One of the most influential visions of Christian apologetics in the history of Western Christianity comes from Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana, where the figure of the apostle Paul encountering Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Athens (Acts 17) becomes inflected with the oratorical skills of a Ciceronian rhetorician:
the interpreter and teacher of the divine scriptures, the defender of the true faith and vanquisher of error, must communicate what is good and eradicate what is bad, and in this process of speaking must win over the antagonistic, rouse the apathetic, and make clear to those who are not conversant with the matter under discussion what they should expect.
This was a Ciceronian rhetorical ideal serving Christian ends in late antiquity, and its fulfillment has taken many different forms over the past two millennia. Within evangelical Christianity specifically, one way in which the truths of the Christian religion have been taught, interpreted, and defended, at least internally, has been through public testimony, particularly as a story of personal conversion. This too has a very long history. Part of my historical research examines such conversion stories as they relate to anti-atheist apologetics in early modern England (1680-1720). In my own upbringing in the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada such testimony very often accompanied adult baptism—I was once was lost, as Amazing Grace has it, and now I am found. I continue to cherish the public declaration that welcomes a new member into the Christian community. Yet there are serious problems for a Christianity which allows an all-too-human elision of testimony into an apologia, particularly where the story of conversion becomes little more than a platform for certain moral, social, or political views.
This brings me to a recent piece published by Christianity Today in which Rosaria Champagne Butterfield narrates her conversion, as she puts it, from a lesbian tenured radical professor to a heterosexual, married, and presumably no longer radical, evangelical Christian. What struck me is the way in which her testimony works as a kind of apology for certain positions within evangelical Christianity and has been treated as such by evangelicals themselves. Christianity Today even tagged the online article with the word “atheism.” As a lengthy interview with Marvin Olasky conducted at Patrick Henry College indicates, Champagne Butterfield embraces a view of her biography as exemplary for evangelicals and as an apologetic for what they (too) often call their “worldview.”
The arc of Champagne Butterfield’s story follows a fairly predictable trajectory. It begins with a self-description in which she embodies the bête noire of recent American evangelicalism: homosexuality, Marxism, and the liberal-radical secular academy. The fact that she begins her story by describing herself as dismissive of Christians and their intellectual capacities only adds another layer of contrast to what will become the rhetorical pivot upon which her story centres—not only does she find that Christians can think critically (huzza!), they can also do so without being overtly judgemental. When she finally gets around to reading the Bible, Jean Calvin’s commentaries on Romans 1:26-27, and subsequently attends a Reformed Presbyterian church, Christian conversion becomes a step into the evangelical “worldview” insofar as her new “identity” required her to shed her former self and its homosexual, Marxist-postmodern, secular trappings. A starker contrast, we are meant to see, could not be drawn.
If Champagne Butterfield’s testimony is meant as a kind of apologetic edification for evangelicals today, what exactly is it telling them? In her interview with Olasky, Champagne Butterfield merely says that her story is a reminder for the church to “count the cost” of publicly owning up to sin. Yet the question of how to read the Bible, how to determine what it teaches on subjects such as sin (or if it is in fact univocal on such questions), and how to embody that teaching, never seems to arise; this is a rather glaring omission for someone who used to be a literature professor. Will Champagne Butterfield’s testimony exorcise the peculiarly evangelical spectres she mentions—Marx, Darwin, Freud—for younger evangelicals? Is her testimony-cum-apologia an effective solvent to the creeping secularism, liberalism, and atheism identified by many conservative evangelicals as the grease upon which American society is sliding toward its apocalyptic doom?
The answer to these questions will of course depend on evangelicals and on whether or not they will continue to be satisfied with simplistic characterizations which misrepresent the challenges against which they set themselves. It is more than a little surprising to find Champagne Butterfield cite Calvin as if his interpretation of the New Testament was somehow uncontested or uncontroversial, even within Protestant Christianity. It is also a little confusing to see Marxism and postmodernism thrown together, when at least one major strain of postmodern thought emphasizes incredulity towards all metanarratives, including the Marxist one. It is as if Marx, Darwin, and Freud are simply the symbolic heads of the monstrous hydra American evangelicals envisage as the apocalyptic beast.
By characterizing postmodernism and Marxism as “understandable allegiances” for “leftists,” Champagne Butterfield reinforces a whole range of standard evangelical assumptions which only obfuscate the relationship between what historian David Bebbington has called the “evangelical quadrilateral”: conversionism, Biblicism, crucicentism, and activism. Most glaring is Champagne Butterfield’s articulation of the longstanding Christian assumption that people believe something because they want to live a certain way—i.e. in order to live as they please, postmodern relativists, Marxist radicals, and atheists employ a supposedly irrational set of arguments as justification. Aside from the Reformation binary this argument continues to uphold, does it never occur to evangelicals that precisely the same argument might be levelled at them?
Champagne Butterfield suggests that the most crucial realization in her conversion derived from a reading of John 7:17, in which she came to see that action precedes understanding rather than, as she had apparently been taught as an academic, understanding precedes action. In other words, she had to give up allegedly sinful actions (homosexuality) in order to understand the truth of Christian doctrine (that homosexuality is lust and therefore sinful). While it is certainly possible to adhere to an Aristotelian view in which certain goods are internal to a particular set of virtuous practices, it is simultaneously the case that such practices, embodied as they are in various social institutions and communities, remain at odds with one another in contemporary society. Furthermore, given that reading is itself a practice, and one embedded in a series of other social practices, how can we know which practices will lead to the right understanding, particularly of Scripture? Echoing Alasdair MacIntyre’s now famous phrase: whose virtues should we adopt? which rationality?
When Christian testimony slides into public apology, that apology becomes something more than the confirmation of communal practices and beliefs. Today such an apology is open to criticism in the public sphere; and here the kinds of questions asked and the problems posed will be much more challenging than within the church. Living in an increasingly pluralistic society, neither today’s evangelicals nor those of the future are likely to be well served by a conventional story reaffirming cherished assumptions.
The apostle Paul preaching at Athens has been subject to different figurations for two millennia; it’s high time for evangelicals to realize his Areopagus sermon anew.
[This post originally appeared on Patrolmag.com]