A Voice Worth Listening To

Posted by Karen Soole Karen Soole
Sometimes when I finish reading a book the ideas in it haunt me - the narrator’s voice echoes inside my head. I wish that I hadn’t finished it because it has been such good company and everything else I have to read doesn’t feel as satisfying. Usually when this happens to me it is because I have been lost in the depths of a fictional world – it is rare for me to have this experience reading a Christian book. But I have just finished ‘The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert’ by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield that I initially read on my kindle (because its not easily available in the UK). Reading it was like listening to a wise, witty and challenging friend who I would love to talk with face to face. I valued this one sided conversation so much that I have tracked down a copy from the Evangelical Book Shop in Belfast so I can highlight and bookmark it to my hearts content. I have also got a copy for a friend of mine who I know will find it valuable.

So why my enthusiasm? It’s not the title – although the by-line appeals to me ‘an English professor’s journey into Christian faith’. It’s not its slick presentation or that it has a clear target audience – in fact I’m not sure who the target audience is because it ranges across and through so many themes. The title actually describes it well – ‘secret thoughts’ and the reader is taken into the mind of a perceptive and articulate woman who loves God but her journey has been anything but conventional.

The book opens with this declaration:

‘When I was 28 years old, I boldly declared myself lesbian. I was a teaching associate in one of the first and strongest Women’s Studies Departments in the nation.’

She considered Christians bad thinkers and anti-intellectual, but they also scared her:

‘Here is one of the deepest ways Christians scared me: the lesbian community was home and home felt safe and secure; the people that I knew best and cared about were in that community; and finally, the lesbian community was accepting and welcoming while the Christian community appeared (and too often is) exclusive, judgmental, scornful, and afraid of diversity.’

This book shows how God brought her to himself through the loving and gentle friendship of a pastor and her devouring of the bible. It was not an easy transition; she refers to her conversion like experiencing a train wreck, as she moved from radical feminism to being married to a pastor of a Reformed Presbyterian Church with its unaccompanied Psalm singing. Yet this book is so much more than the story of her conversion albeit a powerful witness to the way God transforms the most unexpected people. It looks at issues of sexuality and witness to the gay community but it is not a book primarily about the gay issue although it is worth reading for this alone.

This book shows a person working out their theology having come to church as a total outsider for whom everything must be questioned and grappled with. It looks at what it means to be part of a church, relationships in church, the value of worship, hospitality, and serving others. She examines the principles of Christian marriage, and is a passionate advocate of adoption, fostering and home-schooling. She discusses bible reading, hermeneutics, worldviews and education. Her perceptions are sharp, witty and thought provoking, I don’t agree with all of her conclusions  (if I did I would be in a Psalm singing church) but she makes poignant and pertinent observations:

‘I loved (and love) the Bible, gorging on huge chunks at a time. But these skinny verses, taken out of their rich context, were just sitting there on placards, naked and rude.’

‘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 to dialogue’

‘I came to believe that my job was not to critique and “receive” a sermon, but to dig into it, to seize its power, to participate with its message, and to steal its fruit.’

‘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?’

I could quote on and on. Reading this book felt like finding a friend. Like all good friends there is room for disagreement but like the best friends we have there is much to learn. Rosaria defies easy categorisation but I believe this book despite its American context has much to teach us and not least how to share the gospel with our gay friends.