The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert | Notes & Review

Posted on June 29, 2015


Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. Crown & Covenant Publications, 2012. (2775 Locations, Kindle edition)

secret thoughts


From our early acquaintance, I recognized that our new friend feared no topic, spoke her mind in clear terms, and opened her heart as well as her thoughts. – Kenneth G. Smith (Locations 47-48)

In the pages that follow, I share what happened in my private world through what Christians politely call conversion. This word— conversion— is simply too tame and too refined to capture the train wreck that I experienced in coming face-to-face with the Living God. I know of only one word to describe this time-released encounter: impact. Impact is, I believe, the space between the multiple car crash and the body count. I try, in the pages that follow, to relive the impact of God on my life. (Locations 72-75).

1 Conversion and the Gospel of Peace

I come to the limits of language when I try to describe my life in Jesus Christ. (Location 122).

Christians always seemed like bad thinkers to me. It seemed that they could maintain their worldview only because they were sheltered from the world’s real problems, like the material structures of poverty and violence and racism. Christians always seemed like bad readers to me, too. They appeared to use the Bible in a way that Marxists would call “vulgar”— that is, common, or, in order to bring the Bible into a conversation to stop the conversation, not deepen it. “The Bible says” always seemed to me like a mantra that invited everyone to put his or her brain on hold. “The Bible says” was the Big Pause before the conversation stopped. Their catch phrases and cliches were (and are) equally off-putting. “Jesus is the answer” seemed to me then and now like a tree without a root. Answers come after questions, not before. Answers answer questions in specific and pointed ways, not in sweeping generalizations. “It’s such a blessing” always sounds like a violation of the Third Commandment (“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain”) or a Hallmark card drunk with schmaltz. It seemed to me that the only people who could genuinely be satisfied with this level of reading and thinking were people who didn’t really read or think very much— about life or culture or anything. (Locations 168-177).

I would rather be wrong on an important point than right on a trivial one.

…being wrong and responding to correction with resilience was a higher virtue than covering up your mistakes so your students and the watching world assumed that success meant never being wrong. Working from your strengths and cultivating resilience in all matters of life have always been guiding principles for me. (Locations 193-196).

…without the proper response to failure, we don’t grow, we only age. (Location 198)

It seemed to me then and it seems to me now that Christians truly become ugly when we become jealous of the successful persuasive rhetoric of others. (Locations 207-208).

Feminism has a better reputation than Christianity at all major U.S. universities and this fact really bothers (and confuses) many Christians. Feminism has truly captured the soul of secular U.S. universities and the church has either been too weak or too ignorant to know and to know better. But how has the church responded to this truth? Too often the church sets itself up as a victim of this paradigm shift in America, but I think this is dishonest. Here’s what I think happened: since all major U.S. universities had Christian roots, too many Christians thought that they could rest in Christian tradition, not Christian relevance. Too often the church does not know how to interface with university culture because it comes to the table only ready to moralize and not dialogue. There is a core difference between sharing the gospel with the lost and imposing a specific moral standard on the unconverted. Like it or not, in the court of public opinion, feminists and not Bible-believing Christians have won the war of intellectual integrity. And Christians are in part to blame for this. (Locations 211-218).

Ken and Floy invited the stranger in— not to scapegoat me, but to listen and to learn and to dialogue. (Location 282).

Good teachers make it possible for people to change their positions without shame. (Location 344).

I learned the first rule of repentance: that repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin. How much greater? About the size of a mustard seed. Repentance requires that we draw near to Jesus, no matter what. And sometimes we all have to crawl there on our hands and knees. Repentance is an intimate affair. And for many of us, intimacy with anything is a terrifying prospect. (Locations 475-478)

Faith that endures is heroic, not sentimental. (Locations 494-495)

…bridges get walked on and that is a normal part of being a bridge…Bridges, though, do get walked on, and if the Lord calls us to be a bridge, we have to learn to bear in his strength the weight. And it hurts. And it’s good. (Locations 516-518)

I needed (and need) faithful shepherding, not the glitz and glamor that has captured the soul of modern evangelical culture. (Locations 522-523)

“Rosaria, if people in my church really believed that gay people could be transformed by Christ, they wouldn’t talk about us or pray about us in the hateful way that they do.” Christian reader, is this what people say about you when they hear you talk and pray? Do your prayers rise no higher than your prejudice? I think that churches would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin. (Locations 540-544)

The world’s eyes register what a life in Christ takes away, but how do I communicate all that it gives? (Locations 558-559)

2 Repentance and the Sin of Sodom

Sexuality isn’t about what we do in bed. Sexuality encompasses a whole range of needs, demands, and desires. Sexuality is more a symptom of our life’s condition than a cause, more a consequence than an origin. (Locations 619-621)

homosexuality— like all sin— is symptomatic and not causal— that is, it tells us where our heart has been, not who we inherently are or what we are destined to become. (Locations 637-638).

I share my sexual history with you not to flaunt my sin or offend my reader, but to reveal that my sexuality was sinful not because it was lesbian per se but because it wasn’t Christ-controlled (Locations 648-650)

When you die to yourself, you have nothing from your past to use as clay out of which to shape your future. Because conversion, in scripture and in my personal experience, is arduous and transformative, I fear the consequence of the easy believism that typifies modern evangelical culture. I live now in a neighborhood that often seems like the Disneyland of evangelical culture. I have neighbors who are members of one of the big churches in our community. Their church has a fast-food restaurant (so no one gets hungry), a well-known coffee chain (so no one gets sleepy or feels deprived of creature comforts), and a Moon bounce (so children will think that God just wants you to have fun). The church organizes a church-sponsored pool (i.e., gambling program) around the NCAA Final Four. When we compare what we did at church, what we learned in Bible study and what we mean when we call ourselves followers of Christ, our vocabulary may be the same, but the meaning behind our vocabulary is vastly different. (Locations 675-682)

How do I judge my own sincerity? The saving grace of salvation is located in a holy and electing God, and a sacrificing, suffering, and obedient Savior. Stakes this high can never rest on my sincerity. (Locations 691-692)

Sin is not a mistake. A mistake is taking the wrong exit on the highway. A sin is treason against a Holy God. A mistake is a logical mis-step. Sin lurks in our heart and grabs us by the throat to do its bidding. (Locations 699-701)

The Christian life is a life imbued with the supernatural power and authority of God. God is the God of salvation. We do not control God by saying magic words or attending church. Conversion is a heart-affair. Before we can come to Christ, we must empty ourselves of the false pride, blame-shifting, excuse-making, and self-deception that preoccupies our days and our relationships. Before we can come to Christ, we must come to ourselves. (Locations 711-714)

Sanctification— growing in Christ— is always both personal and communal. We need one another. (Locations 741-742)

Listen first— and listen last— and listen in between. (Location 858)

As Solomon became rich and successful, he started to believe that knowledge was something that he “owned,” something that he harbored inside of himself, rather than what it was: something loaned to him, but something fundamentally located in the radical Otherness of a Holy God. (Locations 902-904)

Solomon failed by thinking that all truth-claims exist in a contingent relationship to the self. Solomon’s legacy offers a warning to all academics, believers and atheists alike: we all need to be anchored in something bigger than we are, something bigger than the ideas currently generated within disciplines, and certainly something bigger than the politics of our fields of study. (Locations 905-909)

This experience taught me a powerful lesson about evangelism: the integrity of our relationships matters more than the boldness of our words. (Locations 917-918)

Who is the Jesus who heals some but not others? Who needs a fickle God? Faith is not a feeling. Faith rides the waves of the treachery of life on the Christian worldview that you own. Faith and worldview are intimately intertwined. (Locations 1069-1070)

I don’t think we should ever jolly someone into faith, especially someone who has access to a pulpit. (Location 1095)

There is no finer resolution to a faith test than genuine Christian ministry. (Location 1139)

3 The Good Guys: Sanctification and Public Worship

…could it be that obedience is somehow easier than trust? This is the point that begins Jerry Bridge’s book Trusting God Even When Life Hurts: The boundaries for obedience are clear, but trust must somehow manifest itself in the boundary-less world of “anything can happen.” The fact that God is sovereign over the good and the evil does not necessarily make the evil any less frightening. (Locations 1275-1278)

God saved me, but hadn’t lobotomized me. (Location 1468)

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 heathens 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. (Locations 1483-1487)

I was reluctant to make myself a poster child for gay conversion. I felt and feel no solidarity with people who think their salvation makes them more worthy than others. (Locations 1489-1490)

In English studies we have a mantra: a culture is comprised of its stories.

We are the stories we tell. (Locations 1496-1497)

…too many young Christian fornicators plan that marriage will redeem their sin. Too many young Christian masturbators plan that marriage will redeem their patterns. Too many young Christian internet pornographers think that having legitimate sex will take away the desire to have illicit sex. They’re wrong. And the marriages that result from this line of thinking are dangerous places. I know, I told my audience, why over 50% of Christian marriages end in divorce: because Christians act as though marriage redeems sin. Marriage does not redeem sin. Only Jesus himself can do that. (Locations 1523-1527)

We comprised an interpretive community. An interpretive community consciously and intentionally protects its way of thinking. This is how important worldview is to education— of all stripes and colors. And this is how important interpretive community is to worldview. We do not make meaning in isolation. (Locations 1602-1604)

Many Christians, to their great deficit, have never thought about the importance of Jesus as the word, or about the Bible as a literary text. Many Christians, to their great deficit, have never thought about genre and canonicity. I find these literary devices invaluable in understanding the Person and Work of Jesus Christ and in approaching Jesus in formal worship. (Locations 1639-1642)

4 The Home Front: Marriage, Ministry, and Adoption

Adoption is not just a Christian metaphor or the process by which we became parents: adoption into Christianity is the process by which we claim our heritage. (Locations 1981-1982)

…even when the bear does not look like the cubs, the trauma of having one’s head ripped off by a protective mama can be bloody business. (Locations 2021-2022)

When Christ is not at the center, all of our good intentions are swallowed up by selfishness. (Location 2038)

We in the church tend to be more fearful of the (perceived) sin in the world than of the sin in our own heart. Why is that? Here is what I think. I believe that there is no greater enemy to vital life-breathing faith than insisting on cultural sameness. When fear rules your theology, God is nowhere to be found in your paradigm, no matter how many Bible verses you tack on to it. I think that as parents we would be more effective in our parenting if we leveled with our children, if we told them that some of our dearly held rules are not morally grounded but are made for our convenience. (Locations 2080-2084)

Sin— especially sexual sin— has a sneaky way of triumphing in an environment of secrecy and shame. (Location 2095)

A family that never opens its heart never feels heartbroken. A family that never welcomes in others never misses them when they leave. A family that never embraces life’s risks, never really lives. (Locations 2231-2232)

Because we are Christ’s, we know that children are not grafted into a family to resolve our fertility problems or to boost our egos or to complete our family pictures or because we match color or race or nation-status. We know, because we are Christ’s, that adoption is a miracle. In a spiritual sense, it is the miracle at the center of the Christian life. We who are adopted by God are those given a new heart, a “rebirth.” When God brings children out of neglect, abuse, dysfunction, gangs, drugs, and hate, and places them in a covenant home, he has just moved a mountain in the hearts and families of men. (Location 2237-2242)

Adoption is not a pathology that marks and plagues people and families for their whole life. But adoption is a complex paradoxical event that combines loss, brokenness and rejection with gain, connection, and embrace. No child asks to be adopted. No child asks for incompetent or rejecting birth parents. No child asks to be constantly told how “lucky” he is to be adopted. Wanted or not, adoption always starts with loss. Adoption always combines ambiguous loss with unrequested gain. An adopted child faces this paradox— this ambiguous grief— at each developmental stage. (Locations 2273-2277)

5 Homsechooling and Middle Age

God is not crushing the dreams of parenthood when he deals the card of infertility. God is asking you to crush the idolatry of pregnancy, to be sure. (Locations 2469-2470)

Rahab the Harlot. Mary Magdalene. We love these women between the pages of our Bible, but we don’t want to sit at the Lord’s Table with them— with people like me— drinking from a common cup. That’s the real ringer: the common cup— that is, our common origin in depravity. (Locations 2485-2487)

Parenting the hurt child means always knowing that you are parenting your emotional better, a human being who survived against all odds. (Locations 2590-2591)

Mercy ministry always comes down to this: you can help, but only Jesus can heal. (Location 2621)

— via —

Though long in some parts, Butterfield has woven together a fantastic mix of memoir, theological reflection, and practical ministry through her personal journey that includes many brilliant insights, several of my favorite highlighted above. In several places, she includes her own interpretation of passages, such as this one:

The Prodigal Son didn’t repent of his sin because he got tired of living like and with the pigs. He repented because God gave him eyes to see. (Locations 1612-1613)

This is a distinctly reformed way of thinking, which is simply to illustrate her particular theological background and bent, no doubt through the context of her conversion experience(s).

One of the challenges with that kind of theology, however, is the tendency to bifurcate the world, to create what N.T. Wright calls a “split-level universe.” Here are two examples:

The question then is this: should worship practices be derived from our experiences in life? Our tastes? Our cultural values? If we believe in sola scriptura, we have to say no. Worship is separate from life and worship standards must come from the Bible, that is, it must come from divine revelation and not from natural revelation. (Locations 1664-1667)

And again,

I believe that God commands us to sing Psalms in worship to the exclusion of man-made hymns.

The truth is that if we believe in sola scriptura, we believe that life experiences, tastes, and cultural values are codified in doctrines and texts that we have inherited. In what else would a doctrine like sola scriptura emerge? And, are not the Psalms “man-made,” those men being specifically David and Solomon? More over, this kind of usage of “the Bible,” feels very much like the kind of thinking that she derided earlier in her book (Locations 168-177 above).

You should read this…

More than several people have suggested I read this book as an excellent read on conversion from homosexuality. When discussions are had about the challenges that are facing the Church in regards to this issue, Butterfield is held up as the standard of Christian virtue, that people can and do change, and not just spiritually, sexually as well. Several things must be noted about this.

First, there ought to be no question regarding Butterfield’s personal journey and experience. “Give honor where honor is due,” to paraphrase Paul (Romans 13:7)

Second, we must not universalize that which is particular. Butterfield’s story is not everyone’s story, nor should it be.

Third, to uphold Butterfield as an exemplar of “sexual conversion,” rather than “spiritual conversion,” is to betray our own biases, not to describe reality. Reality would also embrace the shutting down of Exodus International, the consecutive apology by Alan Chambers, the work of the Gay Christian Network, the Marin Foundation, Gene Robinson, Justin Lee, Wesley Hill, and countless others.

Fourth, nowhere in this book does Butterfield actually address the details of her conversion. We get pointed inspiration of her “lifestyle,” in comparison to her “new life in Christ.” But she does not discuss attraction or libido in this work, a really important part of the discussion.

Butterfield was invited to Wheaton College in 2014 to share her testimony, and was met with a demonstration by Wheaton students. The following sums up the sentiment:

Massey said that he feared that students would be isolated or marginalized by Butterfield’s story of transformation from “radical, lesbian, leftist professor to this morally good Christian,” which could make LGBTQ or feminist students feel that those two identities were “oppositional” or mutually exclusive.

“We feared that if no conversation was added to the single message of the speaker that students who are not very well informed were going to walk into chapel, hear the message, and have misconceptions confirmed or that students who are LGBT would be told that this story is the absolute way that things happen,” Massey said.

(See also the CT article)

Yes, we should read this. But we should also read everything else we can get our hands on, and consider deeply the profound and mysterious diversity that exists in our world.