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Rosaria Butterfield was raised Catholic but walked away when her best friend told her she'd had sex with their parish priest. She came out as a lesbian while in grad school, and by age 36 was a tenured professor of English at Syracuse University, specializing in Queer Theory. She and her lesbian partner were active in their Unitarian Universalist Church, and in several gay, lesbian, and philanthropic causes. She was quite content with her life.
As part of her ongoing "War against Stupid," she set out to refute the Religious Right from a lesbian feminist perspective and began reading the Bible and meeting with a local pastor and his wife as part of her research. During this time, she would occasionally park her red truck, complete with GLBT and NARAL stickers, near his church and watch families go in, wondering, "What did they do there?" Then, one morning, "I emerged from the bed of my lesbian lover and an hour later was sitting in a pew. . . . I felt like a freak."
But she kept going back. In the end, the Bible, which "got to be bigger inside me than I," refuted her entire world. Conversion was like "a train wreck," she wrote in her brutally honest book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. "I lost everything but the dog." She left Syracuse in 2000, and later married Kent Butterfield, a Reformed Presbyterian pastor. Today, they are the parents of four adopted children and live in Durham, North Carolina. Here, she shares her thoughts on sexual sin and healing.
You struggled with the concept of sin. It wasn't even a category of thought for you. Yet at some point in reading the Bible, the question emerged in your mind,What if it's true? Where did that come from?
I was a serious student of Freud, so I already had a presupposition that sexuality was a powerful, inherent, diverse human need, and that it was individual and there were really no moral prohibitions against it. "Anything goes" is the Freudian dynamic. And so it was in that context that I started reading the Bible. The first time through, I just thought it was a bunch of hogwash. Because you're confronted with moral prohibitions and totalizing truth: "God declared." None of this made any sense to me.
And so one of the things I needed to start doing was also reading and thinking about how and why Christians thought this was accurate. Even when you're writing from a lesbian feminist perspective, it's important that you capture adequately your adversary's point of view. And so I was also trying to understand some of the arguments that suggested that the Bible wasn't just a mythological tale or a story, but an organic whole whose concept of revelation depended on every jot and tittle somehow fitting together.
There are many questions in the Bible that are very personal, and I think it's important, as an outsider reading it, to take those personal questions to heart. It was in that context that I started to question my own sense that I had it all right. Ultimately, the crux for me was the question of God's authority. I had been wanting to interrogate the Bible. I was a literary critic by training, and literary critics interrogate things. But the whole premise of an inerrant and inspired Bible is that the Bible interrogates you. And the justification for that is that the Bible is written by a holy God. I had to stop and think for a moment. Because if God did create the heavens and the earth and everything, then nothing is higher than God. And therefore, God does have the authority to interrogate me. That made me stop and pause.
Why do you think sexuality is such an explosive subject?
I think because we tend to feel it in a very personal way. It spills over into our life. I think because for some time now the church has failed to teach how and why the Bible is our true guide to who we are, Christians have relied too much on Christian tradition. We live in a feeling-based society, and without the wisdom and the checks and balances and direction and redemption of the blood of Christ, sexuality simply becomes a flourishing, enormous, self-defining, culture-defining paradigm. I also think because we tend to want to see personal authority as the highest of all end goals, autonomy, sexual autonomy, becomes the next obvious step. That I can invent myself in any way I want.
You wrote, "Sexuality is more of a symptom of our life's condition than a cause, more a consequence than an origin."
Freud would say that sexuality is an originary drive—primal, born with you, and won't leave you. Yours for life. And what we as Christians would say is, of course, original sin—you are born with it. You inherit it. It is a deep, and in some ways, abiding enemy. But the redemption of Christ is not some weak, paltry shellac that we just put over the original sin of our lives. The blood of Christ makes us new. The word of God is a sword, and it cuts so deep it can separate the soul and the spirit. It defines us in a new and different way.
You wrote, "Sexual sin is not recreational sin gone overboard. Sexual sin is predatory." What do you mean bypredatory?
A predator can't stop until it kills. A predator is driven to fulfill its lust or its agenda. And I think too often people think that sexual sin is just a matter of getting the genders wrong, or maybe not having a marriage license, or misusing your computer with internet pornography. I think what people need to understand is that whatever is the lust—let's take pornography—whatever is the driving predatory lust that motivates a person to engage in pornography, that will not be sated by sexual conduct within a Christian marriage. It's a totally different thing. And it's predatory. I think we need to be more rigorous in our thinking about what the motivation of sexual sin is and what the solution is.
You said sexual sin "won't be healed by redeeming the context or the genders." Most people understand the concept of beingforgiven from sin. But what is it about sexual sin that makes it requirehealing?
I think sexual sin does have a particular searing effect on a person. It tends to run very deep. One of the holds that it has over a person is the hold over our consciousness, the various ways that images sear themselves into our imagination. Because it can't be undone. God doesn't lobotomize you. He didn't lobotomize me. So what do you do with those feelings? What do you do with those memories?
We 21st-century thinkers are Freudian thinkers. We have been raised in a culture that sees sexuality as a core human drive. Freud's notion of sexuality has erased any need for a soul. But where Freud talks about sexuality, the Bible talks about a soul, something that both precedes you and extends beyond you. And we have some amazing statements in the book of Romans about the power of sin to hold us fast and, at the same time, the competing, superior power of grace to release us from that.
As you got to know "church people" you found out that they struggled with sexual sin, too. That was something of a surprise for you, wasn't it?
Yes, it was very helpful. It was also extremely important to me that I was not farmed out into some 12-step program for sexual sinners. I think it's very important to not create a situation in your church where the personal narrative of struggle overshadows the power of the gospel to banish the old man and flourish the new.
And I would say too, those older pre-Freudian Christian thinkers, such as the Puritans, are very helpful, much more helpful, in dealing with sexual sin than some of the more contemporary thinkers. In a Freudian context we say, and so many people who identify as gay Christians say, "God made me this way; he must want me to be this way." But can you imagine if we said that about our lying or our cheating or our yelling at our kids or any of the other things that might not merit a 12-step title?
You wrote, "My former life still lurks in the edges of my heart, shiny and still like a knife." What did you mean?
That line got slammed. I had so many people say, That is proof that you're not really saved, or, You're not really healed. To me, it's just proof that I wasn't lobotomized.
Conversion is a hurricane. I got to the eye of the hurricane, and what did I meet? I realized that it was Jesus I had been persecuting the whole time. This wasn't about a career, although it was that. It wasn't about a worldview, although it was that. It wasn't about tenure or a book or a girlfriend, although those were all very real things also. It was fundamentally about persecuting the living God. And I have never forgotten and will never forget the price that Jesus paid for my redemption. I don't think it's a small thing. I don't look at my sins and say, Oh, I was mostly cleaned up. Not at all. And so that edge, and that knife, it's right there. Not right there in a way that suggests I'm going to return to it, or not right there in a way that would suggest that it's seductive to me. But that it is a caution to me. It is a real part of the journey that God gave me.
And the fact that you were living in a lesbian relationship is not particularly relevant to that. You're just describing yourself as someone who had rebelled against God.
That's really the big issue. I was not converted "out of homosexuality." There's no such thing! That's not even a category. I went from unbelief to belief. And I do not want to cheapen the blood of Christ to suggest that the biggest testimony of Christ's work in my life is that I'm a delightful, heterosexual wife and mother. That is not the point!
It's sort of a side issue.
It really is. It's God's choice what he will do with us. He is the potter, and we are the clay. And the clay is never to upstage the potter. In fact, that's a sin, right? That's our biggie, as we would say. The point is that God takes you from darkness to light, that you will lose everything, and gain even more. And that God has the power to save and to redeem. •
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