Christian autobiographies are often predictable. This one is not. It is clear, insightful, faith-building, and necessary. This one disrupted my worldview, gave me a new viewpoint, and bolstered my reasons for confidence in the Gospel in this time.
What am I referring to?
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.
I have read a variety of conversion stories over the years. They are wonderful illustrations of Christ’s ability to save sinners. But they are usually individualistic, narrowly focused, and follow a rubric. That is what makes them predictable. By predictable I do not mean insignificant or nor worthy of thanksgiving.
This story is not predictable. It is about a highly educated woman, steeped in the assumptions of post-modernism, a lesbian and feminist, a tenured professor at a major university – who met the living Lord. She is a person most of us would shun, or at best, be terrified to have at our table. But Christ met her.
Her conversion was about more than individual sin. It was a remaking of her mind, a change in the lens through which she viewed everything in life. Her conversion required an immediate change in her lectures, her research, her public advocacy, her lifestyle. It was a traffic wreck; it was a painful, earth-shaking alternation of all of her. She was, it seems, like C S Lewis, “the most reluctant convert” in the American academy.
Her story is of both the entry to a faith and the progressive work of Christ in her life. He invaded her world, sparing nothing, over years, with the help of a local church made up of very ordinary Christians, who simply believed the Gospel and lived it out with her.
Here are a few reasons why I can recommend the book.
First, she is representative of the worldview of the majority of our fellow citizens, not only in the USA but in the West. She may have been more outspoken than others, but my guess is that her former “stands” on various issues would resonate with most people in our culture.
Most Christians view the sins of our culture atomistically. Sorry for the big word. It means they see this sin or that sin, immorality or homosexuality or abortion. They do not see them as parts of a whole. Her story helps us see the bigger picture. When I see that larger picture, it keeps me from reacting, with fear or anger. It helps me understand the internal dynamics of sin, the worldview that is common to the various sins of our day. Romans 1:19-32 argues from worldview sins to detailed sins. That is what she helps me see. And that helps me communicate Christ more clearly and patiently.
Second, the way of Christ into her life is the model for our part in witness in this time. She knew all about the angry hate mail, the vitriol of moralistic Christians who think that threats and tirades are means of grace to those morally far off. But she did not know what to do with a man and his wife who preached peace to those who are far off, who respected her as a fallen image bearer of Christ, who enjoyed literature and food, and could engage in conversation about such things, while at the same time they explained Christ to her. She noted (and this is one example of helpful critique) that this couple did not engage in conversation stopping moral pronouncements such as she had known from other Christians. Nor did they back off; they continued the conversation with questions and discussions. They kept Christ as the issue to be addressed and steered away from creating other points of offense.
The church that welcomed her welcomed her as she was, and as God was working in her. It was messy work. It always is.
The people loved her, the stranger (the meaning of hospitality, philoxenia, in Greek). They did not give her shallow answers or moral slogans. They prayed for and helped her yield to the transforming work of Christ. And that work was slow and deep, as it is in all of us. They even welcomed her friends, whom she sometimes brought with her. She did have her share of later shunning, but not in the beginning.
Third, her life shows the cost of following Christ to people in our day. She is not glib about discipleship. She felt repeatedly that owning Christ before others was truly a betrayal in the eyes of her friends of many years. They had stood together against Christianity in its good and bad forms, and now she had broken that bond. She does not pity herself. She embraces this calling with courage.
Finally, she brings a larger perspective to the issues of her own life. Her treatment of sexuality, moralism, community, the value of life, and the church are from a different vista than the party-line of evangelicalism. She reaches the same conclusions, but her reasons are substantive, integrated with larger issues, and compelling. She sees Christian morality in a larger framework of God as Creator and Lord of life.
One example: she gets to the sins behind the sins of sexual immorality. A favorite passage (and one of such relevance to our day) is this:
“. . . too often good Christians see sexual sin as merely sexual excess. To a good Christian, sex is God’s recreation for you as long as you play in God’s playground (marriage). No way, José. Not on God’s terms. 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.” (Butterfield, Rosaria (2012-09-06). The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Kindle Locations 1625-1630). Crown & Covenant Publications. Kindle Edition.)
How often have I, as a pastor, counseled a couple living in immorality outside of marriage to simply get married, and all will be well? Her comments blow that up. Repentance must take place at a level of motivation, not just behavior.
Here is another example: She and her husband now have adopted children of diverse ages and races. That path has been heart wrenching at times. God has answered prayer, but those answers came with a price. She comments on the nature of answered prayer and the mercies of God in a way that cuts through sloganeering and rings true. Noting that God sometimes moves mountains, she says:
“When mountains move, the earth shakes. When you stand as close as we have to real life miracles, you will get roughed up. Mountains are big and we are small. A moving mountain can crush us. Splinters fall from the cross. They travel a long distance and they pierce the skin— maybe even the heart. And wrapped in this risk and danger is God’s embrace and promise to work all things (even evil ones) to the good of those who love him. 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 than you must also swallow the bitter mercy. And what is the difference between sweet and bitter? Only this: your critical perspective, your worldview.” (ibid. Kindle Locations 2408-2415).
Having observed some dear friends walk through an adoption process, I believe their experience is described in these words. Often the call of God is clear, and God is at work, but when he works the earth shakes and our lives are disturbed. His mercies can seem bitter.
Ok, I hope I have whet your appetite. I am sure she can be critiqued. I am sure there are flaws in her thinking. She lands on some issues like Psalm-singing that seem tangential to me. But even there she shows the change of her inward life to be one of submission to the Word of her Savior and King.
But for me, a man who deeply longs to see my own life reflect the One who did not come to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved, this book is provocative and heartening.
To follow him into this world is to cease living an insular life. It is to engage with individuals, not averages or stereotypes. It is to put off moral outrage and show mercy. It is to bear the anguish of compassion and welcome of the lost into my life so they might, through me, know the welcome of the Christ to his life. And to do this with confidence that when the Christ is present, I need not fear. He is not intimidated by anyone’s sin. He is the Lamb who has conquered all that opposes God and ruins our own souls. He can and will welcome them, wash them, justify them, and remake them into his own image.
Thank you Rosaria for a story that renews my confidence in Him.