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Feminism

why aren’t Christians outraged by sexual abuse?

Because I wrote an article for Relevant a while ago (“What Christians Get Wrong about Sexual Abuse“), every so often I get e-mails from their editors asking for pitches on specific topics. This week, they asked for an article titled “Why Aren’t More Christians Outraged by Sexual Harassment Scandals?”, referencing the recent firing of Bill O’Reilly for sexually harassing women at Fox News. I pitched them something, and they published it yesterday.

You can read the whole thing here. I’m a little annoyed at Relevant‘s habit of sanitizing my writing. They removed me quoting Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” line, as well as the word rapacious and various other things. But … considering my first draft included the line “women are just supposed to be animated sex dolls that occasionally do the dishes” (which I cut in later drafts, upon reflection) I may be just a little out of touch with what an evangelical audience can tolerate. Possibly. Have I mentioned lately how much I love you all for reading me even when I’m horrifyingly honest?

The comments so far have been, ehm, interesting. There’s lots of lovely people saying surprisingly lovely things, and a few people who are … goddess bless them they’re just so clueless.

The semester is really close to wrapping up– my last item is due May 5, and then I have the summer off. Sticky notes for post ideas are piling up on my desk, and I’m excited to get back to that. For now, I’m going to enjoy a lone day off and play some Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited.

Feminism

The Women’s March is a Culture War

I was raised to be a culture warrior.

As a member of Generation Joshua (the first generation of homeschoolers), I was supposed to be a well-trained advocate for the theocratic Christian fundamentalist cause, through any means I had access to. In college I picketed reproductive health clinics, I protested, I went door-to-door getting signatures for ballot measures, I went to political rallies. I spent the bulk of my life trying to convert people to Christianity, or persuading more moderate Christians to join my causes– young earth creationism, King James Bible Only-ism, complementarianism, the stay-at-home-daughter movement … One of the issues I cared about the most was abortion, which I saw as murder and wanted to restrict through any means necessary. If that meant forcing those murderous clinics out of business, or making it too difficult for women to get an abortion, so be it.

I saw it as my Christian obligation to convince as many people as I could that women are supposed to submit to their husbands, and that feminism is a lie from Satan meant to pull women onto the path of destruction. I believed that being my version of a godly woman would shine like a beacon into the world and demonstrate the truthfulness of Christianity. To me– to most of us, I think, the Culture Wars were never just about changing the laws: it was about changing the culture around us. Taking back my country for Christ couldn’t possibly be accomplished unless most of us were fundamentalist Christians, and that meant we needed more than just mere conversion. I wanted to radically and fundamentally alter the way my culture saw social, historical, political, and religious issues.

It’s perhaps ironic that none of that has actually changed. Oh, it’s changed in substance, but not in form.

***

I went to the Women’s March on Saturday, in DC. I marched with a group of straight, bi, lesbian and trans women, non-binary people, Jewish women, a Latina woman, and one straight cisgender white male ally. Most of us had gotten together for a sign-making party the weekend before, and chose a variety of phrases for our signs. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, a quote from The Handmaid’s Tale, was a favorite. I’d been torn between a few ideas for my own sign in the weeks before. “Fear is the Mind Killer” from Dune, or “I will be Non-Compliant,” a reference to Bitch Planet, topped my list of possibilities a while. I was trying to figure out what I wanted the Women’s March to mean to me, what I wanted to remember about it and why I’d gone.

Eventually I settled on a quote from Susan B. Anthony: “Organize, Agitate, Educate must be our war cry.”

I chose it for a variety of reasons– I’m a huge nerd being one of them– but mainly I chose it because it’s what I wanted the March to do. I want every person who marched to become a part of the resistance against hatred, bigotry, and totalitarianism; I want us all to agitate to make our voices heard and make our message clear; I want those of us who can to educate the people who don’t know what’s at risk and what they can do to stop it– or change it.

So I imagine you’ll understand that I find some of the reactions to the March … disheartening. Over the past few days I’ve seen a slew of facebook posts and articles going through my newsfeed, most accompanied with something like “THIS.” There’s one about how men not being patriarchal enough is why we marched. Or another condescendingly and patronizingly “apologizing” to women who have it so much worse than these ridiculous American women who just don’t know how good they have it and how selfish they are (to address the claim that American women have it so good, please read this, this, and this). It’s been frustrating, to say the least, because my vision for Marching was so clear, but I didn’t know how to explain to my friends how we’re seeing that protest in fundamentally different ways. There’s a lot of language being bandied about how vulgar it was, how demeaning, how disrespectful, how pointless and all I could articulate to myself was arrrrrgh!

Finally, one friend asked “Which rights don’t I have that I’m supposed to be marching for?” and that’s when it finally crystallized for me what the people I know aren’t understanding about the Women’s March. It’s not about formal, legal, written-on-paper, law-of-the-land capital-R Rights. Technically, in America, women have “Rights.” We can vote, we can own property, we can serve on juries, we can be autonomous legal agents, we can inherit, etc. Coverture is gone and suffrage is here. In the words of Ainsley Hayes, “The same Article 14 that protects you, protects me, and I went to law school just to make sure.”

The Women’s March is many of the women of this country declaring a culture war on misogyny, hatred, bigotry, racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, femmephobia, and one Party’s intent to destroy not women’s “Rights,” but all of our freedoms: The freedom of the press, the freedom of speech, the freedom to peaceably assemble. It’s not just our Bill of Rights that are under a war of attrition, either. Women marched this past Saturday because our realities are not all the same, and we have to protect each other. Some women are complaining that they feel “demeaned” by the March because they don’t personally feel that they needed it. Like Ainsley Hayes, they feel “humiliated” by the very notion that some women don’t think we’re equal (which, hate to break it to you ladies, we’re not).

I could go on. The list is, for all practical purposes, endless. I didn’t even begin to touch some of the other horrific and nightmarish problems we have in this country. Many of the ones I’ve listed above affect men as well, obviously. And even though I’ve highlighted a few places where women don’t have Rights, the larger problem isn’t whether or not we have laws in place that enumerate these rights. In some cases we do, in some we don’t. Regardless of a legal reality, it’s not a practical, livable reality until all people are truly seen as equal.

I will organize with others to enumerate or protect our rights. We will agitate against a government that wants to strip all of us of our protections, to hamstring every attempt to fight violence against women. Together we’ll educate others on the risks we face and how to fight.

I decided not to let my fear keep me voiceless, motionless, actionless, so I marched. Not to be vulgar, not to sow division, not to be angry and bitter. I marched because who we elected president is a symptom of a cultural problem, not its cause– and it’s a culture I will go to war against.

Feminism

Redeeming Love Review: God and Family

Plot Summary:

  • Michael realizes he’s been incredibly bad at actually taking care of Angel.
  • He takes her to Sacramento, where he buys her fabric for clothes.
  • He takes her to church, where she has a panic attack.
  • On the way back to the farm, they meet a family in a broken wagon.
  • Michael offers to let them stay in his cabin, informs Angel they’ll be sleeping in the barn.
  • Angel has a flashback to when Duke had her sterilized.

***

This section brings us back to more character introspection instead of action; Francine halts plot movement in order to have the space to tell us how Angel and Michael feel about everything instead of integrating that into the storytelling. I know I’ve started basically every review post saying “this is a badly written book,” but it’s true, and I just keep being reminded of it. So, I’m passing that on to you, dear readers.

Chapter seventeen opens with how guilty and dirty Angel feels– she “wanted to make up for what she had done, and sought to do it by labor” (211). This is, clearly, Francine beating us over the head with the salvation allegory she’s worked into Redeeming Love, and is condemning Angel for thinking that works can earn forgiveness. It’s also making sure we the reader know that Angel has done something that needs forgiveness– and we should all be at a loss for what, but we’re not. Angel has done nothing. She was abducted, and escaped her abuser at the first opportunity … and then was forcibly dragged back again. As Francine’s readers, though, we “know” what Angel did “wrong.” Satan told her that she deserved independence and freedom, and she believed his lie. She’s not just Gomer, now– she’s also Eve (217).

This is where Angel begins accepting Michael’s abuse. He’s forcibly demonstrated that she can’t escape him, no matter how she resists. He won’t use her name, he won’t let her leave, he orders her around (“Go to bed” [212] and “You’re going with me” [214]) and neither verbal or physical refusal stops him. He will simply overpower her; she has no choice left but to accept that this is her life now.

So, like most abuse victims, she turns to scrupulousness. If defiance won’t work, maybe doing everything she can to make sure her abuser is happy will. He told her that the garden was her responsibility (212)– so maybe if she works the garden perfectly he’ll see her as a human being worth respecting. If she anticipates his desires, if she makes the cabin comfortable, if she cooks flawlessly and obeys instantly … maybe just maybe he’ll “forgive” her and stop his abuse. If this sounds familiar to you, that’s because this is the method advocated by every single complementarian marriage-advice book on the planet. The way to a happy and healthy marriage is by being the perfect homemaker. If you’re not dutifully submissive and fulfilling your patriarchal gender roles, your husband will be unhappy and angry and take it out on you. It makes sense that this is the path Francine has Angel take.

***

This section largely deals with Angel’s understanding of religion and God. Frustratingly, her point of view is basically a badly-informed evangelical stereotype of Catholicism, and what’s “wrong” with her understanding of God is “Catholic.” She has a “Catholic” understanding of the Garden of Eden, her interpretation of Bible stories aren’t evangelical so they’re wrong, and of course Catholics don’t read their Bible.

What we as the reader are supposed to take away from this part of the story is that Francine’s view of God is horribly wrong. Evangelicals of course know that God wants to have a relationship with us, that he loves us, that forgiveness and grace are freely available if we just say the word. Angel, however, think that God is angry and wrathful and vengeful, and is waiting up in heaven to crush her “like a bug” (227). She even introduces the Problem of Evil:

Michael took her hand again and wove his fingers with hers. “God had nothing to do with it.”

Her eyes felt strangely hot and gritty. “He didn’t stop it either, did he? Where’s the mercy you’re always reading about? I never saw any given to my mother.” Michael was silent for a long time after that. (229)

Honestly, this is the first thing Francine’s done that I’ve somewhat appreciated. Angel’s life, as Michael described, has been “hell,” and God in his heaven had never intervened. This is a legitimate question, and one I’ve never satisfactorily answered for myself. Redeeming Love doesn’t provide any answers, either– at least not here. I imagine we’ll get the “free will” answer at some point.

However, what Angel and the reader are supposed to understand is that God is not like her father, or Duke, or any of the men she’s known– God is like Michael. God is forgiving and loving and wants to know us, like Michael loves and forgives and wants to know Angel. The problem with all of that, of course, is that Michael is an abuser. Angel thinks that God is waiting to crush her like a bug … and Michael is waiting to drag her off to anything he so wishes. Evangelicals talk a big talk about how amazing their God is, but when the rubber meets the road and they start talking about what God is like in practice and not just in theory, he really is just a bully. He abducts grown women — repeatedly– orders them around, and overcomes all resistance with physical force.

Angel is not wrong about Michael’s God.

***

The last message that Francine wants to beat us over the head with is how wonderful complementarianism and gender roles are. The Jewish storekeeper thinks “As gentle a man as he was, as tender was his heart, there was nothing weak about Michael Hosea” (223), which we know from the fact that Michael took on all comers in a barfight and walked out unscathed. Later we meet the Altmans, and we get this description:

The Altmans fascinated Angel. They all liked each other. John Altman was clearly in charge and would tolerate no disrespect or rebellion, but it was clear he was not held in fear by his wife and children. Even Jacob’s [eldest son] rebellion had been handled with good humor. “Whenever you don’t listen, there’s going to be stern discipline,” his father said. “I’ll supply the discipline, you’ll supply the stern.” The boy capitulated and Altman ruffled his hair affectionately. (240)

Through the pages that introduce the Altmans, we get a picturesque, Rockwell-style happy family. The siblings all get along splendidly, and the father is respected, obeyed, and adored. Michael is basically enraptured. He wants them to live in his cabin until spring and be his friends– without bothering to consult Angel, he just decides— maybe even buy the farmland right next to his! They’re just such wonderful people, wouldn’t that be grand? It’s clear Michael thinks they’re the perfect family. He even falls asleep whispering about how he wants one basically just theirs (241). A family where his word is law and everyone is just so dang happy about it.

Which is of course where we get hit with a double-barrel flashback to Angel being sterilized. I can’t wait to see where Francine goes with that.

Feminism

Gatekeeping vs. Coalition Building

The second I first heard about a possible march happening in DC the day after the inauguration, my reaction was where do I sign up. Marching will not be the only way I resist the incoming regimeadministration, but I will stand in the streets tomorrow and scream my rage and sorrow with my sisters. I know many of you can’t– having fibromyalgia means I will be paying for this all next week, so I understand not being able to make marching work for you. I also know not everyone feels that the Women’s March tomorrow either represents you well or is something you want to give your energy to, and I respect that.

However, since Wednesday, a large part of the conversation of can I, should I march on Saturday has revolved around abortion, and I feel that the conversation has been plagued with misrepresentations. We are talking about abortion after all so the fact that everything is being flagrantly misunderstood is unsurprising. Since I’m in seminary primarily to advocate for reproductive justice in my Christian context, this conversation is critical to me, and I want to try to push it in an honest and fact-based direction.

The discussion we’re having was sparked when the Women’s March leadership decided to partner with an organization called New Wave Feminists. I am frustrated with the people who made that decision because it’s clear that New Wave Feminists was not vetted at all. If they’d looked into this organization, they would have found out that the founder testified in favor of HB2 in Texas (the bill Wendy Davis filibustered)– the bill that would have removed abortion access from most women in Texas. New Wave Feminists also lie about hormonal contraception and their founder said that women shouldn’t be “full-service sluts.” The goal of this organization is to restrict abortion access, restrict access to birth control, and control women’s sexuality. It is not an organization that the Women’s March should support, and they were right to remove them as partners.

However, after removing them as partners, they faced some criticism. I heard about it because Rachel Held Evans– as y’all know, one of my heroes– tweeted “Progressives have a chance to build a broader coalition here, and they are blowing it” … which was incredibly disappointing because of the narrative that weaves. Over the past two days I’ve seen a ridiculous number of people claim that the Women’s March is forbidding any pro-life woman from participating, which is just ridiculous. Removing an anti-woman organization from partnership and being unwilling to partner with those who want to make abortion illegal does not mean that pro-life women can’t march, if they want to. They couldn’t have made that clearer.

Rachel’s tweet– and the widespread sentiment her tweet represents– was also incredibly frustrating on top of being disappointing because this situation is the result of a terrible amount of confusion. The New Wave Feminists are an organization pro-lifers like Karen Swallow Prior, Sarah Bessey, and Rachel Held Evans want to defend? People who lie to women, who lie about medicine, who shame us and demean us? Who call us “sluts” for having sex, who misrepresent themselves and their goals?

I have saidrepeatedly— that I want to work with the sort of pro-life women Rachel represents. I value their work, I value them, and I understand where they’re coming from. In the past I’ve respected their position because I saw it as realistic, loving, and consistent. I welcome their particular articulation of pro-life ethics into my feminist work with open arms. I may think that abortion is ethical, but I understand having reservations. This isn’t an easy issue– and, regardless of why any particular person may be having an abortion, it represents a failure somewhere. People who will fight with me to overcome those failures– who want to make birth control accessible, who want accurate and thorough sex education, who want to remove the cultural oppression that force women into these situations– I want you at my side.

After all, I’m pro-choice. If someone is having an abortion because they have no other option, I do not consider that acceptable. We should be able to choose whether or not we want to remain pregnant, and not have circumstances limit us or force us. We should be able to feed our babies, we should be able to get our children to the doctor, we should be able to keep our jobs, we should be able to recover after giving birth … and it’s wrong that those are the considerations pregnant people face.

So I’m all in favor of coalition building. I think feminism is a big tent and a lot of us should be able to squeeze together under here– even if we don’t always agree.

However.

There has to be a line somewhere.

If you’ve read me for a bit, you know I’m not a fan of shibboleths. I don’t like setting up a bunch of fences and boundaries to movements and I don’t, in general, like people who say “you’re in, you’re in, you’re not.” I like big, broad, encompassing tents. I like it when we don’t always get along, don’t always agree. I want serious discussions, not a bunch of people who preach to the choir all of the time.

But I think it is appropriate and good for feminists to say “being a feminist means you don’t support policies that lead to the suffering and death of women,” and unfortunately, that’s what being “pro-life” means for a not-insignificant part of the pro-life movement. If there’s going to be a line that keeps some people out of the feminist tent, the “you want women to die for no god-forsaken reason” is a damn good line. It’s the only line really worth enforcing. If Feminism weren’t The We Want Women to Not Die tent, it wouldn’t be good for anything.

I’m not apologizing for that being my price of admission. If you support policies and laws that lead to nothing else but suffering and death, I don’t want you in my tent and I don’t understand why you’d want to be in it. Banning abortion, criminalizing abortion, “making it illegal except in cases of life-threatening emergencies” leads to death and suffering. Those actions do not change the abortion rate— they result in the same number of abortions, but more life-threatening medical problems, more death, more abuse, more violence, more tragedies, and yes, women being sent to prison because they miscarried.

On this one issue– whether or not our nation’s laws result in women dying– I will be a gatekeeper. Kate Shellnutt and Hannah Anderson at Christianity Today want to tell me that ““If Dem[ocrats] could have entertained possibility of a pro-life women’s vote, they’d have won,” and it makes me scream inside because that “pro-life women’s vote” was a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal. It wasn’t a vote against rape or sexual assault. It wasn’t a vote to protect our jobs, our wages, our children, our healthcare, our autonomy, or our bodies in any way. It was one vote: to criminalize abortion. To condemn women to needless suffering, unnecessary physical torment, and death for many of us. No, I will not “entertain” that idea, and I don’t think feminism should.

These “pro-life women voters” like the New Wave Feminists have spent a massive amount of time telling us that our actions have consequences– and surprisingly, this is where I agree. Pro-life people who want to ban abortion apparently live in a land without consequences. They want to enforce their religious interpretation of when life begins onto everyone and pretend that nothing bad could ever come of that. That their actions, their choices, would not be the reason why more women would be thrown in prison or killed. They want to ban abortion– even though it would not even accomplish what they want. They want to prevent us from accessing birth control– even though that actively opposes what they want. They want to punish us for even daring to take control of our lives.

If that doesn’t describe you, welcome inside my big feminist tent.

If it does, stay out in the cold and shiver.

Feminism

Redeeming Love: Brothers and Bothers

[Content note: discussions of abuse and coercion]

Plot Summary:

  • Paul, Michael’s brother-in-law, returns.
  • He recognizes Angel, thinks she deceived Michael about her profession.
  • Paul leaves to get supplies, demands sex in order to take Angel with him.
  • The Palace burned down, so Angel’s money is gone.
  • She returns to prostitution.
  • Michael finds her, fights everyone in the saloon, takes her back to the farm.
  • Angel tells Michael about her past.

***

As you can see, stuff actually happens in these three chapters (14-16), and there’s so much to dig into. So much. It’s a little overwhelming, especially since this section pushed almost every single one of my buttons. One of the first is how magnificently obtuse Francine is about her own characters. We’ve seen this before, but it becomes a problem in this section when she introduces us to Paul. He’s been trying to “get rich quick” in the mountains, but is returning in an almost prodigal-son-like fashion to the farm, where he also has a cabin apparently.

Francine is attempting to give us a foil for Michael. We’ve only been watching how Michael interacts with Angel, so we’re given Paul in order to demonstrate just how wonderful and supportive and nice Michael actually is, because look at what this horrible brute does to Angel.

He makes an almost-incredible amount of assumptions about Angel– beginning with a bunch of (coughnothistoricallyaccuratecough) stereotypes about prostitutes, leading to the belief that Angel is deceiving Michael about what she used to do for a living, and ends with him convinced that she’s a stone-hearted bitch (a phrase Francine very awkwardly avoids using, which reminds me of the note in the beginning about her editor cleaning the book up for a “Christian” audience). He’s horrifically judgmental, calls her a liar repeatedly, and constantly thinks about being horribly violent toward her. It’s all capped off with him forcing Angel to have sex to “pay” him for the ride into town.

All of this is supposed to be in contrast with Michael … except it isn’t.

Since the very beginning, Michael has done nothing but make assumptions about Angel based on those not-historically-accurate stereotypes– she’s a prostitute, so she only understands one kind of “love.” She’s a prostitute, so she’s shallow and manipulative. She’s a prostitute, so she thinks being on a farm is boring drudgery. Etc. He’s also countermanded her about her own feelings and wants and ideas almost every single time she’s expressed any. A typical interaction is “I want XYZ” and he says “No, you don’t.” And then oh there’s this:

He didn’t want to pity her. He wanted to shake her until her teeth feel out. He wanted to kill her. (204).

This isn’t him being overly dramatic, either, because of what happened earlier: He’s taking her back to the farm while she repeatedly tells him to let her off the wagon. When he refuses, she throws herself off and runs away. He chases her down and starts dragging her back to the wagon while she resists, and then we read:

He almost hit her back, but he knew if he hit her once, he wouldn’t stop … If he had hit her back once, he would have killed her. (195) [On recalling finding her at the saloon] If he hadn’t seen her eyes or heard the way she said his name, he would have killed them both. (196)

Francine has made it as clear as she possibly could that Michael actually literally wanted to murder Angel, but through mountains of restraint somehow managed not to beat her to death. She does all of that, and yet the reader is still supposed to see Michael as fundamentally different and better than Paul. The way Michael and Paul treat Angel is fundamentally the same, but again, Michael didn’t have sex with her and reads the Bible a lot so he’s the nice one– ignore the murderous rages, those are fine.

***

One of the biggest problems with this section of the book is that it buys into common — but false– narratives about abuse. Setting aside the fact that Michael wants to beat his wife to death, he does actually restrain himself from physical violence toward her. Paul does not– during the ride into town, he “hits every hole in the road, bouncing and jarring her … He enjoyed her discomfort” (185). The book condemns his behavior here and in other places– physically hurting Angel is clearly out of bounds for Francine.

The narrative condemns physical abuse while giving us a character who emotionally abuses and psychologically torments his spouse and describing emotional abuse as not just normal, but praiseworthy. Francine utterly ignores the fact that not all abuse looks the same– and when Angel reacts to Michael, the text makes it clear that she’s reacting to her past with Duke, not Michael, and her reactions aren’t trustworthy. Her responses to Michael’s incredibly ominous behavior are supposed to be considered unreliable, instead of a realistic depiction of how a victim would react to someone who’s been emotionally abusing them. When I got to this scene, I wanted to cry:

“Because I love you,” he said thickly. He swung her around in front of him, his eyes tormented. “That simple, Amanda. I love you. When are you going to understand what that means?”

Her throat tightened, and she hung her head.

They walked the rest of the way in silence. He lifted her onto the wagon seat. She shifted over as he pulled himself up beside her. She looked at him bleakly. “Your kind of love can’t feel good.”

“Does your kind feel any better? … I felt like killing you when I walked in that room, but I didn’t. I feel like beating sense into you right now, but I won’t …” (197)

I wanted to scream. This is not what love is. If you haven’t seen Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s a relevant scene:

Yondu: When I picked you up as a kid, these boys wanted to eat you. They ain’t never tasted Terran before. I saved your life!

Quill: Oh, will you shut up about that? God! Twenty years, you’ve been throwing that in my face, like it’s some great thing, not eating me! Normal people don’t even think about eating someone else! Much less that person having to be grateful for it!

I’m a big fan of that scene, because as extreme as the Ravagers eating Quill would have been, this thought is practically textbook abuse and Quill’s response is completely brilliant and true. When Michael defines “love,” he says that it’s not killing her and not beating her, like she’s supposed to be grateful.

There aren’t words to describe how horrific and excruciating it is that when Francine is describing what love means, her definition matches that of conservative Christianity’s perfectly. When they say that God loves us, what they mean is that despite all his wrath and fury, he doesn’t murder us where we stand, and we’re supposed to fall down on our faces in worship. “I want to kill you, but I won’t” is part of the bedrock of evangelical theology, and it’s incorporated into any theological discussion of God’s love. It’s sickening.

Another classic sign that Michael is an abuser appears in his internal dialogue after the return to the farm– Angel “betrayed” him. She doesn’t have a conscience. She cut him to ribbons. She should feel ashamed of herself, she was his wife and she left him and had sex with all those other men he could just kill her.

This is textbook abusive entitlement. He practically abducts a delirious woman, manipulates her into “marrying” him, absconds with her to an isolated area she can’t escape, refuses to help her, forces her to work for him, cook for him, refuses to even use her goddamn name, all while she is constantly telling him she doesn’t want to be there, she doesn’t want to be his wife, she wants to leave. And yet when she does exactly all of that it’s such a betrayal he wants to kill her.

And Michael is considered one of the most wildly romantic figures in all of Christian fiction.

***

I promised at the beginning of the series that we’d be talking about survival sex, and we’ve gotten there. Here’s a quick definition and two very good articles about it:

Survival sex is, quite simply, exchanging one’s body for basic subsistence needs, including clothing, food, and shelter.

So, pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Much of the conversation about survival sex focuses on homeless youth because they’re especially at risk, but I think many of us have known an adult woman who had sex with someone in order to have a place to live. It can also appear in abusive relationships– having sex in order to prevent verbal/physical beatings, or to extend to “honeymoon phase.” It’s sex that, given a more ideal set of circumstances, would not happen. It’s sex with consent, but without autonomy. Things like survival sex is why I balk at reductionist approaches to consent— it’s possible that someone can consent, but for their choices to be so bounded that they don’t actually have a choice. It’s consent coerced by circumstances.

This is clearly what is happening to Angel– when she returns to Pair-a-Dice, winter is approaching and she has nothing but the clothes on her back. No food, no shelter, no money. When the saloon owner offers an upstairs room for her to get “back in business” (190), she has no other option. It’s that or either die of starvation or exposure– even if she wanted to go back to the farm and the man who’s been emotionally abusing her, lying to her, and manhandling her, it’s 30 miles away. So, thinking “I’m never going to be free,” (191), she uses sex to survive.

After Michael beats up everyone in the saloon and forces her to come back with him, Francine writes this internal thought process for Angel:

Angel felt the building warm of the sun on her shoulders and remembered Michael dragging her with him through the night to face the sunrise. “That’s the life I want to give you.” She hadn’t understood then what he offered. She had not comprehended until she walked up the stairs at the Silver Dollar Saloon and sold her soul into slavery again …

What have I done? Why did I throw it all away? Paul’s words came back: “You’re not even worth two bits.” It was true … it hadn’t even taken a day for her to fall right back into her old ways …

It was all her fault. All the ifs flooded her: If she had never left Duke … if she had never gotten on that barkentine … if she hadn’t sold herself to any passerby on the muddy streets of San Francisco or gone with Duchess … if she had ignored Paul … if she had stayed here and never left … if she hadn’t gone back to Pair-a-Dice or gone up those stairs with Murphy …

Michael had taken her straight out of the abyss and offered her a chance– and she had thrown it away. (200-202)

Francine is oh-so-conveniently leaving out the rather important fact that what Angel chose for herself was a cabin in the woods– independence and freedom. Given the information she had access to, Michael was not the “chance” she’d thrown away. She had her own chance that she’d worked for. She had a plan that was simple and completely achievable. That the Palace burned down and the Duchess left with all of her money is not something she knew when she left the farm. She didn’t choose Murphy and the Saloon; circumstances limited her. But ten pages of the book make it clear that it was really all her fault and she needs redemption and forgiveness, with God repeating “seventy times seven” in Michael’s head.

This book is grotesque.

Feminism

the vulnerabilities of choice

I’ve been whining about this (on and off the internet) for a while, and I figured that now was a good moment to sit down and discuss what ails me. Patterns I’ve been watching for a few years are starting to turn in unfortunate and — in my opinion– dangerous directions, and I think feminists need to start examining ourselves and how we’re becoming vulnerable to exploitation by racists, bigots, and misogynists.

To explain, I need to begin with what I’ve started calling “internet feminism.” First, my moniker isn’t intended to denigrate feminist actions that take place on the internet; that would be incredibly hypocritical since most of my work is based online. What I’m referring to is a general sense that online feminist discourse is stuck in a nascent stage. I’ve followed a whole host of sites and blogs like Everyday Feminism and The Mary Sue for a while now, and it seems to me that these ostensibly feminist spaces are stuck in a loop; we only seem to discuss a handful of issues and never seem to move beyond 101-level explanations of things like consent and objectification.

This is not to say that 1) better discourse does not take place online– it absolutely does or 2) that these 101-level explanations aren’t helpful or needed. However, what I’ve experienced is that a lot of online feminists seem to congregate at two ends of a spectrum. At one end you have people like me, who have dedicated our lives to feminism. On the other end are the people who stay in the “shallow end” of the feminist pool; they’re happy to share a Robot Hugs comic when it shows up in their feed … and that’s about it.

I’m not exactly unhappy with this. I appreciate how these 101-level comics and posts are being widely disseminated, and that a lot more people are being educated in the basics of feminism and learning to appreciate it. I especially like that feminism — despite the screaming carrot demon we just elected president– is losing some of the stigma misogynists managed to tar it with.

However.

The “shallow end” is resulting in a certain class of feminist that believes that feminism in its entirety can be encapsulated by a comic strip and amusing videos about tea. This is unfortunate because someone could walk away from the bulk of online feminist commentary and believe that choices — when made by a woman or femme person — are inherently feminist.

I understood how we’ve gotten here. Supposedly feminism is all about offering women more choices, and they’re not wrong … in the sense that Captain America wasn’t wrong when he observed that “it seems to be run on some form of electricity.”

If you follow the history of the feminist movement in the United States (as well as other places, but I’m an American, so), women from the suffragettes to the second-wave feminists to intersectional feminists of today have all fought for the agency and autonomy of women. In a word, that fight is practically represented in choices— the more autonomy we have, the more choices we have available to us. This is why the argument that women should have the choice to remain in the workforce or become a stay-at-home-mom is, from a feminist viewpoint, sound. Feminists argue that neither women in or out of the workforce should be economically, socially, or politically penalized for their decision.

Making our choices truly autonomous ones is the struggle of feminism.

Unfortunately, all this talk about “it’s my choice!” has led many of us to believe that any choice can be a feminist one. This is where I think we’re vulnerable, because it is allowing a certain kind of person to claim their actions  are– or to label the actions of others as– “feminist” even when the decisions they’re making are harmful to women, especially women of color.

Last month I read an article titled “Pushing Back Against Non-Consensual Misogyny in BDSM.” In it she described her relationship: Her and her partner are full-time dominant/submissive, and while I have issues with power play (as opposed to sensation play or impact play), I don’t feel that it’s my place to tell anyone how to live their life. If she thinks it’s “so, so hot” for her husband to tell her when to shave, what to eat, what to wear, etc, whatever. As long as she’s not telling other women they have to submit to their husband, it’s none of my business what happens in their home.

What I do have a problem with is her argument that her husband using misogynistic language and regimenting every aspect of her life is “feminist.” It’s her choice, and she’s free to make it, but it is not feminist. It does not advance the autonomy of women, it does not help women achieve equality or liberation, and it does nothing to fight for our rights. If other women were to emulate her, mimic her, what would be the end result? An equal and just society, where all genders are free? Absolutely not. Her life choices, if repeated by others, would lead to the opposite.

Feminism fights for the autonomy of women; feminist choices are those that resist systems of patriarchal oppression. Choosing to expand my definition of beauty in ways that do not align with white supremacist, classist standards is a feminist choice. Choosing to defend my LGBT siblings against bigotry is feminist. Choosing to surround myself with marginalized artists and creators is feminist. Choosing my fashion aesthetic based on personal preference and without shame is feminist.

Many choices are neutral, and have no real feminist implications one way or the other (like, say, which flavor you want at the fro-yo place). Choosing to have your husband demean you because it turns you on, on the other hand, could even be an anti-feminist choice. These sorts of choices matter because they are a part of the system you’re upholding and reinforcing. If you want to uphold a dynamic where, as the woman, you’re demeaned and infantalized … go ahead. But don’t say that decision contributes anything toward tearing down patriarchy.

Which leads me to my last, and most significant, concern. This sort of emphasis on choice feminism is leading to an environment that allows racism and other forms of bigotry to invade. Last year, Megyn Kelly was hailed virtually internet-wide for her “feminism” when, as a debate moderator, she asked Trump a question about his disdain for women. Megyn has explicitly stated on multiple occasions that she is not a feminist– not that she rejects the label, but that she opposes feminism.

When women like Megyn– anti-feminist, racist, bigoted– are hailed as “feminist icons” for daring to say “calling women mean names isn’t cool” then feminism has been co-opted to serve the interests of Empire. In the context of everything I’ve been railing against in this post, this permissiveness is a result of thinking that merely making choices is what can make a woman a feminist, even when those choices uphold patriarchal systems. Choice feminism and white feminism not only go hand-in-hand, they’re indistinguishable. They both exalt people for upholding patriarchal, white supremacist norms.

Feminism isn’t ultimately about choice. It’s about equality and liberation, and we cannot lose sight of that. Too much is at stake, especially now.

Photo by David Uy
Feminism

Redeeming Love Review: These Boots Are Made for Walking

Plot Summary:

  • Angel continues (physically) healing.
  • Michael takes her to see a sunrise.
  • Later, they have sex for the first time.
  • She tries to leave, but gets lost and has to return to Michael’s farm.

***

As you can see, nothing much actually happens in these three chapters; most of what Francine gives us here is internal emotional struggles happening inside Angel and Michael. From a character development perspective, Francine is focusing on making certain archetypes brutally clear. Up until this point in the book, she’s been focused on the “Hosea” element of Michael’s character, but in these chapters she hits us over the head, frying-pan style, with comparisons of Michael to God and Jesus. He washes Angel’s feet, for one (163), and he’s constantly haranguing her to “put her trust in him” (137).

Francine is not a particularly good writer. This book isn’t the worst thing I’ve read– and it’s passable for the Christian Fiction genre– but this is where she runs into even worse show vs. tell problems than what we’ve seen so far. It’s not that she tells us more than she shows us, it’s that what she tells us contradicts what she shows us.

For example, in Michael’s perspective, we read this:

Most men would have been satisfied to have such a malleable, hardworking wife. Michael was not. He had not married her to have a drudge. He wanted a woman as part of his life– part of himself. (141)

However, all he’s done is tell her that she has to stay there, learn to work, clean, do chores, feed him, and he’s expressly forbidden her from leaving. He won’t even use her name– in fact, in these chapters he calls her Mara, Tirzah, and Amanda. For no reason. He tells her when to sleep. When she wants to sleep, he yanks the covers off her repeatedly, drags her out of bed, and forces her out onto a hike. When walking through the dark is a clearly triggering experience– she even tells him she’s afraid because it’s reminding her of “something that happened” when she was a child– he ignores her and just pulls her through the woods (136-39). A drudge is a “person made to do hard work,” and that’s how Michael has treated Angel for forty pages.

It happens again in Angel’s perspective:

She didn’t like that he didn’t fit any mold she knew; that he kept his word; that he didn’t use her; that he treated her differently from any way she had ever been treated before. (143)

I want to comment on two things happening here. First, it’s not surprising to me that Francine has this problem. In her culture, it is expected for Christian leaders to tell people what and how to think, and how to “correctly” view the things that are happening to them. The Bible, or your pastor, are capable of overriding your own experiences– in fact, they’re supposed to supersede them.  For Francine to expect her readers to listen to her authorial voice over what she’s written the characters actually doing fits right in with that cultural narrative.

Second, the principle struggle for Michael in these chapters is to not have sex with Angel. He goes on long walks in the night, he talks cold baths, he sits by the fire and mopes, all while being “tempted” to have sex with her. All of this is painted as what makes him like Jesus, and a better person than his father (who had the life philosophy that all women want to and deserve to be “dominated” [142]). He’s not having sex with her, and that means that he’s not “using her” and “treating her differently.”

He won’t use her name. He refuses to ever listen to her, about pretty much anything. If she says she wants to do something, like stay in bed, he forces her– bodily– to do what he wants her to do, right that second. He manipulates her– like asking her to collect walnuts because he knows the shells will stain her hands and she won’t try to leave him (148).

But he’s not having sex with her, so he’s a great guy. Again, this point of view is unsurprising. Christian culture is obsessed with sexual “purity” to the point that basically every other concern, including abuse, is tossed by the wayside. As long as people aren’t getting jiggy with it, who cares about whether or not we’re treated with respect, consideration, and kindness?

***

From the opening pages of Redeeming Love, Michael’s been hearing The Voice of God, which appears as bolded text. Well, in these chapters, guess who else starts talking to Michael– and Angel? Satan. He starts encouraging Michael to have sex with Angel, and guess what he starts telling Angel to do:

You have to go back, Angel. You must. You’ll never be free if you don’t … You can build another cabin like this one, and it will be all yours … (145)

Think of having something for yourself. Think of being free. (156)

You’ve got to get out of here! Save yourself and flee! (158)

All of Angel’s impulses toward independence, self-preservation, and freedom are ascribed to Satan. In Francine’s story, Angel wanting to live her own quiet life without interference is an actual literal Devil inside of her head– and of course, to the vast majority of people reading this book, the only logical conclusion is that it would be a sin for Angel to have the freedom she wants– that craving independence is sinful. And, of course, to Francine and her audience, this is all justified because the freedom Satan offers is obviously a lie. Angel can’t truly be free and independent without God … or Michael, who in this telling is both. Considering that the complementarian theology inherent to most of conservative Christian culture almost explicitly conflates the role of God and Husband for women, this is, again, unsurprising.

Interestingly, the fact that they have sex is almost a complete non-event. He makes her say his name over and over again, even though he can tell she doesn’t like it. Apparently this goes along with his “we’ll make love and I’ll show her how sex is REALLY supposed to go!” plan. It backfires because she leaves him the next day– until he tracks her down and finds her bloody and wounded in the rain. But he washes her feet like Jesus so it’s all ok!

Heavens does this book make me furious and sick.

Feminism

A Feminist Vision for Hermenuetics

I’m wrapping up the semester, and I think I’ll have a much better handle on life balance in the Spring. But, I promised you a sample of some of what I write for seminary, so here’s my term paper for Hermenuetics. We were supposed to explore one concept we’d studied and how we’d incorporate it into our hermenuetic, so I decided to talk about feminist theory functioning as a corrective presupposition.

It assumes you have some familiarity with material we discussed in class (like Gadamer’s view of “prejudice,” which is not the dictionary definition, or the difference between “interpretation” and “re-interpretation”)– if this sparks questions, I can do my best to answer them.

***

When I first encountered Gadamer’s explanation of prejudice, I was intrigued by the possibilities in his concept. My first understanding of his prejudice was intuitive in the sense that it aligned well with my understanding of how the world works. As an explanation for what happens when a reader interacts with a text it has a flavor of common sense about it—of course a reader has to bring pre-judgments to the text in order to have a place to begin understanding it. Some of these are incredibly basic, such as having a pre-judgement that water is wet, it quenches thirst, it is necessary for survival, it can be refreshing, and it can be fun to swim in. We build these pre-judgements from infancy forward; without them we would not be able to function hermeneutically. In Gadamer’s words, prejudices “constitute the initial directedness of our whole ability to experience.”

However, there is a form of pre-judgement that is one layer of abstraction beyond our more intuitively obvious conceptualizations of the world. Brown deals with these abstracted pre-judgements as she discusses presuppositions, which she argues include “pre-understandings.” For example, Christians can bring sophisticated theological concepts like the Trinity or Penal Substitutionary Atonement into their readings and assume the text supports their “pre-understanding” when it may not. Or, it could be a presupposition that is even less conscious than that. White American Christians, for example, have grown up unconsciously swimming in a sea of white supremacy and privilege, and we bring those with us to the Bible whether or not we want to. Brown also goes on to say that “Trying to discover our presuppositions can be rather like trying to see our blind spots—very difficult without outside assistance.”

This is where the possibilities for Gadamer’s prejudices intrigue me, since as a feminist I believe that it is incredibly important for every reader to be aware of their pre-judgments in order to distinguish between what is a “bad” prejudgment and a “good” one. In my view, a pre-judgment is “bad” when it does two things: when it creates eisegesis, or a reading that is not supported by the text; and when it creates an interpretation that either erases harm or causes harm.

I believe that feminism is, at its most fundamental, a hermeneutical task. Feminism requires us to analyze our biases and our presuppositions, even when they are cherished traditions or powerful systems. Feminism is an attempt to interpret the world accurately: it is an awareness of how nearly every form of human endeavor is affected by the subjugation of women and the men who align themselves with womanliness. As feminists, we view the interwoven stories of humanity with self-critical and text-critical eyes. Phyllis Trible notes in her essay on hermeneutics that the point of Christian feminism is “To reclaim the image of God as a female [and] to become aware of the male idolatry that has long infested faith.” In short, I believe that feminism can help illuminate where our “blind spots” are—at least some of them.

Feminism is not just a means of illuminating our presuppositions; I also think feminism should be a presupposition in all our engagements with biblical texts. To Christian feminist scholars like Trible, Russell, and Fiorenza, there are two primary avenues for feminism to function as a “good” prejudice. The first is as a hermeneutics of suspicion, and the second is as a hermeneutics of remembrance.

A hermeneutic of suspicion, at first glance, may not appear to be a pre-judgment worth having. To approach any text suspiciously may seem needlessly antagonistic; however, in the context of the biblical canon and Christian theology, it is important for feminists to confront patriarchal understandings of either. That is what it means to be “suspicious.” As a hermeneutical pre-judgment, feminist suspicion requires readers to be mindful of how “the principal actors, preservers of communal memories, and writers [of the Bible] were men, most of who occupied positions of privilege in patriarchal societies,” as Clifford notes.

From a practical point of view, what would this look like and how would it affect hermeneutics? First, it asks feminists to interrogate their presuppositions: have we ourselves prioritized male voices and male authority in our personal lives, or in our theological lives? This step should direct us to begin evaluating both our fundamental and abstract presuppositions. Is it possible that my understanding of something as unassumingly benign as “water” could change within a feminist framework? Is there something unique to the feminine experience that we do not even have a word for, and therefore would not even think to include in our sacred writings? If women were involved in the early formation of doctrine, would a concept like Mary’s virginity have been included in our creeds? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Feminist suspicion demands that we ask.

Second, a hermeneutic of suspicion acts as a sort of lamppost as we engage with biblical texts. As we use all the various tools at our disposal, from reader-response theory, speech-act theory, to historical criticism, feminist suspicion is an awareness of how patriarchy interacts with all of the above. Historical analysis is flawed in any attempt to represent the diversity of human experience because history—and historians—have (intentionally or not) silenced women and erased womanly experiences. Even a concept like speech-act theory might be skewed to benefit patriarchy—after all, if the purpose of language is to do, to act, we need to question how that may align with Man as Actor and Woman as Passive Object.

From a textual standpoint, a hermeneutic of suspicion reminds us that the text, at the very least, was recorded by men and that it is impossible to tell how much women were involved in the passing of the oral tradition. As the first men transcribed the oral tradition, how much of their experience as men, even as innocuous as that is—how could we expect a male scribe not to include his male experience?—entered the text and affected the implicit and explicit meanings? This feminist suspicion also does not trust that the men who wrote the biblical texts were well-meaning in their regard for women. When we read that women will find salvation in childbirth, a hermeneutic of suspicion forces interpreters to ask how misogynistic that might have been intended to be, regardless of whether or not misogyny would have been the logical consequence of the writer’s historical location.

This is how a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion can provide a corrective for interpretations that cause harm. Clifford highlights this idea when she says “if a biblical text fails to liberate women (and subjugated men) from patriarchy to the fullness of life, then it must not be true or has been misinterpreted.” There are two possibilities in Clifford’s statement: the text can be wrong, and the text can be misinterpreted. It is the feminist interpreter’s responsibility to view Paul’s (or pseudo-Paul’s) argument in this light, to ask if Paul was wrong about women being saved in childbirth, or if we do not yet “understand it as [we] ought.”

It is also important for feminist hermeneutics to aid us in avoiding the consequence of a “bad” prejudice in erasing harm, and this is where the feminist hermeneutic of remembrance enters. Trible defines a hermeneutic of remembrance as a means of retelling “stories in memoriam, affirming sympathetic readings of abused women.” This emphasis on remembrance can also be drawn on to “look behind the stories about men’s experiences of God to unveil women’s experience in the unrecorded silence.” A hermeneutic of remembrance is therefore two-fold because it is a dialogic encounter with the texts. Feminist interpreters can find meaning in the text as they identify with and feel sympathy for the women of the Bible, and we can draw upon our experiences of being silenced and our awareness of the historical silencing of women to see the women who have been rendered voiceless by biblical—largely, if not totally male—authors. Women like Trible and Clifford are drawing upon reader-response theory, which they admit to, but I believe that even this hermeneutic of remembrance can be a part of our prejudices without it becoming a re-creation or re-interpretation.

I believe this is possible because to be human is to be hermeneutical. We are creatures of firelight and story. If biblical stories are to do anything, they are first to function as memorials. Part of the implicit purpose of recording anything is to ensure that the stories will be remembered and preserved. As feminist interpreters, we ensure that it is not just men’s stories that we remember, but women’s stories—and the stories of men who were not powerful, who did not rate as important enough to include. We are to remember that just because a woman was not mentioned does not mean that she was not present, and we ask how her presence might have affected the outcome. Sometimes this form of remembrance is preserved for us intentionally. In the story of Jepthah’s daughter, the only conclusion of any sort offered by the text is that Israel’s daughters created an annual memorial to her. Feminist scholars have pointed out that the Hebrew—so often overlooked by male theologians and translators—makes it clear that Jepthah’s daughter was the crux of this remembrance: not her death, not her father’s foolhardy promise, but herself and her life.

A feminist vision for hermeneutics begins in our presuppositions, our biases, our pre-understandings, our prejudices. Instead of attempting to eliminate any form of prejudice in order to become “objective,” as some hermeneutical scholars have advocated, feminist hermeneutics asks us to be prejudiced for women in order to overcome our unconscious patriarchal biases. We should be suspicious of all the ways women have been harmed in history and in theological applications and to remember all the women whose lives have been erased from the text and from our interpretations of the text.

Resources:

  • Augustine of Hippo. On Christian Doctrine.
  • Brown, Jeannin K., Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermenuetics.
  • Clifford, Anne M. Introducing Feminist Theology.
  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method.
  • Trible, Phyllis. “Feminist Hermeneutics and Biblical Studies.” In Feminist Theology: A Reader, ed. Ann Loades.
Photo by Andrew Seaman
Feminism

Purity Culture Itself is the Problem

I got back from my short jaunt to  seminary this weekend, and I have my first massive paper of seminary due tomorrow, so that’s been what’s keeping me occupied. I did take Redeeming Love with me and was able to read a little of it, but I was somewhat preoccupied with an article I was writing for Rewire, which went up today!

It’s titled “How We Teaching Purity Culture isn’t the Problem: Purity Culture Itself is the Problem,” and I’m pretty excited about it. As always, if you think this is valuable reading, please share it generously with your social media circles.

This weekend is my big Halloween bash, so after that life should settle back down to something resembling more routine and I hope to return to at least a weekly blogging schedule. For now, enjoy my post over at Rewire and you can always find me on Twitter and Facebook ranting about things.

Photo by Noee
Feminism

Redeeming Love Review: Non-consensual Marriage

Plot summary:

  • Michael gives in to “God,” goes back to Pair-a-Dice for Angel.
  • He discovers that she’s been beaten.
  • Marries her while she’s nearly unconscious and delirious.
  • Then he takes her back to the farm, where she recuperates.
  • Angel tries to learn how to cook and lay a fire, but fails.
  • She tries to seduce him, but he refuses.

***

I’m going to skip most of chapter six, which is mostly just Francine getting Michael back to Pair-a-Dice and the Palace to “get” Angel, where he finds her beaten and nearly unconscious. This firms up his belief that he’s been ordered by God to take her away, but he decides they have to get married before they leave town.

Right now I’m wondering why on earth Francine thinks they have to get married right then. The next few chapters reveals that he’s not intending to have sex with her until she’s not doing it as a “chore,” so there’s no motivation to marry her for that reason. Everyone knows she’s a prostitute, so it’s not to “protect her reputation” (like what frequently happens in other Christian romance novels). So why marry her right this instant, when it’s absolutely clear that she’s in no state to consent to being married and he knows that she wants nothing to do with him?

I don’t want to be so cynical to assume that Francine has these two get married at this point so that Angel is trapped in a marriage she doesn’t want, but there’s no other narrative reason I can see that makes sense. It’s possible she has them get married so that she doesn’t offend the delicate sensibilities of the modern conservative evangelical reader, but as far as story telling goes this is pretty horrible. It’s especially horrible considering the fact that laws of coverture where still in place. By marrying her, knowing that if she knew what was going on she never would have even said “why not?” (note there: she doesn’t say “yes,” and Michael is such an abominable monster where that is good enough for him), he now actually, literally, legally owns a woman he knows doesn’t want to be married to him.

And that’s how this whole situation starts.

There’s one significant issue being woven into these chapters that needs to be highlighted. At several points, Francine gives us something like this:

Angel couldn’t tell whether her sarcasm had gotten to him or not. It occurred to her belatedly that she might anger him and this wasn’t the best time to do so. She swallowed more soup and tried not to show her fear. (105)

and this:

What did he want from her? And why did she sense he was more dangerous than all the other men she had ever known? (110)

Angel’s backstory has made it clear that she’s experienced a lifetime of abuse, and people like me see Angel’s reactions to Michael’s every facial expression and vocal tone as hypervigilance, but frustratingly that’s not an interpretation we can take for granted in Redeeming Love. People like Francine aren’t entirely ignorant about what some of the consequences of abuse might be, it’s just that they look at something like hypervigilance and see bitterness instead. In this story, the reader “understands” that Michael is nothing like the abusive men Angel’s experienced. We’re supposed to take him at his word when he says he’ll never hurt her, that he loves her. Instead, we’re supposed to look at Angel’s mental commentary as a sign that she is bitter, and her own understanding of the situation isn’t to be trusted. She’s over-reacting.

The reality is that the opposite of this is true. In my experience, many Christians, especially those who ascribe to “nouthetic” or “biblical” counseling, take Francine’s point of view: trauma can result in bitterness, and that bitterness can poison a victim’s entire way of thinking … but they couldn’t be more wrong. In reality, victims are usually more capable of spotting abuse than people who haven’t been traumatized. Couple this over-writing of how victimhood is typically experienced with the fact that this section is called “Defiant” and she starts these chapters with quotations like “I am dying of thirst by the side of a fountain,” it’s clear that the reader is supposed to see Angel as stubborn, bitter, and inherently untrustworthy as a narrator.

What makes it worse is that Michael is doing things that are abusive.

“By the way. My name isn’t Mara. It’s Angel. …”
“The name Mara comes from the Bible,” he said, “It’s in the book of Ruth.”
“And being a Bible-reading man, you figure Angel is too good a name for me.”
“Good’s got nothing to do with it. Angel isn’t your real name.”
“Angel is who I am.”
His face hardened. “Angel was a prostitute in Pair-a-Dice, and she doesn’t exist anymore.” (105)

One of the first things an abuser has to do is erase their victim’s innate sense of personhood and their right to their own sense of self. They intentionally strip their victim of their own identity, and replace it with what they want their victim to be.

Then this happens:

“Look,” she said tightly, “I want to start getting up and about on my own. With something on.”
“I’ll provide what you need when you need it.”
“I need it now.” (113)

He does give her clothes to wear in this scene, but it’s brutally clear that he did it because he decided she needed them, not because she said she needed them. Another thing abusers have to do is make sure their victims are dependent on them. Sometimes this takes the form of financial abuse, sometimes they make their victims feel that they’re incapable and incompetent, but it’s all about making sure they can’t leave you. This particular scene is troubling because it’s one of the ones that connects Michael’s character to God’s: a common Christian concept is that God provides us exactly what we need when They decide we need it, and not a second earlier.

Oh, and then this:

Michael studied her with patience. She was small and weak but possesed and iron will. It shone from her defiant blue eyes and the rigid way she was holding herself. She thought she had enough to overcome him. She was wrong. He was doing God’s will, and he had plans of his own, plans that kept growing, but he had said all he was going to say for a while. Let her think on it.

“You’re right,” he said. “I don’t own you, but you’re not running away from this.”

He’s saying he doesn’t own her, but he does feel entitled to her. He explains his “plans” in a bit– additions to the house, watching their children grow up– but at this moment there’s something missing from his statement: she’s not running away because he won’t let her. If you’ve read Redeeming Love before, you know that the implied threat there is ultimately carried out.

This is what makes me say that Michael is an abuser: his overwhelming sense of entitlement. That is the single biggest problem that all abusers share. Universally, abusers feel entitled to their victim. They believe that they have the absolute right to marry a woman who’s been beaten into delirium and rename her and threaten her and tell her she’s going to have his kids while she is vocally objecting the entire time. Can you even picture a man who you barely know sitting across from you on a coffee date telling you that you’re going to marry him and have his children and oh, by the way, you keep saying you want to leave but I’m not going to let you?

The fact that Francine and a vast majority of the people who read Redeeming Love think that Michael is an excellent stand-in for God is detestable and horrifying.