Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Book Review: "The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert"
Note: This book review appeared in the last issue of the RBT.
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey Into Christian Faith (Crown & Covenant, 2012): 154 pp.
I discovered this little book by hearing the recommendation and reading the review (on the reformation21.org blog) by Carl Trueman. It is indeed a gem. The author is a former lesbian feminist professor at Syracuse University who was converted to Christ through the patient and faithful witness of a local Reformed church and who is now the wife of a Reformed Presbyterian pastor. In the book the author shares with gritty honesty about her unlikely conversion to Christ. This, however, is not a simplistic testimony with neat lines and no loose ends. In particular Butterfield transparently conveys how her change of life and heart did not come with ease but with costly trauma, looking at times like a “train wreck,” as her conversion brought “comprehensive chaos” to her life. She also relays how the demands of Christ have continued in her life, leading her to support her husband when church planting efforts failed, to build a multi-racial family by adoption through various trials, and to become a satisfied home schooling mother. This testimony is helpful in that it not only tells about the messiness of salvation but also about the sometimes equally uneven path of sanctification.
A model for evangelism
Perhaps the greatest value of this book is that it provides an insightful paradigm of how Biblical evangelism might be done in our increasingly secular world. In her unregenerate state, the author would have scoffed at typical evangelical “four spiritual” laws type evangelism. Her conversion came instead as the fruit of the longsuffering and compassionate witness of a faithful minister and his church. The relationship began when Pastor Ken Smith wrote a letter to the author after she published a critique of the “Promise Keepers” movement in the local newspaper. The author had spiritual questions that had never been answered, and the Pastor’s letter hit a nerve. As she reflects:
Had a pastor named Ken Smith not shared the gospel with me for years and years, over and over again, not in some used-car-salesman way, but in an organic, spontaneous and compassionate way, those questions might still be lodged in the crevices of my mind and I might never have met the most unlikely of friends, Jesus Christ himself (p. 1).
From this letter came a phone call and an invitation to dinner at the Pastor’s home. Here are her reflections on the hospitality she received in that initial meeting with the Pastor and his wife:
Ken and Foy invited the stranger in—not to scapegoat me, but to listen and to learn and to dialogue. Ken and Foy have a vulnerable and transparent faith. We didn’t debate worldview; we talked about our personal truth and about what “made us tick.” Ken and Foy did not identify with me. They listened to me and identified with Christ. They were willing to walk the long road with me in Christian compassion. During our meal, they did not share the gospel with me. After our meal, they did not invite me to church. Because of these glaring omissions to the Christian script as I had come to know it, when the evening ended and Pastor Ken said he wanted to stay in touch, I knew that it was truly safe to accept his open hand (p. 11).
It appears that the Smiths did not feel that they had to rush salesman-like to a “decision.” They were willing to be patient and invested. The author adds:
Before I ever stepped foot in a church, I spent two years meeting with Ken and Foy and on and off “studying” scripture and my heart. If Ken and Foy had invited me to church at that first meal I would have careened like a skateboard off a cliff, and would never have come back. Ken, of course, knows the power of the word preached but it seemed to me he also knew at that time that I couldn’t come to church—it would have been too threatening, too weird, too much. So, Ken was willing to bring the church to me. This gave me the room and the safety that I needed to match Ken and Foy’s vulnerability and transparency (pp. 11-12).
In this two year period the author began to read the Bible and to ask spiritual questions of Pastor Smith. He did not “act like a shark in the water smelling fresh blood” but was patient and willing to wait on the Spirit. Finally, on February 14, 1999, the author says, “I emerged from the bed of my lesbian lover and an hour later was sitting in a pew at the Syracuse RP church. I share this detail with you not to be lurid but merely to make the point that you never know the terrain someone else has walked to come to worship” (p. 20). It was in the gathering of the church and under the hearing of the word of God preached that the author was evangelized. As she puts it, “Two incommensurable worldviews clashed together: the reality of my lived experience and the truth of the word of God” (p. 21). In addition to the preaching of the word, she was also exposed to the witness of believers within the church who welcomed her without affirming or approving of her lifestyle. This story has an authentic 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 ring to it. Who would have guessed that such a hardened worldling would have been converted in an exclusive psalm singing, Regulative Principle affirming, confessionally defined church, which had none of the trappings of seeker-sensitive evangelicalism? Again, the author reflects:
God sent me to a Reformed and Presbyterian conservative church to repent, heal, learn, and thrive. The pastor there did not farm me out to a para-church ministry “specializing” in “gay people.” He and the session knew that the church is competent to counsel…. I needed (and need) faithful shepherding, not the glitz and glamor that has captured the soul of modern evangelical culture. I had to lean and lean hard on the full weight of scripture, on the fullness of the word of God, and I’m grateful that when I heard the Lord’s call on my life, and I wanted to hedge my bets, keep my girlfriend and add a little God to my life, I had a pastor and friends in the Lord who asked nothing less of me than that I die to myself. Biblical orthodoxy can offer real compassion, because in our struggle against sin, we cannot undermine God’s power to change lives (p. 24).
The author’s conversion to Christ was indeed costly, resulting eventually in the loss of many of her friends, her tenured professorship, and career aspirations. It was also far from neat. There was an unhealthy post-conversion engagement to a seminarian and fellow church member that ended in disappointment and even resentment against the very pastor who had been instrumental in her conversion. Just as conversion did not come quickly or without the devotion of large amounts of time in her life by loving believers, neither did sanctification.
A model of sanctification
If the first part of this book offers a gripping account of unlikely conversion, the second half also packs a punch in the area of sanctification, as the author describes how she became a pastor’s wife and a mother. As a pastor’s wife, she had to learn about the burdens of ministry in a pastor’s family, including responding to the sometimes fickle and immature actions of members of the flock. Very powerful is the author’s account of her family’s growth through adoption, the pain of enduring a disrupted adoption, and the sometimes heart-rending ministry of offering foster care. The former English professor clearly relishes her transition to a homeschooling mother. She also, however, ably points out some of the insular proclivities of Christian homeschool families, intent on sheltering their children from the influences of the world. What shines through is that the author who received the hospitality, kindness, patience, and compassion of Christ’s people in her own conversion and sanctification has been transformed into someone who is passionate about extending the same in full measure to others. This, indeed, is how the Christian life works!
In general we should probably be wary of dramatic testimonies of conversion. The test of true conversion is whether or not we remain in the race. The church has been burned more than once by “celebrity converts” who apostatize (e.g., a recent example of this is the author Anne Rice who announced she had become a Christian in the mid-2000s and then renounced her “faith” in 2012). Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s story, however, is told with such God-centered honesty and meekness that it demonstrates authenticity and needs to be heard. At one point, she describes her hesitancy the first time she was asked to give a public testimony of her conversion in a Christian college assembly:
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 heathen 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. After Christ chooses you, you respond because you must. Period. It’s not a pretty story (p. 81).
This book should be read by Reformed church Pastors, Elders, and members to remind them of how to do Biblical evangelism and to never think that anyone is beyond Christ’s reach merely because of her present circumstances (cf. 1 Cor 6:9-11). It could be read for profit by any who come to Christ with broken sexual pasts or present struggles. It would also be a blessing to families who have adopted or are considering adoption, as well as to homeschooling mothers and the wives of pastors. I highly commend it.
Jeffrey T. Riddle, Pastor, Christ Reformed Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Virginia