Openness, Unhindered by Rosaria Butterfield (A Book Response)

Dear Reader,
I usually do book reviews but I am going to call this one a “book response.” I recently finsihed reading Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered. I don’t really feel qualified to review this book but I do have a lot of (mixed) reactions to it.
Openness Unhindered is Mrs. Butterfield’s second book (at least on this topic; I imagine as a former professor she has published quite a bit). Her first, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, told the story of her conversion from openly lesbian professor of Queer Theory to reformed Christian wife and homeschooling mother (you can see why she called it “unlikely”). That earlier volume was focused mainly on the story of her conversion. It is a very personal account.
In her new book, Mrs. Butterfield again tells her story (in a more abbreviated form this time) and is quite personal but also tries to tackle wider theoretical issues concerning homosexuality and the church. Its subtitle — “Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Sexual Identity – Union with Christ” — is an apt one; these are the two big issues she attempts to address.
I found that this book roamed a bit and my reactions to it were varied, so, as I said, I am going to give you my responses, or reactions if you prefer, in no particular order:
This book made me feel humble
 I will start at the end of the book. The feeling this book left me with more than any other was humility and perhaps a bit of shame. The last chapter, entitled “Community,” is a wonderfully written and quite convicting view of what the church community should be and in particular a call for hospitality, I would even say radical hospitality (at least to someone living in cold New England — and I’m not talking about temperatures here). The Butterfields have opened their home and lives to many — church family, neighbors and even foster children. This is a chapter any Christian should read. It will challenge you.
I was encouraged
Specifically, I was encouraged to read more of my Bible more often. Rosaria talks of reading the Bible through again and again in big chunks — quantity time if you will. I think I have thought of Bible reading as something where I should focus on one chapter (or thereabouts) and meditate on it. But then my mind drifts. I hope by taking her approach and reading big chunks but getting through it more often to be able to actually focus better.
I was enlightened
It was interesting to me to read Rosaria’s take on her own homosexuality as well as the contrast with that of her friend Rebecca. I think being removed from those feelings and that world, we don’t have a sense of how things are from the inside. I guess the big take away idea for me was that not all people who do or have identified as homosexual are going to experience that in the same way. Rosaria’s feelings and motivations differ from those of Rebecca. Not surprisingly, this also means that her take on it all now as a Christian also differs (more on that below).
I was a little put out
Before getting to the specifics of the two women’s views, I have to say that there were some aspects of the book that bothered me. One of these was Mrs. Butterfield’s depiction of what she labels “churchy” women (see, for instance, p. 35). I have no doubt I would be one of these women. They are (well-meaning?) church-going  ladies who have said incredibly insensitive things to the author regarding her former life. My initial reaction was a bit of shame knowing that there is a good chance I would have stuck my foot in my mouth as well. But then I thought, you know what? I’m not embarrassed to be ignorant about homosexuality and how it works and how it feels. Yes, I want to understand better for the sake of relating to those around me but I don’t think a degree of ignorance here is a bad thing.
My own experience with various things in my life — mainly homeschooling and my daughter’s type 1 diabetes — is that lots of people say ignorant and insensitive things to me (and to or in front of my daughter; imagine how insensitive one can be to a child with a chronic, life threatening illness and you’ll get the gist). These people are not always strangers; often they are friends and relatives who really should know better, even those whom I know I have told things to multiple times in the past. I have learned that what people say is usually about them and not about me. I also try to take each such instance as an opportunity for education.
I am sure a lot of church-y women are, as I would be, pretty uninformed about homosexuality. Mrs. Butterfield is helping us with our misunderstandings through her books; that is a great thing. But I think the understanding needs to work both ways.
I will also say in response to the feelings she expresses that I don’t think you need to have something this big in your past (or your present) to feel like no one in the church quite gets you; I’d venture to say that is a pretty common human experience and one Satan loves to throw in our paths.
I agreed . . . with some reservations
To return to the meat of the book, the conflict between Rosaria and her friend Rebecca revolves around the latter’s self-identification as a “gay Christian.” The author objects to this terminology saying that “gay” should not qualify “Christian.” I tend to agree with this though as I think about it, there is really not much which should qualify “Christian. Aren’t we told that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free in Christ? Even the God-given, from-creation categories of male and female do not affect our standing before God. Our church has a large African immigrant population; it is incumbent upon us every week to remember what unites us — “Christian” — and not the cultural and national differences which separate us. How much more then should we reject a term like “gay” as a qualifier which defines us by our weaknesses and temptations. Let us remember also that all these categories, whether good (male/female), neutral (African/American) or bad (homosexual) are temporary. “Christian” is one of the few (the only?) designation which will follow us into eternity. That is why I say we limit it and ourselves when we qualify it.
One of the major premises of Openness Unhindered is that sexuality has become overblown since Freud. What used to be one part of life has become how we define ourselves. All feelings of attraction have come to be sexualized so that we can no longer, for example, understand the friendship between David and Jonathan without making it a sexual one.
Another change, according to Mrs. Butterfield, is that we label people; it used to be acts were homosexual, now people are. She argues instead for  a view that sees more of spectrum of attractions, some of which are not sinful. Even sexual feelings for one’s own gender are not seen as inherently sinful if they are not indulged or acted upon. This view makes a lot of sense to me. I was struck by the fact that it does not seem to be fundamentally a different view than that the author held as a practicing lesbian and professor of Queer Theory. She says that:
“And no one in the LGBT community from which I emerged would have ever claimed to have been ‘born this way.’ We believed that sexuality was fluid . . . we situated ourselves — for good or bad, rght or wrong — in the world of free choice.” (pp. 108-9)
Perhaps I am missing something but it seems that Rosaria’s view of sexuality has not changed but only her view of right and wrong. Whereas previously she would have said “people are not gay or straight; they can have all sorts of attractions and homosexual attractions are even good in that they promote equality,” now she would say “people are not gay or straight; they can have all sorts of attractions but God tells us not to act on some of them including homosexual attractions; acting on them (physically or in one’s thoughts through fantasies and lust) is sinful because it is contrary to God’s will for us.” An advantage of this view — though I am sure many would not see it as such — is that for the Christian struggling with homosexual desires it does not stigmatize their feelings or say that they must feel differently in order to be truly Christian but rather makes them one more area which we must submit to the will of God.
I disagreed — or at least would say it differently
Rosaria has a chapter entitled “Repentance” and it is a topic she returns to at various points. My own issues as an ex-Catholic are no doubt in evidence here, but I did not agree with her characterization of the Christian life in this area. Yes, repentance is a necessary and important part of the Christian life, and, yes, we need to repent of new sins as we are made aware of them. But I felt Rosaria went farther than this. She describes recalling an old sin to mind and repenting of it.  For me one of the greatest blessings of the Christian life is that our sins have all already been covered and have been put far from us.  I do not find it healthy or happy to revisit old sins. I am not saying Rosaria’s experience here is wrong or worse than my own, only that we are coming from different places and have different experiences of this aspect of our faith. It would make me hesitant, however, to hand this book to a non-Christian lest they get an erroneous picture of what the Christian life is like.
Who should read this book
Which brings me to my last point — that which no book review should be without– who should read this book? I would recommend Openness Unhindered. I think it is great for people like me — Christians who have not delved deeply into the issue and who may be slightly uncomfortable with it. I would also recommend it to Christians who identify as homosexual, whether they are living that way openly or not. Or to Christians who are not sure what to make of feelings and experiences they have had. I don’t think I would recommend it to non-Christians though. For someone with little knowledge of the Christian life and what Christianity is about, I would be uncomfortable with, as I said above, the (over)emphasis on repentance and I would want to start with a much more basic understanding of what it means to be Christian.
Nebby
I would recommend this book, to some people
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