Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we talked about a romance novel by Karen Witemeyer, At Love’s Command. In it, a genocidal war criminal finds peace, healing, and redemption thanks to Jesus Power and the love of a good woman. Many Christians loved this story, but a lot of other folks got very upset with it. And that seems to have vastly confused its fans. I can see why, too. They’re in love with ‘Before’ stories that morph into ‘After’ stories — so much so that they have trouble focusing on any other element of those stories except the specific one that validates their solipsistic opinions of themselves. Today, let me show you how stories like At Love’s Command nurture and maintain the evangelical Cult of Before Stories — at the expense of their sales metrics and credibility.
(Long ago, one of this blog’s first regulars called that all-too-common Christian trope “redemptive genitalia.” That still tickles me pink! Also, here’s the official series list for the Cult of Before Stories.)
(BREAKING NEWS: A few hours ago as I write this, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) rescinded the award it gave to ‘At Love’s Command.’ Here’s their statement. At the moment, no winners show for the Religious/Spiritual category at all.)
The Cult of Before Stories Is About Redemption.
A long, long time ago I realized that evangelical Christians are absolutely wild in love with well-crafted testimonies.
In Christianese, a testimony is a short autobiographical story of conversion. Almost all evangelicals have one. Typically taking a three-act narrative structure, testimonies describe how and why their bearers converted to their religion.
- Life before conversion. Might have been luxurious, but the now-Christian felt empty, sad, etc. Or it might have been miserable. Christians try to make themselves sound pitiable or dastardly — or even both at once. Demons may show up here.
- The moment of conversion. Something wild/weird/neato/miraculous happened! They realized that their group’s claims were totes for realsies!
- Life after conversion. This stage reverses the first one.
- Sales pitch/group validation appeal. This part depends on who the audience is right then.
Evangelical leaders teach that really well-crafted testimonies will make their group sound more appealing to other potential converts.
Here’s the thing: I’m sure many evangelicals really do believe this notion. After all, at their heart, testimonies describe redemption arcs.
And tons of Christians do love themselves a passionately-told redemption arc.
The Reversal Aspect of the Redemption Arc.
When evangelicals craft fictional testimonies — whether for their own personal use, as so many evangelicals do, or for publication as a horrifying, revisionist, war-crime-glorifying Christian romance novel — all they care about is pushing as hard as they can on the 180-degree turnaround between Stage 1 and 3.
The hero of this story turns into a living saint by its end. Thus, he must be an absolute cad at its beginning.
Of course, then, Karen Witemeyer put her hero in the smack middle of an atrocity. To raise her hero to the heights she wanted, he needed to begin in the lowest place possible.
And by gosh and by golly, she would find that place. Yes, she would — no matter how hard she had to work to invent it.
The Dealbreaker of This Redemption Arc That Evangelicals Didn’t Even Notice.
What’s so wacky here is that it must seem, to Christians, like this explosion of righteous anger came out of nowhere. I’m sure it felt like that for Karen Witemeyer and her fans, publisher, and award judges.
Check out her July 6th Facebook announcement of a sale on At Love’s Command. Out of 40-some-odd comments, I saw not one that was anything but overflowing with praise. Not one reader brought up a single one of the complaints we reviewed yesterday. Not one!
On its Amazon product page, out of 555 reviews so far, a few people gave it 1 star for the reasons we saw yesterday: revision of the genocide, the way she described Native Americans, etc. Her two 2-star reviews just complained about the characterization of her hero and heroine. The rest of the complaints centered around Witemeyer’s writing in similar ways.
However, 93% of her readers gave it 4 or 5 stars. And none of those whatsoever discussed the real problems with the book and her treatment of Native American history, people, and customs.
Why Karen Witemeyer Slid Under the Radar.
I’m not even half surprised that nobody outside of Karen Witemeyer’s social and professional circles even noticed what she was doing off in her corner of romance-novel-land.
Nor am I surprised that the outrage over her novel’s win took her, her publisher, her readers, and the award’s judges completely by surprise.
It seriously doesn’t look like she got a word of criticism from anybody outside her tribe. Indeed, like most evangelicals she seems to exist in a tightly-sealed bubble within that tribe.
Foulmouthed, euphemism-hating, consent-cherishing, sex-positive, secular/heathen folks like me don’t read such books. So, we won’t know it’s out there or what it contains unless we go hunting for it.
Of the folks who enjoy that dreck, almost none seem to possess the moral capacity to recognize when a redemption story has gone way over the line.
When the Redemption Arc Matters Most.
But redemption is why the people who love trash like At Love’s Command are there: they want to see Jesus and TWOO WUV fix a damaged, troubled hero.
On that note, here’s a popular 5-star review of Karen Witemeyer’s book:
[Matthew Hanger is] absolutely swoon-worthy at many points in the book and might in fact get my vote for Swooniest Hero of 2020. During the last half of the book, I found myself wishing and praying for a faithful man who would fight for me the way Matt fights for Jo. (Stephanie McCall)
Another reviewer made, I kid you not, a graphic celebrating the hero’s redemption:
People with a moral compass will encounter that sorta blahblah, oh yeah. And we’ll bark back, Your “Swooniest Hero of 2020” tells us he spent 13 years “Indian hunting.” In this prologue, we see him SHOOT a CHILD, insult and dehumanize indigenous people, and recite BIBLE VERSES and PRAY right before plunging into a MASSACRE of Native Americans. Oh, and that author vastly revised history to make her hunky hero seem as blameless as she could.
Like, sorry for the caps lock. You know I don’t do it often. It seemed permissible here.
This book’s readers want a really wild, cool-sounding testimony for a hunky, Jesus-flavored hero. Nothing else really matters.
Why the Redemption Trumps the Atrocity.
To the right kind of Christian woman, you see, Matthew Hanger ticks all her boxes. She won’t care what he did. He got redeemed in the end.
And ultimately, that’s what that woman is there to see: a hunky, “swoony” hero go from real bad boy to real good man.
I seriously think this guy is not completely sober in any frame of this video.
If anybody freaks out about that redemption’s specifics, our fangirl will just accuse them of not caring about the OMG REDEMPTION ARC here. I did see a few Christians doing that yesterday, here and there.
Over and over again years ago, I saw Christians doing similar things every time another wild testimony turned out to be untrue. They attacked the people poking holes in implausible testimonies. They demanded silence and compliance instead of accountability and truth above all.
The redemption story mattered more to them than making sure that story was actually true. So this whole Witemeyer scandal feels very, very familiar.
Sidebar 1: Makeup Nookie With an Evil God.
Before we get into the problems within the Karen Witemeyer book in particular, I just want to say a word about testimonies and redemption arcs in general.
If this god wants to redeem people, why can’t he do it without allowing other people to be hurt? Why does this god always need to wait till the hero has already done all kinds of bad stuff? Why not make him grow up a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ lad who knew that it’s bad to recite Bible verses before plunging into a massacre?
Cuz to me, this behavior reminds me strongly of my Evil Ex, who deliberately started arguments with me because he enjoyed makeup nookie. But Christians almost never stop to think about what their beloved redemption stories say to the rest of us about their claims about their religion and their god.
The best case scenario I can see here, really, is this god not existing at all. And that goes double for Christians, though they don’t realize it.
Sidebar 2: “But He Felt Really Bad About It!”
Aside from a few Christians here and there, I’ve not seen a lot of support for Karen Witemeyer. The RWA itself, which gave her her award, has already withdrawn it. And I’m sure that many evangelicals will not understand why. Worse, some may try to warp the reasons for that withdrawal.
The message I’m getting so far is that it was okay for Witemeyer to write this plot and hero into existence because anyone can be forgiven for anything in Jesus-land. Christians must accept this notion as a matter of course. Why, even a man who helped hunt down and slaughter indigenous people can totally turn into a big damn hero!
This trope is boilerplate by now.
I’ve laughed at Christian movies in the past for always including some hamfisted line from the pre-Christian hero to that effect (like here). In these movies, these men squint meaningfully at the heroine and mutter that Jesus can’t possibly forgive them. They’re too bad. That’s the cue for the heroine to break into a big wide smile. She dutifully chirps that Jesus can forgive anything! It’s okay! Even you, hunky, swoony pre-Christian hero! Who’s a good boy?!? Who is? You are!
In this book’s case, the hero does his very best to atone for his past. I get that. However, Witemeyer has completely centered this book on his feelings. His atonement. His great man-sadness. Setting that re-centered story amid an appallingly-revised, tidied-up historical atrocity makes this story go so far past the line that it shoots itself into deep space.
(See also: The Diner That Night.)
With stories like these catching evangelical women’s attention, I can see why so many evangelical men think feminists are out to make them apologize and grovel for their past misogyny!
That said, I’m very pleased to see that Relevant kinda gets it, at least. But I do wonder why nobody in evangelicalism said a critical word before the RWA award announcements got made.
Where Dreams Always Come True.
Here’s why evangelicals never notice the problems within these redemption stories, these turnarounds, these 180-degree reversals in three acts:
In Christian romance novels, the redemption arcs are always true and real — within their story. The heroes are “swoony,” hypermasculine hunks who cherish their women. Couples might be feisty, but they defend each other to the death. And all that Jesus Power blahblah actually happens to the people in the stories.
So yeah, I can easily see why this genre took off. As evangelical men get more and more brutish, loutish, boorish, and extremist, their relationship skills — such as they are — must be eroding quickly. That’s why that one reviewer, Stephanie McCall, hasn’t found a Christian man even remotely like Matthew Hanger yet. And she probably never will.
In real life, Christian redemption arcs can be very iffy. Often, their central figures turn out to have exaggerated elements. Or their Stage 3 reality doesn’t actually look like the testimony’s version. That dishonesty can have a devastating impact on women’s lives if they misplace their trust in their partners’ testimonies, as I learned myself.
Perhaps fictional redemption arcs feel safer to the readers of Christian romance novels.
In their dreams, they are free indeed.
NEXT UP: We’ll start tackling Matt Slick’s no-fail list of apologetics zingers. Remember how Beach Reach was sooooo impressed by these cringey lines? We’ll evaluate just how impressive they are. See you tomorrow! <3
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