March 15, 2016
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ. Pittsburgh, PA: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2015. 206pp. $12.99
"Follow me as I follow Christ."
So Paul unsubtly implores on several occasions (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; Phil. 3:18, 4:9; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9).
So Rosaria Butterfield subtly implores throughout Openness Unhindered.
When reading Butterfield's book I often compared her in my mind to the great Apostle. There are obvious differences in context and vocation, of course.
But consider the similarities:
- Outside of Christ, Paul thought he was serving God by assiduous obedience to the Law and dogged persecution of the Church. Outside of Christ, Butterfield thought she was a good person advocating for peace and social justice while protecting the disempowered from those who would take away their pride.
- Both experienced radical conversions that could only be described in traumatic terms, where whole individual worlds were rent asunder in mind, heart, and personal relations.
- After conversion, both used (or, in Butterfield's case, is using) the unique training and gifts obtained when outside of Christ to serve Christ and His kingdom. Paul was trained in the rigorous school of the Pharisees, Rabbi Gamaliel's star student. He used his theological training in Judaism to elucidate Christ as the fulfillment of the Law, the Gospel as the antidote to our pretensions of righteousness. Butterfield was trained to the highest level in Postmodern critical theory and rose quickly in the professorial ranks at Syracuse University. She is now using her impressive powers to read and interpret texts, as well as analyze identity-shaping practices and movements, in order to clarify the challenges before the Church in a culture where personal experience is king and feelings are "themselves vestiges of truth" (p. 2).
In this review of Openness Unhindered I attempt to highlight Butterfield's unique background and training and how they shed light on the nature of her devotion to Christ and the powerful perspective of her present ministry in the evangelical world. A sequel to her compelling autobiographical work, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Openness Unhindered expands out of her conversion to give penetrating thoughts on new life in Christ (Chapters 1-3), the roots and manifestations of the idea of 'sexual orientation' (chapters 4-5), and dealing with conflict and the opportunities for ministry while living in community (chapters 6-7).
Deep Reading and Inhabiting a New Story
In The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Butterfield emphasized the pivotal role reading big chunks of Scripture had in her conversion. At first, this exercise was literally 'academic', as she researched the Religious Right and "their politics of hatred against people like me" (p. 15). But as she read, and took account of the beautiful variety and stunning unity of the whole of Scripture, its authority pressed down upon her.
She read the Bible as she had been trained to read any book, "examining its textual authority, authorship, canonicity, and internal hermeneutics" (p. 16, emphasis hers). It is her recognition of Scripture's unity that led her to uphold a "hermeneutic of integrity, where the text gets the chance to fulfill its internal mission", and not a "hermeneutic of convenience" where the text gets tailored to fit one's experience (p. 18). The latter approach is being increasingly adopted by professing Christians who want to support same-sex marriage and associated positions. However, in Butterfield's understanding - ironically one she sharpened when leading a graduate seminar in Queer Theory - the internal mission of Scripture rejects canons-within-canons. The Bible clearly intends "to transform the nature of humanity", which is what makes it such a dangerous text to unbelievers (p. 18).
After faithfully reading big chunks of Scripture, Butterfield more and more saw herself inhabiting the story being told therein. It was a story that preceded her, was not ultimately about her, yet explained her: "God's story is our ontology: it explains our nature, our essence, our beginnings and our endings, our qualities, and our attributes. When we daily read our Bibles, in large chunks of whole books at a time, we daily learn that our own story began globally and ontologically" (pp. 3-4, emphasis hers). As Butterfield stepped into God's story revealed in the Bible she was abandoning another one, one weaved on her own terms "based on the preciousness of [her] own feelings" (p. 5).
Fully inhabiting God's story meant Butterfield needed to repent. She recognized she chiefly needed to repent of her pride--the principal cause of all the sins that took residence in her experience. And once united to Christ by faith, she knew she needed to do this daily, for inhabiting God's story means life is lived out of Christ who produces in us the fruit of repentance.
Butterfield's articulation of inhabiting a story that ultimately shapes our identity is perfectly pitched to grab and redirect our current obsessions over self-directed identity. What comes easily to her, however - deep reading of big chunks of text -, may not to someone lacking her inclinations and training. To a literacy-challenged culture and Church, biblical knowledge is imperative, yet the standards her own narrative suggests are prohibitive to some. This is not a critique of Butterfield per se (though I will speak to her style of modeling in conclusion); it is a caution against using a unique conversion narrative such as Butterfield's as a one-size-fits-all expectation for everyone.
Persistent Practices and Identity Formation
As Butterfield's sense of self was ripped out of her fallen feelings and firmly placed within her union with Christ, she began experiencing "the slow sanctification of the mind that this births" (p. 28). She vividly describes such a transformation in identity: "At a certain point in life, I knew that I had to turn over the wheel to God. A little like an Alzheimer's patient, who in a flashing moment of mental lucidity signs over his rights to his able-minded caregiver, a believer signs over her rights of interpretation to the God of the Bible" (p. 28). With God's Word revealing the contours of her new story, and where she stood within it, she had a growing realization she didn't have "to feel it to believe it" (p. 29). This was because she understood her new place as objectively in Christ, who is the only one who enables us to "stand against our own hearts" in our sanctification.
For help in understanding the process and practices of sanctification, Butterfield repeatedly turns to the Puritans. They guide her to surrender her personal experience and cling to Christ:
If I create an identity carved out of my personal pain, even one caused by the sins of my flesh, I will forever struggle in a separate sphere from my God. For that reason, I believe that my personal experience must always be surrendered to what my triune God has done and who my triune God is. My personal experience must be surrendered because it cannot reach back to God's eternal and transient history... I cannot find my identity in what I have done. I can only find my identity in what God has done and is doing (p. 38).
One of the beneficial aspects of Openness Unhindered is vivid description such as this were theological sensitivity undergirds realistic depictions of the 'heart work' of sanctification. That heart work, however, is not separated from lived experience but involves gaining God's perspective on it.
The challenge for the Christian, according to Butterfield, is submitting our past and present experience to God's perspective as revealed in Scripture. Our experiences matter: they "cannot and must not be dismissed", whether the experience is sin or obedience--"[w]e become proficient at what we practice" (p. 37). Part of the process of sanctification is submitting the "body memories" of sin that still claim our attention to the blood of Christ, so that their grip on us is increasingly loosened by love for Christ (p. 50). When this is done, there is a dislodging of our "allegiance to sin" even if "temptations may well live long" (p. 55). The key is understanding that though temptation patterns may linger in the midst of our sanctification, they do not rule and they do not define. What is more, now that our 'true self' is anchored in Christ, we should never claim our deepest desires as somehow emerging from our 'old self' immersed in sin.
The impetus for Butterfield writing this book came from this heart of understanding sin, repentance, and sanctification. And what she models in her own life is that old practices - the memory of which never completely leave us this side of glory - not only need to be repented of; new practices need to take root that remind and confirm we are no longer the captains of our souls but, rather, are subjects of the King. Thus, we feast at the King's table regularly by reading His will in Scripture, pleading for His help in prayer, worshipping Him regularly both in private and corporately with His people, and communing deeply through hospitality. Sanctification is about becoming very unsentimental about sin, which involves owning it and killing it through repentance, while establishing persistent and obedient practices in our experience that confirm our identity in the risen Christ.
Openness Unhindered is fundamentally about sanctification and new life in Christ. In The Secret Thoughts of an Unexpected Convert Butterfield described her conversion as a harrowing train wreck. Here, the Christian life is depicted in terms of battle, yet a battle that can be endured and, in the end, won because God arms us by the Holy Spirit and Christ stands with us in the battle.
Powerful Language and Critical yet Constructive Engagement
I have stayed silent until this point on the exact details of Butterfield's sinful past (even though there is a good chance you are already aware of it due to her justified exposure in the reformed evangelical world). This has been intentional so that the potential reader of Openness Unhindered can gain the sense that this book is for everyone, and not merely those who do battle with "unwanted homosexual desires" (p. 144). But because we live in a culture that is confused over both the practical and ideological aspects of homosexuality, and Butterfield has such informed and perceptive thoughts on related issues, it would be a disservice not to highlight these aspects of her work.
Starting in chapters four and five, Butterfield explores the roots of the 'sexual-orientation' phenomenon and how some Christians are basing an aspect of their identity in an unstable category. The influential ideas of Freud that emerged from German Romanticism shifted Western culture's understanding of personhood from one where we are made in the image of God to one where our foundational sexual drive defines us. This suppression of an objective biblical category opened Pandora's Box of sexual variation--the chaos of which is becoming an increasing element in our current vocabulary of LGBTQUIA.... Sexuality moved "from a verb (practice) to noun (people), and with this grammatical move, a new concept of humanity was born--the idea that we are oriented or framed by our sexual desires" (p. 97).
In light of this, Butterfield asks the crucial question: can we trust the Bible to understand us? That is to say, do the categories of self-understanding revealed in Scripture provide enough description to envelop who we truly are, or must we add on further modifiers supplied by contemporary culture's sexual lexicon? This is where Butterfield's helpful discussion of "gay Christian" comes in.
Whatever one's good intentions, she contends the "meaning and interpretation of words in context of grammar and syntax transcend our good intentions" (p. 114). Adjectives like 'gay' and 'queer' when appended to nouns modify, which means words - such as Christian - are limited or reduced. The consequence is a Christian's identity is modulated, and two words (gay and Christian) are paired even though they have "incompatible anthropologies" (p. 115). Butterfield pleads for honesty and integrity in the Christian use of language, and to give linguistic priority to what "emphasizes [our] worth and dignity as a daughter or son of the King, first, and [our] sexual desires (persistent, even abiding ones) as secondary" (p. 123). She goes so far as to say, "making an identity out of sin patterns is itself a sin, as it deadens the conscience by defending the flesh instead of disciplining he conscience for godliness" (p. 123). This is a strong and critical conclusion, yet one she comes to after extensive and winsome engagement with those with whom she disagrees.
In fact, Butterfield models charitable and constructive engagement throughout the book. She does not relegate those who disagree with her to the congregation of the damned. Rather, she reaches deep into her informed convictions to identify approaches to sexuality within the Church that she sees as pastorally destructive, precisely because she cares so deeply about people. It is with that loving care she treats those who prefer to self-identify as 'gay Christian'. Chapter six presents an extensive interaction with one of Butterfield's friends where there is conflict over this issue, yet conflict expressed in love. She insists, "people are bigger (and more important) than the positions they take" (p. 146). As opposed to differing positions creating silos in the Church, Butterfield advocates for friendship and neighborly proximity as "necessary components to working through theological differences in Christian love. Ideas are not enough" (p. 146).
Though I share Butterfield's concern over the use of 'gay' to modify 'Christian', her treatment of the issue challenged me in the manner in which I disagree with others. People must be taken seriously, because they are either created in the image of God or created in the image of God and a daughter or son of the Father. The way Butterfield takes people seriously, and lovingly yet critically engages ideas, is a model for Christians called to love and live in hostile times.
I unhesitatingly recommend this book. As a 'sequel' to her gripping autobiography, it furthers the narrative of what God is powerfully doing in her life, while grounding within the specifics of that story more general convictions on sanctification and ministry to those battling unwanted homosexual desires. I do, however, have two concerns. The first is merely a plea for more, the second an unease that arises from a real strength of the book.
Butterfield is sharply critical of those who emphasize the unnatural aspects of same-sex relations (pp. 98-108). She worries this sets up a model of comparative sin that unjustly stigmatizes and even may extend homosexual sin beyond the reach of Christ's redemption. No doubt, some Christians have postured in this direction. Yet, I found her discussion over the unnaturalness of homosexual sex overly fraught with the concern that this somehow boosts the pride of those not tempted in this way (generally her overriding concern for pride, hers and others, is a real strength). Butterfield notes that what Romans 1:26 renders unnatural is practice and not persons, yet she then seems to claim that any description of the unnaturalness of that practice will dehumanize the person, placing them ontologically on a lower plane than 'heterosexuals'. She then uses this to rightly criticize the whole notion of sexual-orientation itself. Lost in this, I think, is a sober and further consideration of the unnaturalness of the practice. With her winning concern for the power of the Gospel and expulsive love of Christ, what about the unnaturalness can prick the conscience so that one runs to Christ? I have a parallel in mind. It seems to me that the true awfulness of abortion is not given full weight until the detail of its actual practice is exposed. This does not necessarily consider those who practice abortion less than human; it might, however, awaken the conscience of those tempted to whitewash the practice through vague generalities. Butterfield much prefers to be surgically specific about the idolatrous sins of the heart, while being, I think, too reticent to apply the scalpel to the nature of the acts themselves.
For me to desire more specificity on this point is unexpected, because a real strength of Butterfield's writing is its specificity. Running throughout her narrative are the mundane details of her day-to-day life. This is part of the argument of the book, it seems to me, in order to be crystal clear that following Christ is following him in the every-day: the universal call of sacrificial living is particularized in the openness of taking foster children into one's home, to pick just one example she details from her family's life.
The particularization of Butterfield's living for Christ is perhaps seen no more clearly than in her cheerleading for the distinct spirituality of her native denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). I have already mentioned her immersion in the spirituality of the Puritans. Another pillar of a RPCNA spirituality is the Psalms. These two lenses of her tradition, layered over the deep training she received in the skill of interpretation, give her a profound power to probe the mattes of the heart. And, perhaps, what we need is this thorough 'traditioning' in order to be able to clarify issues as perceptively as Butterfield does. Yet, Butterfield's championing of the specific practices of her tradition - such as Psalms-only worship and pointed ideas as to how one should observe the Sabbath - could have the effect of alienating those who do not line up with or understand her precise views and practices of such matters.
Like I said, a real strength of Butterfield's book is the vivid reality she communicates through the particulars of her life, down to the rhythms of her day-to-day living. So I hesitate to worry too much over her ecclesiastical cheerleading. She is subtly saying, "Follow me as I follow Christ." I actually want to applaud this wonderfully Pauline impulse, especially when seasoned with her strong humility. Yet, even as we find models that help us discover discernable footsteps on the pathway to Christ, we must be wary of Paul's other concern: we are not of Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas--our only party is Christ (1 Cor. 1:12).
Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in patristics at Durham University. Follow him on twitter @dblairsmith