A visit to Patrick Henry College

Patrick Henry College hosts an ongoing “newsmakers interview” series, and the guest Friday afternoon is a woman named Rosaria Butterfield, a resident of Purcellville. Dr. Butterfield “will discuss her new book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, detailing her conversion to Christianity and her former lesbian lifestyle before marrying a pastor.”

This is the bio offered by World Magazine:

When Rosaria Butterfield was 28 she declared herself a lesbian. Her Ph.D. in English Literature and Cultural Studies led to a tenured position at Syracuse University, where she advanced a leftist agenda. Then God used her desire to write a book on the religious right, and the friendship of a biblically orthodox pastor, to draw her to Christ. She became a voracious Bible reader and gradually saw that her new beliefs required her to upend her former life. It’s a fascinating story—although she interrupts the narrative several times to insert speech text. Her book also shows the power of love and hospitality to soften hearts: Butterfield is now married to a pastor and the mother of four children by adoption.

I have not had a chance to read the book. However, I can say knowing nothing else about it that this is someone’s personal journey, which she cared enough about to put into words for others to read. Although it sounds like another “ex-gay” narrative, and although there is a robust history of “ex-gay” spokespeople being exploited by the anti-gay industry and later renouncing (or quietly abandoning) their “conversion” experience, I think we make a mistake when we fail to seriously listen to a person’s story, and instead act as if we know how it will, or should, end up. However this woman’s story ultimately unfolds, it is hers, and it’s no more kind to insist that her life will conform to that narrative than it is for those promoting an anti-gay agenda to demand that we “change” to suit their narrative.

But that respect must be mutual. Whatever individual circumstances led the author on her journey to first experience herself as a lesbian and then later fall in love with a man and adopt the religious beliefs (I presume) they share, that journey is hers alone. Where a line must be drawn is the point at which her experiences as the unique individual she is are generalized to other LGBT people, who are then told “this is what you must do also.” If we are to accept that her journey is the right, authentic one for her – and I think we have an obligation to give her that respect – then our own journeys into being who we really are must be accorded that same acceptance.

There was actually a very good conversation on this blog about whether and to what extent sexual orientation is “chosen,” and what it means for there to be so many different kinds of experiences.

Liberal Anthropologist asks some excellent questions in this thread, such as “why gay people are concerned about the perception that some level of choice exists in orientation.

It’s because of this (just a randomly selected recent example of the phenomenon in which one person rudely says to another person “the way I experience the universe is the only real way, and everyone else must conform themselves to it”):

Marriage comes to us from nature. The human species comes in two complementary sexes, male and female. Their sexual union is called marital,” the letter [from Chicago Cardinal Francis George] reads. “It not only creates a place of love for two adults but also a home for loving and raising their children. It provides the biological basis for personal identity.

And because the perception of choice is only ever applied to non-straight people. As LA described his own experience,”to be fair, I can’t recall choosing to be heterosexual.” “For me it is a non-issue and it doesn’t cross my mind much.” That’s what any sexual orientation feels like unless, for some reason, it keeps being brought to your attention. Whether or not it changes over time – and sometimes it does, in either direction – orientation itself is not chosen. It’s definitional: If you have to “choose” it, it’s not your orientation. You can choose a life, but not an orientation.

So, please forgive us if we must be very intentional about maintaining a posture of respectful listening. This ought to be an illuminating opportunity to learn from the experiences and insights gained by a fellow traveler who had a life-changing experience, but chances seem very good that it will be turned, in the hands of PHC, from “this is one woman’s story” to “this is the story we are telling about all LGBTQ people,” and to the LGBTQ students at PHC, “this is the story about the real you, because we are more of an authority on you than you are.” No one knows another person’s authentic story better than they do. This is what we mean by spiritual violence: instead of ministering to a person’s capacity to be who they actually are, ministering to one’s own need for them to be who you think they should be. This book and this story can probably be employed for either purpose. I hope that Rosaria Butterfield won’t allow her story to be used in a spiritually violent way, and I wish her all the best.

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2 Responses to A visit to Patrick Henry College

  1. Mic says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, David. Having grown up in a fundamentalist church, I still struggle with the feeling that there is something wrong with me because I’m gay. This sentence was particularly encouraging for me: “This is what we mean by spiritual violence: instead of ministering to a person’s capacity to be who they actually are, ministering to one’s own need for them to be who you think they should be. “

  2. David says:

    Mic, I’m sorry. We all have that wound somewhere, I think, even when we weren’t exposed to outright condemnation from church or family in childhood. There’s enough of it just free-floating around for anyone to get a dose.

    I’m glad that statement was encouraging to you. The thing we can do is be very clear about boundaries and hold those who have violated them accountable. You are the authority only on who you are (and how you were created by God, if that’s still relevant to you), and others are the authority only on themselves. We don’t get to tell each other’s stories, but we do get to listen and learn. And that’s what the Bible is, other people’s stories and testimony – that’s my understanding of it, anyway.

    I also highly recommend reading John Shore for an antidote to the “ministry” of those who don’t understand this.