“In this review of Openness Unhindered I attempt to highlight Butterfield’s unique background and training and how they shed light on the nature of her devotion to Christ and the powerful perspective of her present ministry in the evangelical world.”
“Follow me as I follow Christ.”
So Paul unsubtly implores on several occasions (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; Phil. 3:18, 4:9; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9).
So Rosaria Butterfield subtly implores throughout Openness Unhindered.
When reading Butterfield’s book I often compared her in my mind to the great Apostle. There are obvious differences in context and vocation, of course.
But consider the similarities:
Outside of Christ, Paul thought he was serving God by assiduous obedience to the Law and dogged persecution of the Church. Outside of Christ, Butterfield thought she was a good person advocating for peace and social justice while protecting the disempowered from those who would take away their pride.
Both experienced radical conversions that could only be described in traumatic terms, where whole individual worlds were rent asunder in mind, heart, and personal relations.
After conversion, both used (or, in Butterfield’s case, is using) the unique training and gifts obtained when outside of Christ to serve Christ and His kingdom. Paul was trained in the rigorous school of the Pharisees, Rabbi Gamaliel’s star student. He used his theological training in Judaism to elucidate Christ as the fulfillment of the Law, the Gospel as the antidote to our pretensions of righteousness. Butterfield was trained to the highest level in Postmodern critical theory and rose quickly in the professorial ranks at Syracuse University. She is now using her impressive powers to read and interpret texts, as well as analyze identity-shaping practices and movements, in order to clarify the challenges before the Church in a culture where personal experience is king and feelings are “themselves vestiges of truth” (p. 2).
In this review of Openness Unhindered I attempt to highlight Butterfield’s unique background and training and how they shed light on the nature of her devotion to Christ and the powerful perspective of her present ministry in the evangelical world. A sequel to her compelling autobiographical work, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Openness Unhindered expands out of her conversion to give penetrating thoughts on new life in Christ (Chapters 1-3), the roots and manifestations of the idea of ‘sexual orientation’ (chapters 4-5), and dealing with conflict and the opportunities for ministry while living in community (chapters 6-7).
Deep Reading and Inhabiting a New Story
In The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Butterfield emphasized the pivotal role reading big chunks of Scripture had in her conversion. At first, this exercise was literally ‘academic’, as she researched the Religious Right and “their politics of hatred against people like me” (p. 15). But as she read, and took account of the beautiful variety and stunning unity of the whole of Scripture, its authority pressed down upon her.
She read the Bible as she had been trained to read any book, “examining its textual authority, authorship, canonicity, and internal hermeneutics” (p. 16, emphasis hers). It is her recognition of Scripture’s unity that led her to uphold a “hermeneutic of integrity, where the text gets the chance to fulfill its internal mission”, and not a “hermeneutic of convenience” where the text gets tailored to fit one’s experience (p. 18). The latter approach is being increasingly adopted by professing Christians who want to support same-sex marriage and associated positions. However, in Butterfield’s understanding – ironically one she sharpened when leading a graduate seminar in Queer Theory – the internal mission of Scripture rejects canons-within-canons. The Bible clearly intends “to transform the nature of humanity”, which is what makes it such a dangerous text to unbelievers (p. 18).
After faithfully reading big chunks of Scripture, Butterfield more and more saw herself inhabiting the story being told therein. It was a story that preceded her, was not ultimately about her, yet explained her: “God’s story is our ontology: it explains our nature, our essence, our beginnings and our endings, our qualities, and our attributes. When we daily read our Bibles, in large chunks of whole books at a time, we daily learn that our own story began globally and ontologically” (pp. 3-4, emphasis hers). As Butterfield stepped into God’s story revealed in the Bible she was abandoning another one, one weaved on her own terms “based on the preciousness of [her] own feelings” (p. 5).
Fully inhabiting God’s story meant Butterfield needed to repent. She recognized she chiefly needed to repent of her pride–the principal cause of all the sins that took residence in her experience. And once united to Christ by faith, she knew she needed to do this daily, for inhabiting God’s story means life is lived out of Christ who produces in us the fruit of repentance.
Butterfield’s articulation of inhabiting a story that ultimately shapes our identity is perfectly pitched to grab and redirect our current obsessions over self-directed identity. What comes easily to her, however – deep reading of big chunks of text -, may not to someone lacking her inclinations and training. To a literacy-challenged culture and Church, biblical knowledge is imperative, yet the standards her own narrative suggests are prohibitive to some. This is not a critique of Butterfield per se (though I will speak to her style of modeling in conclusion); it is a caution against using a unique conversion narrative such as Butterfield’s as a one-size-fits-all expectation for everyone.