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Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis

Journey of grace

Q&A | From lesbianism to the parking lot to church: An interview with author Rosaria Butterfield

Issue: "Moneymaker," March 23, 2013

Rosaria Butterfield was a tenured professor at Syracuse University, until God used her desire to write a book on the religious right, and the friendship of a biblically orthodox pastor, to draw her to Christ. She became a voracious Bible reader, gradually saw that her new beliefs required her to upend her former life, and has now described what happened in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. I interviewed her on Jan. 11 in front of students at Patrick Henry College. By Feb. 20 about 30,000 people had viewed the interview on YouTube. Here are edited excerpts. 

Let’s start with the very first sentence in this terrific book: “When I was 28 years old, I boldly declared myself lesbian.” Did you feel heroic in doing so? I felt I was simply telling the truth. 

How did you get to that point? I was in graduate school and cared deeply about relationships. I even authored at least one article on the subject of morality and moral living. I was steeped in worldviews that buttressed a sense of equality and the high value of personal experience. I had wonderful relationships with many of my female colleagues—deeper, resonating relationships. For me, coming out as a lesbian, was the same way I might come out as someone who loves her dog or feeds her cat in the morning. It was bold in that it provided an edge for me in the world, but I like edges. It didn’t seem spectacular. It didn’t seem very extraordinary. It just was.

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At age 36 and well-established at Syracuse, you wrote a critique of the Promise Keepers movement in the local newspaper and received lots of letters. You had a tray for fan mail and a tray for hate mail, but you didn’t know where to put a letter from a pastor, Ken Smith, because it wasn’t nasty, just questioning. I couldn’t dispose of this letter. I tried to, but at the end of the day I would fish it out of the recycling bin and put it back on my desk. It had some questions that no one had ever asked me in my life. At the end of the letter the pastor asked me, please, to give him a call. The title of the church was Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church, and I assumed reformed meant enlightened. An anthropologist colleague of mine said a meeting would be “GOOD FOR YOUR RESEARCH! Call him back!” So I did. 

What were some of the questions no one had asked you? One had to do with the nature of the Bible as a library, not just a book, that it contained every genre I used to teach from. He asked questions about my well-being. He asked, do I believe in God, and if so, what do I think He thinks of all this? He wrote in such a gracious way, and I was intrigued by it. 

You write that he invited you to dinner, and there was no air conditioning. Why was that a plus in your mind? I had presumed that evangelical Christians were people who felt entitled to a dominion over the earth that is hateful, violent, unhelpful, unkind. Air conditioning: not necessarily good for the ozone layer, and expensive. They had fans and served a vegetarian meal, which I appreciated because I felt at this point that the eating of meat was a violent activity and I didn’t want to be a part of it. Their home and their culture didn’t seem so different from mine. That put me at ease. 

Was there prayer before the meal? Amazing prayer. I had heard lots of prayer before. I was the heathen who got to overhear the prayers of many people at gay pride marches and in front of Planned Parenthood. I was going to hold my breath and get through the prayer, and then I could have a chance to get to some of my research by talking with this family. But it wasn’t like that at all: It was a very conversational prayer, a prayer that included asking God for forgiveness of sins, and in a very specific way. It wasn’t a terribly lengthy prayer but it had some details in it that made me think about myself, like forgetting to bring a meal to someone. Basic everyday things, but he was noticing them, and they were big enough to ask a holy God to forgive him for. 

You write that they didn’t “share the gospel” and invite you to church—and it was important that they did not do those things. Absolutely: I trusted them because they did not do those things. I knew the script. But Ken and his wife Floy were not talking to me as if I simply were a blank slate: “OK, here is someone who clearly needs the gospel, let’s make sure we get to these points before we let her leave our house.” They seemed more interested in having a long relationship with me. 

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