Horrible Christian Fiction, Kidnapping and Sex Trafficking Edition (Francine Rivers and Redeeming Love)

Growing up, I don’t think I ever read Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love. I know my sister did. Published in 1997, the book was all the rage in evangelical circles in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since I have spent the last couple years reviewing another of Rivers’ books, A Voice in the Wind, I decided it was high time I read Redeeming Love—especially since it just happened to already be on my bookshelf (I actually don’t remember where I got it).

Samantha Field has a review series on Redeeming Love, and I’ve already reviewed one work by Rivers, so I don’t intend to give this one sustained treatment. However, I did want to touch on a few thoughts I had while reading it. Let’s start with the teaser on the back cover of the book:

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.

Yes, it really is that horrible.

The book treats Angel as the one with the problem. Angel is a child sex abuse victim. She was eight when a wealthy businessman bought her as his sex slave. She had a troubled life before then, too—her mother was a married man’s mistress, with her own little cottage, until Angel was three. After that the man cast her mother aside, and they lived in a hovel by the docks where her mother found a way to sustain them by working as a prostitute.

When Angel’s mother died when she was eight, a kindly drunk arranged what he thought was an adoption for her into a wealthy family, but was actually a life of child sex slavery of the worst, most abusive kind you can imagine. After Angel grew a few years older, she was trafficked to a wealthy clientele, still owned by the same abuser.

When Angel was sixteen she successfully ran away, and boarded a boat to California. Once there, she was abused on the street and lived in squalor until a madam picked her up, along with some other girls, and started a brothel. Life there was better for Angel than it had been before, but even then, the madam was increasingly controlling, kept her money under lock and key, and kept a “bodyguard” to make sure none of the girls ran away.

And yet, throughout Rivers’ book, we’re to think of Angel as bitter and angry. The real problem with Angel is that her dream is to save enough money to buy a small cottage and live on her own, away from men. No really—that is Angel’s dream and it is a problem, because God has told Michael Hosea, a California farmer, to marry her, whether she wants to or not—and she most certainly does not.

The book is a fictional retelling of the story of Hosea and Gomer. In the book of Hosea, in the Old Testament, God tells the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute, Gomer. He does so. Gomer proceeds to run away from him multiple times, and to be unfaithful to him. Each time, Hosea goes back and retrieves her.

Okay, so, here is the weird thing. In Rivers’ book, Michael is aware of the story of Hosea and Gomer. He thinks it is an odd coincidence. But to this reader, it seems like something simpler than that. See, Michael concludes that God has told him to marry Angel one day when he is getting supplies in town and sees her walking down the street with her bodyguard/jailer. He sees her, and suddenly concludes that he is supposed to marry her.

No, really.

Michael Hosea was unloading crates of vegetables from the back of his buckboard when he saw a beautiful young woman walking along the street. She was dressed in black, like a widow, and a big, rough-looking man with a gun on his hip was at her side. All along Main Street, men stopped what they were doing, took off their hats, and watched her. She said not a word to anyone. She looked neither to the right nor the left. She moved with simple, fluid grace, her shoulders straight, her head held high.

Michael couldn’t take his eyes off her. His heart beat faster and faster as she came near. He willed her to look at him, but she didn’t. He let out his breath after she passed, not even aware that he had been holding it.

This one, beloved. 

Michael felt a rush of adrenaline mingle with joy. Lord. Lord! 

He has been praying for a wife. When he sees Angel, he hears the internal voice of God telling him that that is the woman he is to marry. He makes inquiries and learns that she is a prostitute. But to this reader, knowing that Hosea already knows the story of Hosea and Gomer, it feels like there is some personal confirmation bias going on here.

Michael wants a wife. He’s living in the middle of the California Gold Rush and there aren’t many women around. Already knowing the story of Hosea and Gomer, he picks out a prostitute to marry, like his namesake. To me, despite his protestations that he did not know she was a prostitute when he saw her, that does not feel like a coincidence.

And the whole voice of God thing—let’s just say that I’ve met people before who believed God told them who they were to marry. And you know what? It was some sort of huge wish fulfillment. It was, I’ve had a crush on that guy since 9th grade, and God has told me he is the man I will marry. Convenient much? This feels the same.

But without further ado, I’d like to list some of the things that particularly bothered me about this book, as individual items.

1. Michael never asks Angel to marry him. He goes to her and tells her he’s going to marry her. Actually, he tells her she’s going to marry him. “You’re going to marry me, and I’m going to take you out of here,” he says.

2. Michael sees Angel by paying for a half hour in her bed, and proceeding to use his time asking her questions and digging into her personal life. Don’t do this to service workers. They don’t owe you their life story.

3. Angel never actually consents to their marriage. She tells Michael no and he leaves, only to come back and find that she has been beaten unconscious by her madam’s muscle (for asking for her share of her profits). He buys her bleeding, unconscious body from the madam, takes her to a pastor, and marries her. While she’s like that. She wakes up in his home, in the middle of nowhere, with no recollection of having married him.

4. Michael never asks Angel what she wants. He works to make her settle in to domestic bliss while what she actually wants is a cottage of her own where she can live without dependence on any man. But when she repeatedly says she’s not going to stay with him, Michael assumes she wants to go back to the brothel and resume her life as a prostitute.

The first time Angel leaves Michael, she goes back to the madam for her money, only to find brothel and madam gone. She arranges a better deal with a nearby shopkeeper than she’d had with the madam—she gets room and board and 50% of her earnings, and the men pay her—and sets about sex work to save money for a cottage.

When Michael comes, he asks why she left. She says she wanted a cottage. He says she already has one—his—and ends the conversation there. He does not listen to her. He does not care what she wants. As far as he is concerned, God has told him that she is to be his wife, and that’s the end of it—what she wants is irrelevant.

Michael de facto assumes she ants to go back to being a prostitute, and that is why she keeps trying to leave him. Except that it isn’t.

5. Michael takes her back to his farm by force. When he returns to the town and finds her in the brothel, he attacks her client and any man who tries to interfere with him and takes Angel by force back to his wagon. After they start, she jumps off the wagon and runs. He goes after her and tackles her, dragging her back to his wagon.

6. Michael is not a mental health professional. At one point he tells Angel that she is “drowning” in “self-pity.” Michael, she spent ten years as a child sex slave and then as a trafficked prostitute. Leave her alone.

7. I’m stuck on the reality that Angel wanted nothing more to do with men and Michael forced her to marry him anyway. That makes me want to smash something. As far as I’m concerned, she has more than earned the right to never have to see another man in her  has lived a life of sex slavery and trafficking. . Instead, she is married against her will (she told him no) and dragged off to a farm in the middle of nowhere, where she has to live alone with a man she didn’t want, without access to transportation or anyway to leave.

And Rivers thinks Michael is awesome for doing this.

8. The book treats Angel as in need of forgiveness. At one point Michael wonders to himself whether there is “a sin this woman has not committed.”

9. When Angel asks Michael what he wants of her he says: “Everything. I want what you don’t even know you have to give.” This same basic exchange happens multiple times. This is not romantic. It’s creepy. Especially for someone who has spent her life as a trafficked sex slave, being literally owned.

10. Michael tells Angel that he knew how to please her when they first had sex—despite being a good Christian virgin with zero knowledge of female anatomy—because he had read the Song of Solomon. No, really.

11. Michael was the son of a wealthy plantation owner in the South and was brought to the Lord by “Old Ezra,” a slave on the plantation. This may seem an odd fit for a list like this, but there should be a specific category for this in Christian fiction. Elsie Dinsmore, too, became a Christian as a child through the influence of a kindly slave. I’m just saying, this should make the bingo sheet.

12. Michael says his brother-in-law, Paul, is a “decent man,” despite the fact that Paul is a horrible shit who made Angel have sex with him in payment for a trip into town (see the first time Angel leaves, under number 4 above). Rivers agrees with Michael’s assessment and marries Paul off to young Mariam, Angel’s first friend. We’re informed that all that Paul needed (he had some serious anger problems, among other things) was a little softening by a good woman.

Miriam deserved better.

13. Miriam’s father tells her that she needs “a strong man who’ll keep a firm hand” on her because she’s so headstrong. Miriam’s father is portrayed positively and held up as a model of a good father throughout the book. This leaves me with a question. How exactly is Miriam supposed to change Paul if he’s supposed to keep a “firm hand” on her? How does this work?

Miriam deserved better.

14. The second and third times Angel leaves Michael, she does not return to prostitution. Instead, she takes a job in a shop, then as a cook in a restaurant, and then, finally, she opens a home for prostitutes who want to leave the trade, gain some skills, and get on their feet. And yet, each time, she is expected to leave her life of independence—an independence she badly wanted—and return to Michael, despite never having intended to marry him and despite having been delirious when he married her (against her wishes).

15. The last time Angel leaves Michael, she does so because he wants children and she can’t have them—while living as a sex slave she had an operation (against her will) that rendered her barren. Angel believes she loves Michael by this point, and decides he deserves better. He refuses to move on and marry someone else, and eventually she returns to him. Then we get this:

Sarah [Angel’s birth name, which she returns to at the end of the book] and Michael shared many happy years together. On their seventh anniversary, their prayers were answered with the birth of a son, Stephen. Stephen was followed by Luke, Lydia, and Esther.

How very convenient. This just feels extremely insensitive to female readers who have experienced infertility. Rivers couldn’t let us actually see them have to live with this? Oh no, she couldn’t. She had to just tie it up with a nice neat bow. I’m weirdly angry at this.

Now, a few more thoughts.

When I started this book, it very quickly felt like some combination of watching Stockholm Syndrome develop and reading the Taming of the Shrew. Michael is portrayed as actively working to shape the kind of woman Angel will be. Michael literally purchases Angel from a brothel and sets about making her into his ideal of a good woman and wife.

Michael never gives Angel agency. He never tells her that she can decide whether she wants to be his wife or to leave and forge her own way. Instead, he tells her that she belongs to him—that she is his wife, and that means he owns her. How can Rivers not see how traumatic this could be for a survivor of horrific sexual abuse and sex trafficking?

In her review series, Samantha Field points out that at certain points in the book, Michael sexually assaults Angel, such as when he comes to take Angel back to his farm after the second time she leaves him.

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 Thronesdebacle. It’s the myth that women don’t know what we want– if we resist, if we say no, we don’t really meanit. 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 exactscene 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.

Rivers treats Michael as a good, godly Christian man throughout the book. Michael has this deep underlying confidence and peace (combined with good looks) that turns heads. He is a man of God. He is close to God, constantly in prayer. Angel’s young friend, Miriam, wishes repeatedly that there were more men like Michael out there. Nowhere in the book does Rivers castigate Michael.

It appears, then, that Rivers does not recognize sexual assault as sexual assault when she writes it. And that is rather horrifying.

Michael, by the way, is twenty-six when the book opens. Angel is 18. While an age gap would have been normal in this historical period and Angel is at least an adult, the power dynamics at play are worth looking at. Michael has land, a house, money, and years of experience on Angel. Angel has, well, nothing. She doesn’t have family connections. She doesn’t have friends. She has no money and only one set of skills (and not one she wants to go back to using). She is at Michael’s mercy.

Indeed the only reason she initially settles in and starts cooking and cleaning for Michael is that she figures she will need to learn how to do these things herself if she is going to fulfill her dream of living on her own, without being dependent on any man.

The last time Angel leaves Michael, she runs into and befriends a wealthy business man and his daughter, who are both Christians, conveniently,  and they help her start a home for prostitutes looking for a way out. The home Angel starts includes instruction in reading, something Angel did not know how to do until the businessman’s daughter taught her.

That’s right—Michael have have taught April how to cook and clean and tend the vegetable garden, but he did not teach Angel to read. Why the blazes not?

As Angel oversees this new school and boarding home, I’m struck by a question—how different would Angel’s life have been if she had found this place, rather than being kidnapped and bought and paid for by Michael? All Angel wanted was independence. She wanted a chance to be dependent on no man. If she had had access to a home like the one she founded with the help of her new friends, she could have realized her dream.

Rivers doesn’t seem to ever ask that question. Instead, she packs Angel up and sends her back to Michael once again.

Angel’s time away from Michael this last time, by the way, wasn’t about her learning that she could live independently, or finding meaning in helping other women. Instead, for Rivers, Angel’s final time away from Michael’s was about finding Michael’s God—which she does. She needed to be away from Michael to do this, Rivers tells us, because she had put Michael in the place of God in her life. She needed to be away from him to find God—only then she would be ready to return to him, as she was always meant to.

You should definitely read Samantha Field’s review series. She goes into further depth about Michael’s abusive characteristics. As someone who experienced an abusive relationship herself, Samantha is deft at pointing to the cracks in Michael’s good, godly image. She points out, for example, that Angel frequently responds to Michael the way one would expect an abuse victim to respond to her abuser. Even though she is writing it, Rivers somehow doesn’t seem to recognize this portrayal.

Is it any surprise evangelical congregations have had such difficulty responding to abuse allegations, when this is what passes for good, godly Christian fiction?

In Friday’s Voice in the Wind review installment, I will draw some comparisons between the characters in Redeeming Love and the characters in Voice in the Wind. 

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