In some ways, I feel unqualified to write this review.
Rosaria Butterfield’s newest work, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, hits me right in the gut with its emphasis on God-honoring hospitality. As I read it, each page exposed my sinful heart: my lack of compassion for my neighbors, selfishness with my time, stinginess with our finances… the list goes on.
But that’s one of the things I most appreciate about this book–the conviction it brings, though somewhat painful, is much needed. Not just for me, but for the church as a whole.
There is no doubt that Rosaria has the right experience and knowledge to address this topic. After all, we find out in the book that the hospitality of a Christian family played an integral part in her conversion. It was in their welcoming home that she encountered the Lord and His Word. Their example, her gratitude, and the Word of God led Rosaria and her family (led by her husband-pastor, Kent) to pursue the gift of hospitality with all their hearts. If only we would all do the same–even if the ways we show hospitality don’t look exactly like the Butterfield’s.
WE ALL NEED THIS
We are often so comfortable with our set-in rhythm of life that we neglect to pursue ways to grow in godliness. Hospitality is easily pushed aside as the everyday needs and habits of our own families become the sole focus. It takes real effort to look outside of our windows, let alone venture outside our doors, to reach out to our neighbors and the community around us. It’s too easy to just stay inside (our homes and our churches).
The Butterfields push against this sinful tendency and daily reach out with loving arms to their neighbors. They hold out rice and beans in one hand, and the Gospel, the Word, and Christian wisdom in the other. They pray for them by name and invest time, money, and energy into offering up their homes and hearts. When something catastrophic happens, the community looks to the Butterfields for support and encouragement. What a wonderful opportunity to point our neighbors and friends to Christ!
House Key offers just the right approach to get us out of our chairs. Quite literally. As I read the book, I frequently got up to write down ideas I had for ways our own little family (in our tiny, one-bedroom apartment) could show hospitality to our neighbors. I felt compelled, not just by her biblical reasoning, but the touching stories she told of how others’ lives were changed through their hospitality. And of course, ultimately, it is the Lord who convicts us to do what pleases Him–loving our neighbors as ourselves.
AN ENCOURAGING EXAMPLE
We’ve all heard the golden rule of writing: show, don’t tell.
For a book meant to instruct us on hospitality, we can expect some amount of telling. But Rosaria also does an excellent job showing us what she means, through vivid storytelling and real-life examples. House Key is not like many books, all theory and no practice. It combines the best of the two, woven together–abstract thought mixed with plenty of down-to-earth advice.
If anything stands out in Rosaria’s storytelling, it’s her knack for capturing the unique personalities and stories of individuals. There’s nothing two-dimensional about her portraits of Hank, their lonely, meth-addicted neighbor, or his girlfriend Aimee, or any of the others affected by the Butterfield’s ministry of love. Not to mention the colorful, adventurous Butterfield family itself! Reading House Key transported me into Rosaria’s world and showed me that she lives out the truth of what she teaches.
CHRIST-CENTERED GOSPEL, CHURCH, FAMILY
If you’re familiar with my book reviews, you know that one of the many flaws of women’s “Christian” literature today is a low view of biblical doctrine, which is ultimately a low view of Christ Himself. House Key is a refreshing change. Rosaria’s views of sin, Christ, the gospel, the church, and the family are firmly and unwaveringly biblical. She stands for Reformed truths and defends them in a winsome way. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering the fact that her husband Kent is pastor of a confessional, Reformed Presbyterian church (members of the RPCNA).
House Key encourages us to love our neighbors, not with a counterfeit love that approves of their wrongdoing, but a true love that is both compassionate and real about the evil of sin and its consequences. She upholds the vitality of the church and its holy practices (including church discipline, psalm-singing, Sabbath observance, and more). She affirms Scriptural family structure–the husband as the head and leader of the family, the wife as his submissive co-heir–while denouncing the lies of unbiblical patriarchy. She teaches the biblical gospel–the perfect God-Man, Jesus, and His atoning death for His sinful people to give them eternal life. Most of all, Rosaria points us to Christ Himself and encourages us to sit as His feet to learn from Him.
There is so much wealth to House Key that I am unable to mention it all here. You’ll have to read it for yourself! But here are just a few of the influential teachings Rosaria sets forth:
- She encourages us to view our neighbors as made imago Dei–in the image of our God, and thus possessing inherent value and dignity. This may seem like a no-brainer, but Rosaria paints some very vivid (and very sad) pictures of what it looks like to ignore the image of God in others. We would all do well to grow in this area.
- She clearly explains the differences between the social justice “Gospel” (which is none at all) and works of mercy and love performed by thankful Christians saved through Christ.
- “Invest in your neighbors for the long haul, the hundreds of conversations that make up a neighborhood, and stop thinking of conversations with neighbors as sneaky evangelistic raids into their sinful lives. … Stop treating your neighbor as a caricature of an alien worldview” (54). Ouch! But that’s a good kind of ouch.
- Rosaria reminds us that we are called to die to self, to lay down our own “rights” for the sake of love, and she shows us ways to do this practically. From the Butterfield’s self-denying adoption and foster care experiences, to their love for the needy in the church family, to their care for new Christians in prison, over and over we are shown what it’s like to sacrifice our own convenience and comfort out of love for others.
- She provides Scripture passages and quotes from a treasury of Reformed works, including Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, and Matthew Henry, and applies them to specific events and conversations happening in real time. She takes major theological teachings, such as covenantal theology and union with Christ, and makes them practical for us in our daily lives. We are encouraged to do the same.
- One profound statement I found very convicting: “Christians are not called to be desperate people, even in desperate times. The Psalms bear witness to this. Christians are called to do God’s work in desperate times” (115). This quote helped me in my temptations to neglect some important work, or to give in to a sinful attitude when faced with difficult situations.
Overall, House Key is a book I will have to revisit again. I hope now to focus on applying what I’ve learned in our relationships with our neighbors. We are on the verge of renewing our lease this week, and I am eager to make up for lost time. We are hoping to start a weekly Bible study in our home for residents in our complex, and imploring the Lord for other opportunities to show hospitality.
SOME CRITICISMS AND QUESTIONS
I hope you can tell that I enjoyed House Key and found it to be a helpful, encouraging read. That being said, I do have some lingering questions and doubts that I hope to briefly address here. Not because I can pretend to know better than Rosaria (I still feel unqualified!), but simply to open up these topics for thought and study.
I feel torn about the way House Key is written. While I admire and appreciate the memoir quality of it, I also find it difficult in some ways. For instance, the amount of detail given can at times seem excessive or off-topic. (At one point, Rosaria recounts her experience in a gay bar as a child, along with a very detailed chapter about her mother’s personality and weaknesses that felt too personal for me.) There are also moments when I wish there were fewer stories about family pets, and more explanations of principles from Scripture (especially on some of the points I address below). At times it seems unbalanced.
In the very opening of the book, Rosaria makes the statement that “if Mary Magdalene had written a book about hospitality for this post-Christian world, it would read like this one” (14). Though likely unintentional, this statement reads as boastful. In another place, Rosaria criticizes a family in her church (who did not agree with their ministry) for not being hospitable enough, and it comes across as somewhat harsh. Rather than pointing fingers at that family, Rosaria could have used an abstract example and provided a more humble response (“If not for the grace of God, there go I”).
In chapter 2, Rosaria writes,
So we, the well-known conservative Christians on the block, run a house that from the outside looks like a Christian commune. And we do not believe that this is excessive. We believe this is what the Bible calls normal (34).
This is a tricky one for me, so I’m going to level it out in the form of questions.
Is it biblical for Christian families to symbolically hand over the keys of their home (as Rosaria puts it) to neighbors and strangers, and to blend the roles of host and guest–to live in a communal way? I feel uncomfortable about this, and plan to study it more.
Is it healthy for children growing up with Christian parents to be exposed to unbelievers on a daily basis in their homes, and to overhear conversations about gross sins and worldly topics?
How do we find a balance? I am thinking about this, not from a mere philosophical standpoint, but practically as a mom of a toddler. I would love to hear more from Rosaria on this issue.
“Radically ordinary” hospitality
Throughout the book, “radically ordinary hospitality” is a catch-phrase Rosaria uses to represent the theme of the book. She offers definitions, some of which are confusing. After quoting Romans 8:38-39 (the “nothing can separate us from the love of Christ” passage), she writes:
This passage lays bare that radically ordinary hospitality paves a way for deep union with Christ. Radically ordinary hospitality renews our faith and revives our hope (38).
To me, that is giving too much credit to hospitality, and it is using that passage (Romans 8) out of context. Was Paul really addressing hospitality in those verses? While we certainly hope to be blessed in our acts of hospitality, we can only find renewed faith and hope in Christ, not in our performance.
In my estimation, there is nothing ordinary about the way the Butterfields show hospitality. Radical, perhaps–though “radical” is a catchy word with an uncertain definition these days. I would venture that very few of us are able to match Rosaria and her family in the greatness of their hospitality. They have some unique opportunities, including the size of the home and even their table (able to seat 25!). Working moms and those with small infants (me and me!) would find it nearly impossible to manage a schedule like Rosaria’s. And while she reiterates that their way of doing things doesn’t have to be ours, we are still left with the impression that unless we try to reach their level, we may be falling short of the hospitality God calls us to.
For that reason, I wish House Key provided more examples, outside of Rosaria’s personal life, of what it looks like to be hospitable when limited in space, time, and finances. What are some specific ways single people, or young couples barely getting by, or mommies home with their babies, can be hospitable? What about real dangers, real situations (outside of church discipline, which she addresses) that might require limitations and boundaries? Though she touches on these questions, they are (in my opinion) too soon dismissed. I’m afraid that without addressing the various shapes and sizes of hospitality, House Key might lead some to feeling unnecessarily guilty for not doing “more”–even if the season they are in won’t allow for it.
FINAL RATING: WHEAT
As a whole, I believe The Gospel Comes with a House Key is a valuable read and would heartedly recommend it. I would, however, add that we should read it knowing that it is imperfect and not equal to Scripture. I’m certain Rosaria acknowledges this herself: we are called to conform to the image, not of the Butterfields, but rather, of our Lord Jesus Christ. That being said, read this book, search the Scriptures, and let’s pray for opportunities to see God’s kingdom come in our homes and communities–for His glory!