When I was in college studying youth ministry and biblical theology, my degree professor read from “My Utmost From His Highest” to begin some of our classes and he referred to it as “The Hammer.” That’s the word that first came to mind as I read the book I’m about to review. There are clearly parts of the Bible and especially the Gospels that are woefully under-practiced in America and our culture is good about making excuses and rationalizations as to why. This book crushes those two things with a mighty swing of a basic theology of what the author calls “radically ordinary hospitality”.
Rosaria Butterfield splashed onto the scene a few years ago with The Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, which my dad strongly encouraged every teenager and adult in my immediately family to read. That work put her on the map and for very good reason. It is a unique story of transformation that only the Christian God could have written. But using her to tell it made her a must-read author to my mind and I am thrilled my senior pastor informed me about this book. In reviewing it I am not going to get fancy; I will tell you what I loved about it and then talk about the things that I was unsure about. I aim to give the benefit of the doubt so I won’t go as far as to say I do not like them. But they are things I would love ask Rosaria about if I ever got to talk to her.
Things I Loved
First, I loved just the simple premise of the book and how plainly yet boldly the challenge is laid out and exegeted: The Bible calls us to hospitality and that means doing the sacrificial thing and opening up our homes to people in extremely intimate and absolutely inconvenient ways. In the Preface on page 11, she articulates her thesis very simply: “A truly hospitable heart anticipates every day, Christ-centered table fellowship and guests who are genuinely in need.” I may be in the minority but I do not know many people who practice this. The fact she wrote this makes me think I am not in the minority. The way she uses the Bible (passages like Luke 9:44-50) and her own experience (including her daily schedule!) to support this statement is the heart of the book. It is what convicted me for nearly 200 pages. She is not afraid to be offensive by speaking a hard truth. I deeply respect that.
Secondly, I love how brutally honest she is about how rough hospitality can be in 3D. After a few dozen pages, you may think (if you are like me), “Man she sure is bragging on herself a lot.” That thought was not enough to get me to put the book down because the material was far too good, and I know that sometimes my own insecurity and defensiveness cause me to perceive other people preaching truth to be haughty. But Butterfield eventually makes sure that God’s grace is manifested through human weaknesses. She tells of a time her family adopted a daughter at 17 years old and how the girl did not take to them and as she aged out she left them behind. She tells about how when her mother lived with them it wrecked their hospitality efforts and put a strain on their family that exposed her (Butterfield’s) own sinful nature. She tells of a time her family got robbed and how no one in her house “found okay” for months. She talks about how to deal with hospitality with a “Judas,” the individual at a church under church discipline and how complicated that makes living out her thesis. By the end of the book, I appreciated significantly how Butterfield demonstrates that life in Christ is not picture perfect and that community can be ugly, messy and filled with rejection. She has a sober view of self in my opinion and does not come across as falsely humble. Any time a Christian is honest about themselves, humility should be the result. She is raw and transparent in her stories.
I also love how she brings self-righteous people like me to their knees by pointing out when church leaders get caught in sins and prove that our judgmental, inhospitable approaches to people we perceive to be more sinful than us are not biblical. Jesus got his hands and feet dirty reaching out to the people in society that no one would touch (the way she explains Jesus’ response to leprosy is masterful) and he was morally perfect. Who am I to walk to the other side of the road to avoid others? People in my circles of Christianity know Jesus ministered to the disenfranchised. Yet who among us is living as he did? We often are too worried about getting taken advantage of to really live out the story of the Good Samaritan or too concerned with dignity to bend down and associate with the dirty sinners among us. The truth is that quite often that the same pride that prevents us from ministering to those people is the same pride that leads to our own downfalls. Butterfield is at her best here, providing a searing rebuke to modern Pharisaical Christianity. Trust me, I need this. I get this teaching at my church but her skills as a writer really accentuated things I can get complacent about. Just recently I heard about a girl who got pregnant at 11 years old and my first thought was a Pharisaical one (I didn’t have sex before marriage!), even though I’ve lusted after women thousands of times in my life. I need this book for this reason.
Lastly I love how she makes a point to say that hospitality is not just receiving people but going into their homes as well. It is being a host and a guest. This is something I have noted good churches in Chicago have been promoting in recent months—why not do what Jesus did with Zaccheus and others and invite ourselves to others’ homes to evangelize and disciple them? This is definitely counterintuitive and countercultural to me but this book motivates me to try it.
What I Am Unsure About
If you have read anything by Butterfield you know it seems like she has passionate and pointed opinions about secondary things, like singing only biblical psalms and not “man-made hymns”. But at the same time, I do not know her personally so I tread very carefully in judging the things she writes that cause me to furrow my brow. One of the things in this book I am speaking to is from page 103:
“Next in the biblical family is a mom who is home and available to serve. While I am employable in a full-time way outside of the home, our family has always needed me at home, and so home I am. As a stay-at-home mom I can do one hundred helpful things for the people I love most in the world in the first thirty minutes of waking. Things that matter and cannot be farmed out to others for pay.”
Now, of course as a man married to a Chicago Public School teacher who is paid pretty well to experience some of the most frightening aspects of humanity, all to be salt and light to inner-city children, I wonder at first exactly what she means by that. Other parts of the book make me think that it is not as myopic as it may sound. Part of the issue is that stay-at-home/homeschooling debate has created a lot of scars, for all kinds of people. But setting aside this baggage, which biblically I should do to live in community, I can try to understand Butterfield better here. She and I are absolutely on the same team. We can sharpen iron with iron on topics like these.
Another thing that gave me a bit of pause is her willingness to bring the government and politics into the discussion on hospitality. Now, I agree with everything she said, but I come at it with a bias. Also, I have zero issue with Christians calling out politicians on their words about people who are different, especially those who are not from America. But on the issue of policy I am less clear how much the Bible says about what a sovereign nation is required to do in the compassion vs. national security debate. I appreciate how plainly she speaks and the risks she takes here, but I am not sure how much I agree with every jot and tittle of her conclusions. I vote for compassion but I have Christian friends who think differently so I do not consider this an absolute truth issue, as some people on both sides seem to want to.
Overall this is a necessary book for 2019 America. It has messed with my mind in the best way possible. I hope to practice it, even with a baby coming. Because as Butterfield teaches, our excuses, even those that involve the protection and safety of our children, can at times succumb to the weight of Biblical demands to love the unlovable and to allow others to infiltrate our most secure dwelling: our home. I recommend it to all Christians everywhere.