A Review of
The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World
Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
A Reading List
Rosaria Butterfield doesn’t have the typical conservative Christian background, her conversion having come while researching the Religious Right as an antagonist. During that work (as she’s written on elsewhere), she became a Christian and her post-conversion life has become one of what she describes in her latest book The Gospel Comes with a House Key as “radically ordinary hospitality.” That phrase might sound heavy, but she breaks it down like this: “Radically ordinary hospitality is this: using your Christian home in a daily way that seeks to make strangers neighbors, and neighbors family of God” (31). Throughout the book, Butterfield explores an unusual way of living that manages to be both strange and familiar at the same time.
The book functions much more like a memoir than a theological treatise. Butterfield certainly has the chops for exegetical work (as when she explores Luke 7) or systematic structures (as when she delineates the components of hospitality with supporting scriptures), but she builds her case more through demonstration than argument. In doing so, she makes that case for radical hospitality look pretty compelling. It stems from her own experiences before she was a Christian, when she was welcomed into a pastor’s home. “The threshold to their life was like none other,” she writes. “The threshold to their life brought me to the foot of the cross” (50).
With that background, a reader might expect her to see hospitality as a means of evangelism. Find a sinner, give them soup and bread, watch them come to Jesus. Certainly an awareness of the potential of outreach lies in these pages, but Butterfield sounds less driven by that motive than simply by her love for her neighbors, developed in response to God’s own love for her. It may sound trite, but Butterfield doesn’t discuss hospitality along the lines of outreach needs or even biblical obedience so much as she finds it a natural outgrowth of her own spiritual transformation.
Looking at Butterfield’s life – one in which neighbors constantly come by, extra food stands ready, and the coffee constantly percolates – the whole enterprise feels self-evident. Partly that leads to the “ordinary” in her concept. This kind of hospitality doesn’t require noticeably great measures. It involves hanging out with people, picking up some extra food, and generally being around. The bases for such behavior are a little more unusual, but fairly standard church ideas: “church membership, prayer and fasting, solitude, repentance, Bible reading, Scripture memory, and worshipful singing” (36). Hospitality is ordinary: do the churchy things and be nice to your neighbors.
But as Butterfield reveals, hospitality includes a radical side. Living a truly hospital life requires interactions with all sorts of people, and not just those like you. It finds inmates and it follow friends to prison, and it requires excessive spending on groceries alone. To live like Butterfield does requires choosing to prioritize hospitality rather than seeking traditional forms of comfort. In the West, and many other places, living this way means taking radical, intentional steps. Offering this sort of hospitality requires commitment. Butterfield explains, “God calls us to make sacrifices that hurt so that others can be served and maybe even saved. We are called to die. Nothing less” (42).
Those sacrifices come in the obvious forms of time and money, but in the less obvious forms of emotional risk and personal criticism (a feminist academic who gives her life to ravioli for the neighbors certainly isn’t immune from attack). Butterfield’s narrative helps show the suffering and the wonder that comes with radically ordinary hospitality. When her family befriends the reclusive Boo Radley next door, it begins a complex and surprising relationship, with giving and receiving (Butterfield is adamant, and convincing, that hospitality requires being both host and guest). That story runs throughout the book, involving lost dogs and crime and community fallout, as well as redemption in unlikely places.
Fortunately, the book doesn’t just offer a memorable story. She takes the time to examine some of the theological meat of the issue. Her insights on spiritual warfare are particularly intriguing. She defines spiritual warfare as “the process by which believers taste and see the power of the age to come every time they open their Bibles and every time they bring their petitions to the throne of grace in prayer” (38). With that definition in mind, she explains how hospitality reveals our connection to Christ, works in our sanctification, and more.
Butterfield’s strongest exegetical work comes when she tackles Luke 7:36-39, Jesus’s anointing by a sinful woman. She interweaves her reading of this story with her own experiences, making a smooth connection to daily life. It allows her to come to a conclusion essential to hospitality, as well as missions or just about any aspect of the Christian life: “Jesus knew that her sin was not her ontology: being a prostitute may have been how she was, but it was not who she was. Ontologically speaking, she was an image bearer, a child of God” (84). In working through this passage, Butterfield uses her own experiences giving and receiving hospitality to tie a basic gospel message into radical, but ordinary, approach to life.
For all the strength of this writing (in both its thinking and its prose), the book does contain an odd section that Butterfield never fully resolves. She asks, “But what about Judas Iscariot? Does he get a house key, too?” (117). The chapter preceding that question deals with fallout from related concerns, but it spends too much time working through her own church’s crisis without satisfactorily tying it into the theme of hospitality or resolving the difficulties. She does handle church discipline and make suggestions on how to proceed, the key point being that “it is a million ties safer to including unbelieving neighbors…than to let a potential Judas run loose in the church” (127). However, this chapter feels simultaneously long and underdeveloped.
That bit aside, The Gospel Comes with a House Key offers a remarkable look at an approach to life that’s surprising in the radical features of its ordinary life. Butterfield’s love for neighbors should serve as a model of heart, recognizing that specifics may change in various locations or cultures (rural areas would need to modify some of the talk of neighborhoods, for example). Utilizing personal narrative allows her to draw in theological and practical aspects of the topic while consistently offering nothing less than a vision for modern Christian hospitality.
Justin Cober-Lake holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing has focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music. He’s also the co-founder of OneFocus Press.