Rosaria Butterfield’s new book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, should include a trigger warning. It is presented on some level as a tidy book on hospitality, bringing up images of clean houses and doilies, of pleasant, polite conversation.
Instead one is confronted with secret meth addicts, an excursus on gay nightclubs, rebukes of church failings, and just a whole lot of soup. This is no mere hospitality volume, this is a practical theology of discipleship. Was this a product of mis-marketing?
Or, more likely, have we been catechized into a faulty vision of hospitality?
Butterfield expertly weaves her book together, narrative the warp and theological reflection the woof, to create a seamless whole. We need narratives of a particular life, because the universal can be so large as to lose us. In seeing the practicality of what the Butterfields do, the possibility of it opens up in our own lives. And this, of course, is where the fear sets in.
Fear, because hospitality does indeed expose our American idols of comfort and control. Fear, because welcoming strangers is in fact dangerous. Fear, because we can’t see it to the end, and perhaps because we know our own frailty.
And fear, of course, can lead to rationalizing. We see an admirable life, and our hearts appreciate it. But as soon as that life makes a demand on us, we want to justify our inaction. We label ourselves too busy, too introverted, too feeble. Certainly this was what I said to myself at various points in the reading.
Butterfield will have none of this. She makes pains to explain that she too is busy, introverted and feeble, and she anchors planning around these weaknesses in the call of Christ to come and die. That’s why it’s not about hospitality, but discipleship. She firmly roots the use of our homes in the very principles of true Christianity: sacrifice, love, welcoming of the other even at great cost.
She is most moving in two conversion narratives. First, she recalls how her family wooed a recluse into friendship, and how that wooing was used by the Spirit to draw that unlikely man to Christ. This narrative runs through the whole book, watering it like a steady stream, pointing to the fruitfulness that God can work through radically ordinary hospitality. The second is the deeply empathetic story of Butterfield’s relationship with her mother, it’s toxicity and resolution in the mother’s deathbed conversion.
Both episodes show that hospitality is primarily oriented towards mission, and nothing less. The home becomes hospital, both birth and delivery ward as well as nurturing the sick and injured. The effect is inspiring, and self-evidently Christian.
That doesn’t mean that the work doesn’t have weaknesses. Though she is careful to caveat that hospitality doesn’t have to look precisely how her family runs it, the overall presentation of the book can militate against those caveats. Additionally, her declarations about how wives should function in the home may create such a distraction for some readers as to cause them to miss the bigger point. And the declarations themselves are perhaps not quite nuanced enough for the callings and giftings that exist in many husband-wives teams. I offer that light critique as a complementarian myself, who believes in the goodness of loving male headship and joyful self-submission of wives as the way God has designed family to work.
The book also would have benefited from more ways for the principles it contains to be brought home. Perhaps questions at the end of the conclusion to direct the reader would help the lessons land.
Nonetheless, these don’t undermine the many good things that Butterfield offers. She is realistic, unashamed, and fervently Christ-centered. She is never trying to trick, but rather trying to call you out of being tricked by your own sin. Each of us longs for a life of meaning but most of us instead construct something dull, dead, and numbingly safe or worldly. Butterfield invites us to see that Jesus is and has always been the challenge, the adventure, the life we have wanted.
I was deeply challenged by this book, in the best way. Both the difficulty and the beauty of the call to steward my life and home in a radical way weighed heavy upon me. I didn’t feel the condemnation of the accuser, telling me what a poor job I do; instead I felt an upward call to start where I am, to pray for Christ’s strength in my weakness, to anticipate both hardship and beauty if I follow through. The part that gives me pause is my own capacity to be inspired yet do nothing. That would be a tragic misuse of this book, and one I feel so capable of committing.
The best way to avoid that end, I believe, will be if discussion of these principles becomes more normal in our Christian circles. This book, and hopefully others like it, seem to be just what the church needs today, if only we’ll act in the Spirit after reading. Buy it, read it—even better, put it into practice.
*I received a promotional copy of this book from Crossway for review purposes.