Book Review: Train Wreck Conversion

Karen Booth

Booth

By Karen Booth –

In 1992 Rosaria Champagne Butterfield was about as far away from Christian faith as an individual can get. She had repudiated her Roman Catholic upbringing to embrace a lesbian identity and a leftist feminist worldview. By her late 30s, she was a tenured professor at Syracuse University where she served as Director of Undergraduate Studies and taught courses in “Queer Theory.” She and her intellectual colleagues scorned Christians as “bad readers” who “lived narrowly subscribed lives” and were also “exclusive, judgmental, scornful, and afraid of diversity.”

But Butterfield’s anti-Christian biases were seriously challenged during the time she researched a book about the “religious right.” Her commitment to an in-depth study of Scripture, which she acknowledged “got under my skin,” and a deep friendship with a Reformed Presbyterian pastor named Ken Smith eventually led to what she called her “train wreck conversion” seven years later. Her memoir The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert is the extended story of exactly how that happened and the journey of transformation that followed.

“I didn’t read one of those tacky self-help books with a thin coating of Christian themes, examine my life against the tenets of the Bible the way one might hold up one car insurance policy against all others and cleanly and logically, ‘make a decision for Christ,’” she wrote. Instead, what she called “Big Life Questions” began to emerge that her secular feminist worldview was ill-equipped to address or answer satisfactorily.

She was introduced to Pastor Ken after one of her articles criticizing Promise Keepers was published in the local newspaper. Responses to the article tended to be either extremely positive or negative, but his didn’t fit neatly into either of those categories. This “kindest letter of opposition” graciously challenged Butterfield to examine her intellectual presuppositions, and she became so intrigued that she called him a week later. The phone call led to a dinner invitation; the shared meal led to further conversation and a respectful, caring relationship with Pastor Ken and his wife, Floy; the friendship led to two years of personal Bible study and subsequent church attendance; and all of it led to Butterfield accepting Jesus Christ as her Savior and Lord.

The process was interspersed with seasons of confusion and doubt, including an encounter with the United Methodist Dean of the Chapel at Syracuse University who tried to convince her that she could remain an active lesbian while honorably serving God. But she realized that her commitment to Christ and her resultant desire to be a “godly woman” were “all or nothing” propositions that required a complete submission of all that she was and all that she held dear. “I asked him to take it all,” she wrote, “my sexuality, my profession, my community, my tastes, my books and my tomorrows.”

If she had expected a completely transformed life the instant that she committed her life to Christ, she quickly learned otherwise. As her relationship with God developed “one step at a time,” she began the “messy and difficult” journey out of lesbianism. In other words, sexual, relational, intellectual and spiritual sanctification were, and continue to be, very hard work. “Success” is possible only when the believer chooses to cooperate with the Holy Spirit through continual repentance and obedience and dying to self, even when she may not fully understand (or like) the process or experience immediate change in feelings and behavior.

Butterfield’s mature understanding of sexual sin is now particularly astute:

“What good Christians don’t realize is that sexual sin is not recreational sex 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.”

So she is thankful 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.”

The rest of the book addresses Butterfield’s embrace of Reformed Presbyterian theology and practice, her personal growth in Christian relationships, particularly as a wife and mother, and her understanding of – and commitment to –adoption as a form of Christian ministry. These accounts are also intensely personal, and Christians with Arminian/Wesleyan roots will no doubt disagree with many of her theological conclusions.

Nonetheless, Butterfield’s experience has much to teach us about sincere and effective outreach, especially to the LGBT community, the process and goals of sanctification, the importance of authentic worship, and the Biblical meaning of marriage and family. At just under 150 pages, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert would make an excellent resource for adult study and discussion or for a group considering the development of sexual sanctification ministries.

Karen Booth is the director of Transforming Congregations, a ministry of Good News.

 

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