When I picked up Rosaria’s book in 2012, I thought to myself, “Well… she’s an English professor. At least the prose will be enjoyable.” Now I’m ashamed at how low my expectations were. I had no idea how her book would become the tip of the spear for a rewewed cultural discussion dealing with sexual identity and orientation. Since that time it has been my privilege to get to know Rosaria through emails, prayer request exchanges, and a shared event at a local university. So when I saw that she was due to release her second book at the beginning of July I was delighted and my expectations were so much higher. To say my expectations were met would be an understatement and not because I now consider Rosaria a friend but because the book is excellent in so many ways.
First of all, her book is excellent because it is basic in the best possible way. True to form as a former college professor, Rosaria assumes that her audience will be a diverse crowd. Some will be familiar with the terminology of Christianity, and some will be familiar with the more technical jargon of secular academic discourse. This is obvious to the reader because they run across definitions of such words as “redeem,” “inerrancy” and “original sin” as well as words like “hermeneutics”, “dialogic”, and “Queer Theory.” This makes the book accessible to anyone who wishes to put in the effort. But her book is basic in the best possible way because she doesn’t simply stop with “the basics”. She is able to lead the readers from where they are into the deeper waters of applying the biblical concepts like union with Christ and repentance to the cultural issues of sexual orientation and self-identification. But she doesn’t leave the reader in the often esoteric and ephemeral realm of academic discourse but rather leads one into the real world where we must live together with open, honest, and earnest disagreements and somehow try to forge a community in the midst of conflict and tension.
Secondly, her book is excellent because the chapter on repentance is simply stellar. And while it’s stellar in too many ways to list in this review, the opening volley of this chapter is too masterful to pass up expounding. It is here where Rosaria exorcises the specter of shame from the concept of repentance as it is often perceived in the broader culture. She defines shame well and then describes the near-universal struggle with shame when she speaks autobiographically: “[O]ne problem with shame is that it just wouldn’t stay in my past (p.59).” (Isn’t this really true for us all?) But the thing Rosaria does that really sets the reader free is that she elucidates how the remaining presence of indwelling sin conspires with our unrealistic expectations of leading a “triumphant” Christian life relatively free of sin in order to generate a haunting shame that paralyzes and/or isolates. We often live with this naive idea that conversion to Christianity entails a move from spiritual bondage to spiritual easy street, whereas the reality we face after conversion is more like moving from spiritual bondage to spiritual battle. And this is where repentance becomes “the threshold to God.” Repentance takes seriously God’s holy standards for living (a.k.a. God’s law) and our desire to demonstrate our love for Christ by conforming our lives to those standards. According to Rosaria (and the Bible), “Conversion gives you the freedom to repent...” and repentance is the on-going practice whereby we “must… put to death those sinful desires of the flesh and of the world that entice us (Rom. 8.13)(p. 63).” We turn from who we are to who Jesus is at our conversion, and through repentance we turn from complacency with continuing sin to waging war with that sin because we love the Savior. As she says in a prior chapter, “God gives you victory by equipping you to do battle with sin, and by giving you the humility to know that you need him every step of the way (p.56).”
This is the beautiful freedom that every person needs. This is the “good” part of the good news. This is the true center that meets the ugliness of our real. This shows us just how dark the well of our sinful hearts are and how gloriously bright and hopeful the finished cross-and-empty-tomb work of Christ is. For anyone who has struggled with some form of sexual brokenness (e.g. porn addiction, unwanted homosexual desire, etc.), grace at each step is the much-needed gospel… grace for conversion, grace for seeing our sins rightly, grace for strength to wage battle, grace to endure the war until Christ comes again. Certainly we are not passive participants in this life of our apprenticeship to Christ, but the grace flowing from Christ himself is both the fount and the continued flow necessary.
Rosaria then takes her readers from the chapter on repentance into two immensely clarifying chapters “Sexual Orientation” and “Self-Representation” that demonstrate how she is a most capable expositor of the secular cultural narrative. And though the best chapter is the one on repentance, the way she ends her book is probably the most important. Some readers might think she distracts from the main purpose of the book with her last two chapters, “Conflict” and “Community”. However, it is these very chapters where readers see an example of what Christian love (in older times called “charity”) looks like when it puts its working clothes on. Through republishing some private correspondence between herself and another woman, Rosaria helps us see how two Christians can do more than “agree to disagree” but actually pursue meaningful, ongoing discourse where deep disagreements abide. Then, like a vehicle gently merging into a different lane of traffic, she takes us into “Community” (chapter 7). It is in this chapter where the reader is left with the sense that finding cultural accord on topics like sexual identity and ethics will most likely be found in the arena of dinner tables rather than debate halls. She reminds us all that, “People are always more complex than the ideas they embrace (p.163)” and that hospitality and community are “how our faith is visible and serviceable, powerful and potent (p. 147).”
In her first book, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria says in reference to the pastor who befriended her during her days at Syracuse, “Good teachers make it possible for people to change their positions without shame (p.14).” That is, in fact, what Rosaria herself offers in this volume. The reader who wishes to give her a friendly ear will find a beautiful soul beckoning them to embrace someone who has been embraced and changed by the risen Christ. Readers are invited, not to leave their shame at the door, but to bring it in with them and join her at the table as equals so that their shame can be dealt with. And in this culture, where shame appears to be the primary currency in so many secular and Christian corners, Rosaria’s teaching here is so helpful and so sorely needed.