreational sin gone overboard. Sexual sin is predatory. It won't be 'healed' by redeeming the context or the genders. Sexual sin must simply be killed. What is left of your sexuality after this annihilation is up to God. But healing, to the sexual sinner, is death: nothing more and nothing less." That has profound pastoral implications, one of which is not seeing marriage as the cure for sexual incontinence.
This autobiography is the launchpad for numerous sophisticated reflections on the nature of life, faith, sexuality, worship, education and other matters. As one would expect from a lover of nineteenth century literature, the book is also beautifully written with many a well-turned sentence; and as one would expect from someone schooled at the highest levels in critical theory, it eschews simplistic pieties for stimulating analyses of both Christian and non-Christian culture.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I do not agree with everything she says; but I did learn from everything she wrote. It deserves the widest possible readership.