Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Surprised by grace

I just finished reading The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. If I could buy cases of this book to give away I would. As it is I've given away one copy (to my pastor) and I'll be passing it along to others. This book is revelatory and potentially life-changing. It's simply one of the most extraordinary books I've ever read. Not because of how well-written it is -- though it is that. Not even because of the amazing story it tells -- though it is amazing. It's extraordinary as a testament to the grace of God in Christ Jesus that saves sinners, even sinners that haven't the slightest interest in being saved.

This post is titled "Surprised by grace" as a nod to C.S. Lewis' spiritual memoir Surprised by Joy, a book I'd compare this one favorably to on account of both's depth and sophistication. It's probably not an accident that Lewis and Butterfield are English professors -- trained practitioners of the art of digging into texts for all they're worth. It was this process of digging for meaning, applied to the collection of ancient texts that Christians believe to be God's written word, that led the author to what she describes as a conversion that felt like a "train wreck"; in which everything Butterfield had built her life on was swept away in "comprehensive chaos."

She tells her story bluntly, honestly, but without any hint of sensationalism. That would have been too easy. One chapter chronicles Butterfield's months as a professor at a Christian liberal arts college, this after leaving a prestigious tenured position at Syracuse University. The author writes with insight and considerable humor on the difference between the ultra-secular academic world of Syracuse and the evangelical Christian subculture she found herself in. Once Butterfield's past began to be known she was approached by the campus chaplain who asked if she was ready to share her testimony. At first Butterfield said no. Here in her own voice she explains why.

All of the testimonies that I had heard up to this point were egocentric and filled with pride. Aren't I the smarty-pants for choosing Christ! I made a decision for Christ, aren't I great? I committed my life to Christ, aren't I better than those heathens who haven't? This whole line of thinking is both pervasive among evangelical Christians and absurd. My whole body recoiled against this line of thinking. I'm proof of the pudding. 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.
"Pray about it," the chaplain said.
I did pray about it, so that I could with good conscience say no. I was reluctant to make myself a poster child for gay conversion. I felt and feel no solidarity with people who think their salvation makes them more worthy than others. I didn't want to call attention to myself. I didn't want every wacko on campus to confess his or her feelings of same-sex love or homophobia or refer for counseling their gay aunts or neighbors. I thought about the bumper sticker once popular in the gay community as a spoof against evangelical Christians: "I killed a gay whale for Christ!" Or the other bumper sticker, "Lord, please protect me from Your people!" I still felt ambivalence about my disloyalty to my gay friends. And I knew that I could not write a neat, happy, schmaltzy, G-rated, egocentric testimony if my life depended on it.
But, I wondered, could I write an honest testimony? Could I, in the Apostle Paul's words and tradition, write and deliver a testimony that reveals repentance as fruit of the Christian life? In English studies we have a mantra: a culture is comprised of its stories. "We are the stories we tell," I've said to my students year after year. I was critical of the stories I heard from my churchy friends and my evangelical culture. But could I be more than just critical of the stories that encompassed me? Could I start a new conversation? What would happen if I just told the truth? Was anybody else out there ambivalent about conversion? Did anyone else see it as bittersweet? Did anyone else get lost in fear when counting the costs of discipleship? Did anyone else fell like giving up? Did anyone else tire of taking up the Cross daily? Did anyone else grieve for death to one life that anticipates the experience of being "born again"? Did anyone else want to take just one day off from the command that we die to ourselves?
I told the chaplain the next day that I was ready to give my testimony to the campus. . . .

Butterfield relates the painful (and prayerful) month-long process of writing that testimony. This book must be one of the fruits of that labor, and it affirmatively answers the hard questions she posed to herself. The story she tells contains a message of love, truth and grace that the church and our confused late-modern Western culture desperately needs to hear. I hope you'll check it out for yourself.

Quote from pp. 81-2 of Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English Professor's Journey into Christian Faith (Crown & Covenant, 2012)

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