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.
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.
You and they became friends? Genuine friends. When I wouldn’t answer an email or didn’t show up, or they hadn’t heard from me in a month, Ken would come over, or Floy would drop off a loaf of bread. We had many things in common—Floy and I both love to bake bread, and we like the same literature, which was astounding. And because I was a researcher, I started to read the Bible.
What were you researching? I was working on a book on the religious right. I needed to read the book that had gotten all these well-meaning, good intentioned, but naïve and foolish, people off-track. And so I was doing that, was reading the Bible the way a glutton approaches a bag of Oreo cookies, and I needed some scholarly help.
You read big chunks? That is part of my training, but some powerful things happen when you read the Bible many, many times in a year, from Genesis to Revelation, and in multiple translations. I really encourage Christians to do that, and not to read the Bible as though you’re reading your horoscope. I don’t think it’s really meant to be read like that.
You read serious passages such as Romans 1:24-28, which may be the scariest part of Scripture to anyone suffering from sexual sin. How did that hit you? My friend Jay at that point was a transgendered woman—biologically male, but had taken enough female hormones to be what’s called chemically castrated. Jay followed me to the kitchen, put her large hand on my hand, and said, “Rosaria, something is changing you. This Bible reading is changing you, and you need to tell me what is going on with you, because I am worried, I am losing you.” I sat down and had that panic feeling you have when you’re not really sure if you’re going to throw up. I said, “I’m reading the Bible, reading it a lot, and what if it’s true? We are in big trouble if it’s true.” Jay sat down and said, “I know it’s true. I was a Presbyterian minister for 15 years. I prayed and God did not heal me, but if you want I will pray for you, and I have some books for you to read.”
Which books? The next day I had two boxes of books overflowing. One book was a copy of Calvin’s Institutes. In the margins in Jay’s handwriting, right by the exegesis of Romans 1, is a note. I still have it today: It says, “Be careful, this is where you will fall.” Romans 1 of course, tells us that God will give some over to their lusts.
It made you start thinking about ... I was thinking, do I want to be changed? No. I like my life, I like my girlfriend, I like my house thank you very much, I even like my wonderful career. I am standing in the rushing water of the world. I have my toe in another world because of all that Bible reading. What will happen if I put my foot in, if I put my whole body in? I started reading commentaries, and those from my friend Jay, whose handwriting was in the margins, were like a flag on those icy ponds that you see in Syracuse: It looks like ice, but if you walk on it, you’ll fall through, now or later.
You started not going to church but parking across from it? Isn’t that terrible? I had my Starbucks coffee and my New York Times and maybe an article I was working on in my truck with the gay and lesbian bumper stickers on the back. I would park and watch these enormous families pour out of 15-person passenger vans. The kids just kept coming and coming and it was astounding.
When did you move from the parking lot into the church? I woke up one morning, emerged from a bed that I shared with a woman, got in my truck with my bumper stickers and my butch haircut, and showed up at the Reformed Presbyterian Church. What strikes me, looking back, is what this church had been doing: praying for me faithfully, faithfully. Ken was sharing with this church our friendship and our relationship, and the members were genuinely on their knees praying for me. It’s easier to simply be disgusted by a person like me, than pray for me. I also brought friends like Jay to church, and Jay had probably the best bass voice there—so, that’s an issue, right? The church went from being a cleaned-up homeschooling church to suddenly a church with ministry to a lot of broken people.
Uncomfortable? Really uncomfortable. A friend of mine from the church said, “You are a bridge, and bridges get walked on.” But I had a suicidal student and was unable to deal with this by myself, so my gay community and my church community would meet in the ICU. We would meet! There’d be prayer, there’d be anti-prayer, and there’d be, “Do you need a cup of coffee?”
You write, “Conversion put me in a complicated and comprehensive chaos.” What did the church at that point do to be hospitable to a person immersed in chaos? I had some really burning questions for people. I would go up to my homeschool mom friends, and say “Look, I have to give up the girlfriend: What did you have to give up to be here?” I heard amazing things that made me realize I did not have any more to give up than anyone else. I learned there were other people in my church who struggled with sexual sin, with lust, with faithlessness … and they told me that! They took the risk of no longer looking all cleaned up to me.
A good question to ask: “Christian, what did you have to give up to be here?” You never know the journey people take to get to church, even the people who are very cleaned up. Even the people without the butch haircuts and without a T-shirt announcing, “Hi, I’m Rahab the harlot, how can you minister to me?”
What finally helped you make a public decision both in terms of church, and then in terms of your 1999 lecture opening up the fall semester at Syracuse? When the Lord calls someone to obedience out of a life of sin, that’s going to hurt a lot of people. It just is. A lot of people were hurt by my obedience. I’m grateful that when I had this stirring I was not in a church that minimized it. I never heard anybody say, “God has a perfect plan for your life.” No, they said, “Rosaria, count the costs, this is going to be brutal, this is going to be bloody.” When I said “Look at all these hurting people,” nobody said, “Serves them right, boy, are they a bunch of sinners.” Instead, people in church rolled up their sleeves and said, “OK, how can we help? How can we get to know your friends?”
In The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown & Covenant, 2012), Rosaria Butterfield writes that conversion “is simply too tame and too refined to capture the train wreck that I experienced in coming face to face with the Living God. … Conversion put me in a complicated and comprehensive chaos. I sometimes wonder, when I hear other Christians pray for the salvation of the ‘lost,’ if they realize that this comprehensive chaos is the desired end of such prayers.”
Butterfield writes about a key question she faced: “Was I willing to be considered stupid by those who didn’t know Jesus?” She adds, “I didn’t choose Christ. Nobody chooses Christ. Christ chooses you or you’re dead. After Christ chooses you, you respond because you must. Period. It’s not a pretty story.”
Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Rosaria Butterfield: