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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.

Feminism

personally pro-life, politically pro-choice

I’m about as pro-choice as it’s possible to be. I’m unflinchingly pro-choice, even. There are no ifs, ands, or buts  in my approach to abortion, no caveats, no disclaimers. I am completely opposed to “late-term” abortion bans, TRAP laws, and any other restrictions on a person’s ability to conduct their own medical affairs. I believe that abortion should be treated no differently from any other medical procedure: it is safe– far safer than childbirth— and it is private.

However, I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, this position is relatively recent– more recent, even, than where I was when I wrote the Ordeal of the Bitter Waters series over two years ago. My feminism is continuously evolving, and back when I wrote that series I was more uncomfortable with so-called “late-term” abortions than I am today. I’ve been evaluating and re-evaluating my stances on reproductive rights for almost eight years now, and I’ve arrived at a place that feels more drastic than a complete reversal should.

As an inexperienced and woefully uninformed young woman, I was fervently pro-life. I picketed clinics a handful of times; I canvassed neighborhoods trying to get TRAP laws put on my state’s ballot. I didn’t think there should be exceptions for rape and incest. Over time, however, circumstances forced me to confront what I believed about abortion, and I realized that my pro-life position was morally indefensible.

My theological and political background puts me in an interesting position, especially as I’ve been observing this election season– my first presidential election as a registered Democrat. My social media feeds are a sometimes-hilarious mix of extremes because some of my friends are Marxists, some are Libertarians, and at least two friends post almost nothing but pictures of guns. What’s becoming troubling to me is that we all seem to have forgotten the value– and governing necessity– of compromise, of embracing a spectrum of beliefs and positions in order to accomplish a good work.

I don’t think there’s anything that demonstrates how polarized we can be than abortion. This election season, it seems that tension has coalesced around Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential candidate, Tim Kaine. He, like other Democratic men like Joe Biden, embrace a complicated position toward reproductive rights: personally opposed to abortion (a somewhat ridiculous position for a man to hold, I’ll admit), but still in support of abortion remaining legal and accessible.

This is where my perspective can seem a little bit wonky to some of my pro-choice friends and colleagues: I don’t have a problem with Clinton choosing Kaine as her running mate. He wasn’t who I was hoping for, but I think the reasoning for choosing him is logical and practical– two of the things I admire most about Clinton’s approach to politics.

I do have a problem with Kaine’s history. He supported abstinence-only education because he felt it would lower the abortion rate in Virginia, which flies in the face of common sense and well-established fact. He banned “partial birth” abortions, a ridiculous position that speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of medical procedures. He used state funds to support Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which use deceptive, manipulative, and unethical tactics. Even though he’s seemed to have evolved on these positions, I understand the hesitancy many of my pro-choice colleagues are feeling.

However, as fervently pro-choice as I am and as much as I will fight to protect our reproductive rights, I can support Kaine for vice president because he embodies one of my most valued positions:

I will work with anyone,  even someone who’s pro-life, to advance reproductive justice.

I am absolutely for what some call “abortion on demand.” I am vocally in support of bodily autonomy being seen as a fundamental right. However, I am troubled by certain unfortunate realities surrounding reproductive care in this country because I am pro-choice. The US has a much higher abortion rate than many other developed nations, and I think that’s indicative of larger problems.

For example, for teenage girls who gave birth by fifteen, 39% of their partners were older than twenty. For girls who gave birth by seventeen, 53% of their partners were older than 20. There’s some nuance there, of course, but that research indicates that up to half of all teenage pregnancies are a result of rape. That, to me, highlights the gross and horrifying failure in sex education. The abstinence-only “purity” approach leaves people, especially girls, vulnerable to violence and abuse.

In a survey from 2004, a huge number of the people who responded— 73%– said they’d had abortions because they couldn’t afford to have a baby. There’s other reasons to have an abortion, obviously, but when three quarters of the people having an abortion cite their finances as the most important reason they needed an abortion, it means that there’s a definite lack of choice involved in their decision. That’s unfortunate, and upsetting. Abortion should be available without limits– you shouldn’t have to prove you have a “good enough” reason– but if they would have preferred to keep their pregnancy but can’t afford to, that’s a problem.

There are so many avenues to provide real choices. Reducing child care costs. Making reliable contraception widely available. Offering comprehensive education on reproductive health and consensual sex. All of those things are proven in reducing the abortion rate (as well as just being good ideas on their own), and this abortion-on-demand feminist thinks that’s an important enough goal that I’ll even work with Tim Kaine to ensure that people are free to make a true, unbounded, personal choice.

I don’t need ideological purity in the people I work with. I don’t need to agree with you on everything to try to get something accomplished. I don’t like litmus tests, and I abhor movements that are unwilling to bend in order to get the work done. If you’re personally pro-life, but think that decision is a personal one best left to a person and their doctor, we can shake on it.

If you’d like to know more about these pro-choice positions, I recommend Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement by Sarah Erdreich.

Photo by Toshiyuki
Feminism

Redeeming Love review: Introducing Michael

Plot summary:

  • Michael sees Angel, God audibly speaks to him and says “This one, beloved.” (53)
  • He buys half an hour with her that night and proposes.
  • She refuses. She continues to refuse, over the next week, quite emphatically.
  • Michael argues with God, leaves town.
  • Angel decides she’s done working for Duchess, demands her wages.
  • Duchess has her beaten. Angel wants Bret Magowan to kill her, provokes him.

***

I’ve been reading A History of God by Karen Armstrong for a little bit. In the second chapter, she’s explaining the different ways the prophets described their deity, and I want to share what she says about Hosea:

It was only with hindsight that it seemed to Hosea that his marriage had been inspired by God. The loss of his wife had been a shattering experience, which gave Hosea an insight into the way Yahweh must feel when his people deserted him and went whoring after deities like Baal. At first Hosea was tempted to denounce Gomer and have nothing more to do with her: indeed, the law stipulated that a man must divorce an unfaithful wife. But Hosea still loved Gomer, and eventually he went after her and bought her back from her new master. He saw his own desire to win Gomer back as a sign that Yahweh was willing to give Israel another chance. …

Hosea saw Yahweh as a jilted husband, who still continued to feel a yearning tenderness for his wife. (48)

There’s a lot more there, and the surrounding argument about how the prophets were anthropomorphizing God is fascinating, but I wanted to highlight that section because it’s important to me to remember that the American evangelical way of interpreting the Bible is far from the only way, or the “right” way. We’ll see Francine’s acceptance of their interpretation of Hosea pop up for the first time here, and I would like us to spend time separating what conservatives say about Hosea and what Hosea might actually have to say for himself.

It’s ok to find Hosea’s story troubling. You can’t remove the man from his culture, and his account is an excellent example of this. However, I do think it’s both possible and necessary for us to wrestle with the parts of the Bible that make us uncomfortable, especially when that discomfort is a sign of conscience.

When Michael finds out who Angel is, he “felt as though he had been kicked low and hard” (so, in the balls), and then says to God “Lord? Did I misunderstand? I must’ve. This can’t be the one” (54). Francine is projecting modern Christian attitudes about prostitutes back onto an 1850s man, because as I’ve mentioned before that wouldn’t have been a big deal at the time. However, it’s important that Michael be repulsed by the ideal of marrying a “soiled dove” for theological reasons: according to the common conservative presentation of Hosea, women like Gomer/Angel/Nation of Israel are disgusting. They’re disgusting like all born sinners are disgusting, really, but Francine really wants to nail the message home through using Michael to voice her whorephobia.

However, if we looked at Hosea with an alternate lens, we could reject the whorephobia in the narrative– which, honestly, is only one chapter out of a fourteen-chapter-long oracle– and look for the compassion that’s woven into the rest of the text. A lot of the anger Hosea feels is directed toward the “Johns” of the ancient world– the people who exploit and oppress and abuse. After he buys Gomer back there’s no brimstone directed toward her or their children. The story conveys a sense of justice– the people who were abused and neglected will be restored.

But, that emphasis on compassion is not theologically relevant to Francine. The typical evangelical desire is to convince everyone that we’re disgusting sinners in need of God, and that’s what Francine needs Angel to understand– that she’s a disgusting whore in need of Michael’s saving grace. Francine beats us over the head again and again with all the times that Angel has “failed” at saving herself through these chapters until she ultimately gives up and decides to provoke Bret into beating her to death (93).

The biggest problem with Francine’s characterization of Michael– and therefore Hosea, ergo God themself– is that ignoring consent is an essential facet of both Micheal and God’s character. At the end of Michael’s opening scene, there’s this line: “But he knew he was going to marry that girl anyway” (56). There’s no if she’ll have me anywhere– not there, not in the next three chapters. At one point God tells him to “Go back and get Angel.” Get her. Not “try to convince her again, I’ll soften her heart for you this time.” None of that, nothing resembling consent. Just abduction.

What Angel wants is irrelevant to both God and Michael. What she wants to be called (64). That she doesn’t want to leave (67). He tells her that she “doesn’t know anything about” him (67) and rejects her stereotypes of “men,” but then makes a stereotypical assumption about her (that he “wants what you don’t even know you have to give”) and it’s not a problem for him to override her own sense of personhood (68). Her life choices “became my business the minute I saw you” (77). When God orders him to abduct her, and he refuses, it’s not because abduction would be wrong, or that he doesn’t want to do something to Angel that she doesn’t want, it’s because “The last think I want or need is a woman who doesn’t feel a thing” (80).

***

All through these two chapters, Francine is painting a deliberate picture of Angel’s resistance. This section of the book is called Defiance, and it’s supposed to parallel an evangelical narrative about conversion: God draws people to him that don’t understand that they need him. They want to stay in their sin (the Palace), they don’t want to accept help or a way out that they didn’t make themselves (marry Michael).

Angel is being stubborn. Michael has given her plenty of opportunities to show her that he’s actually a decent human being. Speaking of, the fact that Francine thinks that Angel could tell at this point that Michael is “not like” (sarcasm quotes there) Duke, or Johnny, or Bret … it’s disturbing. All Michael has done at this point is be an arrogant, irritating man with a frightening temper (76-78), but the subtext to all of Angel’s thoughts is “why don’t I want to accept his help?” which she wonders openly at several points. The answer: again, she’s a disgusting sinner who doesn’t know she needs God/Michael.

A few last notes: there’s some horrific fatphobia here, with Francine describing Duchess using terms like “rolls of flesh,” “puffy cheeks,” a comment about a second chin, and then calling all of that “obscene” right before Duchess orders Bret to beat Angel (89). Yaaaaay. Also, she’s a terrible writer. She freely flouts the old “show, don’t tell” rule, and switches being narrators sometimes in the same sentence. There’s no definite point of view– it’s not a true third-person narrator, and we’re jumping in and out of people’s heads, getting the inner thoughts of basically every character, not just Angel and Hosea.

Bonus prediction: Francine’s going to take Old Testament passages that refer specifically to Israel and apply them directly to Michael and America, the Christian Nation.

Feminism

what hast thou wrought: Christians and Trump

I’ve read a lot of articles about Donald Trump. If you look at my last “stuff I’ve been into” post, there’s about a half-dozen articles on him that represents the best-of-the-best of my reading on the subject. I’ve got a lot of angry-and/or-panicking friends on social media, so I’m inundated with quite a bit of material that represent a gamut of positions. My friends range from hard right, center-right, center-left, and hard-hard-hard-hard-left, and one of the biggest conversation topics shared among all these groups is this question:

How can Christians be voting for him?

I’ve already explained why I think Christians shouldn’t be voting for Trump, but now I’d like to take a stab at why Christians– namely white evangelicals– are supporting him in even greater numbers than they supported Romney. There’s been multitudes of ink spilled attempting to answer this, and the obvious answer is white supremacy. Evangelicals exist as a voting bloc because of racism. Trump with all of his flagrant racism is calling to one of the most basic motivations of the evangelical movement, and we ignore this to our detriment. Another obvious answer is misogyny. He embodies everything wrong with masculinity in American culture– braggadocio, chauvinism, narcissism, anger, insecurity– but it’s appealing to those among us who see powerful women and feminism as an innate threat to their manhood or their sense of social order.

The internet is filled to the brim with articles covering all those reasons, as well as plenty of articles pointing out all the ways that Trump’s actions, history, and proposed policies are antithetical to everything Christians have been saying they expect in a presidential candidate for decades. Like having family values. Or being a Christian. So, a lot of my friends are confused: how is this possible? On top of the fore-mentioned white supremacy and misogyny that are integral to evangelical culture, I’d like to highlight two more elements that make supporting Trump a foregone conclusion for so many evangelicals.

Abortion

Yes, this is also obvious. Wayne Grudem even included Trump’s supposed pro-life platform as a part of his argument for why Trump is a “morally good choice.” What’s been confusing to many of my friends is that Trump’s “pro-life” position is recent and possibly a lie, so how can evangelicals be staking an election on something they can’t possibly be sure of?

The answer is simple: Hillary Clinton is pro-choice, and will appoint pro-choice judges to the Supreme Court. Trump, while perhaps not personally pro-life, will most likely appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.

They have to take that chance. They have to because being anti-abortion is all they’ve got. Modern evangelicals and other conservative Christians aren’t, by and large, holistically pro-life in the sense that they consider human life sacred and inestimably valuable. They’re pro-war, pro-death penalty, anti-healthcare, against policies that could end starvation and hunger, anti-gun control, and many even believe that parents should have the right to murder their children once they’re not, y’know, fetuses. They’re not pro-life in any meaningful way, but they are anti-abortion and pro-birth, and holding onto that position makes them incredibly powerful.

With their stance of being a single-issue voter in their back pocket, they control elections. They get to say who stays and who goes, who gets power and who doesn’t, all through this one platform: overturning Roe v. Wade. It’s the Southern Strategy reborn, and there’s no way in hell that they’re going to let go of this, no matter how deep into the muck and slime and mire they have to go to justify it. They’ve staked their soul on this ground. This is the line in the sand they’ve drawn.

Granted, there are plenty of anti-abortion Christians who aren’t being cynical and hypocritical about this. Their theological system simply cannot let them back down from this political position, because if they were to accept the concept that private faith and public life aren’t necessarily eternally bonded concepts, a lot of other things start unraveling. Or, if they were to shift their thinking about abortion from a biblical perspective, the whole house of cards might come crashing down. They can’t afford to question this, because questioning their stance on abortion means questioning everything. It means reassessing their identity, their character, their morality. It means re-examining almost everything they’ve ever done and said to women, to children, to their LGBT brothers and sisters … to orphans and widows and prisoners.

I’ve done it. It’s painful. Too painful, possibly, for many.

Redemption

The one element that I haven’t seen anyone talking about is the redemption narrative intrinsic to the evangelical faith system. To many of my friends and colleagues, it’s inconceivable that Christians could look at Trump– a man who sexually abused his wife, who raped a child, who harasses women with impunity, who sent Hillary Clinton a death threat— and think yes, this man represents my Christian values. How could James Dobson say he’s “tender to things of the spirit” or Jerry Falwell claim that he “lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment,” much less do so with a straight face? This man is an abominable monster, and yet Christians are flocking to him. How can this be?

The answer is in two parts. First, “Creation, Fall, Redemption” is essential to understanding the evangelical viewpoint. Mankind fell into sin in the Garden, but Jesus promises us redemption and ultimately resurrection. To them, this narrative is woven into Scripture from beginning to end, and our lives reflect this pattern, this Truth about reality. We are born Fallen but can be Redeemed no matter what, no matter when.

Trump can’t be excepted from this narrative. He’s a fallen sinner, just like the rest of us, and God can redeem him, too. The fact that he’s converting to conservative Christian-style politics is a checkmark in his favor– in a culture where religion and nationalism are horribly mixed, Trump’s promises for “Christians to be powerful again” ring true in their ears. In this only-Republicans-are-really-Christians climate, it’s the only “spiritual fruit” they need. To those who believe that We Are a Christian Nation, Trump’s “Make American Great Again” speaks to their dominionist, theocratic vision for their country.

Secondly… I’m surprised that anyone is surprised.

Yes, Trump is a child rapist. Yes, Trump abused his wife, making her feel “violated.” Yes, Trump has harassed and attacked multiple women. Yes, yes, yes. But if you look around Christian culture, it’s populated by people exactly like him.

Joshua Duggar attacks his sisters and girls from his church, and it’s written off as “normal.” Bill Gothard sexually abuses teenage girls for decades and he’s still the head of a thriving ministry. Pope Francis has participated in a horrific and disgusting cover-up of child sexual abuse, and he even lands a cover on the AdvocatePastors, youth pastors, evangelists, missionaries, priests– they can rape women, men, children, and it doesn’t matter. They’re protected, even given positions of power. They can rape children, be convicted and sent to prison, and still get to write feature articles for Christian leadership magazines. Their churches and missionary boards will cover it up and shelter them.

Christian culture is a haven for abusers.

It’s a shelter for rapists and molesters because of the redemption narrative they cling to. If a rapist or abuser says “I’m sorry, I’ve repented,” anyone who questions that is harshly censored. If a woman wants to divorce her husband because he enjoyed watching people rape children, she’s censored by her church and shunned. Or if your husband “repents” of sexually abusing a child for years, you’ll be the one seen as “breaking your marriage vows” if you decide to leave him. Even if he’s abusing you, according to John Piper you’re just supposed to stick it out. After all, if you listen to Debi Pearl, maybe if he beats you long enough you’ll bring him to a saving knowledge of Christ. Or, maybe Debi Pearl’s too extreme for you– how about Lori Wick, one of the most popular Christian fiction authors?

This is why Trump is succeeding so well among evangelical voters. He’s an abuser, but now he’s converted to their nationalistic, dominionist, theocratic, white supremacist and misogynistic faith, and through that has been Redeemed.

He fits right in.

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Feminism

Redeeming Love Review: Angel’s backstory

For this review series I’ve decided to split Redeeming Love into twelve sections, around forty pages each, instead of splitting it up by chapters– since the chapters all have varied lengths. Today’s post covers the prologue and the first chapter, which gives us Angel’s backstory. To make things a little easier for those of you who haven’t read the book at all, or in a while, I’ll give plot summaries at the beginning of each post before digging into the themes and imagery I’d like to discuss.

  • Mae, her mother, is a mistress.
  • Alex, her father, paid for Mae to have an abortion, but she refused because of her Catholicism.
  • Sarah/Angel overhears her father saying how her existence ruined both their lives.
  • Mae sends Sarah/Angel away with Cleo, the nanny, to have a weekend with Alex without Sarah/Angel present.
  • Alex stops supporting Mae and Sarah/Angel; Mae tries to return to her parents, but is refused.
  • Eventually, Mae becomes a prostitute. Falls ill and dies.
  • Rab, Mae’s love interest at the time, sells Sarah/Angel to “Duke” and is murdered in front of her.
  • Duke renames Sarah “Angel.” Rapes her.
  • Angel, at eighteen, goes to California; she’s mugged by the other prostitutes on the boat.
  • Meets Duchess, moves to Pair-a-Dice with Duchess as her madam.

If you read over some of the negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, you’ll notice that there’s a fair number of people who found the dark opening to the book incredibly off-putting and somehow an ungodly thing to read about. The sort of person leaving that review is probably coming from a similar background as my childhood: Philippians 4:8 was our guidepost for all our entertainment decisions, and the opening to Redeeming Love probably doesn’t qualify as something “pure” or “lovely.”

In that sense, I’m somewhat grateful that Francine was willing to explore something dark in her book. Christian culture has a tendency to sugarcoat reality, and it drives me nuts– so at least here that’s not happening. While Angel’s backstory is probably darker than her average 1850s counterpart, it doesn’t stretch the bounds of credulity even by today’s standards.

The particular situation that Francine sets up for both Mae and Angel is a particular form of sexual abuse: it’s called survival sex and can appear both inside and outside prostitution. Many of the people who enter sex work– both today and in the 1850s– did so out of extreme duress. Like with Mae’s character, they considered it a “last resort,” but eventually circumstances deprived them of other viable options. However, it is extremely important to note that people can be forced into survival sex and not be prostitutes. I’ve known several women over the years who had sex with their significant others for no other reason than that if they refused they’d be homeless and starving. Survival sex is coerced sex, and y’all know my feelings on that subject.

A common myth about prostitution– one perpetually reinforced by every Christian anti-sex-trafficking organization I’ve encountered– is that all prostitutes are engaging in survival sex, or were forced into it as a form of slavery. There’s this belief that only incredibly desperate people would enter sex work ‘voluntarily’ … which is not the case. I’d also like to highlight that Mae was having survival sex with Alex long before Francine started describing her as a prostitute– her house and their food would only be provided as long as she was capable of satisfying Alex’s lust.

There are some historical details that Francine is getting right about prostitution during the California Gold Rush, like a Chinese woman being the only one of Duchess’ prostitutes who is there as an actual slave, but I’m already sensing some anachronistic over-writing. Due to the scarcity of women in California at the time, there wasn’t a lot of social stigma surrounding prostitution in places like Pair-a-Dice; but, given what I know about some of the events that happen later on, I don’t think Francine is going to stay true to that.

Getting into the details, though, there is one particular scene worth highlighting:

[Cleo] pushed him away. He reached for her again, and she dodged him–but even Sarah could tell the effort was half-hearted. How could Cleo let this man near her? …

Merrick caught hold of her and kissed her. Cleo struggled, trying to pull away, but he held her tightly. When she relaxed against him, he drew back enough to say “More than that’s [the sea] in your blood.”

“Merrick, don’t. She’s watching–”

“So what?”

He kissed her again, and she fought him this time. Sarah sat frozen in fear. Maybe he would just kill them both.

“No! Cleo said angrily. “Get out of here. I can’t do this. I’m supposed to be taking care of her.” (28)

Merrick than tosses Sarah/Angel out into the hallway with strict orders to stay there or he’ll cut her up and feed her to the crabs, and him and Cleo “have sex.” Then we get this:

She stretched out her hand, but Merrick was gone. It was like him. She wasn’t going to worry about it now. After last night, how could he deny he loved her? (29) …

She put Sarah to bed early and went back down to the bar, hoping he would come in later. He didn’t. She stayed a little longer, laughing with other men and pretending she didn’t care … She hated him for breaking her heart again. She had let him do it to her so many times before. When would she learn to say no to him? Why had she come back? She should’ve known what would happen, would always happen. (30)

This scene bothers me because men like Merrick who laugh at women who are actively fighting them are going to get what they want regardless of whether or not she gives her consent. It does seem that Cleo wanted to have sex with Merrick and stopped resisting once he’d thrown Sarah out into the hall … but the fact that her consent was inconsequential to Merrick in this scene isn’t a part of the tension. She only gets mad at Merrick the next evening when he doesn’t show up at the bar, and the fact that he’s probably overridden her objections in the past isn’t a part of the speech she gives Sarah.

Then there’s the line that Francine puts in Sarah’s head: how could Cleo let this man near her? Considering that she’s spent five whole pages of a 34-page prologue doing nothing but establishing how frightening a figure Merrick is, that thought jumps out to me as decidedly out of place. It’s clear that Sarah is terrified of Merrick, is doing everything he says because he’s threatened to cut out her tongue out and kill her, and is also convinced that he’d kill Cleo, too. That doesn’t jive with “how could Cleo let this man near her?”

I think that particular line is Francine slut-shaming Cleo. It’s not a part of Sarah/Angel’s character, and it does nothing for the plot. It’s authorial manipulation, trying to get us to see Cleo the way Francine sees Cleo. We’re also supposed to see the lecture she delivers through this slut-shaming light: Cleo’s problem isn’t that men are truly terrible, it’s her bad decision making.

I think this is going to play out in Angel’s storyline. At the end of the prologue we get this:

He smiled again as he removed his tie and slowly began to unbutton his shirt.

And by morning, Sarah knew that Cleo had told her God’s truth about everything. (44)

… which shows up in the first chapter as a baseline for how Angel views the world. Cleo had told her the truth about the world, about men … but the reader is supposed to see Cleo’s “truth” as being born of her sinful and oh-so-slutty decisions. The book is, after all, titled Redeeming Love, and it’s going to be Angel’s future sinful and oh-so-slutty decisions that she’s going to need God’s grace and redemption for.

Bonus prediction: Francine is going to juxtapose Mae’s Catholicism with an anachronistically-evangelistic Protestantism at some point, and illustrate that the Catholic faith is inherently lacking and deficient.

Feminism

a new normal: the aftermath of recovery

[content note: trauma, recovery, PTSD]

I’m almost twenty-nine years old. For fourteen years, around half my life, I experienced abuse in various ways. I was physically abused as a child and teenager. I spent my teen years in a spiritually abusive church where I was emotionally, verbally, and spiritually abused by almost every significant adult in my life. I was sexually assaulted twice as a teenager. As an adult I was in an abusive intimate relationship– the emotional and verbal abuse was intensified, and sexual assault and rape became the backdrop to my life. I went to a fundamentalist Christian “college,” where the spiritual abuse continued.

I didn’t escape abusive environments or relationships until I was twenty-three. I’ve been out for almost six years, but didn’t really start attempting to work through everything until four years ago, and I didn’t start making any real progress until two years ago. The healing process is slow, and sometimes excruciating. One of the counselors I went to a few times– the one who told me I was a “poisoned well” and I shouldn’t consider dating Handsome— said that healing would be like “unkinking a hose,” and a more understated metaphor I’ve yet to find.

Over the past few years, I’ve met a lot of people with stories like mine. For many of my friends, peers, and colleagues, we spend a lot of time looking for help, looking for things to help our lives make sense. In that search, I’ve frequently bumped into books, lectures, seminars, tapes, YouTube videos, blog posts, etc, that all talk about healing from abuse and trauma. The problem I’ve encountered is that many of those things aren’t honest about what this process looks like.

They’re not deceptive, by and large, but they do tend to leave one with the impression that healing is a gradual slope upward, and that it leads to peace and recovery. They paint a hopeful picture filled with grace, compassion, and love– and to be perfectly honest, I think those sorts of resources are needful.

But, when I’m looking in the eyes of one of my dearest friends who feels utterly lost and confused because “hasn’t it been long enough? Shouldn’t I be better than this?”– or other women who are beating themselves up one side and down the other because they “don’t want to be a victim,” and they want to “move on” … I have to look at them and say that

I don’t think better looks like other people’s “normal.” I don’t think you can move on.

Better looks like me cleaning out my bathtub. A fleck of mold got on my hand, and I started screaming. Handsome came into the bathroom to find me curled up in the fetal position with my hand stretched out as far away as I could get it. He carried me out of the bathroom and washed my hand for me in our kitchen sink while I sobbed, then tucked me into bed and cuddled with me for an hour before I could even talk.

Better looks like me washing my hair before every road trip and packing dry shampoo. It looks like me standing in the shower at a hotel, shaking and trying not to scream when the shower curtain touches me, while Handsome washes my body and I keep my eyes screwed tight trying to pretend that we’re at home.

Better looks like Handsome and I getting ready for bed, and he takes off his belt and folds it in half to he can hang it up– and I jump away from him and cringe. I don’t know what, but something about his hand movements has my body convinced that I’m about to be hit. He’s never even remotely done anything that could make me think he’d ever hurt me– not with his words, not with his hands. But it doesn’t matter. I jump away from belts.

Better looks like me turning off the subwoofer during Jurassic World because the throbbing bass makes my chest hurt and my anxiety spike.

Better looks like me searching all over my house desperately searching for my cat during my Fourth of July barbecue because as much as I know that she’s afraid of the outdoors and wouldn’t have run away while the door was open, I also know that I won’t be able to convince JerkBrain that she’s ok and still home until I see her for myself.

Better looks like reminding myself to eat even when I’m sick, even when I feel like I don’t deserve to eat. It looks like me playing Farm Heroes Super Saga while I chew and swallow the meatloaf for dinner last night while I try not to think about what I’m doing– hoping I’ll manage to clean my plate this time. It looks like taking small portions when I’m out with family so they won’t ask questions.

Better looks like a nightstand crowded with meds that I take, every day, even though every time I swallow the miracle that makes my days survivable a sliver of myself whispers that if I were a better, more consistent, more hardworking person, I wouldn’t really need them.

Better looks like getting toward the end of the day and telling Handsome “I can’t make any more decisions.” I can’t decide what I want to do, what show I want to watch, what game I want to play, what book I want to read, what snack I want to eat, what blanket I want to cover my legs … so he makes all those choices for me because he cares about me.

Better looks like being thankful for flexeril because I don’t seem to have night terrors anymore, at least not that I can remember. I can’t remember nightmares, and I’ve never been so thankful that I don’t have to relive my rapes once or twice a week any longer.

Better looks like fighting with JerkBrain every workshift because I know that my body needs me to be gentle with it, that working my fingers to the bone does not determine my value and worth as a person. It looks like reminding myself that my employer finds my contributions substantive meaningful, even though I have fibromyalgia.

Better looks like nearly jumping out of my skin every time I see someone who looks my rapist at an airport or national monument because as much as I know that the chances are vanishingly small that I’d actually bump into him anywhere, I can’t shake the idea that maybe just maybe he decided to fly somewhere at Christmas that would take him through that airport.

***

I’ve been afraid to paint this particular portrait of my life because I don’t want to be discouraging. What suffering person wants to be told some of this might be forever? I know all those studies that talk about the long-term consequences of child abuse aren’t exactly uplifting. My brain is fundamentally different because of the beatings I’ve received, because of the times he raped me, because of the hellfire sermons I had imprinted into my bones. I have PTSD, I’m an abuse and rape victim, and those realities aren’t ever going away.

This does look better though. It does. Not better looks like me drinking myself into numbness for three days straight and blaring rock music so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. Not better looks like a panic attack making me vomit in a school hallway. Not better looks like not being able to have sex with my partner. Not better looks like waking up screaming.

I am getting better. I’m not the somewhat-terrifying ball of rage I was a few years ago. Some wounds don’t bleed anymore, some scars have faded. I’m genuinely happier, more content, more at peace. But a large part of why my life is so blissful– and I do often think of it that way– is due to the accommodations I’ve made. I take medications. I play smartphone games to distract me from my anxiety and pain. I spent a ridiculous sum of money on my cat, who we nicknamed “Anxiety Sponge” because holding her makes something in my chest unlock. I walk away from my computer and my phone on the weekends and read fantasy books voraciously.

Healing, in many ways, looks like learning to cope. It means finding crutches and using them. I’ve learned, slowly and painfully, that I can’t meet an impossible standard. I’m never going to be like someone who wasn’t abused for fourteen years.

We got a little beat up by people, by life. If there’s one thing I want every survivor to know, it’s that your hurts are real, and they deserve to be treated. Maybe that means surgery, or walking with a cane, or cortisone injections, or whatever you find that works. Find what works and do it. Maybe, like me, it means smartphone games, taking Xanax with you everywhere, and packing dry shampoo so you don’t have to wash your hair in a strange place.

Whatever it is, it’s ok.

Photo by Mitya Ku
Feminism

Life After “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”

Back when I was gearing up to do my review series on I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I reached out to Joshua Harris to see if he’d be interested in contributing anything. He refused, although cordially, and I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was so incredibly young when he wrote it, had spent several years in a toxic church… and after all, he’s attending seminary now, so maybe he’s just too busy.

Turns out I was a little wrong.

There’s been a bit of a storm in a teacup about the interview he gave with NPR, but Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism wrote out my reaction almost word-for-word:

Oh my god, really? I mean, “the consequences of the way people applied the book,” is Harris freaking serious with this? That is not what taking responsibility looks like. The problem was not that his book was misunderstood. The problem was what he said in his book.

You should read the rest of her response, as she does an excellent job pointing out all the different ways Joshua avoided actually taking responsibility for the harm I Kissed Dating Goodbye has caused.

Shortly after he gave that interview, a few anti-purity-culture writers and activists noticed that he’d launched something new on his webpage: a call for stories. It’s been edited a few times since it went live, and initially he was asking for permission to use our stories online or in print, signaling to anyone who’s been on this particular carousel before that he was going to “revisit” I Kissed Dating Goodbye in some way, probably another book or speaking tour or some such– but most importantly in a way that we wouldn’t have control over.

So, some of us decided to launch our own, separate platform:

While we think that actually taking the time to listen is a good start for Harris, many of us are deeply uncomfortable with his chosen format. By giving Harris permission to share these stories, they are being licensed to him for use in whatever way he sees fit—in whole in or in part, censored or uncensored, in service of whatever conclusions he comes to about the impact of his work.

But the reality is that the impact of his work is not his to decide.

This week, we’re inviting you to share your stories—uncut and uncensored. We want to curate these stories in the hopes of preventing more damage from being done and to provide an alternative narrative to the rigid and narrow thinking that IKDG and Harris’ other work espouses.

Today is the beginning of our synchroblog/link-up. At lifeafterIKDG.com, there’s a way for you to submit your own blog post, podcast, or video that will be automatically posted to the main landing page. If you don’t have your own blog/channel, or if you would like to submit your story anonymously, we’re also taking submissions through IKDGstories.tumblr.com. If writing out a whole post or doing a whole video isn’t your style, we’re also using the hashtag #IKDGstories on twitter, and will be hosting a twitter chat Wednesday evening.

Each of us– Jim Kast-Keat, Emily Maynard, Elizabeth Esther, Emily Joy, and Hannah Paasch— are contributing posts for the site, and mine went up today.

Feminism

Redeeming Love review: Introduction

I had a root canal this morning and my copy of Francine River’s Redeeming Love hasn’t arrived yet, so today is just going to serve as an introduction. In case you’ve never heard of the book before I mentioned it as an option for me to review a while ago, here’s the summary from the back:

California’s gold country, 1850. A time when men sold their souls for a bag of gold and women sold their bodies for a place to sleep.

Angel expects nothing from men but betrayal. Sold into prostitution as a child she survives by keeping her hatred alive. And what she hates most are the men who use her, leaving her empty and dead inside.

Then she meets Michael Hosea. A man who seeks his Father’s heart in everything, Michael obeys God’s call to marry Angel and to love her unconditionally. Slowly, day by day, he defies Angel’s every bitter expectation, until despite her resistance, her frozen heart begins to thaw.

But with her unexpected softening come overwhelming feelings of unworthiness and fear. And so Angel runs. Back to the darkness, away from her husband’s pursuing love, terrified of the truth she no longer can deny: Her final healing must come from the One who loves her even more than Michael does … the One who will never let her go.

Seems like a fairly typical Christian historical romance novel, although probably slightly darker than most of the ones I read growing up. In those, women could have abuse in their background, but it was pretty much only ever alluded to in vague ways, and never dealt with it directly. Like in Lori Wick’s The Knight and the Dove — the main character, Megan, suffered abuse and neglect from her mother, but it all happened in “the past” (mostly. I think her mother slaps her once). The book never really knows how to deal with it, expect that she sleepwalks when she’s upset, something most of the characters seem to find adorable for some reason?

I’ve never read Redeeming Love before, but I’ll bet you anything that Francine probably doesn’t know the first thing about trauma, recovery, and the healing process. Notice how we’re already being set up to expect Angel to be “bitter“? I imagine Angel’s recovery will be set in terms of forgiveness and bitterness, which y’all can already guess how well I’ll react to that. Given that Redeeming Love exists in a culture that has fundamental misunderstandings of sex trafficking, there’s also going to be some myths that I’ll have to deconstruct.

Given that we’ll be talking about sex trafficking for the first bit of the book, I have to let you know that I don’t have a solidly formed opinion about this topic. Sex trafficking is clearly evil, and I think this is something we all agree on. However, there are many arguments about how to go about solving this problem, and I don’t think there is any sort of silver bullet or perfect solution.

I will say that conversations about sex trafficking in the American Christian context are muddied with our tendency to see all non-heterosexual-married sex as innately sinful. I also lean in the direction of protecting sex workers while avoiding paternalism and condescension; this means that while I find certain arguments about “sex work can only exist in a misogynistic system that views women’s bodies as consumable commodities” somewhat compelling, I also believe that all bodies and our labor are consumable commodities in a capitalistic system, and if I can consent to selling my labor at a bookstore, what’s the real difference between that and selling my labor from a bed?

I’m still not completely sold either way on whether or not there’s some quality to sex work that makes it wholly and significantly different from other forms of physical or emotional labor, but what I do know is that many sex workers find their work enjoyable and aren’t any more coerced into it than anyone else trying to put food in their mouth and roof over their head by flipping burgers or brewing cappuccinos.

Obviously this is an extremely complicated conversation, with many valid viewpoints and arguments, and I think Redeeming Love will be a good entry point into that discussion since it’s not one we’ve really had on the blog.

***

I’ve pointed you in the direction of Lindsay’s in-depth review already, but I always try to situate these review series in the larger context of how the book’s been received and what it’s meant to people, so I read a few more reviews today. There’s this one by Wife, Mom, Superwoman and another by Mike Duran here, and something popped out to me in those reviews: they both describe Michael Hosea as relentless, and both of them clearly think of this as one of his best traits.

As a Christian I understand the beauty that can be found in God’s grace, and how we can be comforted by its endless depths. I return to Christian theology again and again — despite all my doubts and struggles– because I love how it can articulate a deity of boundless love that crosses all boundaries and boxes. However, it’s interesting to me that so many people think of God as relentless, a word that conveys things like zombies and Jubal Early from Firefly. My conception of God’s love is more like sunlight and moonlight. Always there, always beautiful, but certainly not something that chases me down and drags me, desperately kicking and screaming, back into his house.

Hmm. I think we might end up talking about Christian culture’s violence-centric depictions of God, too.

Many of the 1-star reviews on Goodreads make a lot of good points, but 86% of the ratings are 4 or 5 stars, and almost a hundred thousand people have given it a 5-star rating. Phrases like “I couldn’t possibly do this book justice,” “extraordinary,” and “flawless,” are littered everywhere. Most of the reviews are essentially different wordings of “this book has deeply affected my view of God and romance,” which I find troubling. Fiction and literature are powerful things, but there’s a Twilight-level fervor in these reviews that me wonder about the connection between abusive, controlling, agency-stripping “romances” and how popular they can be.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to launching into this with y’all.

Artwork by Mick Austin