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Francine Rivers

Theology

Spirit of Prostitution: a bi reading of Gomer

This is an expository/interpretive paper I wrote for my “Interpretation as Resistance: Feminist, Womanist, and Queer Readings of the Bible.” I hope y’all enjoy it.

***

The whole LGBT movement is as phony as a three-dollar bill; look at this “B” thing in the middle; that’s just clear-cut straight-up promiscuity.

~Andrée  Sue Peterson

The ‘B’ stands for bisexual. That’s orgies! Are you really going to support this?

~James Dobson

Rebuke your mother, rebuke her, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. Let her remove the adulterous look from her face and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts … She said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my olive oil and my drink.

~Hosea 2:2-5

I thought that the redemptive love story of Hosea and Gomer was familiar to me. It was a metaphorical touchstone for the faith community of my adolescence, a story we referred to often as containing the Creation–Fall–Redemption arc we believed was at the core of Christianity. Gomer’s story was our story, because no matter how badly we sinned or how far we fell, God would still love and forgive us. Now, it is fascinating to me that although there are distinctive anti-Semitic tendencies in Christian fundamentalism, the way we interacted with Hosea was almost midrashic. This is demonstrated nowhere so well as in Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love, which is a retelling of the story of Hosea and Gomer set during the California Gold Rush. However, attempts to give a narrative framing to Hosea exist in abundance—evangelical Christian-style midrashim of Hosea are at bible.org, Lifeway, and Christianity Today. These retellings were more familiar to me than the text itself, and had overwritten my understanding of Hosea so much that when I read it in the NIV and Tanakh Translation, I was surprised by how much I struggled to find the narrative structure I’d grown up with.

I have been deep in the trenches with the evangelical structuring of Hosea as I’ve been doing a close reading of Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love for the past year. Over that time, the character of Gomer—and Rivers’ character, Angel—have come to mean a great deal to me for the exact reasons that Rivers, and evangelical culture more widely, condemn Gomer. My participation in this class has shown me that I love Gomer because I read her from a bipanqueer perspective, and in resisting Rivers’ framing I’ve come to play a Trickster role with the text. After all, if there’s a biblical character that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians would compare me, a bisexual woman, to—it’s Gomer. Gomer and I represent a sexuality that cannot be constrained, women who exercise our autonomy in defiance of societal expectations, and even if we arrive in a place that is culturally approved, we still represent a queer threat of instability.

In Hosea, Gomer is figurative of both women and Israel as a nation. After her introduction in the opening of the text, she is not referred to by name again. Instead, as the text develops she is replaced by generalities: woman, wife, mother, adulteress, prostitute, whore. Gomer’s badness is just women’s badness and Israel is bad when she/he/it behaves like Gomer (or like women). As a bipanqueer woman, I am frequently forced by culture to be a similar stand-in for all other queer women—or their ideas of queer women are forced onto me, regardless of their accuracy. There’s no separation of our “badness”; queer women are bad like me, and I am bad like queer women. The same thing happens in Hosea when the specificity of Gomer disappears from the text. Who she actually is doesn’t appear to matter to the writer(s), and telling her story is irrelevant. I intend to subvert this approach to the text by bringing the specificity of my story and to return Gomer as the principal character of the book.

The writers represent Gomer as a woman whose sexuality cannot be controlled, restrained or limited. She is an adulteress, “burning like an oven … blaz[ing] like a flaming fire … devour[ing her] rulers.” In the evangelical narrative framing of her character, Gomer returns again and again to her old life, which is depicted as irresistible to her. All through the text she is described as having a “spirit of prostitution,” and her unrestrainable sexuality is shown as being the core of her nature. These patterns are often applied to bipanqueer woman—our sexual appetites apparently know no bounds. We are inherently promiscuous and incapable of loyal monogamy. Many lesbian women are unwilling to enter relationships with bi women because they think we will inevitably be unfaithful or leave them. For straight men, bi women’s sexuality is still seen as unquenchable except instead of seeing this negatively, some straight men believe we are willing to engage in any sex act at any time with any person—or persons. However, I take joy in my sexuality that is free and unbounded, and I’m delighted that Gomer is the same. She knew what society thought of her—that is inescapable—but she enjoyed her sexuality, was brazen and forthright. She expressed her sexuality freely with an “adulterous look on her face,” and she knows her worth and claims it in olive oil and new wine. For Gomer and myself, it is impossible to contain not just our sexuality but the whole of ourselves. My sexuality has given me the gift of ignoring boundaries.

Another thing that is integral to Gomer’s story and my experience as a bi woman is how we exercise our autonomy. Society wants to enforce its monosexist boxes, but we can choose to live outside hetero- or homo-normative spheres. I have chosen a cis male partner, but that does not mean I have chosen a “straight” partnership. My partnership is queer because I am queer. Likewise, Gomer may have chosen Hosea, but that does not mean she chose to be circumscribed by the limits presented in Hosea. Without the assumption that Gomer is innately promiscuous, the narrative structure that she was constantly leaving her husband and returning to prostitution falls apart—it is not even necessarily supported by the text, as scholars disagree whether or not the opening verse in chapter three should be translated “Go, show love to your wife again” or “Go, befriend a woman.” Gomer chose to live with Hosea, to mother his children, but something that is clear to me as a bipanqueer woman is that Gomer did not choose to destroy herself in the process. She remained independent and autonomous, even in the face of a “yolk on her fair neck.” She defied expectations, as all bipanqueer women do.

Another facet of Gomer’s story that is analogous to my own is that she does, ultimately, choose a role and a “lifestyle” that, on the surface, conforms to her prescribed roles. She became a wife and mother, and according to the writer(s) may have “reformed.” I married a cis man, and hope to become a mother. In the meantime, I am mostly a “stay at home wife.” In an ironic twist of fate, my “lifestyle” more closely resembles the fundamentalist, patriarchal ideal than many of the women who were my peers in fundamentalism and would still consider themselves fundamentalists. A brief glance at the superficial facts of my life reveal a woman who works from home, who performs many of the traditionally feminine domestic duties like cooking and laundry. My partner takes on many of the traditionally masculine ones—managing our finances, mowing the lawn, etc. These “facts,” however, are not because we are obeying a complementarian understanding of marriage, but because I am allergic to grass and obsessed with Food Network, while my partner is genuinely overjoyed by spreadsheets. A deeper look would reveal many aspects of our lives that would horrify anti-feminists.

The text does not offer readers a deeper look into Gomer’s inner life, but if we remove the typical evangelical narrative structure and all the assumptions about her character, I believe we can achieve a more subversive and hopeful telling. Reading from a queer perspective offers the ability to see Gomer as a consistently destabilizing force. Women like Gomer and myself will always remain threats, as our sexual identities will always introduce instability into patriarchal structures. We can refuse yokes, cajoling, or demands and stay true and loyal to ourselves; the men who surround us know this, and should fear their inability to control us. Gomer knows she can provide for herself without Hosea and that she can be content, even happy, without him. I know that I do not need patriarchy, heterosexism, or monosexism to sustain either my Christian identity or my marriage. Even when we arrive at a place or a time in our lives when patriarchy or queerphobia may approve of our choices, we do not make those choices for anyone but ourselves.

Feminism

Redeeming Love: Assumptions

Before I get into today’s post, I know there’s a lot on our minds. You know my thoughts on gun violence, and it is beyond enraging to me that more people are dead and hundreds more wounded because Republicans can’t be arsed to care about people. What that white man did in Las Vegas was preventable, and the argument that mass shootings — any shootings at all– are the necessary price we must pay for a hobby is despicable. Get informed about gun violence, responsible regulation, and start agitating for policies to make our country safer from white domestic terrorists and abusers. Our thoughts and prayers are useless if we’re not prompted to action.

And now, because we have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, the Redeeming Love review continues. As always, be aware that this book is an unending shitshow of abuse and assault.

Plot Summary

  • Angel hitches a ride with a trader to Sacramento.
  • She gets a job with mercantile-owner Joseph, who’d ordered a stove for Michael.
  • He keeps her occupied while he sends word to Michael that she’s there.
  • Michael comes, sexually assaults her.
  • She agrees to go back with him this time.
  • Miriam gets a crush on Paul; Paul feels uncomfortable lusting after a 16-year-old.
  • Both Paul and Angel decide they want Michael to be with Miriam.

***

There’s not a ton of plot movement; honestly, I’ve read a lot of Francine’s writing and I’m confused why this is one of her most popular books. The pacing in this is just … it’s so bad. It’s 450+ pages and honestly I think it could have been easily reduced by a third and we wouldn’t have lost anything. All the agonizing and soul-searching happening in this section is Francine beating a dead horse with Angel’s self-recrimination. She feels ashamed. We get it. However, this is what happens when people take moralizing sermons and try to turn them into books. The point of Redeeming Love isn’t to be a well-written, entertaining story– it’s the theology. Francine really has to drive home to us that we are like Angel, and we need to be convinced of our lowliness, our wretchedness.

In Sacramento, Angel spends half a chapter wandering around looking for employment and walks past a bunch of brothels and saloons, rejecting each as an option. She’s pretty firm about this, too– she knows she can be successful at that, but it’s not what she wants anymore so she keeps walking until she finds Joseph’s store and he offers her a job. However, later in the narrative Francine has Angel remember this day differently. Angel thinks to herself, and says out loud to Michael, that not returning to prostitution was a close thing, and she was indescribably lucky that she found Joseph when she did.

This is another place where Francine’s theological purposes replace good writing. Angel is consistent in her desire to forge a new life for herself away from prostitution, since this has been a common thread in her thoughts since Michael imprisoned her at his farm. However, Francine is re-telling the story of Hosea so she has to have her Gomer character be “enticed” or “tempted” or whatever. Hosea is a framing of Israel’s relationship with idolatry, and Francine has to preserve that framing even when it doesn’t make sense for the characters she’s written.

When Michael shows up, the first thing he does is sexually assault her:

Michael caught hold of her and swung her around. “Oh, yes I do [know why you left]!” He pulled her into his arms. “You left because of this.” He covered her mouth with his. When she tried to push free, he cupped the back of her head. She struggled harder as the betraying warmth stole over her. (305-06).

Hoo, boy. This is the same rape myth that pissed me off in the “Breaker of Chains” Game of Thrones debacle. It’s the myth that women don’t know what we want– if we resist, if we say no, we don’t really mean it. Here, that myth is combined with the prevalent idea that women are supposed to find sexual violence arousing. Angel is being attacked by a man she was actively backing away from — tripping over tables and boots– but when he assaults her she feels a “betraying warmth.” How many times have we seen this exact scene in other books, in TV, in movies? A woman backing away from a manly man who mans very manly-like until her back hits a wall and he’s suddenly there with his manliness and oh swoon.

Confusingly, Angel’s reaction to this whole confrontation again makes sense as an abuse victim. She begins “shaking violently” as he tries to get her things together to leave. Every other description of her emotional state and actions fits right in to what I feel when I’m trying to function through panic attack. Once again, though, Francine is going to ignore that she’s writing a textbook abusive relationship. In this scene, Angel accuses Michael of feeling a “sense of power” and he admits it, but then says “But it’s not a power I’m going to use against you.” Right. Like you didn’t just use your physical power one page ago to sexually assault the woman you have manipulated and kidnapped repeatedly.

Goddess above this is awful.

***

Speaking of manipulation, there’s two incidents I’d like to address although they’re separate from the Angel-and-Michael main plot. The first is Joseph’s behavior in Sacramento. He gives Angel a place to stay and a job, and Angel starts to feel a small sense of redemption and self-respect. She’s doing what she’s always wanted, even if it doesn’t quite look the way she expected. After a couple of weeks, she’s feeling more confident and ready to move on to something more permanent. The second she mentions anything to Joseph, though, he spends the entire day being very strange and confusing. He lies and says his wife suffered a back injury so he needs Angel to stay, and then keeps changing his mind and creating work. At the end of the chapter, Francine reveals those were all delaying tactics so that Angel would still be at the store when Michael shows up.

This is hella manipulative. He outright lies to her and keeps her occupied with busy work all day– work that’s the equivalent of digging holes and filling them back in again– all so that Michael can find her. In fact, he wasn’t just waiting for Michael to show up for the stove, he’d written to Michael and told him Angel was there. But of course Joseph knew better than Angel on what was good for her, so it’s alright.

This happens again with the Altman children back at the farm. Miriam lies to Angel that Ruthie is stuck twenty feet up in a tree and convinces Angel to climb it and rescue her. She’s never climbed a tree before, but she overcomes her fear anyway because she cares about Ruthie and doesn’t want her to get hurt– or, since she’s twenty feet up, possibly die. Once she gets up there, though, she realizes that Ruthie has a rope tied around her and is perfectly safe. She’s understandably upset that she was manipulated, but it’s all in fun and Miriam just somehow knew that Angel needed to climb a tree for some reason, so it’s ok. This is good-natured and loving and adorable and ends with Michael tying up another rope in the tree and making a swing that everyone plays on.

I’m not surprised that Francine has written “friendships” that work this way. Deceitfulness and manipulation are commonplace in conservative evangelical social circles, and it’s acceptable for people to behave like this as long as you’re well-intentioned. The idea that other people know better than you is just par for the course when friendship itself is predicated on the idea that being a friend means being a “iron that sharpeneth iron” or inflicting “faithful wounds” on each other.

Redeeming Love doesn’t have a single example of love, friendship, romance, or healthy relationships anywhere in it. Every relationship is manipulative and passive-aggressive at best, toxic at worst; yet, these toxic relationships are being held up as godly, loving examples.

Feminism

Redeeming Love: Family Love

And now, after a long hiatus, we’re digging back in to the Redeeming Love review. If you want to catch up with the review series, you can find the other entries here; there are plot summaries at the top of each post.

[content note for discussions of emotional abuse and trauma]

Plot Summary:

  • The Altmans move into Michael’s cabin.
  • Angel begins liking them, even growing to love some of the children.
  • She becomes convinced Miriam, the sixteen year old, is a better partner for Michael.
  • The Altmans’ buy a section of Michael’s land a build a cabin.
  • Francine reveals that Angel committed incest in order to punish her birth father.
  • Michael and Angel have sex again after she tells him all of that.
  • Then she disappears.

***

At this point in the narrative, Michael stops his physical and verbal violence. He’s not dragging her around, literally kicking and screaming, he’s not abducting her, he’s not telling her how much he’d love to kill her, and every other horrific thing we’ve seen him do up to this point. No: now, we start getting much subtler emotional abuse from him. This isn’t usually how abusers operate; usually it’s the reverse with emotional abuse escalating into physical violence (and abusers may never use physical violence at all). However, despite the order Francine has written, this is where we start seeing the abuse take its toll on Angel.

It’s interesting to me that Francine would most likely be quite horrified at the idea that she’s written a nearly textbook example of an abuser in Michael Hosea, and yet Angel still responds to him in the way a victim responds to abuse. Like here:

Watching John, Angel was reminded of all those weeks Michael had cared for her after Magowan’s beating. She remembered his tender care and consideration. He had tolerated her worst insults with quiet patience. (244)

This is about the halfway point of Redeeming Love, and up until now Angel has maintained that Michael took her somewhere she did not want to be, and was keeping her there against her will. Every attempt at escaping him was met with violence or threats of murder. She was firm in herself, firm in what she wanted, and very firm of her idea of Michael: really no different than every other man she’d known who believed they could take and control anything they wanted, including her body. She’s never been an autonomous person and Michael is just another roadblock to the independence she craves. Remember, Francine has set up this desire for autonomy as literally a temptation from Satan himself.

But now her framing of what happened when he abducted her is shifting. He didn’t force a marriage onto her while she was delirious and then drag her out to the middle of nowhere: he was tender, caring, considerate. She was actually the one with the problem.

Or here:

Tirzah. His desire for her was in that name. Angel felt a tingling warmth run down into her belly when he said it. Tirzah. (261)

Before when he called her anything that wasn’t her name, she would assert herself and correct him. Now, though? Now she’s accepting it. She’s accepting his gradual over-writing of herself and her identity. She’s adopting what he thinks she is and should be. “She didn’t even belong to herself anymore” (252), and the resistance is slowly being beaten out of her.

This couldn’t get any more textbook. Abusers need victims to identify themselves as the problem: a problem that is fixed by subverting our identities and desires in favor of what the abuser wants. Angel is slowly capitulating to Michael’s assault on the very core of who she is as a person, and learning to accept his view of their relationship: he the tender lover, she the stubborn fool.

We can also see another abusive dynamic here:

He wants children, she thought … What if he knew she couldn’t have them? Would his love for her die then? (247)

This is not an unreasonable question, although Francine expects her reader to answer the question with “of course not!” Except Angel knows what all victims know: an abuser’s love is conditional. It’s extremely common for male abusers to be extremely reactive concerning a female victim’s reproduction, too—whether they became pregnant when their abuser did not desire it, or aren’t becoming pregnant when their abuser wants them to.

The other characters also participate in normalizing everything Angel’s been subjected to, even though they don’t know Michael abducted her and married her when she was barely conscious, or that he’s taken to calling her whatever he feels like. In one scene, a younger child calls her “Mandy” (they all think her name is Amanda), and then the eldest child, Miriam, says “I think I’ll call you Miss Priss” (251). No one is allowing Angel her name or identity. Later, Miriam declares “I love you whether you like it or not” (235).

The relationship between Angel and the Altmans display the same relationship style that Francine wants to emphasize: God’s love is irresistible, unending, unyielding, relentless. The Altmans’ relentlessly “love” Angel in a not-romantic analog to Michael’s treatment of her. In the narrative, this slowly wins Angel over just like she’s slowly being absorbed by Michael’s vision for her. They give her gifts she doesn’t want and scream insults at her when she says she doesn’t want them (“idiotic child” 252), they do everything around the farm even when she begins to feel useless, and every time she says something about herself she’s contradicted by who they think she is.

Anytime she tries to assert herself, (“Angel,” she said under her breath. “My name’s Angel.”) it’s portrayed as either resentment or bitterness. Through these chapters we start to get another heavy-handed helping of Francine’s evangelical Christian view of bitterness. Miriam accuses Angel of purposely carrying around baggage with her that she could voluntarily set down, and on the next page makes it clear that the “baggage” she’s talking about is “bitterness” (254-55). Later, when she emotionally withdraws some from the group, Miriam complains to Michael that “she’s hurting herself” (271).

Angel’s reactions are all extremely typical of abuse victims. Keep in mind that Angel was raped constantly and physically abused beginning at age 8 and that experience has continued pretty much non-stop for over a decade. When she responds a way anyone with trauma would, however, it’s not portrayed as reasonable or something a compassionate person should accommodate. Instead, her behavior is universally condemned by the other characters in the book.

Angel has flashbacks and triggers, and after experiencing an episode is anxious and irritable, a nearly classic example of PTSD. Other symptoms of PTSD: avoiding crowds, wanting to keep busy, avoiding relationships, viewing the world as harsh and dangerous … Whenever Angel displays one of these, however, someone comments that she’s only hurting herself or she’s bitterly clinging to the past.

This is a pretty common view of PTSD among American evangelical Christians. Their solution is as simple as Miriam’s: just stop carrying the baggage. But when Angel tells her it’s not that easy and a lot more complicated than that, Francine makes it clear that Angel’s view is the wrong one and it’s just her sinful nature and Satan whispering in her ear that makes her think so.

***

Also relevant: the entire Altman clan thinks Michael is just so perfect and wonderful and godly and loving. Gee it’s great that most Christians don’t view abusers this way. It’s not like we put them up on pedestals or elect them President or something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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