Conversion is Messy: A Review of “Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert” by Rosaria Butterfield

aRosariaThe Evangelical sub-culture has a tendency to reduce conversion to a handful of sappy clichés. But truth be told conversion can be extremely hard and often painful for people. Enter Rosaria Butterfield. The narrative of her conversion is a honest, gripping, and raw. Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert is full of insight, but above all it serves as an important reminder that our clichés aren’t always very realistic. Conversion is messy.

“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.” You won’t find any happy little stories about “making a decision for Christ” or “finding Jesus.” Those may be true stories for others, but Rosaria hated the name of Jesus and was so far from the Christian worldview that she was indeed an “unlikely convert.” Her narrative begins with an important piece of information: When I was 28 years old, I boldly declared myself lesbian. As a tenured professor in English at Syracuse University, on the cutting edge of Women’s Studies and Queer Studies Rosaria was no fan of Christianity. But “Christ claimed” her for Himself just the same.

The story is compelling. It is astounding to read of just how pervasive is God’s sovereignty, and how mysterious are his ways. Throughout Rosaria’s story we see God using the most unlikely of scenarios to draw her to Himself. It was through writing a book against the Religious Right that Rosaria began to read the Bible daily (for five hours a day, to be specific). It was through an opportunity to interview a pastor that Rosaria made unlikely friends with a Reformed Presbyterian minister and his wife. It was through a drag queen, and former Presbyterian minister, that God opened her eyes to understand Scripture. Her conversion story was indeed “messy.”

Because the story is so raw and so real it can serve as a great reminder to the church about just how hard it is to change worldviews. Because Rosaria writes as one who was not raised in the church she has a lot to offer us in respect to how we think and act towards one another. For example:

February 14, 1999 – I emerged from the bed of my lesbian lover and an hour later was sitting in a pew at the Syracuse RP church. I share this detail with you not to be lurid but merely to make the point that you never know the terrain someone else has walked to come worship the Lord.

We often assume that everyone at corporate worship is just like us, or that we are not like anyone else there (our sin often looks more real to us than others). We can feel like part of the crowd or all alone depending on who we are. But, as Rosaria says, you never know what is going on in someone else’s life when they sit down next to you. That’s important to remember.

The Christian subculture is often very isolated and insular. Rosaria has written her narrative to help us pop that bubble and direct us outward. In many regards her book is a call to be missional. As we read of her story it reminds us of wha the church has often become like and what the church should be like. Her story reminds us that our clichés are not Biblical and are often not realistic. It reminds us that conversion is a messy process. Repeatedly she speaks about her conversion as “comprehensive chaos,” a “train wreck,” as “arduous and intense.” It’s important to remember this.

The easy belevism of much of the church is extremely dangerous. Rosaria’s story is a great reminder that God’s work in saving us is not simple, and the cost in following him is often greater than we imagine. Yes, of course the reward is greater too, much greater, but there is a cost to discipleship. Rosaria lost everything she loved in becoming a Christian. “When you die to yourself,” she writes,” you have nothing from your ast to use as clay out of which to shape your future.” The process of conversion can be extremely painful. She writes that she felt as though she had betrayed her LGBT community in becoming a follower of Christ. She saw many people hurt by that decision. “Conversion didn’t ‘fit’ my life,” she adds.

I really loved this book. I don’t agree with all that she says. Her chapter on the Regulative Principle seemed odd and reductionist as a response to those of us who don’t believe the church necessarily has to sing only Psalms. But the story of her conversion out of lesbianism into Christianity, and then even into the role of pastor’s wife and home-school mom is riveting and refreshing. It is a great reminder that there is a cost to discipleship. The Evangelical world would do well to remember that following Jesus is often messy.


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