Guest speaker Rosaria Butterfield draws contrast with Patrick Henry College’s fear of dialogue

Author Rosaria Butterfield at Patrick Henry College

According to Patrick Henry College professor of government Stephen Baskerville, “PHC is an oasis of academic freedom in an inbred academic environment of stifling orthodoxy.” Given that over half of PHC’s faculty resigned within one year over precisely the issue of academic freedom, I would have to dispute the facticity of this statement. The academic orthodoxy at the school was at the time so stifling that one professor, ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, was suspended for writing a paper suggesting there could be sources of truth other than the Bible. Others were told by administrators that “there are some questions we can’t ask in class or entertain.”

PHC would be more accurately described as an alternative to the usual academic environment in which biblical inerrancy is held to the same evidence-based standard as other ways of understanding the world, and found wanting according to that standard. PHC does provide an environment in which an alternative standard is applied.

Dr. Baskerville (writing to object to the Loudoun Times-Mirror coverage of PHC’s reaction to the student/alumni group Queer at Patrick Henry College) misrepresents the article, claiming that it approaches the presence of sexual minorities at PHC with “scandal-mongering.” The scandal in question is not the existence of these LGBTQ students, but PHC Chancellor Mike Farris’ embarrassing attempt to bully them, an attempt that garnered the group a much wider audience and support base. Queer at Patrick Henry College is a far from unusual signal of the transformation happening within evangelical Christianity, and has surprised virtually no one other than Patrick Henry College administrators.

It is with this in mind that I consider the interview I witnessed last Friday at PHC with author Rosaria Butterfield (prequel here). Dr. Butterfield appeared as a guest of the college to discuss her transition from Syracuse University Women’s Studies professor and lesbian activist to orthodox Christian and pastor’s wife.

Approximately one year ago, there was a meeting (closed to reporters) of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, at which presidents of some member institutions discussed “how to deal with the controversy that breaks out when students or alumni pressure a college to change” its policies with regard to human sexuality. PHC is not a member of the council, but is clearly struggling with the same worry: The reality of rapidly shifting public opinion that is leaving them behind, viewed by most as a peculiar fringe minority. The recent unflattering media coverage of the Farris stunt has really stung them, and I think they’re hopeful that Dr. Butterfield will help them with not looking so mean-spirited and extreme.

I can understand why. Dr. Butterfield is warm, intelligent and engaging (you can watch the interview here). Her story isn’t the typical “ex-gay” tale of childhood abuse, addiction and promiscuity that purports to clue in the naive listener to the “truth” about the so-called “gay lifestyle.” Her journey begins with a local pastor who contacts her, and her surprise at his graciousness and openness to dialogue challenging her assumptions about evangelical Christians. He asked her “questions no one had ever asked me in my life,” she says, and he did not treat her own questions as topics that cannot be entertained. In short, he was not afraid, and that is the attitude Dr. Butterfield encourages those in the audience to have as well. What are we so afraid will happen if we are welcoming to the LGBTQ people in our lives, she asks. The “real encounter is not going to take place in the public square,” she insists, but in cultivating trust and friendship with the “people who scare us.” We need to be “willing to learn from people who aren’t necessarily Christians,” she tells them.

This, of course, is precisely opposite to the approach taken by PHC administrators to both its own dissident professors and the visit by Soulforce several years ago. The reason that the encounter with Soulforce took place in the public square at all is that the administration would not permit a dialogue between the Riders and PHC students. Instead of welcoming dialogue with the Riders as a potential learning experience or moment of grace, the administration treated them as if they carried a deadly toxin. President Graham Walker even sent a letter home to parents, requesting their help in discouraging their “children’s” “natural desire to engage” with their peers. It was clear that the school did not think the students’ carefully taught beliefs about human sexuality could be maintained if exposed to the kind of honest and intimate encounter – one of mutual listening to each other’s stories – that Dr. Butterfield encourages and that the Soulforce Equality Riders were seeking to have. The PHC administrators offered as a substitute a very different kind of encounter: A public “debate.”

There were two other things that struck me about Dr. Butterfield’s answers. It could be that she deals with these questions more deeply in the book, and the interview just wasn’t able to capture the full story. With that in mind, my observations are based only on the content of the interview.

First, while it’s not surprising that anyone invited to present at PHC would endorse the Mike Farris formulation of the Bible as inerrant and sufficient (meaning no other source of knowledge is needed), it puzzles me that an academic trained as a critical thinker would end up adopting that formulation. Surely Dr. Butterfield was and is aware of the history of theological dispute over such questions of whether the Bible actually condemns homosexuality (and whether the Bible endorses slavery, and whether heliocentrism is heresy, etc, which have been going on as long as what we call “the Bible” has existed). These disputes fundamentally go to the question of what the Bible is for. Another view of what the Bible is for is alive and well in progressive churches like my own, described here:

We see the ‘library’ of writings we know as the Bible as testimonies of faith, the living word of God handed down to us through the experience of fallible human beings. It is God’s story, a story intended to include us.

We do not fear, but rather embrace the ambiguity and contradictions we find in the Bible; we can marvel that God thought so highly of us that we were not left with a mere rule book, but rather a word of so many dimensions that it would take a lifetime to explore.

We understand that the Bible has been misused, to mislead and do harm; but also that the answer to misuse is never disuse, but better use. We take the word of God seriously enough to question our own and others’ understandings with regard to the limitations of time, place and culture.

It can take some time for the implications of the truths revealed in the Bible to be fully realized. For instance, today we understand that slavery is wrong and irreconcilable with a Christian way of life. Yet early Christians, including the Apostle Paul, seemed to accept the practice. When Paul said that in Christ there is “no longer slave or free,” it came like a revelatory flash, but even he did not understand all the implications fully. Only hundreds of years later were the full implications of that understanding seen or lived.

We recognize that God is not restrained by the borders of our imagination. We are as fallible as those human beings who have gone before us, and we do not know through whom the Holy Spirit might speak. We have no authority figure telling us how we must interpret the Bible, rather we study, listen and seek discernment in community.

I’m not condemning Dr. Butterfield for adopting the orthodox view of the Bible that she has, but I’m curious about how she came to the conclusion that it was the correct one. If she now believes that a true understanding of scripture means that a person cannot be both gay and Christian, must she not also believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, and that the Theory of Evolution is false? I also wonder, given this view of the Bible as inerrant, whether she would see a contradiction between her own approach of being unafraid of those “scary” others and the biblical justification PHC President Graham Walker offered for rejecting dialogue with the Soulforce Equality Riders:

I Corinthians: 11

But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

The second thing that struck me is the marked absence of actual sexuality in Dr. Butterfield’s description of her former self as a lesbian. At no time does she describe a change to her sexual orientation, only decisions she made to change what she was doing with her life. At no time does she describe how she became attracted to and fell in love with a man, and whether or how her sexual feelings about women and men changed. While she expresses how painful it was to “give up things I deeply believed in and dearly loved,” there is no sense of what she gave up being sexual in nature. While she uses terms like “lust” and “sexual sin” in reference to things that Christians are expected to give up, they come across as abstractions, not descriptions of her own sexual feelings. When she talks about the word “lust,” she specifically broadens it to mean, rather than a sexual feeling, “something to do with the way I spend my time.” In fact, the closest she ever comes to describing anything remotely sexual in her life is a reference to getting out of “a bed I shared with another woman.” This act is one item in a list of attributes that describe her existence as a lesbian as incompatible with a Christian life: Getting out of that bed, getting into her truck with the LGBT bumper stickers, driving away with her “butch haircut.” Her identity as a lesbian is conflated with gender expression (how is a truck or “butch haircut” a manifestation of sexual sin?) and seems much more cultural and political than sexual; in fact her own description of coming to that understanding of herself is that it “provided a sort of edge for me in the world” that fit with her values of equality and concern for the disempowered.

I do know from reading some excerpts from her book that she now considers her self-identification as a lesbian to be a “false identity,” which makes sense. She has described her awakening to being a lesbian as initially having to with relating better emotionally to women, preferring to spend time with women, and not as a sexual response to women, with an erotic component to her feelings only developing later.

As I said in the prequel to this post, this is one woman’s personal journey, and it is entitled to our respect. I believe her when she says that she had a false identity. All of what I heard points to that conclusion: She had come to adopt an identity that for whatever reasons felt, as she put it, like she “was just telling the truth.” She embraced and built an integrated life around that idea of who she was, and eventually came to realize that it wasn’t really who she was after all. It’s not hard to understand how coming to that realization, and rejecting and dismantling that life – the partnership, the community, the career, the entire sense of self – would create a nauseating level of cognitive dissonance and emotional pain. It must have been horrific.

On the other hand, while this is her unique story, the experience of upending a life because it is not a life of integrity is not at all unique – as she herself makes a point of acknowledging. That is something that many other people have experienced for a lot of reasons, but germane to this story are those others who have specifically adopted a false sexual or gender identity. For instance, many people have stories of believing that if they just found the right partner it would make them straight, or make them a gender other than the one they are. In some cases, the story goes the same way as Dr. Butterfield’s, involving wrenching heartbreak caused to loved ones and sometimes the total loss of family, community, and career – but then the building of a new life.

I think that many of those who have gone through this would recognize in Dr. Butterfield’s story both the devastation of giving up so much, and the necessity of making whatever sacrifice is required to live one’s own, honest life.

If the leaders of Patrick Henry College were to follow her example and no longer be afraid of other people’s stories, I suspect we could find some surprising common ground.

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5 Responses to Guest speaker Rosaria Butterfield draws contrast with Patrick Henry College’s fear of dialogue

  1. Jonathan says:

    David,

    Thank you for this thoughtful, compassionate, and beautifully written (as usual) piece. I read the Inside Higher Education article and found a couple of other must reads. Joshua Wolff wrote “Where ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Remains” and Stanton Jones, provost of Wheaton College, responded with “Please, Tell.” Wolff then left a long comment that reads, in part:

    But what of the sexual minority student told to “change” their sexual orientation by mental health professionals on campus or by alumni trained in these programs? Or those cut off from discussing these experiences with other LGBT students because of possible consequences? And what of religious schools, like several in California during the Prop 8 campaign, who campaign aggressively against gay rights issues? I raise these issues not to stereotype all religious schools, but to point out that there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed, yet they are crossed (I provided references in my original article, and can also say that I’ve seen and experienced some of these personally). This is where we perhaps fundamentally disagree, but I stand by my previous words that accrediting agencies need to start taking a closer look at these issues. Frankly, it’s not my place to decide what they should or shouldn’t do about them, but once again, the defense of being a private religious school does not give leeway for a program to act out of ethical boundaries or put students in potentially harmful situations that are strongly condemned by groups like APA.

  2. Brady says:

    Hi David,

    I enjoyed reading your article. Though I disagreed with most if not all of your arguments, it was interesting, informative, and well written.

    I am a PHC alumnus of 2011 and I would welcome a discussion with you about Christians and homosexuality. Feel free to email me at the address I provided.

  3. Dwwcsd says:

    ‘It could be that she deals with these questions more deeply in the book, and the interview just wasn’t able to capture the full story. With that in mind, my observations are based only on the content of the interview.’

    Please read Rosaria Butterfield’s book.

  4. David says:

    Brady, thanks for reading. Is there something you’re not comfortable discussing publicly in comments? If so, feel free to shoot me an email (info@equalityloudoun.org), but otherwise we want to encourage respectful conversation about these matters out in the open. I’m happy to hear what it is about my observations you disagreed with.

  5. David says:

    Dwwcsd, the reason I offered that disclaimer (that this is not a book review, it’s only my observations of the interview) is that I thought it unlikely I would get around to reading the book. I already have a reading list that far outstrips the time I can devote to it. A compelling enough reason could change my mind, though.

    I did want to be fair and acknowledge that what came across in the interview possibly didn’t accurately or completely reflect the story Dr. Butterfield wanted to tell. I assume from your comment that you either attended the interview or watched it on Youtube, and read the book. Do you feel that 1) my observations of the interview were inaccurate or unfair, or 2) that the interview itself conveyed an inaccurate synopsis of the book? The statement you quote covers quite a bit of ground. I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts about what is explained in the book with more specificity. After all, I was pretty specific about what I felt was left unanswered.

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