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Book review: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert - Rosaria Butterfield

Genre: Autobiography

Size: 128 pages. 5 sections in total. I read through it, transfixed, in one evening. I wish more books were this captivating.

What’s the big idea: Rosaria recounts how her identity as tenured feminist professor at Sycaruse University and lesbian community activist transformed into a covenant child of God, orthodox Christian and pastor’s wife. Along the way she touches on topics such as repentance/faith, homosexuality and identity, the Reformed Presbyterian (RPCNA) community, hospitality, worship principles, marriage, family, homeschooling, adoption and racial reconciliation.

Easy to read? Definitely. Started it one evening and couldn’t put it down. Rosaria — an English professor by training — writes in a very eloquent, poetic style that’s not afraid to pull punches. Her prose is first-rate, and her sentences are full of gems that I found myself frequently stopping to  re-read what she just said.

What I appreciated? On reaching the last page, I was astounded by the incredibly life-transforming work of Christ.

Throughout the book, I was challenged on so many issues to reconsider how I think and speak about those in the LGBT community, the humiliating cost of following Christ, compassion and mercy ministry (and how secular/LGBT communities do this better!), sexual sin and gender politics and more. Rosaria has fantastic thoughts about the indispensable role of hospitality in proclaiming the gospel.

I was surprised to find in chapter 3 a fleshed-out stand for strict regulative principle in worship (e.g. singing only Psalms during the church service). Chapters 4 and 5 talked about the sacrificial life of being a mother to biological, adopted and foster children and the classical model of homeschooling. I didn’t agree with all her conclusions, but found each issue was argued passionately, logically and winsomely.

Who I’d recommend it to: While her background makes her uniquely qualified to wrestle and challenge Christians and non-Christians on their convictions on homosexuality and identity, don’t pigeonhole this book as simply a go-to for same-sex attraction/LGBT issues. As Rosaria points out herself:

We like to think that sin is contained by categories of logic or psychology. It’s not. So why do we assume that sexual sin has sexual or affectual origins? That is because we have too narrow a focus about sexuality’s purview. 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.

So I think anyone remotely interested in hearing an intellectually and emotionally compelling case for the change the love and compassion of Christ can make — whatever your worldview, orientation or religious conviction — will benefit from reading what Rosaria has to say. You’ll enjoy an arresting autobiography that will certainly make you think.

Notable quotes: Plenty, but here are a few from my full list:

On “conversion”, and honesty about the cost of discipleship:

“… 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.”

Conversion put me in a complicated and comprehensive chaos. I sometimes wonder, when I hear other Christians pray for the salvation of the “lost,” if they realize that this comprehensive chaos is the desired end of such prayers. Often, people asked me to describe the “lessons” that I learned from this experience. I can’t. It was too traumatic. Sometimes in crisis, we don’t really learn lessons. Sometimes the result is simpler and more profound: sometimes our character is simply transformed.

On the church, tribalism and interfacing with others:

“I believed then and I believe now that where everybody thinks the same nobody thinks very much.”

“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.”

“Mercy ministry always comes down to this: you can help, but only Jesus can heal.”

On Christianity and homosexuality:

“A Methodist pastor and the Dean of the Chapel at Syracuse University believed that I did not have to give up everything to honor God. Indeed, he told me, since God made me a lesbian, I gave God honor by living an honorable lesbian life. He told me that I could have Jesus and my lesbian lover. This was a very appealing prospect. But I had been reading and rereading scripture, and there are no such marks of postmodern “both/and” in the Bible.”

“She said: “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?”

Dealing with a case of racism with the truth of adoption:

One time, Kent was filling a pulpit at a small church in a small town. These places scare me, and for good reason. Knox was asleep on my shoulder and Mary was asleep in the car seat. A man walked up to me, not knowing that I was the preacher’s wife, and said: “So, is it chic for white women to adopt black kids these days?” I took a deep breath and stood up to meet his gaze. “Are you a Christian?” I asked him. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied. “Did God save you because it was chic?” We locked eyes until he dropped his head. He stammered something unintelligible and backed away slowly, seeming to understand that 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.

Verdict: Must read. I agree with Carl Trueman’s summary: “I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I do not agree with everything she says; but I did learn from everything she wrote. It deserves the widest possible readership.”

Go and grab a copy!

Other reviews and further reading:

My Train Wreck Conversion – CT article

Journey of Grace – World Mag

Engaging Gay Activists on Campus: A Primer – Intercollegiate Review

Book review: The Most Misused Verses in the Bible

The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God’s Word Is Misunderstood

by Eric J Bargerhuff

The Most Misused Verses in the Bible

Genre: Bible study

Size: 179 pages, 19 chapters, you could read the whole thing in a day. I did a chapter a day and it helped me to consider each “misused verse” better.

What’s the big idea: An invitation to come face-to-face with 17 of the most misused verses in the Bible: verses that have often lost their context today and taken on new meanings outside the stories and teachings of Scripture. The biggest lesson is to study each verse in context of the chapter, place in history and other variables to rightly understand its meaning (also called “exegesis”).

Easy to read? Yes. Each chapter deals with a frequently misunderstood verse, and takes about 5-10 minutes max. Eric uses lots of good illustrations to draw the reader in. Sentences are clear, there’s not a lot of big words used so you won’t need a theology degree to understand what he’s saying.

What I appreciated: You leave each chapter having a better understanding of verses like “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” and others.

For example with the “hope and a future” verse (Jeremiah 29:11–13), after good context work, Eric sums up:

Jeremiah 29:11–13 contains some great promises, but if I use it to demand the American Dream from God, then perhaps I should also be willing to literally endure seventy years of captivity first (if that’s what God should choose). I think it’s better to use it to inspire us to look for the spiritual life that is truly life now, while trusting in the future hope of the life that is yet to come.

Eric also has a gracious tone as he writes. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions on the correct reading of a passage, you won’t find yourself hurt by how he’s explained them to you.

Who I’d recommend it to: I think this book would be helpful for new Christians in particular to see examples of how to (and how not to) interpret God’s Word. I remember as a new Christian that most of the teaching I received about Christian life came in the form of little bible verses like these, and I would have appreciated a resource like this back then. Yet even for mature Christians it’s a helpful book too, as the temptation to take shortcuts in understanding the Bible’s meaning still comes up.

Notable quotes:

“At the heart of all human sinfulness is lawlessness and the prideful appeal to be our own god. To determine our own destiny. To have our own way. To throw off restrictions and doubt the integrity of God’s goodness. To doubt the trustworthiness of his Word. And all we need to do in order to start down that path is to give Scripture a new context, twist its meaning, or interpret it in a way that appeals to the supremacy and glory of man.”

“We must also resist the temptation to make a passage “work” how we want it to work or “make it say” what we want it to say. Many have fallen prey to this temptation and as such have read into Scripture what they want to see.”

“The proper question should not be “What does this passage mean to me?” but rather “What were the author’s original intentions and how did the audience who first received it understand those intentions in the original context?” And then, only after discovering this is it appropriate to ask, “How then does the timeless biblical principle contained in this passage apply to me?””

Verdict: (on a scale of Must read, Good to read, OK to read, don’t read) Good to read

Click here to grab a copy.

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Note: Thanks to Robyn Drake for her book discovery template, which I’ve adapted here.

Further reading:

  • Trevin Wax also reviewed the book here.
  • Chris Blumhofer dives further into Jeremiah 29:11-13.

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