If Rosaria Butterfield’s courage “waned and waxed” in writing Five Lies of Our Anti-Christian Age, as she reports in her acknowledgements section, you wouldn’t know it from the text. Her tone is urgent and earnest, and she conceives of her work as a charge by a “church militant” against a powerful enemy who is sure to lose the war, but is now winning many battles.
Butterfield’s aim, as her title indicates, is to identify five norms that are both false and ascendant in contemporary American culture. Her positions will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with her personal history, as detailed in her previous books about her conversion and Christian hospitality.
But though Five Lies covers some of the same territory, it is less memoir and more direct assault. In her tour of the front lines of the culture war, Butterfield makes a compelling case for a high view of biblical and ecclesial authority, and she not only commends but models repentance. Alongside these and other merits, however, Five Lies offers some questionable views on the Bible’s connection to Jesus, the faith of Christians who depart from Butterfield’s conclusions, and the extent to which major institutions are committed to undermining Christian values.
The five lies
“God’s will,” according to a remark Butterfield cites from John Calvin, “is that Christ’s kingdom should be encompassed with many enemies, his design being to keep us in a state of constant warfare.” Her primary audience is Christian women, and she wants them to join her fight.
Thus, contra the advice of fellow Christians like Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option, it isn’t “sufficient to leave well enough alone and build our faith on firmer foundations.” Withdrawal for the sake of discipleship and community, participation in a pluralist market of ideas, and pragmatic focus on points of practical agreement are all unacceptable for Christians, Butterfield says: “The reason we can’t do this is that none of these solutions honors God. Indeed, each and every one is a sin in its own right.”
Unfortunately, Butterfield continues, these sins are multiplying, and “enemy lines [are] drawn within Christianity” as more and more Christians believe the five lies, which she defines as follows:
1. Homosexuality is normal.
2. Being a spiritual person is kinder than being a biblical Christian.
3. Feminism is good for the world and the church.
4. Transgenderism is normal.
5. Modesty is an outdated burden that serves male dominance and holds women back.
Few of Butterfield’s arguments on these topics will be novel to readers familiar with the past half-century of culture war and intra-evangelical debate over women’s roles. Lie 1 gets the longest treatment and includes autobiography about Butterfield’s years in a lesbian relationship before her conversion.
The two chapters devoted to Lie 2 are largely given over to a story of lost friendship and an extensive recounting of a lecture from Butterfield’s former pastor on the storyline of Scripture. Only three pages (122–125) directly address the claim in question. Nor does she elaborate on an intriguing turn of phrase—paganism “that wears the clothes of Christianity”—which could mean the syncretism of ill-discipled Christian faith with self-help spirituality, or maybe something like the post-Protestantism of Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age, or maybe both or neither.
Tackling Lie 3, Butterfield selects Jesus and John Wayne author Kristin Kobes Du Mez as her primary foil. She might have strengthened this section by tilting at opponents who align with her thinking, apart from questions of women’s roles: namely evangelical egalitarians who are theologians, not historians like Du Mez, and who share Butterfield’s views on biblical authority. I won’t do Butterfield the dishonor of assuming her unfamiliar with egalitarian arguments. But I will say that, as an egalitarian, I could in good conscience take the vow about biblical infallibility she describes taking, and I don’t recognize my views in these pages.
Moreover, Butterfield could have been more careful about specifying the type of feminism she deplores. Feminists want equality with men so badly they’ll deny “basic biology,” she writes. “Under feminism, men and women are interchangeable.” This is true of some feminists, no doubt, but it can hardly be said of others, like the gender-critical feminists whose stance on transgenderism resembles Butterfield’s own.
Like Lie 1, Lies 4 and 5 offer few surprises. One in the former is Butterfield’s distinction “between an illness (gender dysphoria) and an ideology (transgenderism),” a contrast I wasn’t sure she’d draw. And in the latter, I appreciated her case that social media misuse is a kind of immodesty, as well as her sharp connection of modesty to our blurry digital line between public and private.
Encouragements and exhortations
That wasn’t all I appreciated. Butterfield’s insistence on the development of virtue in the Christian life, her castigation of celebrity pastors who neglect their over-large flocks, her assumption that Christians won’t ostracize loved ones over culture-war disagreements, and her condemnation of American civil religion are all points well made. Moreover, any reader who comes to Five Lies as an unchurched culture warrior will not leave it ignorant of the gospel.
Beyond that, throughout Five Lies, Butterfield beats a steady and needful drum of encouragement to commit to a healthy local church and submit to sound pastoral authority. “My prayer,” she writes, “is that our generation would be known for faithful prayer, fervent worship, diligent church membership, and sacrificial hospitality, blessed by and magnified by the Holy Spirit.” My prayer is the same.
She is also correct that implicit beliefs about biblical authority—often unexamined—undergird many of the debates Five Lies reviews. If you are unconvinced of biblical truth, Butterfield cautions, “then the minute the Bible crosses you … you will declare [that offending part] an ancient bias and no longer binding.”
Finally, Butterfield’s regular exhortations to repentance are admirable. And whether or not one agrees with her judgment, she shows a welcome willingness to admit error in explaining why she no longer uses preferred pronouns that conflict with biological sex. If there is one thing we in the chattering class need in greater supply, it is honest acknowledgement of our public mistakes.
The Bible and the body of Christ
I did not expect to conclude Five Lies in total agreement with Butterfield and am not interested in rehearsing my expected disagreements. But I do want to examine three aspects of the book which left me troubled.
The first pertains to Butterfield’s view of Scripture. In the appendix, which offers “Guiding Principles for How to Read the Bible,” she writes:
The apostle Peter addresses the relationship between the human authors of Scripture and the Holy Spirit when he says, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20–21). Because of the Holy Spirit’s role and authentication, we can be confident that the word of God is a “permanent embodiment” of Christ himself. (emphasis mine)
Describing the Bible as the “permanent embodiment” of Jesus is odd, at the very least. Jesus is already permanently embodied, post-Resurrection, in his glorified human body (Luke 24:39, 1 Cor. 15:42, Phil. 3:21). When Christians speak of the “body of Christ,” we mean the church, not Scripture (1 Cor. 12:27). And though we speak of Jesus as “the Word” (John 1) and the Bible as “the word of God” (2 Cor. 2:17), they are not the same word, and we do not worship the Bible. It is Jesus who is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being,” a fuller revelation than God’s words “to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Heb. 1:1–3).
Butterfield’s use of quotation marks around “permanent embodiment” made me wonder if she had a reference in mind, though there is no footnote provided. I believe her intended reference may be a 2013 article from pastor Nicholas Batzig, whom Butterfield cites elsewhere in the book.
In that article, Batzig uses the same phrase—but, crucially, the directionality is reversed. Where Butterfield says the Bible embodies Christ, Batzig says the Old Testament law finds “permanent embodiment” in Christ through his perfect fulfillment of its requirements. Batzig’s directionality has sound biblical basis (Matt. 5:17); I’m doubtful the same can be said of Butterfield’s version.
A second area where I would have welcomed greater clarity concerns the question of whether a true Christian can endorse (or live out) any of the positions Butterfield dismisses as lies, either in whole or in part. Several times, she explicitly allows that disagreement is possible among believers—but many comments throughout the book suggest the opposite.
On the one hand, Butterfield recognizes the existence of “Christian[s] struggling with homosexuality.” She acknowledges that “Christians do disagree on matters of doctrine,” and that salvation does not depend on our theology, including belief in biblical inerrancy. She confesses that she personally “continued to believe some of [the lies] for years into my Christian life.” Most conclusively, she affirms “there are true believers who affiliate with gay Christianity,” even if “to their own harm.”
But on the other hand, Butterfield repeatedly uses “professing Christian” and similar phrases to suggest there are many who claim Christ but, as revealed by their beliefs about sex and gender, aren’t actually saved. She says “gay Christian” is “an oxymoron if there ever was one” and “there is truly no such thing as a ‘transgendered Christian,’ if by this term we mean [someone] celebrating a transgendered identity as somehow honoring to Christ or the church.” Butterfield rejects the whole “gay Christian movement”—including figures like Wesley Hill who say marriage is reserved for opposite-sex couples and commit themselves to celibacy. It “presents a false religion,” she alleges, “a different religion from biblical Christianity.”
Is this a deliberate tension—a push toward “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12–13)—or just a lack of precision? The most generous interpretation I can make is that Butterfield is holding fast to Christ as the foundation of a Christian’s identity. One passage supports this read well:
Union with Christ demands that Christ has exclusive claims on his redeemed people. Indeed, you do yourself great harm if you insist on holding two forms of self-representation—sexual and spiritual. Both forms of self-representation compete for the same thing: your loyalty, your heart, your sense of self, your faith. Homosexual identity is incompatible with union with Christ because there is no dual citizenship for a Christ follower.
But other parts make that interpretation difficult. When Butterfield defines a “transgendered Christian” as someone “celebrating a transgendered identity as somehow honoring to Christ or the church,” this leaves room for people who don’t themselves identify as transgender. Likewise, her description of the “gay Christian movement” includes many people who don’t identify as gay. Does Butterfield doubt their salvation or not? I don’t know.
An accurate lay of the land
My final concern is Butterfield’s tendency, from the first page of her introduction, to overstate the prevalence and scope of institutional capture, by which I mean the transformation of some commonly respected organization or profession “into a mouthpiece for an ideology.”
She starts with a theoretical story of you, the reader, going to a “big warehouse grocery store.” In the parking lot, “a brother in the Lord” yells “Bigot!” or “Hater!” as you pass with your children. Screens inside show a news report about “intersectionality and gay Christianity,” and the reporter declares “full-scale war against heteronormativity.” The Costco staffer checking membership cards “shak[es] her fists in rage” over your misgendering (saying “miss”) and shrieks, “Your heteronormativity abuses me!” Then, the kicker: “This is real life, but it feels like you inhabit the pages of a dystopian novel.”
But that’s the thing: It’s not real life. Store televisions play inoffensive videos of flowers and food designed to show off their HD tech, and a store clerk literally shaking her fists and screaming at a random mom about heteronormativity would be caught on camera and shamed on Twitter for days. Were this play staged on social media, I’d believe it—but Butterfield didn’t present it as an indictment of digital larping, cruelty, and radicalization. She staged it in Costco.
A similar dynamic reoccurs several times in Five Lies. For example, while discussing brain-sex theory, Butterfield asks how you might discover the supposed sex of your brain. “Google is there to help,” she writes, “and to manipulate with an online quiz.” But “Google” here means one of probably millions of results the search engine will return if you ask for something like “brain-sex quiz.” Butterfield’s footnote refers to brainfall.com, a low-budget BuzzFeed imitator with no affiliation to the tech giant.
More seriously, Butterfield says “bathrooms in government schools are coed by law” and claims this is “federally enforced.” It’s true that the Obama and Biden administrations have pushed public schools to allow students to “access sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identity,” but this is not a federal “law,” and it is not “enforced.” On the contrary, in our federalist system, bathroom bills are passed at the state and municipal level, and many of them require people to use the space corresponding to their biological sex.
In a similar confusion, while discussing Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage, Butterfield appears to mistake an amicus brief (a paper giving the justices advice which carries no legal weight of its own) with the court’s legally binding decision. She writes that the “court declared opposition to gay marriage a discriminatory act of ‘animus’ (hatred)”—but the Obergefell decision does not include that word.
Butterfield’s footnote points to a Washington Postarticle describing an amicus brief, and she also neglects to mention that the legal meaning of animus, in the context of civil rights law, concerns only the behavior of state officials acting in their official capacity. That is, even if the Obergefell ruling had explicitly invoked animus, it wouldn’t have applied to private citizens’ opposition to gay marriage, like Butterfield’s own. It isn’t illegal to believe marriage should be reserved to heterosexual couples—and to say so as loudly and as often as you like.
“We are to rule in the midst of our enemies,” Butterfield reflects toward the end of the book, referring to Psalm 110:2. “But what are we to rule? Who? How? It feels like no one listens to us anymore.”
It’s a plaintive line, and one which makes sense of these overstatements of institutional capture. That’s not to suggest Butterfield is wrong in her basic observation that American cultural norms on sex and gender have changed at lightning speed in living memory. But it is to say that the change is not as complete as Butterfield imagines, that many institutional safeguards of religious liberty are holding strong, and that a soldier heading to battle should want an accurate lay of the land.
Butterfield herself points to a better way: “Things have changed—and we need to discern how those changes impact our lives. But the gospel hasn’t changed. God hasn’t changed. Here at the Butterfields’, the gospel still comes with a house key.”
Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.