Reviewed by Mark Farnham
The number of well-written Christian books on the subject of homosexuality, sexual identity, sexual orientation, gender confusion, and related topics is thankfully keeping up with the sudden and radical changes taking place in American society. Pastors and church members have dozens of well-articulated explanations of biblical teaching on sexuality and recommended responses to this cultural transformation. What is rare, however, are theologically rich treatises by former homosexuals who can expertly analyze the intricacies of sexual sin from a standpoint of genuine love for the sexually broken and strong conviction of the biblical call to purity.
Rosaria Butterfield’s two books, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered are important contributions to the literature. While Butterfield never presents an extended biblical theology of sexuality or survey of Scriptural condemnations of homosexuality, her theological insights into the idolatry involved in sexual sin may be the most important Christian writing on this topic in the last decade.
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert
In The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith, Expanded Edition (Crown and Covenant, 2015), Butterfield gives an extended testimony of her spiritual journey from lesbian feminist, tenured English professor at Syracuse University to regenerated Presbyterian pastor’s wife. The testimony itself is quite amazing. A local pastor’s letter inviting her to dinner with his wife to discuss her research into conservative Christianity led to many meals and meetings that resulted in her conversion. The value of this volume is the insight Butterfield gives into her thought processes and heart transformation during this time. For anyone who loves the sexually broken and desires them to be saved, this is a must read. Repentance and faith did not come suddenly upon hearing the gospel, but rather through a two-year process of the Holy Spirit bringing her to awareness of her sin, and the pastor and his wife gently pursuing a relationship with her.
What makes this extended testimony so powerful is Butterfield’s theological knowledge applied to what was going on in her heart. She understands from a biblical perspective that her heart was so entwined in besetting and life-dominating sin. She interprets her experiences through a biblical lens in a way that is compromised or confused in other Christian treatments of homosexuality. She stands without apology for biblical standards of sexual purity at the same time she shows examples of Christian failure to address this topic correctly.
The book is not without its oddities, but they are minor. Later in the book, after she recounts her conversion and marriage, Butterfield devotes a number of pages to her preference for exclusive psalmody (the rejection of any songs in corporate worship except the Psalms set to music). This is a puzzling inclusion, considering the focus of the rest of the book. Some could be put off by this theme woven into the story, but the reader should not be distracted by this peculiarity.
One example of Butterfield’s insight is her comments on sexual sin. She writes,
“What good Christians don’t realize is that sexual sin is not recreational sin 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” (p. 83).
This level of theological analysis is found throughout the book and constitutes the real value of the work.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who seriously desires to love and reach homosexuals. Too many Christians that speak of love for homosexuals have no understanding of what is at the heart of homosexuality and what it takes for homosexuals to turn from their sin to Christ. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert is a great blessing to the church in this time of confusion and capitulation.
Butterfield’s second book, Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ (Crown and Covenant, 2015), is a tour de force of Christian writing on the hottest topics of our day—sexual identity and sexual orientation. It builds on her first book and expands the discussion of the most difficult aspects of this discussion. Here Butterfield’s considerable intellect shines through as she tackles the psychological, sociological, philosophical, and theological assumptions of the popular constructs of “sexual orientation” and “sexual identity.” She demonstrates quite conclusively that when Christians adopt the categories of the unbelieving world, they hamstring their ability to address sexuality from a thoroughly biblical standpoint.
While she never cites Cornelius Van Til in the body of the book, his transcendental apologetic approach is clear throughout when she repeatedly challenges the assumptions of the secular narrative, instead of accepting it, as many professing Christians do with this issue. This is exactly what is missing in many Christian books on this topic. Authors try to work within the unbelieving categories instead of challenging them. Butterfield deconstructs these categories, and then demonstrates that the biblical concepts of the image of God and union with Christ provide much more powerful and true explanations of our situation.
Butterfield’s command of Reformed and secular literature adds to the weightiness of her writing. She understands and interacts with Freud, countering with the Puritans, whose insights into the soul are much more faithful to Scripture and much more helpful. Union with Christ is key to her project, especially when it comes to the question of whether Christians who experience same-sex attraction should call themselves “gay” Christians. She writes,
“If you are in Christ, temptation is not about some essential truth or inherent wisdom about us—and therefore should not become a term of selfhood, self-representation, or identity. It is about warfare” (p. 82).
She rather decisively shows that no adjective should be attached to the label “Christian” if it is rooted in rebellion to God’s law.
Along the way Butterfield pillories both evangelicals and liberals alike who fail to hold a distinctly biblical view of sexual sin. She reproaches one evangelical for commending a “gag reflex” toward homosexual acts, and corrects a liberal feminist blogger for blurring the boundaries between being in Adam and in Christ. She helpfully distinguishes between homosexuality and homosociality—the preference for spending time with others of the same gender. The former is a sin; the latter a perfectly acceptable choice.
Butterfield writes with great wisdom on sanctification in relation to sexuality.
“We do harm to the call of Christ when we presume that opposite-sex desires should replace same-sex desires as the exclusive proof of real sanctification. ‘New creature in Christ’ means that we have a new mind that governs the old feelings and a new hope that we are part of Christ’s body” (p. 117).
Anyone seeking to win homosexuals to Christ needs to read this book to avoid some of the common misunderstandings about what life in Christ will look life for the new convert.
Butterfield needs to be heard. What she brings to the conversation is unique in several ways. First, she sheds light on lesbianism, which can be different in cause and nature than male homosexuality. Second, she writes as a former insider, providing insights not attainable otherwise. Third, her intellectual ability is broad and deep, and she is able to contend with critics and capitulators across a number of disciplines. Finally, her Reformed theology brings a theological profundity that is frankly missing in other Christian works. I would count Openness Unhindered as one of the most important books on this issue available today.
Mark Farnham (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-seminary Majors at Lancaster Bible College and founder of Apologetics for the Church.
Buy the books
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert
Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts Of An Unlikely Convert On Sexual Identity And Union With Christ