The Reluctant Convert

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

I saw a recent biographical article in Christianity Today regarding the conversion of a former left-wing lesbian professor to Christianity. Such a story is rife with implications about many of the issues concerning the gay rights debate today – whether sexuality can change, whether it is hateful or hurtful to question sexual identities, how Christians should view homosexuality and vice versa. But that is not what interested me as much as the fact that the author was a reluctant convert. Such people fascinate me in part because I was such a convert – I was a happy person, intellectually settled and spiritually uninterested – not at all what is now defined as a ‘seeker’. Though I had a passing familiarity with what church entailed I was not at all raised in a Christian home. Yet God gripped my life and I could not shake Him. I never felt like I pursued God so much as I was doggedly pursued. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield explains in a similar fashion how she fought against the power that compelled her:

I started reading the Bible. I read the way a glutton devours. I read it many times that first year in multiple translations. At a dinner gathering my partner and I were hosting, my transgendered friend J cornered me in the kitchen. She put her large hand over mine. “This Bible reading is changing you, Rosaria,” she warned.

With tremors, I whispered, “J, what if it is true? What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord? What if we are all in trouble?”

J exhaled deeply. “Rosaria,” she said, “I was a Presbyterian minister for 15 years. I prayed that God would heal me, but he didn’t. If you want, I will pray for you.”

I continued reading the Bible, all the while fighting the idea that it was inspired. But the Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might. Then, one Sunday morning, I rose from the bed of my lesbian lover, and an hour later sat in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. Conspicuous with my butch haircut, I reminded myself that I came to meet God, not fit in. The image that came in like waves, of me and everyone I loved suffering in hell, vomited into my consciousness and gripped me in its teeth.

I fought with everything I had.

I did not want this.

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.

Of course such an incident is not uncommon in Christianity; one of the earliest and most notable converts was the apostle Paul, who as Saul was literally knocked down blind and upbraided by the person of Christ whom he despised up until that point. C.S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton had similar experiences. It seems such folks are amongst the most insistent Christians with regard to the verifiable truth of their faiths – perhaps because they must wrestle with the inevitability of their own experiences.

Either way I think the very fact that such folks exist is contrary to the way believers are often portrayed by skeptics. Rather than hopeless and desperate people clinging to religion as the last chance for happiness, many believers were in fact convinced and content skeptics who were run to ground by a living and insistent God who would not give up on them.

6 Responses to The Reluctant Convert

  1. “The image that came in like waves, of me and everyone I loved suffering in hell ..”

    It seems pretty clear to me that her “conversion” was fear-based. Someone put a bug in her ear that loving another woman angered God enough for Him to burn her in a fiery pit for all eternity.

    She fell for the sales pitch without reading the fine print, though.

    Becoming a heterosexual (or at least living a heterosexual life) offers no security, really. What if she became a Catholic or a Mormon heterosexual? There are plenty of folks who will insist that these are idolatrous perversions of faith, not the real thing. Maybe she decided to become an Orthodox Jew, a Seventh-Day Adventist or a Christian Scientist. Same problem. Five point Calvinist? Maybe … but if she’s not one of the “Elect” (which no one has no way of knowing), she’s also not guaranteed anything (ignore the fact that most Calvinists will insist they *know* they’re among the lucky chosen). Go read Triablogue.blogspot.com. Those blowhards have an exhaustive list for what constitutes “saving faith” and what doesn’t. It’s longer than the white pages.

  2. jackhudson says:

    “The image that came in like waves, of me and everyone I loved suffering in hell ..”
    It seems pretty clear to me that her “conversion” was fear-based. Someone put a bug in her ear that loving another woman angered God enough for Him to burn her in a fiery pit for all eternity.
    She fell for the sales pitch without reading the fine print, though.

    Actually I think you read this totally wrong – she wasn’t motivated to believe by a fear of hell, she didn’t want to believe because it would require accepting the reality of hell, thus:

    “I fought with everything I had.
    I did not want this.
    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.”

    Becoming a heterosexual (or at least living a heterosexual life) offers no security, really. What if she became a Catholic or a Mormon heterosexual? There are plenty of folks who will insist that these are idolatrous perversions of faith, not the real thing. Maybe she decided to become an Orthodox Jew, a Seventh-Day Adventist or a Christian Scientist. Same problem. Five point Calvinist? Maybe … but if she’s not one of the “Elect” (which no one has no way of knowing), she’s also not guaranteed anything (ignore the fact that most Calvinists will insist they *know* they’re among the lucky chosen). Go read Triablogue.blogspot.com. Those blowhards have an exhaustive list for what constitutes “saving faith” and what doesn’t. It’s longer than the white pages.

    The idea that because multiple religions exist we can’t be certain what is true about God simply doesn’t have any logical validity. And the notion that because different denominations exist within the church Christians can’t be certain of their beliefs is a myth unbelievers tell themselves so as not to deal with the essential truths of Christianity. The fact is the Apostle Paul, Aquinas, Pascal, Lewis, Chesterton, this woman and I all encountered the person of Christ and that experience shares a unique commonality not shared by other belief systems, regardless of our particular denomination.

    Thanks for your thoughts James.

  3. “The idea that because multiple religions exist we can’t be certain what is true about God simply doesn’t have any logical validity. ”

    That would be correct … if religion provided a mechanism for resolving these differences. Does it? If so, what is it?

    One’s experience of a “revelation” (think Joseph Smith or John Chrysostom, Aquinas or Catherine of Siena) is another’s “damnable heresy” when it comes to theological issues.

    Now, even if most Christians agreed that theological issues alone may not keep one out of Heaven, most *do* seem to agree that one’s unrepented sins very well can.

    So what constitutes sin? You’d think we have even sexual matters settled, but we don’t. I’ve heard some rigid fundamentalists reluctant to condemn masturbation or contraception or heterosexual re-marriage.

    Of course, I have my own values and things I consider “good” and “evil”. I think — I believe — that buying and selling human beings as property is an intrinsic moral evil and a fundamental denial of their dignity. Scripture rejects this premise (as do many Christians even today, such as John MacArthur). So how do we resolve this (because I know many Christians feel as I do)? Trust our intuitions or trust men supposedly more learned than we are about these matters?

    You seem to be saying that what is moral can also be known with certainty. So … what do we do?

  4. jackhudson says:

    That would be correct … if religion provided a mechanism for resolving these differences. Does it? If so, what is it?

    The means to determine the truth of a religious claim are much the same as determining anything one might consider to be true – in the case of Christianity it is historical evidences, logical arguments, personal experiences both of the immediate sort and the sort that the church shares in common, and the efficacy and utility of Christ’s teachings throughout history.

    One’s experience of a “revelation” (think Joseph Smith or John Chrysostom, Aquinas or Catherine of Siena) is another’s “damnable heresy” when it comes to theological issues.

    The truth of Christianity is not solely established by claims of personal revelation alone – but the fact that folks who were either indifferent to or hostile toward Christianity had experiences that caused them to accept the reality of Christ is significant. Particularly if it meant they had to reject a way of life that they formerly enjoyed.

    Now, even if most Christians agreed that theological issues alone may not keep one out of Heaven, most *do* seem to agree that one’s unrepented sins very well can.
    So what constitutes sin? You’d think we have even sexual matters settled, but we don’t. I’ve heard some rigid fundamentalists reluctant to condemn masturbation or contraception or heterosexual re-marriage.

    Christ made it fairly clear that lusting in our hearts for someone is sufficiently adulterous to be condemned as sin; I do not know any Christians that doubt that teaching. While folks might quibble over the lines (and incidentally, no Christian has a problem with ‘re-marriage’, all have a problem with divorce) Jesus set the bar sufficiently high that no man could claim to be without sin. Repentance comes when we acknowledge we are unable to maintain God’s moral standard, not when successfully identify just where we crossed the line. The goal of Christianity is transformation and progressive Christ-likeness, not identifying boundaries and avoiding them.

    Of course, I have my own values and things I consider “good” and “evil”. I think — I believe — that buying and selling human beings as property is an intrinsic moral evil and a fundamental denial of their dignity. Scripture rejects this premise (as do many Christians even today, such as John MacArthur). So how do we resolve this (because I know many Christians feel as I do)? Trust our intuitions or trust men supposedly more learned than we are about these matters?

    You seem to be saying that what is moral can also be known with certainty. So … what do we do?

    First off, on what intrinsic aspect of human do you base your belief? As a Christian I can draw a direct line between humans being created in the image of God, Christ’s explicit teaching on sacrificial love for others, and the later work of the abolitionists and civil rights leader. It is plainly there – one cannot treat one’s neighbor as oneself and enslave him or her. One cannot believe a human is made in the image of God and treat him as an object.

    So I have ample consistent justification for my opposition to buying and selling humans. And it is consistent with my treatment of humans generally. For example, many modern folks would readily oppose slavery as they picture it in the South and yet have no qualms with consuming pornography or adult entertainment where bodies are literally bought and sold – and not even to do useful labor, but merely to satisfy the individual desires. Yet the Christian concern for human dignity covers that as well. So we don’t need to trust our intuitions or other men for this purpose – Christ’s teachings are clear, consistent and applicable. That is not to say they are always easy, but easy and clear are not synonymous.

    I think it would be much harder to construct a internally consistent argument for human dignity that does not see humans as distinguishable from other organisms in terms of their origin or make-up.

  5. danwilvers says:

    Jackhudson you’re a gifted thinker and writer. Thank you.
    James I appreciate your thoughts and willingness to share them. Thank you as well.

  6. I was a reluctant convert myself, in my 30’s, and it cracks me up when people suggest that my faith and my more and more conservative worldview reflect some “need for easy answers” or for “security and comfort.” Easy? The easy answers were the ones I grew up surrounded by, at home, in school and in the media: relativism, atheism and the New Age; I’ve found the hard, solid answers now. Security? In a way, but socially, security and comfort are what I gave up, along with some of the parties and similar fun things. It’s sure been worth it. Good post.

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