The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in our Post-Christian WorldWritten by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield Reviewed By Paul S. Jeon
Some people are going to hate this book because it speaks truth and does so in a concrete and piercing way. It’s true not just in the sense of being orthodox and biblical. It’s also true in its specific and pointed applications. Some may even feel that the book is self-righteous, legalistic, and naïve. (Personally, I hated it because it made me weep like a baby.) But Butterfield excels in moving her readers in all her books, so the fact that this new installment evokes anger, thoughtfulness, tears, and perhaps even conviction comes as no surprise. And lest any misunderstand my own position, I wholeheartedly commend this book. The Gospel Comes with a House Key is reformed theology at its best, merging sound biblical teaching with practical living—all narrated through the wise voice of one regularly engaged in repentance and committed to walking with the Lord.
Throughout the book, Butterfield weaves the story of her experience with her neighbor Hank, a meth addict, and his infinitely loyal pit bull, Tank. Interspersed are other moving narratives, including stories from Butterfield’s “former” life, her complicated relationship with her mother, and the literal ups-and-downs of regular hospitality. The first half of the book orients the reader to the subject of hospitality, mainly through a healthy mix of Butterfield’s personal experiences and biblical teaching. Taking her cue from the Bible, she defines “hospitality” as “love of the stranger” (p. 35). The book then addresses questions readers would ask of Butterfield, including boundaries, potential liabilities, and special cases (e.g., hospitality toward those that have been excommunicated). The book concludes with some practical suggestions, though it could be said that the entire book is practical.
Butterfield doesn’t shy away from presenting herself (and her family, including her children) as exemplars of biblical hospitality. Here is where some might feel that her tone is self-righteous or that she is commending herself. But this would be a misunderstanding. Her purpose is to show that she is more than “just talk.” Indeed, I was reminded regularly of Paul’s willingness to point to himself as an example for all to imitate. Personally, I found it refreshing to hear from someone who at least implicitly says, “Do not just as I say but also as I do.”
A repeated phrase in the book is “radically ordinary,” a phrase that captures perhaps the message or ethos of the book. The phrase seems to be an appropriation (and, perhaps, a correction) of David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2010) and Michael Horton’s Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014). Butterfield contends that followers of Christ should be radical, but not necessarily in the sense of becoming the next Tim Keller or serving at an underground church in China. Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is simply to obey the ordinary things the Bible calls us to, especially the care and entertainment of strangers. Certainly, Butterfield’s own life illustrates how daily obedience can be radical, and how God seems to prefer to use our ordinary obedience to accomplish extraordinary outcomes—namely, the conversion of avowed atheists. In short, her book is a summons to be radially obedient about the ordinary calling to be hospitable.
What is perhaps most helpful and challenging about the book is the way it teases out in painfully concrete ways how all believers are “missionaries,” with their “mission fields” being the neighbors God has providentially placed in their lives. Over the years, members of my church have given one reason after another as to why they don’t share the gospel with those around them. The main reason usually relates to not knowing how to answer difficult questions. Butterfield suggests that this outlook is far too reductionistic and that the way to share the gospel is by engaging with the entire person through regular hospitality. Hospitality allows unbelievers to encounter the faith in more “natural” ways—to see Christians in action in their everyday lives. I suspect that people won’t like this radically ordinary means of evangelism because it forces us to confront our tendency to idolize our homes and to transform them from being “castles” and retreats (p. 41) into “hospitals and incubators” (p. 64). But for anyone who is serious about fulfilling the Great Commission, the clear challenge of this book will lead to radical change.
This reviewer was particularly challenged by Butterfield’s idea of having “margin time” (p. 12) and her willingness to sacrifice income and career to pursue hospitality. The first demands that we stop trying to max out every minute of our lives in order to have plenty of time to be readily and extensively available for our neighbors. This is especially challenging for helicopter parents, persons who want to make more money, and individuals that want to travel and taste every new place and restaurant posted on Facebook. Perhaps in our current climate the creation of such “margin time” can be the most radical thing we do.
The other example hits home for many (at least in my church) where most of the households “enjoy” dual-income. While Butterfield never says this is unbiblical, the reader at least wonders whether it is possible to pursue hospitality if both husband and wife are working full-time. If a reader concludes, “Everything Butterfield exhorts just isn’t possible,” it may be because they have committed to a dual-income lifestyle. It’s helpful to keep in mind that Butterfield herself was once a tenured professor at Syracuse University and clearly has the ability to enjoy a lucrative career as a writer, teacher, and speaker. But she intentionally limits her “professional” activities so that she can support her husband in his ministry, attend to their children (whom she homeschools), and be a good neighbor with the hope that strangers would become neighbors and eventually friends and perhaps even family in the Lord. Rather than dismissing her book as naïve, the reader should consider whether Butterfield has teased out in real and difficult ways the cost of following Christ. Clearly, she has.
Butterfield also addresses the complex question of being a good neighbor and raising children in the Lord. Some parents may wonder whether the sort of open-door policy Butterfield practices is wise given that children can be exposed to undue danger. As Butterfield narrates, hospitality is messy and risky work, seen especially in having her home burglarized or befriending a meth addict. She herself would wholeheartedly agree that children (and the church) need to be protected, particularly from those engaged in unrepentant and egregious sins. Nevertheless, she suggests that perhaps what is more dangerous is modeling a Christian household that is foreign to the Bible itself. Paul, for instance, says to his spiritual son, “share in suffering for the gospel” (2 Tim 1:8). Butterfield’s children get that following Jesus isn’t primarily about attending a fun youth program. It’s about embracing the marginalized, writing to those in prison, and sharing meals with people who have never tasted “normalcy.” Perhaps the worst thing we can do for our children is to instill in them the idol of safety. After all, Jesus, as Butterfield highlights, saved us by surrendering his own safety.
I’ve touched on just a few of the reasons why some people may not like the book. But truth, as seen ultimately in the ministry of Jesus, always offends to some degree. However, I don’t want to suggest Butterfield’s book is perfect. I read with some reservation her account of various people leaving her husband’s church (there’s always another side to a story, and sometimes the reasons for leaving are complicated); the sustainability of her hospitality practice; the occasional tangents; and perhaps an implicit low view of rest. But these possible minor blemishes should not detract from the wisdom, force, and prophetic quality of the book. While Butterfield never outright says it, the reader is left wondering whether an absence of hospitality should cast doubts on the veracity of one’s faith. If hospitality represents a basic expression of the love command, we cannot claim to love God whom we have not seen and yet fail to be hospitable to those who are right in front of us.
Finally, this book is about hope. We are often tempted to believe that some people are so hardened to the gospel that they can never come to faith. Butterfield describes a few such people in her book. Yet, many did come to faith—not because of anything extraordinarily radical on Butterfield’s part but because of her commitment to the radically ordinary “discipline” of hospitality, particularly toward difficult persons who are usually dismissed and rejected as enemies of the gospel and menaces to society. Yes, God has the power to change such people, but such power is expressed through the ordinary means of regularly breaking bread with strangers; hence, the gospel comes with a house key. In this sense, Butterfield’s book is an encouragement to never give up on people—or on God—but to endure in love by keeping the doors of your home open. You never know. Perhaps God will take this seemingly simple act of faith and obedience and do far more than anything we could ever ask or imagine.
Paul S. Jeon
Paul S. Jeon
Reformed Theological Seminary
Washington, DC, USA