Saturday, March 23, 2013

Book Review: Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor's Journey Into Christian Faith. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. 2012. (September 2012). Crown and Covenant. 150 pages.

First sentence: How do I tell you about my conversion to Christianity without making it sound like an alien abduction or a train wreck? Truth be told, it felt like a little of both. 

I'd heard wonderful things about the memoir The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, and I was not disappointed. In many ways, it is just a gush-worthy read. Honest, emotional, intense, thought-provoking, and challenging. I appreciated the author's narrative voice: always honest, always bold.

How many non-believers read the Bible? How many non-believers read the Bible obsessively, for five or so hours a day? How many non-believers read the Bible in different translations and try to teach themselves Greek? How many non-believers become friends with pastors and seek to understand what the Bible says. One could even ask HOW MANY BELIEVERS read the Bible? How many believers have read the Bible that voraciously, cover to cover, again and again? Rosaria Champagne Butterfield came to the Bible with a need, a mission. She was out to "understand" her enemy, the Christian Right. She sought an intellectual understanding of her greatest opponents so she could do battle with them--in print at least. To understand the opposing position, to make sense of their arguments and worldview, she needed to know what the Bible said, she needed to know who the Bible said God was, who this Jesus Christ was.

At the time, she was hostile to the Christian faith. She was a liberal, lesbian, post-modern, feminist professor specializing in women's studies and queer theory. She knew or thought she knew plenty about Christians--all the stereotypical things about Christianity: the hateful signs and slogans, the protests, the rhetoric of hate and prejudice. But she didn't exactly know any Christians personally. But. All that changed with a letter, a phone call, and a dinner conversation. To her own surprise, she found herself on friendly terms with a Christian pastor! She found herself in a trusting, thoughtful relationship with a Christian built over several years.
Before I ever stepped foot in a church, I spent two years meeting with Ken and Floy and on and off "studying" scripture and my heart. If Ken and Floy had invited me to church at that first meal I would have careened like a skateboard on a cliff, and would have never come back. Ken, of course, knows the power of the word preached but it seemed to me he also knew at that time that I couldn't come to church--it would have been too threatening, too weird, too much. So, Ken was willing to bring the church to me. This gave me the room and the safety that I needed to match Ken and Floy's vulnerability and transparency. And so I opened up to them. I let them know who I was and what I valued. I invited them into my home and into my world. They met my friends, came to my dinner parties, saw me function in my real life. They made themselves safe enough for me to do this. At the beginning of any project, I read and re-read the book that I am trying to understand. At this point, I read and re-read the Bible. I read it voraciously and compulsively--as I do all books. I spent about five hours each day reading the Bible. I read every translation I could acquire...I still thought I was doing research for a book on the religious Right. Ken and Floy, during those two years asked me questions about my reading and my observations, but didn't pressure me or push me or interfere in my life. They were just there. 
Though she didn't accept his invitation to talk to her students (undergraduate students, I believe) about The Bible as literature, she told him she'd love to hear his prepared lecture.
I was both intrigued and infuriated. The more he talked, the more infuriated I became. If what this guy said was true, then everything that I believed--every jot and tittle--was false!
Though she wasn't ready--overnight--to accept the authority of the Bible as being THE WORD OF GOD. She began spending more of her time contemplating big questions, hard questions--questions that demanded answers.
Walking in the cold dark I thought about how peaceful life would be if I really believed that there was a knowable, dependable, sturdy and comprehensive idea of truth and a man-God who so loved his people that he endured the wrath of God the Father for the sins that I had committed and those I would go on to commit. But even this train of thought was not comforting to me. After all, what would I do with my past?...
I wondered about these Christians. Surely some of them had pasts. What did they do? How did they let go of their past without losing their identity?...
Still, I wondered about this God who died for the sins of his people. It sounded too good to be true. I allowed myself to wonder if it could possibly be true. This self-question gave me a frightening pause. Was I losing myself? Was I losing my mind?
This ongoing struggle or journey wasn't quick and simple. Here is her powerful testimony:
That night, I prayed, and asked God if the gospel message was for someone like me, too. I viscerally felt the living presence of God as I prayed. Jesus seemed present and alive. I knew that I was not alone in my room. I prayed that if Jesus was truly a real and risen God, that he would change my heart. And if he was real and if I was his, I prayed that he would give me the strength of mind to follow him and the character to become a godly woman. I prayed for the strength of character to repent for a sin that at that time didn't feel like sin at all--it felt like life, plain and simple. I prayed that if my life was actually his life, that he would take it back and make it what he wanted it to be. I asked him to take it all...
Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert is a powerful, compelling memoir of a woman's journey to faith, to the Reformed faith. The book goes beyond her initial conversion. Readers learn how her life was transformed by God, how her life was turned upside down by her new faith, how she came to be a pastor's wife, lead her own Bible studies, came to adopt four biracial children in addition to taking in foster children, how she came to homeschool her children. In addition to her deep thoughts on conversion (also philosophy and/or worldview), readers learn the author's thoughts on worship and worship style, and marriage. She spends most of a chapter discussing what marriage is and what it means--and how hard this was to figure out coming from her feminist background. Adoption is a subject that means a great deal to her as well, and her thoughts on her experiences were fascinating!

Favorite quotes:
Answers come after questions, not before. Answers answer questions in specific and pointed ways, not in sweeping generalizations. 
A life outside of Christ is both hard and frightening; a life in Christ has hard edges and dark valleys, but it is purposeful even when painful.
There is a core difference between sharing the gospel with the lost and imposing a specific moral standard on the unconverted. 
Good teachers make it possible for people to change their positions without shame.
I learned the first rule of repentance: that repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin. How much greater? About the size of a mustard seed. Repentance requires that we draw near to Jesus, no matter what. And sometimes we all have to crawl there on our hands and knees. Repentance is an intimate affair. And for many of us, intimacy with anything is a terrifying prospect.
Wanting to understand is a theoretical statement; willing to do his will takes action.
I learned that we must obey in faith before we feel better or different. At this time, though, obeying in faith, to me, felt like throwing myself off a cliff. Faith that endures is heroic, not sentimental.
If the Lord calls us to be a bridge, we have to learn to bear in his strength the weight. And it hurts. And it's good. And the Lord equips.
Biblical orthodoxy can offer real compassion, because in our struggle against sin, we cannot undermine God's power to change lives. 
I think that churches would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin.
The world's eyes register what a life in Christ takes away, but how do I communicate all that it gives?
I wondered: If my life was the only evidence that Christ was alive, would anyone be convinced?
Living according to God's standards is an acquired taste.
God calls for us to be merciful to others for our own good as well as for the good of our community. 
There is a pit of false hope in placing our faith in our words rather than in God's compassion to receive sinners to himself. 
The saving grace of salvation is located in a holy and electing God, and a sacrificing, suffering, and obedient Savior. Stakes this high can never rest on my sincerity. 
The integrity of our relationships matters more than the boldness of our words.
The more God-centered our worship practice, the more mercy-centered our life. Worship is our rehearsal for how to live today and how to glorify God in heaven.
Jesus is an equal opportunity Prophet, Priest and King: He equips, strengthens, forgives, comforts, and brings into fruition the reality of sanctification. Jesus can equip anyone--no matter how lost or broken--for godly living.
Mercy ministry always comes down to this: you can help, but only Jesus can heal. 
© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

1 comment:

Ruth said...

This sounds so interesting. Thanks for the review.