Narrative and Conversion: Evangelical Hermeneutics and the Transcendence of Truth

Perhaps nothing so tangibly solidified the importance of Dan Barber’s work on conversion than my recent trip to hear an ex-gay speaker tell her conversion story.Part of the reason I went, in fact, was because I have a higher tolerance for evangelical spaces (probably due to having less trauma than many others who grew up queer and evangelical) and I figured it would be interesting to see how evangelicals are shifting their narrative a bit, but not really.

The speaker, Rosaria Butterfield, has gained prominence in evangelical circles because she is a prime candidate to tell the story reformed evangelicals want to tell. For, not only was she a Lesbian, but she was a lesbian secular atheist feminist and former English professor. I can see evangelicals drooling over the fact that someone with her credentials, with her story, has become a reformed evangelical pastor’s wife.

The work of the narrative in telling someone like Butterfield’s story is very important. For one, the narrative is important to hiding the gaps in an evangelical hermeneutic. For instance, Butterfield, when she is still secular atheist, is doing research on the religious right and ends up being befriended by some reformed evangelicals who “don’t try to convert” her. It was friendship, she says, and “not friendship evangelism.” Having solidified trust with them, though, she’s more likely to consider their position. She understands that evangelicals aren’t aliens even though their beliefs are supernatural, but it is Butterfield’s need to think the supernatural as a transcendent outside to the fallen word that already reveals the where the slight of hand occurs. After accepting that God must be god in this particular mode of evangelical transcendence it follows that she would begin to suspect the bible as possibly having a claim on her in the way evangelicals narrate that claim–which is through the ideas of infallibility and the Spirit’s inspiration, such that any touch of fallen human’s being responsible for the words can’t even be a question. If a perfect and eternally good God reveals God’s self through the bible, why wouldn’t it be true in this extremely absolutist understanding of truth?

That is, the work of the conversion narrative, in part, is to make the work of conversion invisible. To make the transcendence which secures evangelical authority invisible. The thing about narratives, especially evangelical conversion narratives, is they want you to forget the author has written or compiled the narrative in a particular way so that it appears to be God God’s self who orchestrated and authorized the whole conversion.

This is why competing narratives have to be discredited (and I take this to be the case of anyone who debates truth with secular or ‘biblical’ apologetics). For Butterfield, not only is secular atheism debunked in her conversion narrative, but also gay Christian narratives like Matthew Vines which rely on biblical apologetics to come to a LGB affirming stance. It was funny to me that she called these LGB affirming biblical apologetics bad readers because that is precisely what I (and numerous biblical scholars) think of evangelical hermeneutics. It was also funny, then, that Butterfield’s conversion narrative was kind a lot like mine but in reverse and I didn’t end up a secular atheist, though I am feminist lesbian anticapitalist so 3 out of 4 isn’t so bad. But, my point is, her narration doesn’t have room for me. Evangelical narratives such as hers can’t really converse with someone like Eugene Rogers or radical Queer Christian biblical scholars, or any kind of approach to the bible that isn’t ahistoricist. And to me, that is the gap that goes unspoken in evangelical conversion narratives. The truth always appears out of nowhere knocking people upside the head. The truth is always available if you just open your bible and read it. But the reading already has an assumption that isn’t from outside the world, that isn’t ahistorical, but gets narrated as if it is.

Anyways, I don’t want to belabor the point, I just found it kind of humorous and sad how evangelicals keep trying to find ways to make everyone else seem like bad readers when they are, in my mind, the worst kinds of readers which is those who don’t think of themselves as reading in history because the book just transcends all of time.