Sometime in the last 50 years, the Puritans went viral.
Having received a makeover from stodgy prudes to spiritual doctors, Christians—young and old alike—found themselves flocking to publishers like Banner of Truth to consume as much Puritan meat as they could. Those who were once the fun-hating pious denizens had become the ancient spiritual doctors who could apply the tonic of Scripture to all of life’s trials. They also were really good at turning a phrase.
Yet, upon closer inspection, the reader of the Puritans begins to get the feeling that there is something much deeper, much more theological going on that distinguishes it from some of the popular bestsellers that crowd the shelves of today’s Christian bookstores. Indeed, historians like Richard Muller have highlighted this central point by noting that underlying the Puritans personal, pastoral prose was a theological and biblical depth that was sharpened through the use of Aristotelian method and rigorous scholarship. While we rightly savor Samuel Rutherford’s pastoral sensibilities in his Letters, we forget that he also wrote Lex, Rex as well as disputations against Arminians and Amaraldyians.
In many ways, Rosaria Butterfield shares many similarities with some of these Puritan forebears: she received rigorous academic training which culminated in a tenured chair at Syracuse University prior to her conversion; displays a theological depth undergirding her winsome prose; and she displays a personal affective relatability that takes seriously lived experience, especially for “sexual sinners”—which just so happens to be all of us.
Because of these things and more, I think that this might be the new “go to” resource to hand out when it comes to issues of same-sex attraction (SSA), homosexuality, shame, and gender issues. And while it’s true that we live in a world where we try to chalk up as many superlatives as we can in 140 characters, I really do think this book is that significant.
“Out of Syracuse I Called My Daughter”
When Butterfield’s first book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert was released it found an audience that extended far beyond expectations. In it was the story of a formerly tenured, ex-lesbian Syracuse professor who had been transformed into a homeschooling pastor’s wife in a conservative, Psalm-singing only Presbyterian denomination. The story seemed so absurd that it could not possibly be true. Yet, somehow in the economy of the wisdom of God, it was. Not only that, Dr. Butterfield had a way with words and could write a great story—a really great story.
In many ways, Openness Unhindered shares stories and insights captured in Secret Thoughts, yet with more focus. (While I love talking about the Regulative Principle of worship, for some it might come off as a distraction in a riveting narrative about the life of an extraordinary woman.) The chapters have short, punchy titles: “Identity: the Flame of Our Union With Christ,” “Conversion: the Spark of a New Identity,” and discuss thorny, complicated issues for those evangelicals wanting to thoughtfully engage and love their neighbors as Christ would have them.
Butterfield is uniquely qualified for this task. She not only has the theological depth (more on that later), but also the existential awareness to handle these issues.
The reason why Butterfield’s story is so problematic for those who advocate for the normalization of homosexuality is because they—rightly, in my opinion—call for those who oppose them to hear stories of lesbian and gay individuals before they make blanket pronouncements. Yet while sharing stories with one another helps to overcome situational boundaries, our stories are not the sum total of our being. We exist within a larger narrative that transcends our respective communities and situations. Butterfield gets that. She understands that our stories are important, but are ultimately penultimate in God’s larger story of redemption. In more theological language, Butterfield understands that theology does not begin with anthropology. Theology begins with God. And once we understand that, we will have the right hermeneutical grid with which to understand ourselves.
Learning to Think Theologically
Which leads me to the next reason why I think this book is so powerful: flowing beneath Butterfield’s masterful prose are deep rivers of theological imagination. Butterfield knows that the key issue between postmodern hermeneutics and the Christian tradition is nothing less than “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
Butterfield’s theological bonafides shine throughout. “I was not converted out of homosexuality. I was converted out of unbelief. After my life in Jesus unfolded through conversion and the means of grace that God gives to his people. . ., I realized that my sin was not exclusively a desire for women.” (50)
“While I came to believe that by God’s design, sexuality is for the fulfillment of God’s creation ordinance, I did not experience this truth. I only embraced God’s truth because my conscience condemned me. At a certain point, I realized that the Bible was God’s Word, and it had the right to condemn me, and not the other way around.” (101)
Butterfield understands the importance of the Word of God in the life of the Church. She understands that beneath many of our conversations about sexuality and gender identity are ultimate questions about which lords one serves with one’s life.
Or put another way: You cannot serve two masters—you cannot serve both God and grammatology.
Radical Living Through Normal Means
Perhaps the most profound thing about Butterfield’s narrative is the central role that the normal means of grace play in Butterfield’s transformation. The normal means of grace—prayer, Psalm singing, hospitality—is the application, the “stuff” of how to see this type of transformation happen in local churches.
This will rightly scandalize many evangelicals who, more drawn to the next “Big Thing” or “12 Step Plan” toward reaching the gay community, will find instead the power of weak things like potlucks and prayer walks. Butterfield knows that God uses the weak things in this world to shame the strong, the folly of this world to shame the wise. And let’s be honest: what’s more weak and full of folly than believing that God can use his Word in concert with a believing congregation to melt even the most wicked of hearts?
The primary place where we see God’s power in the normal means of grace encountering human sinfulness is in the realm of hospitality. In Butterfield’s own story, what baffled her most was the loving kindness of a local Presbyterian pastor and his wife in the Syracuse community in which she was teaching. In anticipating a combative rendezvous, she instead was greeted in kindness and the love of Christ through the joy of Christian hospitality.
The beautiful thing about this story is that Butterfield now finds herself as the one opening her home. Only the loving-kindness of God could write a story such as this.
Read This Book
It’s hard to write a review of a book that you enjoyed so much. It’s hard to find the line between fawning over and displaying cool-indifference often needed by reviewers. Put simply: I think you should read this book. If you’re a pastor, read this book and then put it in the hands of those under your care who struggle to deal with the shame of their sin. If you’re a mother or father, read this book and then tell your children that you love them and no shame or sin can change that. Read this book and be edified. Read this book and be spurred on to love your neighbor better. Read this book and establish your home as a place where broken sexual sinners can come and find respite. Whatever reason you find, I trust that you’ll walk away afterward changed for the better.
“Dearly beloved, be not casten down, but let us, as our Lord’s doves, take us to our wings (for other armor we have none) and flee into the hole of the rock. . . I am confident in the Lord’s strength, Christ and his side shall overcome; and you shall be assured.” (Samuel Rutherford, Letters of Samuel Rutherford, 23.)