Review: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2012). 154 pp.

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2012). 154 pp.

Rosaria Butterfield is the kind of woman she herself once bitterly opposed. The homeschooling pastor’s wife and adoptive mother of four was not raised in the Reformed Presbyterian Church. She was a self-described “lesbian postmodernist,” (p. 41) a professor of English and Queer Theory conducting research on the Promise Keepers movement, when she encountered Christian hospitality at the home of one of her research subjects, the pastor of a local church. Her hosts, she reports, had a “vulnerable and transparent faith. . . . When the meal 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) Two years later she gave her life to Christ. In her memoir, she describes her struggle (“How do you repent for a sin that doesn’t feel like a sin?” [p. 21]), her prayers, and her ultimate commitment (“I asked [God] to take it all: my sexuality, my profession, my community, my tastes, my books, and my tomorrows.” [p. 21]) She broke up with her partner, grew out her crew cut, and began looking for new fields of research and teaching. Two years later she left academia altogether to embrace a new role as pastor’s wife, mother, foster parent, and homeschooler. Yet she is still an educator. “My whole life, currently defined as a home-school Mom in the classical Christian tradition, relies daily on my educational training and the discipline and intellectual rigor developed over the course of my life. . . . I like to share with others what all English PhDs take for granted: fluency with words and their origins, the ability to parse any sentence at any time, an appreciation for the grammar of all fields of study, and a fearless embrace of broad reading lists.” (p. 139)

It’s hard to review an autobiography. Who am I to critique someone else’s story? Whether or not I agree with her, these were Dr. Butterfield’s experiences, and I am grateful to her for sharing them. Not only does she open up her intriguing life story to her readers, but she shares intensely personal experiences of both faith and sexuality. Dr. Butterfield has my utmost respect and her story challenges me as a Christian, as a woman, as a teacher, and as a member of a local church. Ours would be a better world if more people were like her.

I could comment on any number of themes in the book—the Christian family, interracial adoption, Reformed Presbyterian theology, Classical Conversations homeschooling, a capella psalm singing—but for the purpose of this blog, I want to respond to those aspects of Dr. Butterfield’s story relevant to me as a Christian who remains in academia. While I respect her decision to leave research and teaching behind, I can’t help but wish her story had a different ending. Butterfield writes movingly of the conflicts she experienced as a new believer in a field often hostile to Christians. I can only imagine the difficulties—personal, theological, political, social—of remaining in her field as an ex-lesbian and a struggling young believer. She felt alienated from friends who could not understand the changes in her life. Students shunned her, feeling betrayed. At times her worlds collided. A highlight of the book for me was when her new church family rallied alongside the LGBT community to support one of her grad students who had attempted suicide.

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield is a former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University. After her conversion to Christianity in 1999, she developed a ministry to college students. She has taught and ministered at Geneva College and is a full-time mother and pastor’s wife, part-time author, and occasional speaker. Note: Bio and photo from her personal webpage.

While I recognize the struggles such a life must have entailed, the academic in me nonetheless wishes she had stayed. To Butterfield, however, there was no choice. As she understands it: “When I became a Christian, I had to change everything. . . . I was tenured to a field that I could no longer work in.” (p. 26) I admire her willingness to surrender wholly to Christ, and I believe her that she felt she unable to remain in her discipline. But I would have loved to welcome her to the ranks of Christians who do. As Butterfield herself noted, her research on gender was based on what she calls “identity politics,” defined as “the assumption that the researcher holds integrity when she also holds membership in the area that she studies.” (p. 49) Who better would understand the gender politics of the religious right than an academic who knows not only Critical Theory, but shares her subjects’ faith? Yet once she became a Christian, Butterfield no longer felt comfortable writing about Christians. “I [dug] through my computer and hard files to throw away the book project on the religious right. I had to accept it; I was a failure. By God’s grace, He would not allow me to work in the way that I had always wanted to labor.” (p. 50) She likewise abandoned her field of Queer Theory, a discipline which emphasizes that a person’s sexual orientation cannot be reduced to essential binaries, but that sexual identity can and does change. Yet I have to wonder: once she had experienced for herself the fluidity of sexual orientation and the influence of faith on sexual and gender roles, why could she no longer write about it? I respect her decision. But as someone who myself strives to model a Christian faith in my work on identities, including sexual and gender identities, I would have preferred to have her on my side. (Later in the book she explains that the “feminist worldview or critical perspective” [p. 87]) had been essential to her work, a worldview she rejected when she accepted Christianity.)

As a scholar and teacher in the humanities—and one who appreciates the contributions of postmodern culture to both my faith and my field of research—I’m uncomfortable with Butterfield’s use of the terms “postmodern” and “postmodernist” in a primarily pejorative way. Does she not see how her own conversion validates a postmodernist approach? Her acceptance of Christ’s teachings cannot be understood rationally, as she herself recognizes, admitting that it felt more like “an alien abduction or a train wreck.” (p. 1) I doubt that Butterfield herself would be comfortable reducing her experience to rational explanations such as class struggle or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Only by acknowledging non-rational—postmodern—factors such as faith, emotion, and even supernatural intervention, does her conversion begin to make sense. She writes of her early struggle with her identity and the Christian faith: “I had been reading and rereading scripture, and there are no such marks of postmodern ‘both/and’ in the Bible.” (p. 16) Yet a different “both/and” is at the heart of the Gospel: Christ was fully God and fully man! While I do not want to turn this review into an apology for postmodernism, I see nothing in her story to warrant its blanket rejection.

Finally, I want to respond to her transition from a “lesbian postmodernist” into a pastor’s wife. I do not question the authenticity of her experience, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with the message her story conveys. While Butterfield describes intense struggle with her faith, her book portrays almost no struggle with same-sex attraction. She tells us her experience was “messy and difficult” (p. 23) and that “when Christ gave me the strength to follow him, I didn’t stop feeling like a lesbian.” (p. 22) Yet messiness is not what we see. Instead, we see that within a matter of months, she began to notice that “God was healing me.” (p.37) Having left her partner—whom she found “no longer [. . .] compelling” (p. 16)—she soon became involved with a man. Two years after her conversion, she was married. She did not participate in any sort of therapy or ministry focused on “gay people.” (p. 24) Instead she relied on her local church. As she explains, her pastor “knew that the church is competent to counsel. . . . I needed (and need) faithful shepherding, not the glitz and glamour that has captured the soul of modern evangelical culture.” (p. 24) She reveals that the underlying sin in her life was not sexual at all, but pride—a lesson that I stopped to pray about for myself before I read further.

I rejoice with her that her transition happened so quickly. As a Christian who has many times seen Christ transform lives, and as someone who recognizes the fluidity of sexual attraction and identity, I am not terribly surprised. But this is not the experience of most lesbians and gays, nor are most churches prepared to counsel in these areas. While many Christians have experienced sexual “healing” and proclaim themselves “ex-gays,” others struggle for years, even decades, including several of Butterfield’s own friends. While she describes initial confusion about this—”What about my drag queen friend, who had prayed for [but not experienced] the Lord’s healing?” (p. 26) —the only conclusion she reaches is that healing comes through repentance, and that “R,” who seemed stuck in his own (unspecified) sexual sin, was not a “real Christian” at all. (p. 58) I would hate to see Dr. Butterfield’s experience held up as normative to my former student, whose attraction to men remains despite his sincere faith. I would hate for parents to use this book to reinforce the self-loathing of Christian youth who see their homosexual urges as a sign of God’s rejection.

At the end of the day, however, I suspect my dissatisfaction with the book is because I wish that it were something it’s not. This is not a Duke University Press monograph exploring the intersection of sexual and religious identities. Nor is it a trade paperback ghost-written to tell a dramatic story. This is a personal testimony published by Crown & Covenant Publications, a denominational publishing house that markets itself as the “premiere site for psalm singing and Reformed worship resources.” Autobiographies do not feature prominently on its website. Indeed much of this book was devoted to Reformed worship and classical homeschooling, issues more relevant to the author today than the politics of sexual identity. While I do not share her devotion to her denomination’s distinctive worship style, I hope that I would be equally faithful if God calls me out of academia. Yet deep down, I can’t help but hope that someday, God will lead Dr. Butterfield back to the academy. We need people like her, with insider knowledge of both the religious right and the LGBT community. While I respect the research on religion and gender conducted by outsiders, some things are understood best by an insider, as Butterfield herself admits. While I have learned from queer theorists about the instability of sexual identities, I could learn even more from a scholar who has experienced it for herself. While I respect the work of secular scholars on Christianity, they never quite get it, having not experienced it for themselves. Or perhaps I’m just looking for an ally, someone to join me in representing Christ’s Kingdom not within the homeschooling movement, but at academic conferences, in journals, and among students struggling with not only their sexuality, but their faith.

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Kate Peterson

(pseudonym), an assistant professor in the humanities at a Christian institution of higher education.

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    James commented on June 25, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for calling attention to this book. I wonder if it was not so much post-modernism she rejected, but post-modernism as it was practiced in her discipline (or her corner of her discipline) or as she herself practiced it. Has anyone reached out to her to see if she would write a response? It would be interesting to hear.

  • Thomas B. Grosh IV commented on June 25, 2013 Reply

    Thank-you for the suggestion James. It had been on my mind and your inquiry encouraged me to follow through with sending the request. I hope that Dr. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield has time/opportunity to respond.

    Elizabeth commented on July 10, 2013 Reply

    Great review. The reviewer has touched on some of my discomforts with this book, especially around the question of same-sex attraction and Christian identity. I hope Dr. Butterfield will write more.

  • Tom Grosh IV commented on July 10, 2013 Reply

    Dear James, Elizabeth, and others who have interest,

    I have been in touch with Dr. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. She has responded positively to my inquiry. At present I am exploring the possibility of a dialogue/conversation between Kate and Rosaria. I will keep you posted on this endeavor. Pray for this not only to come together, but more importantly to be fruitful/beneficial to the larger conversation . . . giving glory to God.

    In Christ, Tom

    Anne commented on September 8, 2013 Reply

    “I do not question the authenticity of her experience, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with the message her story conveys. While Butterfield describes intense struggle with her faith, her book portrays almost no struggle with same-sex attraction.”

    I’m a little puzzled by the above comment. The message Dr. Butterfield’s story conveys, in my understanding, is that the Grace and Truth of Scripture broke through to her in a powerful life-changing way. Over the course of two years of intensely reading and studying the Bible, and discussions with Ken and Floy, God showed Dr. Butterfield her sin of unbelief, and brought her to faith in Christ. The intense struggle with her faith seems to me to have been because of her identity as a “lesbian postmodernist”. While an unbeliever, she did not struggle with same-sex attraction because she was in a committed lesbian relationship, and was completely at peace with it. No struggle needed. Once the light of God’s truth entered her heart and mind, her struggle was between what she had believed was true for her, and what God said was true. She realized that her entire worldview had to change, and that meant her entire world had to change. She said that she lost everything but the dog.

    I’m not uncomfortable with the message Dr. Butterfield’s story of conversion conveys. I don’t see the need to know about her struggle with SSA. She lived as a lesbian! God saved her from unbelief and changed her life! It’s a testimony to the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ. And she gives Him all the glory.

    I am curious as to why the use of a pseudonym?

    Kate Peterson commented on February 4, 2014 Reply

    Anne – I know this is an extremely late response. I took some time off from the website and didn’t even notice the comment until today.

    The easy question – the reason for the pseudonym – is that I have written several times on this blog and quite likely will more. I want to be able to be honest about personal issues without worrying about being recognized by colleagues. I didn’t want to have to try to disguise my writing style . But yeah, in this situation it was a hard decision, since I know that it 1) calls into question my credibility as a reviewer, and 2) means I couldn’t list this on my annual report to my boss. (Yes, academics get brownie points for book reviews!)

    And I don’t have an answer to your other question. It’s more of a personal thing. I just know that some Christians struggle a lot. Same-sex attractions, addictions, codependencies, depression, etc., often don’t go away when someone becomes a Christian. I don’t know if they did for her, or if she simply chose not to write about them. And that’s her choice. But the message that came across to me – whether or not it was intended – was that God would do the same for others as well, and the fact is, that in many cases it isn’t that simple.

    Thanks for writing, and sorry about the six-month delay in response.

    Jessica commented on February 25, 2015 Reply

    I think the key to what Mrs. Butterfield was saying in her book goes back to what Jesus said when he said that if your eye causes you to sin, gauge it out… and if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Now, most people would agree he wasn’t talking about you actually cutting off your hand, but then again…

    After dealing with the root of her sin, pride, healing from her lesbianism for Mrs. Butterfield began when she sought to do God’s will with her life. In regards to her lesbian lifestyle, that meant breaking up with her girlfriend, even though she at the time did not want to. For Christians struggling with sin, it might mean just staying busy, but sometimes more drastic matters must take place– for someone with pornography addictions, it might mean getting rid of the Internet completely; possibly the TV too. If it is a sinful attraction to someone (This could be the same for straights as well as gays), it might mean you change the people you associate with. It might even mean a complete change of scenery… a move, a mission trip, whatever. Get the focus off one’s own self and onto Christ. That is the kind of sacrifice Jesus was talking about when he said “Cut if off.” Indeed, Jesus explains the cost of being his disciple in Luke 14:26-33

    Luke 14:26-33Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

    26 “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be My disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.

    28 “For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn’t first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, after he has laid the foundation and cannot finish it, all the onlookers will begin to make fun of him, 30 saying, ‘This man started to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

    31 “Or what king, going to war against another king, will not first sit down and decide if he is able with 10,000 to oppose the one who comes against him with 20,000? 32 If not, while the other is still far off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, therefore, every one of you who does not say good-bye to[a] all his possessions cannot be My disciple.

    To be a disciple of Christ means you have to be willing to give up everything and everybody.

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