Blows and Blowback

Dr. Rosaria Butterfield Photo by Neil Boyd

Dr. Rosaria Butterfield
Photo by Neil Boyd

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield was a contented, tenured English professor at Syracuse University specializing in Queer Theory and Gay and Lesbian Studies when she set out to write a book on the Religious Right. Why did they hate her and her gay and lesbian community? she wanted to know. An intelligent, thirty-six year old lesbian who considered herself a fine, moral human being, she set out to refute them once and for all. It was part of her ongoing “War against Stupid.”

So she began reading the Bible and meeting with a local pastor as part of her research. The first time through the Bible, she thought it was just a bunch of hogwash. As a postmodernist, it was a given to her way of thinking that any truth claim is as valid as any other. The Bible’s moral prohibitions and unapologetic concept of totalizing truth didn’t even qualify as legitimate ideas worthy of intellectual engagement. They were completely foreign categories of thought for her.

But she was also an exactingly honest intellectual. She knew that even though she was going to write her book from a lesbian, feminist perspective, it was important that she first adequately capture her adversaries’ point of view. Why, then, did Christians believe their understanding of this peculiar book was accurate?

She redoubled her efforts, reading the Bible “the way a glutton eats cookies, not leaving any crumbs,” which, she says, “is kind of normal for an English professor.” An unexpected thing happened:

As I was reading and rereading the Bible, [I noticed] there are many questions in the Bible that are very personal. And I think it’s important, as an outsider as you’re reading it, to take those personal questions to heart. And so I did start to think about those. And it was really in that context that I started to question my own sense that … I had it all right.

Ultimately, the crux for her became the question of God’s authority:

Because it did strike me that I had been wanting to interrogate the Bible, I was a literary critic by training, and what literary critics do is they interrogate things. And so it struck me that I was in the posture of the interrogator. It did make me wonder though. The whole premise of an inerrant and inspired Bible – the premise of it is that the Bible then interrogates you. You don’t interrogate it. And the justification for that is that the Bible is written by a holy God. And I had to stop and think for a moment because, you know, if God did create the heavens and the earth and everything, and if God did set apart a people for himself before he made the stars and the sand, you know every little leaf on a tree, then nothing is higher than God. And therefore, God does have the authority to interrogate me.

That thought began turning her whole epistemological orientation on its head, and through a series of psychological and spiritual twists and turns she likened both to a train wreck and an alien abduction, Rosaria became a born again Christian. Or as the Apostle Paul put it, she became “a new creature in Christ.” It was lengthy, painful process, but a very liberating one, as she details in her 2012 book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.

The Law
New Testament Christians – and by that I mean every believer on the backside of the cross – live in a time some call the “Age of Grace,” the concept of grace being set in distinction to the pre-cross era when God’s people were under Mosaic Law.

But saving grace notwithstanding, the moral law has not been nullified. Right and wrong are as absolute and active today as ever because morality and ethics proceed from God’s nature which does not change. Rosaria rightly observed that God’s claim to authority, including the imperatives of morality and ethics, is exactingly totalizing. Authority is claimed, and it is non- negotiable. And, as she discovered, being confronted with this reality can be devastating.

Delivered by Stone
It’s supposed to be. Theology student Haydn Sennitt gave some intriguing insight lately on the etymology of the word behind ‘the Law’ (תוֹרָה) or ‘Torah’:

It turns out that Torah derives from the Hebrew verb ‘throw’ (ירה, oryarah). It is the 3rd person feminine singular Hif’il imperfect of the verb.  …  The Hif’il form of verbs is reflexive, which means that a person receives the action, kind of like (not exactly) a passive construct. With yarah in this form (becoming torah, תוֹרה) It indicates a person receiving something thrown at them, like a blunt object. In an ancient culture like Israel’s, that would indicate someone being hit by something like a shot-put or discus. The emphasis of a Hif’il verb is not who does the action, but who receives it.

 Sennitt finds this interesting, he continues, because “it seems to be that the role of God’s word is that it is meant to kick a punch, like a discus or a shot put.”

Yes the Law has been fulfilled in Christ on the cross, and yes, the cross cancelled the debt that consigned us to eternal separation from God (what we call hell). Informed Christians know we are not under law but under grace. But still, the Law remains. And to come under its judgment is crushing. To say it kicks a punch is a gross understatement. I think it’s more accurate to say it kills.

But is that all bad? James Kushiner, Director of the Fellowship of St. James, wrote recently of John Chrysostom, who died in exile around 400AD. Chrysostom wrote:

There is only one thing … which is really terrible, only one real trial, that is sin; and I have never ceased continually harping on this theme. But as for all other things, plots, enmities, frauds, calumnies, insults, accusations, confiscation, exile, the keen sword of the enemy, the peril of the deep, warfare of the whole world, or anything else you like to name, they are but idle tales. For whatever the nature of these things may be, they are transitory and perishable, and operate in the mortal body without doing any injury to the vigilant soul.

Chrysostom reminds us of one of the central truths of the Bible: our real enemy is sin. The Bible also tells us that all of us have, to one degree or another, made peace with it. At the risk of putting it too loosely, we’re sleeping with the enemy. We may even think the enemy is our lover when in reality it’s a traitor and a killer.

If sin is the real enemy but we have made peace with it, then we need to know that, right? And if this is true, then the kick, the punch, the crushing blow is a very real mercy because it gets our attention. It’s like a fire alarm that disturbs a blissful slumber. Or the sharp pain that prompts a visit to the ER.

Most of us can understand the benefit of those kinds of alerts, painful though they may be. But why is the crushing weight of the Law so psychologically disorienting? So psychically painful? Chew on this: Because it’s true. And we know it.

The Interrogatory Moment of Truth
The question for every one of us, then, when (not if) we find ourselves on the receiving end of the blow becomes, What am I going to do now?

Consider three options:

  1.  One can look away from the Law, avoid the blow, saying, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy.” This is the Scarlett O’Hara response.
  2. One can deny the Law, evade the blow, saying, “Did God really say …?” This is the Serpent in the Garden response.
  3. Or one can take the blow and allow the interrogation to do its work, and say, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” And this, the moment it proceeds from the heart, becomes the salvation response.

We can acquiesce to the truth that we hate but know is true. Or we can, as St. Paul put it, “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” which can take a variety of forms, including #1 and #2 above and blowbacks that are far worse than those.

The good queer theorist English professor discovered, as has every regenerated Christian since the cross, that acquiescing kills those inner voices that say, “I am okay,” and, “I have it all right.” It destroys the peace we’ve made with our own sin.

The Interrogatory Moment of Truth
It feels like death, but paradoxically, it’s the way to life. Because it is in that moment that we discover the great liberating reality of redemption. The real crushing blow has been intercepted. The final blow that would have finished us off for good fell on the cross, and we’ve “crossed over,” so to speak, to the backside of it. We’ve been acquitted.

The Acquittal
And we go free.

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