Join Michael Easley in the studio with author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Dr. Rosaria Butterfield, as she shares her journey coming out of a homosexual feminist worldview and confronting her true identity.
Rosaria 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.
EASLEY: At the end of the broadcast we’ll hear from Rosaria Butterfield, a former ten year professor of English from Syracuse University. She has written a book called The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, a compelling story recounting her experience coming out of a homosexual feminist worldview meeting a believer in Christ and what that journey is like for her as she confronts her true identity with the way she’s been living. Let’s join Rosaria as she begins to tell us her story.
Butterfield: My Christian life unfolded as I was living my life, my normal life, and in the normal course of life questions emerged that exceeded my secular feminist world view. Those questions sat quietly in the crevices of my mind until I met a most unlikely friend, a Christian pastor. 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 not yet have met the most unlikely of friends, Jesus Christ Himself.
I was raised in a liberal Catholic household and my all girl, Catholic high school dished out plenty of academic rigor and ably prepared me for college, but it did not prepare me well for the sexual meat market that I would meet there. I evaded this meat market, not because of any moral prohibition against it, but because it made me feel ill inside. I met my first boyfriend my junior year. It was a heady experience. But we graduated and it was then that I noticed it; an undercurrent of longing inserted itself into my intense friendships with women. I didn’t make much of this at first. So from the age of twenty two until twenty eight, I continued to date men. At the same time a deep feeling of longing and connection simply toppled over the edges for my women friends, especially my friends from my growing LGBT community. This repetitious sensibility rooted and it grew. I simply preferred the company of women. Then in my late twenties, enhanced in part by feminist philosophy, and gay and lesbian political and social justice work, my homosocial preference morphed into homosexuality. This shift was subtle, not blatant. I shed no tears; indeed I celebrated. Life finally came together for me and made sense. My life as a lesbian seemed normal. I considered it an enlightened chosen path, always preferring symmetry to asymmetry. I believed that I had found my real sexual identity.
So what happened to my Catholic training? Well the name Jesus which had rolled off my tongue in a little girls prayers and rolled off my back in college now made me recoil in anger. By the time I graduated from Ohio State with my Phd in English Literature in critical theory, I left the Buckeye State with my first lesbian partner. We moved to New York for me to begin a ten year track position in the English department at Syracuse University. As a university professor, I tired of students who seemed to believe that knowing Jesus meant knowing little else. Christians in particular seemed to me like bad readers. Ironic I thought, given that they believe that the Bible was the true truth; an idea that I ridiculed. They always seized opportunities to insert Bible verses into conversations with the same point as a punctuation mark; to end the conversation rather than to deepen it. I cared about morality, justice, and compassion. A nineteenth century scholar fervent for the worldviews of Freud, Hegel, Marx, and Darwin, I strove to stand with the disempowered. I valued morality and I probably could have stomached Jesus and His little band of warriors, if it wasn’t how other cultural forces buttressed the Christian right. You see feminism was not just my worldview, it was my religion and the surround sound of Christian dogma commingling with Republican politics demanded my attention. I simply did not understand why Christians would not leave consenting adults alone. My life was happy and meaning and full. I began researching the Religious Right and their politics of prejudice and hatred against people like me. To do this, I needed to read the one book in my estimation had gotten so many people off track: the Bible. I took note first time through the Bible that it was an engaging display of every genre and chope and type. It had edgy poetry, deep and complex philosophy, and compelling narrative stories. It also embodied a world view that I hated: sin, repentance, Sodom and Gomorrah. I thought this was absurd! At this time the Christian Mens’ Movement, The Promise Keepers, came to town and they parked their little circus at the university. On my war against stupid, I wrote an article published in the local newspaper. It was 1997. The article generated many rejoinders, so many that I kept a xerox box. Remember those days? I had a xerox box on each side of my desk; one for hate mail and one for fan mail. But one letter that I received defied my filing system. It was from the pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. It was a kind and inquiring letter. Ken Smith encouraged me to explore the kinds of questions that I admire. How did you arrive at your interpretations? How do you know you are right? Do you believe in God? Ken’s letter didn’t argue with my article rather, he asked me to examine the presuppositions that undergirded it. I didn’t know how to respond to this letter so I threw it away. Later that night I fished it out of the departments’ recycling bin and put it back in my desk where it stared at me for a week, confronting me with a worldview divide that actually demanded a response. You see as a Postmodern intellectual, I operated from a historical materialist worldview, but Christianity is a supernatural one. Ken’s letter punctured the integrity of my research without him even knowing it. With the letter, Ken initiated two years of bringing the church to me; an enemy and a heathen. Oh, I had seen my share of Bible verses on placards at Gay Pride Marches. The Christians who mocked me at Gay Pride Day were happy that I and every one I loved were going to hell was as clear as the sky is blue. Make no mistake, Gay Pride Day is a religious holiday in the LGBT community. Arrows that fly on that day, desecrate sacred space and wound deeply, leaving long legacies of mistrust. But Ken seemed palpably different than those guys, both in manner, how he treated me, and in Theology; how he read the Bible. Ken did not mock me. He listened as much as he talked, and hidden from my eyes, but most powerful of all, he prayed more than anything else. Ken and his wife, Floy and I became friends; they entered my world; they met my friends; we did book exchanges; we talked openly about sexuality and politics, and they did not act as though such conversations were polluting them. They did not treat me like a blank slate. When we ate together,Ken prayed in a way that I’d never heard before; his prayers were intimate and vulnerable. He actually repented of sin in front of me. He thanked God for all things. Ken’s God was holy and firm, yet full of mercy. Because Ken and Floy did not invite me to church that first night at their house, and did not invite me to drop to my knees and say the Sinner’s Prayer; the moment I walked through the door, I knew when Ken put his hand in mine, it was safe to put mine in his and to become friends. I knew I wasn’t a project.
I started reading the Bible in earnest, with pen in hand, and notebook in lap. I read the way a glutton devours. I became close friends with a member of the church; a man my age with a similar checkered sexual history, but he had made a profession of faith and had become a follower of this man Jesus. I read the Bible many times through that first year and in multiple translations, arguing with it’s gender politics and it’s offensive statements about slavery, but I kept reading it, catching my wings in its daily embrace. Slowly and overtime the Bible started to take on meaning that really startled me. As I studied it, I found answers to my initial accusations. I delved into its canonicity, it’s hermeneutics, and it’s opposing theological approaches. The Bible was this unmind text and it’s simultaneously encouraged me and enraged me and slowly and overtime the Bible started to take on a life and a meaning that really startled me. Some of my well worn paradigm simply no longer stuck and I had to at least ponder the hermeneutical claim that this book was different from all the others because it was inspired by a holy God and inherently true and trustworthy. I’m mused over the two dominating attributes of God: his goodness and his holiness, and contemplated why if God was so good, and so holy, I was so fully repelled by Him. I turned over the idea of His authority, like a log fallen in the woods and I detested what I found there. If God is the Creator of all things, and if the Bible has His seal of His truth and power, then the Bible had the right to interrogate me, my life, and my culture, not the other way around. You see, even as a Postmodern reader, I understood the idea that authority can only depend on that which is higher than itself. Who is higher than God? I wondered. My friends knew I was reading the Bible. It was after all a research project.
At a dinner gathering that my partner and I were hosting, my transgender friend Jay cornered me in the kitchen. She put her large hand over mine, “This Bible reading is changing you Rosaria, she warned.” She was right; she always was. I asked, “Jay, what if it’s true? What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord? What if we are all in trouble? “Jay exhaled deeply. “Rosaria,” she said, “I was a Presbyterian Minister for fifteen years. I prayed that God would heal me, but he didn’t. If you want, I will pray for you.” This encounter gave me secret tacit permission to keep reading the Bible. After all, my dear friend Jay had read it cover to cover and had routed around in it’s crevices for life’s purpose and meaning. But the bomb she dropped also enraged me. No peace and social justice activist wants some unequal opportunity god. Who is this Jesus, who heals some, but not others? How dare He? The next day when I returned home from work, I found two large milk crates spilling over with theological books; Jay’s books. She was giving them to me. I keyed into the house, let out the dogs, flipped through the first book I selected from the crate: Calvin’s Institutes. There in the margin of the exposition of the Book of Romans in Jay’s handwriting was a warning. “Watch Romans 1.” This is what Romans 1:21-27 says, For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds, and of four footed animals and of crawling creatures. Therefore, God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural. Look at the verb closes here. I did. Did not honor God, did not give thanks, engaged, in futile speculations, became fools, worshipped the creation rather than the Creator. Then God gives some over to their lusts and when we can only look at the world with our lusts, we dishonor our bodies, worship the world, and demand that the watching world approve of our behavior, after all it is lonely to live without God’s blessing. If we cannot have God’s blessing, we will demand it from men. This first appeared to me as a haunting literary echo of Genesis 3, where Eve’s desire to live independently of God’s authority made perfect sense to me, but the seemingly innocent sin served as the leverage for the whole world to come tumbling down fierce and fast, bloody and brilliant, leaving it’s legacy of original sin on all who bear the image of God. The two verses, one in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament stood out as the bookends of my life. Indeed, Romans 1 does not end by highlighting homosexuality as the worst and most extreme example of the sin of failing to acknowledge God as our Author or Creator. Here is where the passage finds it’s crescendo: Being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful, and although they know the ordinances of God that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. Homosexuality then, I discern from this is not the unpardonable sin. It is actually not the worst of sins; not at least for God. It is listed here in the middle of the passage as one of the many parts of this journey that moves away from recognizing God as our Author. In the Bible, homosexuality is indeed not causal; it’s consequential. Homosexuality from God’s point of view is an identity routed, ethical outworking of a seemingly small transgression, failing to see God as my Author; something that I inherit in my original sin.
Well I had taught, studied, read, and lived a very different notion of homosexuality and for the first time in my life I wondered if I was wrong and this stopped me in my tracks. You see, somehow it was easier to hate the Bible when it squared off against me, but now that it was getting under my skin it became a foe, of an entirely different order; that this book was supernatural in origin and effect was becoming more and more clear to me and my hermeneutical bag of tricks had no system of containment for it. As I was reading and discussing these things with Ken Smith, he pointed out to me that Jesus is the Word made flesh and that knowing Jesus demands embracing the Jesus of the whole Bible; not the Jesus of my imagination; the whole Bible, even the places that took my life captive. After two years of this, the Bible got bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world and one Sunday morning, I left the home I shared with my lesbian partner and an hour later I sat in the pew of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. I share this with you not to be lurid, but to expose the treacherous journey that outsiders and outcasts travel to arrive in the pew next to you. Conspicuous of my butch haircut, I reminded myself that I came to meet God, not to fit in. Ken was preaching through the Gospel of Matthew, with its bewildering casts of characters and problems, unsuspecting folks separated unto the Gospel, seeds choked by the world, and some nameless kid (I always felt so sorry for that guy) feeding thousands with his lunch. You know, his lunch. Then Jesus’s cutting question to him, impetuous Peter, followed by Pastor Ken’s steel blue eyes, and long pause before he turned the question on us. “Congregation,” Pastor Ken asked, “Do you still lack understanding?” I felt very personally like that question was for me and the image that came like waves of nausea of me, and everyone I love suffering in hell vomited into my consciousness and gripped me in its teeth, not because we were gay, but because we were proud. We wanted to be autonomous from the God who made us. It was our hearts and minds first. Our bodies and identities followed. I know, and I got it. I heard it finally. I did not want this and I did not ask for this. I counted the costs and I did not like the math on the other side of the equal sign, but God’s promises rolled in like another round of waves into my world.
One Lord’s Day, Ken was preaching on John 7:17 If anyone wills to do God’s will, he shall know concerning the doctrine. This verse exposed the quicksand you see, in which my feet were stuck. I was a thinker. I was paid to read books and write about them and I expected that in all areas of my life understanding came before obedience, not the other way around. I wanted God to show me on my terms why homosexuality was a sin. I wanted to be the judge, not the one being judged. But this verse promised understanding after obedience and I wrestled with the question, “Did I really want to understand God’s point of view on this subject, or did I just want to argue with Him?” I prayed that night that God would give me the willingness to obey before I understood. I prayed long and into the unfolding day. When I woke up and I looked in the mirror I looked the same, but when I looked into my heart through the lens of the Bible, I realized this: my life, my career, my sexuality, my hopes, my dreams, are actually not mine at all. They belong to the God who created me. If Jesus could split the world asunder, divide the soul and spirit, judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart, could He make me what He wanted me to be? You see, I still felt like a lesbian in body and heart; that is I felt my real identity, but what is my true identity I wondered? The Bible makes clear that the real and the true have a troubled relationship this side of eternity. For many people in the Bible, their true identity and calling comes after only a long struggle with God, with wilderness, and with dashed dreams, and crushed hopes and plans. The Bible makes clear that my future calling will always echo an attribute of God. Obedience constraints and it mirrors suffering.We are after all saved by Christ’s atoning love, by His bloody love, and such bloody love is horrible to gaze upon. Finally, and I saw it, it was a harrowing truth.You see, I had believed that I was on the side of justice and peace, kindness and care, compassion and goodness, but in fact I had been persecuting Jesus the whole time. Not just some historical figure named Jesus, but my Jesus, my Prophet, my Priest, my King, my Savior, my Friend. Well there’s only one thing to do when you come face to face with the living God. Repent and believe. Repentance means to feel sorrow for your sin and turn around and change your mind. I could think of only one sin of which to repent: pride. My world was simply filled with pride, pride posters, pride t-shirts, pride coffee mugs, my house housed the material for the Gay Pride March and I was surrounded by pride. My dog even lapped out of a, you guessed it, pride water bowl. So I repented of my pride; the pride that lead me that I could invent my own rules for faith and life and sexual autonomy; the pride that said that I was entitled to live separately from God; the pride that lead me to believe that self worth is self made. In repenting of pride, something that I do daily, I have come to learn this: that self worth, that core desire to be honorable, good, lovable, worthy, necessary and needed, comes only when we live inside of God’s story; the Bible, and not apart from it. Repentance, you see, is the only no shame solution to a renewed Christian conscience because it proves simply the obvious: that God was right all along.
EASLEY: You know from the beginning this was mans’ issue, was it not? The fall of man begins with the longing to be like God. When the serpent asked the woman, “Indeed has God said,” questioning the authority of God’s Word; questioning the authority of her maker. The discussion between the woman and the serpent progressed and he tells her, “For God knows that in the day you eat from it, your eyes will be open and you will be like God knowing good from evil.” Of course that is a half truth. Yes, she will know good from evil; yes, Adam will know good from evil, but they will not be like God in the way they envision. When we sin, we move into a pride position where something looks good, lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, the boastful pride of life. We reach out. We take it. Unfortunately, that pride has consequences and as Dr. Butterfield tells us her story at the end of it all, is not our sin an issue of pride? We think we know better; we can be what we want to be; we can live the way we want to live; it’s our identity; it’s our right; it’s our choice; it’s our freedom. To know Christ is to repent from our pride. It is to realize we’re not God. Has God said? Yes, God has spoken. He told us we’re sinners, but He’s also told us that He loves us and He’s provided a way. Christ lived, died, and was buried and came back from the dead and by trusting in Christ, and Christ alone, we’re promised a free gift of eternal life. We hope you’ll join us on the next broadcast with Dr. Rosario Butterfield as she continues sharing her story, about what it meant for her to come out of a gay lifestyle, and how her views have changed on her identity, and the world, and the way she now lives. Thanks for listening. This is Michael Easley inContext.