Sunday, March 29, 2015

Redeeming Love: Redeeming Abuse?

Why I'm Not of A Fan of Christianity's Favorite Romance Novel

(originally published July 2014)

Content note that what follows contains references to abusive behavior.

Recently, the news broke that Francine Rivers' novel Redeeming Love, a re-telling of the biblical book of Hosea, was going to be turned into a movie. Having spent a lot of time in evangelical sub-culture, my Facebook feed was filled with excitement and posts about how much my old friends adored this book. This book was a staple for the girls and women in the Christian circles I was in. Redeeming Love was held up as one of the best pictures of what God's love for us looks like.


I first read this book when I was seventeen and, like many of my friends, I was enamored with the book. It told me that no matter how much I pushed God away, "he" would still love and pursue me. For many of us it seemed to speak to the fact that we felt a deep sense of shame and an inability to accept that we were deeply loved. I don't want to discount that for a number of people this book has been a way for them to begin to accept that love. Having said that, I do want to take a critical look at how this book portrays love.

What I found when I re-read the book was extremely disturbing.
Let me explain.
(Major plot spoilers ahead)


We are shown from the very beginning that Angel has only known abusive relationships. Her father was physically and emotionally abusive towards her mother and at eight years old she was sold into the service of man who rapes her and pimps her out for sex. She grows up blocking out her emotions as a way of protecting herself. Given that history, Angel lives with a deep sense of self-hatred and believes herself to be the cause of the abuse she experienced. In addition to this, every woman she has encountered tells her that men only want to use her for sex.

Fast forward to adult Angel at eighteen. She is a sex worker and we are told that although she doesn't like sex work, she does it because she needs to earn money and survive. She is a beautiful blonde knockout, but emotionally damaged and jaded towards the world.

Annnd enter Michael Hosea.

Rivers describes Michael as hot, quiet but not soft, broad-shouldered, tall strong, steady, and respected. Rivers writes, "As gentle a man as he was, as tender as was his heart, there was nothing weak about Michael Hosea. He was the strongest-minded man Joseph had ever met. A man like Noah. A man like the shepherd-king, David. A man after God's own heart." He's sexy, gentle, tender, super manly, and also in touch with his feeeeelings. And he's waiting for God to tell him who to marry.

Now the fun part begins.

Supermodel sex worker Angel is going for a walk down the street with her bodyguard (?) and Michael Hosea catches a glimpse of her. And that's when God, a character who is mostly silent but seems to jump in at crucial places, says, "That's the one, beloved."

And so we're going to just pause here for a second.

Still pausing.

Okay, now that you've digested that, let's chat: First, OF COURSE GOD CHOSE THE SUPERMODEL. Second, if you are hearing audible voices that no one else can hear, that's maybe not a super good thing to have going on. Third, if you are still hearing those voices, it's probably not best to, you know, act on them.

Which, naturally, Michael Hosea does.

Now, an interesting note to make is that if you take the whole God-thing out of this story, it gets infinitely creepier. Keep this in mind while reading. I've begun to think that one of the barriers stopping readers from being able to see his behavior as unhealthy, controlling, and abusive is that Michael is always "doing God's will."


Okay, so God has just told young Michael that he is going to marry this woman he has never met before who works in a brothel and is basically the epitome of the male gaze.

But Michael is wholesome! He is righetous! He is godly! Which means he's not really into the brothel scene. Which would seem to be a crushing blow to our young protagonist. But wait! God said that this was the girl for him, which means that he has to take a trip to "The Palace" (which on an unrelated note feels like a really uncreative name for a brothel) to meet Angel! Because God's will!

So he goes to the brothel and pays for time with Angel. And this is where the first of many red flags pops up (if we're not including the part where God audibly told him to marry a woman he has seen all of ONE time). He meets her and is struck by how "hard" she is and doesn't think he can ever reach her. She has no idea what the crap he's doing. He asks her name, then decides to call her "Mara" and tells her it means bitter. In case you missed that, HE RENAMES HER. Imposing a new identity on her is a big flashing neon warning sign.

"My name isn't Mara. It's Angel."
"No it isn't. And I'll call you by what I see. Mara, embittered by life..." (145)

He then tells her he's going to marry her, which (rightfully) creeps her out. She turns him down and he refuses to listen. He keeps visiting her and each time she turns down his marriage proposal.

"I already said no. Three times. Don't you ever get the message? No. No. No."

This is another red flag: lack of respect for boundaries. This is part of rape culture, ignoring her firm, stated opinion and continuing to pursue her anyways.

"Make her listen!" he shouts at God
"I don't want to leave you in this godforsaken place!"
"It's not your business."
"It became my business the minute I saw you."

Annnnd once again, creeped out. Why should she listen to a man she has never met before? She said no and his refusal to listen becomes even more uncomfortable when it turns from sweet and romantic to anger and rage. He views her as stubborn and unable to trust or love. He gets angry with her and loses his temper, to the point where he wants to shake sense into her. (His temper will come up again in later chapters)

Michael doesn't want to keep going back, but God tells him to do it anyway.

"I drew you up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog and set your feet upon a rock. Go back for Angel." (80)

While Michael Hosea is having an internal struggle between hating and loving Angel, Angel is spiraling into despair. She had felt stirrings of hope that life could be different but also immense guilt for pushing away Michael and not being able to trust him. Which makes sense, given that on every visit he has pushed for fast emotional intimacy and shamed Angel for being closed off or not wanting to marry him. She provokes her bodyguard to the point of violence, knowing he will kill her if she pushes far enough. She is right and although she survives, she is pretty darn near death when he's done with her.

Michael is angry with her. But God comes in again like a champ and tells him to go back. He does and is f.u.r.i.o.u.s. when he sees she's been hurt. She's barely conscious when he arrives. And here comes my favorite part: HE MARRIES HER. I did not stutter. He marries a barely conscious woman and then takes her home with him. Please tell me alarm bells are going off in your head right now.  

"She would have agreed to wed Satan himself it would get her out of the Palace." (100)

And that, friends, is not a great definition of consent.

She wakes up at his house and is creeped out, which, you know, kind of makes sense since she's basically just been kidnapped. She does not want to be there. Michael expects her to do chores around the house but she wants to go get her money from the brothel so she can be independent.

 "She thought she had enough to overcome him. She was wrong. He was doing God's will."  (115)

When she voices her desire to leave, he tells her, "You're not running away from this." (I hope you read that in a creepy kidnapper voice) He says that he's not giving her anything more than she can handle. She has now said over and over and over again that she does not want to be there and she wants to leave. Michael gets tired of her "stubbornness."

 Angel gets portrayed as a helpless stubborn child who doesn't know what she really wants. She needs an adult to choose for her. Angel is allowed no agency or ability to self-define. Michael is always placed in the position of wise adult who knows best.

He wants her to "stop fighting him when she doesn't have to" and tries to break down her walls. She resists (like a normal person?). When she can't "beat" him, she tries to seduce him. He gets super angry, goes for walk, and comes back icy. "Don't ever do that again." (131) He tells her he knew he would marry her the first time he saw her. He says there is something between them.

Then it gets more disturbing.

The two are sitting in bed when Michael says he has something to show her outside. She refuses to go. He rips the sheets away from her and says, "You're going whether you like it or not...naked or dressed." He gets extremely angry and uses force against her. He claims that he's not going to hurt her "but you ARE going with me." So they go and she wants to go back to the house. He won't let her until he shows her whatever it is they're going to see.

"Even if you have to drag me?"
"Unless you'd rather ride over my shoulder."

Angel is triggered by something that she sees outside. She tells Michael and asks to go back, but he still refuses. He says,"You're not going to have it your way. It's got to be my way or not at all.(138)

Angel stays emotionally detached from Michael but cooks and does household chores for him. God tells him not to have sex with her so he doesn't. She is beginning to like him and notes that he isn't (overtly) abusive like the other men she had relationships with. Michael gets frustrated with her inability to open up and one night, his temper flares again and he wants to shake her. He thinks, "Jesus, what do I do, chain her like a dog?" (145) He considers testing his father's theory that all women want is to be dominated if Angel acts indifferent towards him again.

Angel could not be more clear about what she wants.

"I know what I want.".... "I want to get out of here!"
"Michael set the can down and came to lean in the doorway. "I don't believe you."
"I know but I don't see that what i want is any of your business."

So far, our image of love is one that does not respect boundaries, does not allow self-identity, is controlling and at times violent.

Good, great, good. Not a problem.

He gives her more names and it just gets weird. At some point he just starts calling her Amanda? For no reason? Just has a nice ring to it?

He keeps pressing her to open up to him and give everything to him. One of the main reasons that he clings to is that they are MARRIED and BUT YOU'RE MY WIFE NOW BELOVED! We made vows! It's forever! Lifetime! I'm never leaving you! You're my beloved! We still remember that whole... barely conscious wedding not super consensual thing, right? That wasn't just me?

And then.... duh duh duhhhhhh. Angel tries to run away. (Because oh I don't know maybe SHE IS BEING HELD AGAINST HER WILL) He tells her it's a thirty-mile walk and she gets tired and gives up.

Enter new character: brother-in-law Paul! He knows Angel from the brothel.
He's not a big fan and thinks this dirty seductress somehow tricked upright virtuous Michael.

Angel hitches a ride to town with Paul so she can escape. Paul tells her she owes him for the ride -- meaning sex. She doesn't have another choice and was afraid of the consequences of not doing it. Unlike all of the characters in this novel I DO understand consent. So let me spell this out for you: Paul raped her. Paul makes her feel like it's her fault though. He tells her it didn't take long to go back to old ways & she has the morals of a snake. Even though he raped her. All of this serves to reinforce the messages in her head that she is dirty and worthless and immoral and unlovable.

She makes it to town and starts back up as a sex worker. She's in a session with a client when Michael bursts in.

This was one of the most disturbing parts of the book for me:

"Angel was so relieved at the sight of him that she wanted to fall at his feet, but one look at his face and she shrank back. "Get dressed." He didn't wait for her to move as he grabbed up her discarded clothing and clothing and tossed it at her. "Now!" Heart pounding, she fumbled with the clothing, frantically trying to think of a way to escape him. Before she was fully clothed, he yanked her off the bed, opened the door, and shoved her into the corridor. He hadn't even allowed her to put her shoes on." (192)

"Michael shoved her roughly to one side and stepped in front of her."

"Michael caught her wrist and pulled her along again. Before they reached the stairs, Murphy was up. He grabbed her arm and yanked back so hard, she cried out in pain. Michael let go, and she fell against the wall." (193)

"When Michael bent over her, Angel drew back from him. "Get up!" he bellowed. She didn't dare disobey. He took her arm and shoved her ahead of him. "Keep walking and don't stop." (193)

"Kicking a turned table out of his way, Michael strode toward Angel. He didn't look anything like the man she had come to know in the valley. "I told you to keep walking!" He grabbed her arm and swung her towards the door." (194)

"Jesus, are you listening to her? Why'd you give me this stupid, stubborn woman?"
"Let me off!"
"Not a chance. You're not skipping this. We have some things to settle."
"The look in his eyes was so full of violence, she jumped." (194)

She literally jumps out of a moving wagon (which, to be fair, I have no idea how fast that is) to escape this guy.

He chases her.

"Angel scrambled to her feet and ran from him in terror, heedless of the branches that slapped her face. Michael cut her off and caught her shoulders. Stumbling, she took him down with her. He turned his body so he landed first and tried to roll her. She kicked and twisted, fighting for freedom. Fighting her on her back, he pinned her down. When she tried to claw his face, he caught her wrists and held them against the ground." (195)

"Getting his breath back, he yanked her to her feet. The minute he loosened his hold, she tried to run again. He swung her back and took a blow. He almost hit her back, but he knew if he hit her once he wouldn't stop." (195)

"Her whole body was shaking violently. He could feel the fear radiating from her. And rightly so. His rage frightened him. If he had hit her back once, he would have killed her... He had almost gone out of his mind when she left him." (195)

"...but when he walked into that room and saw for himself what she was doing, he had almost lost all reason. If he hadn't seen her eyes or heard the way she said his named, he would have killed them both." (196)

"...but it didn't mean the instinctive rage at her betrayal wasn't still there, bubbling just below the surface." (196)

Michael Hosea has been thus far presented as a representation of God. He is also supposed to be a picture of what pure love looks like. This should be upsetting to us because Michael's actions and behavior towards Angel are abusive. There is no way around that. The violence and rage he displays towards Angel cannot be ignored, nor should it be romanticized as lover's jealousy. Even if he had gone "crazy with love" it would not justify his violence against her. The idea, as I understand it, was to show us that God gets "righteously" angry when we "cheat" on "him" (notice all the air quotes) and will do whatever it takes to get us back. This is how a man throwing his wife around and directing his fury at her is called loving. The author has romanticized violence and abuse because Michael is following God's will, and if we're to rightly believe, God's own behavior. Many abusers claim they love the people they are abusing. However, as feminist theorist bell hooks writes, "Love and abuse cannot coexist."

Okay, back to the story.

Angel is CLEARLY afraid of Michael. She tries to leave the wedding ring. He says it won't make a difference and that he loves her and always will. They're married, as in forever, doesn't she get it? She says his kind of love doesn't feel good. She wants freedom. He tells her that she is free, she just doesn't know it yet. Yet again overriding her instincts and thoughts and feelings because he knows what she wants more than she does.

Rivers also has zero subtlety letting us know that Hosea is a stand-in for God. "Would she rather reject his gift and live in eternal darkness than open her mind and heart to him? Was her pride the only thing that mattered?"

Let's recap (in case you forgot everything you just read): Michael Hosea sees a woman on the street, believes God told him to marry her, goes to visit, she rejects him, he comes back when she's not fully conscious and marries her. He takes her home, she wakes up and wants to leave. He won't let her, she runs away, he gets violently angry with her and drags her back. Please tell me something about that scenario sounds off. Please. Please. Please.

Since Michael Hosea brought Angel back, it's been a struggle. He doesn't have patience for her stubbornness and his temper builds up. At this point I've just started documenting every time he is violent towards Angel.

Angels is self-harming because she feels awful about herself. (Hint: he's not helping things.)

"Michael grabbed her roughly... He let go of her, afraid he would do her physical harm." (204)

"She came without resistance this time, stumbling as they reached the bank. When she bent for her clothing, he pulled her along without them. Half shoving her into the cabin, he slammed the door. Yanking a blanket from the bed, he threw it at her." (204)

"What are you trying to do? Make me feel guilty you went back to prostitution? Make me feel guilty for dragging you out of that brothel again?"

It's fascinating that the premise is that she cheated on him, when in reality she didn't consent to the marriage and was trying to escape. She went to sex work as a way to earn money and survive. But Michael views it as a betrayal to their "love."

"He didn't want to pity her. He wanted to shake her until her teeth fell out. He wanted to kill her." (204)

" Let her suffer. She deserved it." (205)

"He laughed derisively. "Self-pity. You're drowning in it, aren't you?" (205)

God tells him to forgive her.

Angel then proceeds to tell him about the rapes and forced prostitution as a child. He begins to feel sorry for he and regret his violent thoughts. He tells her that he swore a vow and that's she's part of him. Nothing she can say will force him away.

 "Whatever anyone else has said and done to you, it's up to you now to make the decision. You can decide to trust me." (209)

She doesn't have a choice then, if the choice is either go back to her old life or live with Michael. He presents himself as freedom. 

He prays that he can love her. He starts to see her as child who was broken hurt and lost instead of "harlot he loved and who had betrayed him." Which is fascinating. His heart softens towards her because he learns she was abused. His actions begin to shift, as those the reader should forget everything that just happened. But his not knowing her past does not excuse his behavior up to this point. He does not get a free pass to abuse her because he was not of the reasons that she was guarded.

She is even more emotionally guarded after sharing her past. He keeps telling her he's safe and she can trust him.They meet a family that moves in next door and Angel is reminded that she can't have children. She makes friends with them, but Michael gets jealous?

"I've prayed unceasingly that you would learn to love, and now you have. Only you fell in love with them instead of me... There were times when I wished I'd never brought them here. I'm jealous." (274)

Angel finally tells all of her history to Michael who feels sick. Angel asks the obvious question we're all thinking:

"The why... would he [God] do such a thing to you as this?"
"I've been asking him."
"Did he say?"
"I already know... To strengthen me."

THEY FINALLY HAVE SEX. Also, Christian writers suck at writing sex scenes. I'm pretty sure at one point he prays while they're having sex? So there's that.

Angel runs away again because she's afraid of intimacy. Michael comes after her.

"You're in love with me... Do you think you can run away from that?" (306)

He sounds like a stalker. Angel tells him repeatedly to leave her alone and go away.
But he tells her she can't leave, she loves him, and that she belongs with him. He tells her he's not like all those abusive men before, he's her husband. (I'm giving him massive sideye right now)

"Amanda, I knew the day I saw you that you belonged with me." (307)

She can't seem to "trust" him. Michael is viewed as pure love. He is giving her everything and she's struggling to think she deserves it.

She runs away again, but this time it's because she "loves him too much." She can't have children so she wants him to be with someone who can. God tells Michael not to go after her because she's made him an idol.

She goes back to San Francisco and runs into her old pimp who makes her return. She prays that she won't "give in" and starts to feel hopeless about her situation. She wants to be faithful to Michael so she would rather die than be a sex worker again (even though she doesn't have a choice right now?). This is where the character of God makes his next appearance.

First, Angel has dream about Michael . Sheprays "God let me die. Let me die for him."
God says no, which seems like a good move.

A rich banker goes into the brothel where she's at and, long story short, rescues her and two of the child prostitutes. She starts a new life, goes to church and gets saved. She starts a home for former sex workers.

Brother-in-law Paul shows up and tells her:

"Michael chose you." (451)

"Your first obligation is to Michael" (454)

So she leaves the home she started and goes back to Michael. Since she's a Christian now there is a "quiet grace and beautiful humility" about her now. No more stubborn, angry Angel.

"Oh, what had she done to him in denying her love, in turning away? She had played God and done what she thought best for him, and all she had done was cause him pain... How much had her martyrdom cost him?" (461)

They live happily ever after and even though she was unable to have kids she can magically have kids now because her real name is Sarah, which is a biblical character who miraculously could have children because God. So they have seven kids and she spends the rest of her life talking with "young prostitutes" encouraging them to change their lives.


So what do we do with this? A book that is supposed to give us a living picture of love gives an image instead of a woman being manipulated, controlled, and abused. Angel is not able to choose what she wants or have any type of self-defining power. Michael knows what she wants more than she does and won't let her choose anything else. Angel is also the one who is consistently portrayed as sinful, fallen, and living a life of sin away from God -- even though her "sin" was that she sold into child prostitution at age eight and was abused her entire life. The whole story just left me feeling gross. My conclusion after finishing this book was that Michael Hosea, who Rivers tries hard to portray as the embodiment of all that is good and beautiful in the world, was actually someone I would have to call abusive. His abuse was not always as obvious or overt to Angel as the men in her past because he couched it in language of love and because she had never experienced a loving, healthy relationship. Her self-worth was low and she trusted the first man who did not treat her like crap. But more "benevolent" abuse is still abuse. 

Internalizing toxic imagery like this cannot help but affect us. What does it mean that these are the dominant images of love for evangelical Christian women? How does that affect how we view boundaries, relationships, our own voice or understanding of self-worth? How does it affect how we see God if we believe that God will "drag us back" from our idolatry? I would argue that we need better images of love. We need healing, liberating images. We need images that do not conflate abuse with love and that respect the agency of the other. 

I know for many people Redeeming Love is practically sacred. I know it has helped them on their journey. But if we support this book as the poster-child for Love, what is the cost? The main characters in the book have dysfunctional, unhealthy, and abusive relationships with one another. That is not loving and that is certainly not the God I believe in. Love does not dominate or conquer, it does not force. Love is for mutuality, consent, and allows each person agency and the ability to self-define. 

Test: Read Redeeming Love through the lens of what healthy love looks like and see how it measures up.

Conclusion: Redeeming Love ultimately fails the test of what I believe to be a healthy definition of love and rather supports the opposite: abuse.