A Wheaton discussion of homosexuality

Sexuality | Former lesbian Rosaria Butterfield found controversy and opportunity on her recent visit to a Christian college campus
by Marvin OlaskyPhilip RykenAmanda Morris  & Rosaria Butterfield
Posted 3/01/14, 12:42 pm

Joni Mitchell sang, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it’s cloud illusions I recall. I really don’t know clouds at all.” Rosaria Butterfield, a former lesbian and Syracuse University professor, has looked at homosexuality from inside and outside, and has not come away empty-handed. I learned a lot from interviewing her last year, and Wheaton College students learned a lot when she visited their campus in late January.

The visit was not without controversy. Below is a statement from Wheaton President Philip Ryken that reports what happened and explains well the college’s position. Following that are an interview with Butterfield published in Wheaton’s student newspaper, an excerpt and a link to a recent article by Butterfield posted at The Gospel Coalition website, and a video of my complete interview with Butterfield last year. —Marvin Olasky

Statement from Wheaton College President Philip Ryken on Chapel Demonstration

Feb. 10, 2014

Over the last few days, Wheaton College has been the subject of significant discussion following coverage of events related to a January 31 chapel talk by Dr. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

In the chapel talk, which is available here, Dr. Butterfield testifies about her encounter with Jesus Christ and how this transformed her life, including her worldview and her experience of her sexuality. In her talk, as in other venues, Dr. Butterfield described herself as a formerly leftist lesbian professor who had despised Christians. Dr. Butterfield’s testimony was well-received by the student body, resulting in an extended ovation following her remarks.

In advance of Dr. Butterfield’s talk, several dozen students held a silent demonstration on the steps of Edman Chapel to express an array of concerns about the possible implications of what they expected to hear in Dr. Butterfield’s message. As is her practice, Dr. Butterfield met with the demonstrating students later that afternoon. The demonstration and the conversation with Dr. Butterfield that followed have been covered in news outlets including The Wheaton Record, the student newspaper.

A key theme of the discussion around these events concerns the value of personal narrative as a way of pursuing truth and understanding. As a Christian community rooted in the universal and unchanging truth of the gospel story, we believe that all stories, including personal stories, must always be weighed using the balance of God’s Word. Our conversations as an institution are always rooted in biblical truth.

Wheaton College’s conviction on homosexual practice remains as articulated in our Community Covenant, which is affirmed each year by all students, faculty, and staff:

“Scripture condemns … sexual immorality, such as the use of pornography (Matt. 5:27-28), pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and all other sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and woman (Rom. 1:21-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gen. 2:24; Eph. 5:31).”

Chapel guests and programs speak to various topics, including contentious issues of the day, always in alignment with the biblical standards outlined in the Community Covenant.

As our Covenant states, Wheaton College is a community of living, learning, and serving. We are a confessional Christian academic community with a focus on the spiritual and intellectual formation of our students. While we are not insulated from cultural conflicts over ideas, including our own students’ search to understand how the truth of Scripture shapes each Christian’s life, our educational model does not require us either to silence critical exploration of complex issues or to accede uncritically to cultural pressures.

Instead, the Christ-followers who lead this Christian liberal arts institution, and who value the minds and hearts of the students entrusted to our care, judiciously employ a variety of responses to student concerns and conduct. These responses may include personal conversation, civil public discussion, godly counsel, admonition, and discipline.

Within Wheaton’s historic commitment to biblical truth, as well as in our model of liberal arts education, our goal is to grow a community where questions can be raised, disagreements can be expressed, discernment can be modeled, and disciples can be nurtured.

Q&A with Dr. Rosaria Butterfield

By Amanda Morris, News Editor, The Wheaton Record, Feb. 7, 2014

On Friday, Jan. 31, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield came to Wheaton College’s campus to speak at chapel, addressing the topic “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.”

Butterfield, who earned her Ph.D. from Ohio State University in English Literature, served in the English Department and Women Studies Program at Syracuse University from 1992 to 2002. Butterfield published a book, as well as scholarly articles, in feminist theory, queer theory, and 19th century British literature. Butterfield received tenure in 1999, the same year that she converted to Christianity. Butterfield, who now lives in Durham, N.C., with her husband and children, is author of the book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.

Butterfield’s visit to Wheaton’s Edman Chapel stirred mixed emotions from the student body, with many emphasizing that her story is one out of many in the realm of dealing with Christianity and personal identity. The Record had the opportunity to talk to Butterfield and get her thoughts on meeting with students and answering questions on identity. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You go to both secular and Christian college campuses to give your speech on conversion. Are you typically met with some kind of opposition, and what is your response? Well, there’s nothing typical. … I’m sometimes met with opposition; sometimes it’s much more … vitriolic than what I met with at Wheaton, which really wasn’t a protest; it was a demonstration; and sometimes I am given a standing ovation. Each soul is different, each campus climate is different, and the cultural/biblical knowledge level is different. If I have demonstrators or protesters, I always ask to meet with people, and even if I don’t have people demonstrating, after a chapel message or an open lecture, I make sure that students know what coffee shop I’ll be at, and for how many hours, and I’ve never been alone.

You requested to meet with Wheaton’s administration and its students. How did that go?I think we met for almost two hours. Sometimes, when I go to college campuses, I’m thinking, “Lord, why, really, am I here?” And when I finally met with the demonstrators, I really believe that that meeting was why I was there, for a couple of reasons. The first is, this is a hard topic—it’s a topic filled with shame and vitriol and fear and a lived experience of pain and violence, so it is not an easy topic. And even among believers, it is very important to take the hand of the suffering and put it in the hands of the Savior. You cannot do that unless you get close to the people that get hurt. So often, we like to turn the gospel into this sneaky little worldview raid, and it’s not that, it never was that. Part of why I love to meet with people who think differently than I do is because iron sharpens iron. … As an intellectual, it’s delightful to be in the company of people who think differently than I do, but also because, even though, in that room, I think very theologically different than, I’d say, probably most of the people—at least the people speaking there. We all struggle in the same way—we’re all human. So, it was good to do that. Some of the things we talked about were hard things. I come from an orthodox Christian conservative perspective and I believe in the integrity and the authority of the Bible, and the syllogism that we use to describe what is true determines what is valuable and what is ethical. People who come from a revisionist perspective would say what is valuable and ethical determines what is true.

I shared my beliefs that … taking my stance from the inerrancy and the inspiration of the Bible maintains that homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia. The sin of homosexuality is really misunderstood. I shared my beliefs that it simply is part of the general package of original sin, that we are all born that way, nobody’s different, and that is a very big cross to bear. In response, students shared with me that they did not feel that way. … They believe that passages are mistranslated and misunderstood, and they believed firmly that there’s a legitimate Christian position to be held in a gay-affirming way. And so, that’s where we left that. 

Students also had questions about my positions today about feminism, and so we talked about how I do believe that women should have equal pay for equal work … same access to education and the rights and the goods, and then I also believe that feminism was a historical materialist worldview and Christianity a supernatural one, and I do not believe that [male] headship is a post-fall reality; I believe that it was a pre-fall reality and therefore not a sin. Now, is patriarchal abuse a sin? Of course, no question! 

They had a number of suggestions for me on how I could, in many ways, improve my presentation. I was very thankful for them. We talked about whether sexual orientation is fixed or fluid and we disagreed on that. It was intense. We also talked about some issues on campus that desperately and immediately need to be rectified, and while I can’t go into what those issues were, I really hope that the students felt my advocacy for them. So, we probably covered more in an hour and 45 minutes than I would normally cover in a year.

If I could just tuck in one other thing: This is the world I helped create; I was an activist, I was a professor who authored [Syracuse] university’s policy on domestic partnership, which they still use today. I helped make this world, so I really feel for students. There is nothing about what they’ve said; there’s nothing about anybody’s response to me that was offensive in any way. In my heart, I felt huge solidarity and connection.

What advice would you give to Wheaton students who are struggling with their identity? I’m a mom and I believe that when a person comes to me with a specific question, you need to be given a specific answer. Here’s what I would do. If I was a professor and you came to me and said, “I am really struggling with this issue, and I don’t know who to believe—is sexuality fixed, is it fluid, is it a sin, is it a grace—I don’t know what to do,” I would take your hand and walk you across the street to College Church and introduce you to Pastor Stephen Lee and I would say, “Look. You cannot ask yourself these hard questions in the spotlight. You need to get in the church. … That is the safest place. Have the courage to go before the Lord Himself and take the hand of a godly pastor who is not going to hurt you and not going to shame you and is not going to betray you. But these are big questions. You need—and you deserve, God wants you to have—good discipling.”

As published in the Feb. 7, 2014, issue of The Wheaton Record. Reprinted with permission.

You are what—and how—you read

By Rosaria Butterfield, The Gospel Coalition, Feb. 14, 2014

I just returned from a well-known (and well-heeled) Christian college, where roughly 100 demonstrators gathered on the chapel steps to protest my address on the grounds that my testimony was dangerous. Later that day, I sat down with these beloved students, to listen, to learn, and to grieve. Homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia; the snarled composition of our own sin and the sin of others weighs heavily on us all. I came away from that meeting realizing—again—how decisively our reading practices shape our worldview. This may seem a quirky observation, but I know too well the world these students inhabit. I recall its contours and crevices, risks and perils, reading lists and hermeneutical allegiances. You see, I’m culpable. The blood is on my hands. The world of LGBTQ activism on college campuses is the world that I helped create. I was unfaltering in fidelity: the umbrella of equality stretching to embrace my lesbian identity, and the world that emerged from it held salvific potential. I bet my life on it, and I lost. … Read more.

An interview with Rosaria Butterfield

By Marvin Olasky at Patrick Henry College, Jan. 11, 2013

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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Philip Ryken

Philip is president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

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Amanda Morris

Amanda is news editor of The Wheaton Record.

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Rosaria Butterfield

Rosaria is a former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University and author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness, Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ.

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