Everyday for the last month I’ve received multiple social media messages asking me to write a review of the Redeeming Love movie.
Redeeming Love was originally a novel written by Francine Rivers in 1991, and it quickly became one of the best-selling Christian novels of all time. This year Universal Pictures made it into a movie, and it opened in theatres last week.
It’s supposed to be the book of Hosea in the Bible put in the 1850s goldrush in California. Angel has been sex trafficked since she was 8 years old, and works in a brothel. Michael hears God telling him to marry Angel, and he does (well, he marries Angel; Angel doesn’t actually marry him, since she’s pretty much unconscious during the ceremony, but more on that in a minute).
She never wanted to marry him, and she keeps leaving, and he keeps pursuing, and then finally they end up together in the end.
I read Redeeming Love many, many years ago, and don’t remember much except that I really, really didn’t like Michael. He seemed never to actually see Angel and who she was, but only this ideal of what he believed she could be.
Anyway, I’m super busy right now and I didn’t really want to reread the book or watch the movie, so I thought I’d just link to some reviews that I thought made some important points, and give a bit more commentary on those!
But first, one observation:
I noticed while looking up Christian reviews that one of the big criticisms of the book and movie is that they’re too erotic, and that can be a slippery slope.
I do agree with that. I know many teen girls especially who started on Christian fiction, then went to Nora Roberts type books, and then on to full-blown erotica. And that can do major damage to a sex life! So I agree that this can definitely be an issue.
However, in this case it reminds me of how Every Man’s Battle frames lust as a sin against a man’s purity, rather than a sin against an actual woman–or frames pornography as a sin against a man’s purity, rather than a contributor to sex trafficking.
Yes, erotica is bad, but I also think it’s important to ask, “what are we being prompted to get turned on by?” What else is going on? And it’s there that I see far more disturbing elements.
Redeeming Love romanticizes and eroticizes what is essentially an abusive, controlling relationship.
I’ll let Captain Laura Van Schaick from the Salvation Army in Ontario (my own province) explain from her review:
Despite its overwhelming popularity, there are elements of this romance that paint an unhealthy picture of love.
Throughout the narrative, Michael demonstrates some disturbing characteristics of abuse:
- When Michael first meets Angel, he renames her Mara. Despite repeated requests that he call her Angel, Michael continues to bestow different names upon her. Abusers will seek to erase their victims’ innate sense of personhood, and renaming them is an often-used tactic.
- Michael then announces his intentions to Angel. There’s no request made, only a command—you are going to marry me. Despite repeated refusals to his proposal, when Michael returns to Angel’s brothel one night and finds her badly beaten and nearly unconscious, he pays a hefty sum to the madam and promptly marries her without her full consent.
- Angel tries to flee, finding work at a general store, then as a cook and finally opening a halfway house to offer hope to women wanting to leave a life of prostitution. Despite her attempts to hide her tracks, Michael repeatedly seeks Angel out and brings her back to his remote farmhouse
This is not a romantic love. This is not a holy love. It is a harmful abuse of power. And it does not model the type of love God offers to us.
Power and Consent
In light of the #MeToo movement and allegations of abuse in the church, the importance of consent and respect cannot be over emphasized, not only in sexual relationships but also emotional and spiritual ones.
Michael rarely gives Angel agency, the privilege to choose and act for oneself. While he doesn’t rape her, Michael violates Angel’s agency in many other physical, emotional and social ways.
Where unequal power exists, consent does not.
Exactly. I agree with every word of this review of Redeeming Love (and it’s quite short, so you can read it quickly!), and highly recommend it. (Although I would argue more forcefully that it actually was marital rape, even if he wasn’t physically forcing her.As she said, there was no consent.)
For more on marital rape and coercion, please see:
The Christian community needs to stop romanticizing power dynamics
So Michael declares that God told him that he’s to marry Angel–and she’s supposed to just agree? Even though she’s heard no such thing from God? And even though Michael does everything in his power to show that he doesn’t really see who Angel really is and what she wants?
Even at the end of the book (or movie), when she has spent several years building a non-profit home where she’s actually doing some good for other former trafficked victims, and she’s making a difference in the world for the better, she ends up leaving that behind to go live on a farm with Michael. Why doesn’t he come and help her in this very worthy endeavour?
The book of Hosea is interesting, and it’s a lovely story of how God loves us and pursues us even when we turn our backs on him, but it was never meant to be put in modern (or semi-modern) times. And when we do that, it gets really ugly.
Redeeming Love doesn’t deal well with trauma
Angel is a character who was sex trafficked from the age of 8. The trauma she suffered was immense. Everything she did was basically a trauma response. And therapists will tell you that what abuse victims and trauma survivors need most to heal is a sense of agency. Instead of giving her that agency, this book constantly chastises her and portrays her as being in the wrong for trying to assert what she really wants. She’s just supposed to go along with what this other man says is best for her, even though she has other options and other people in her life who have treated her better.
She’s supposed to leave the people in her life who are encouraging her to be herself and discover what she really wants (and even teach her to read and write!), and go back to this man who is telling her who she’s supposed to be, rather than treating her as a whole person. (If he really wanted to help her better herself, why didn’t HE teach her how to read and write?).
It’s this lack of attention to consent, agency, and trauma that makes me very, very leery of Redeeming Love.
We have a tendency to romanticize controlling relationships–look how much he loves her! Look how much he pursues her!, instead of looking for emotional health.
Obsession and control is not love.
I know that many have loved this book, and the picture it gave of God saved their faith, and if that’s you, I’d strongly recommend not watching the movie and just thanking God for the good that He brought out of the book and keep that as your memory. And if you’ve never read it, I’d also recommend skipping it, because maybe if Christians stop supporting movies that show an unhealthy marriage dynamic, then better movies will start being made.
Some other reviews with interesting insights about Redeeming Love:
Libby Anne, a former evangelical, has written a long review of Redeeming Love that I very much appreciated. Just a taste:
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.
Samantha Field, who grew up fundamentalist Christian but now writes from outside the faith, has written a huge series critiquing Redeeming Love. Warning: there is some swearing in it, and she comes from a perspective that many won’t agree with. But her take on abuse in particular in this entry in her review is spot on, in my opinion. Near the end, she sums up the book like this:
Redeeming Love is the story of an abuser who kidnaps an unconscious woman, barely restrains himself from murdering her, and gets what he wants in the end: a victim returning like a prodigal wife to kneel down, sobbing, at his feet begging forgiveness for wanting to be free of him.
Even a quick short review on a secular media review site sees the consent and controlling problems!
At first, Angel rejects Michael’s plan, rightly noting that he barely knows her. Despite the reasons behind her resistance, he makes no genuine attempts to learn more about her, her past, or what she wants out of life, instead continuing to deliver his promises of love with the same calm, sociopathic tone of a creeper who doesn’t know how to take no for an answer.
The fact that two women who have left the faith–and everyday secular reviewers–can see such glaring problems with this book is actually a big indictment.
It is the fact that the Christian community has so elevated books like Redeeming Love, and failed to notice the abuse dynamics, that has often made people give up on Christianity, while ensuring that others would never consider it in the first place.
And even when as Christians we critique the movie, too often we get angrier at erotic content than enabling abuse. We worry about how watching the movie will affect us for the worse, rather than how it will affect the wider community.
It’s understandable why people would abandon Christianity. They think our version of Jesus doesn’t care, and is more concerned with sin management than actually protecting the well-being of people who are being hurt.
I’m glad the Salvation Army captain was so insightful in her review, and I encourage everyone to share that one!
Rebecca here with some very quick thoughts, because my mom and I had slightly different first reactions to RL. I also have serious problems with it, but I don’t see necessarily the romanticization of an unhealthy relationship as the problem. Fiction is escapism, in my eyes–it romanticizes what we would never want in real life (think about how many fiction books have the protagonist killing someone as a GOOD thing, for example). I personally don’t think that RL’s relationship dynamics are healthy to indulge in since they have the potential to prime someone for abusive relationships, but I struggle to say that fiction should *never* portray unhealthy relationships because fiction is, by definition, supposed to be fake/not real life. So it has a level of separation that non-fiction self-help books do not.
With RL, my problem is that it is marketed as a Christian book, a re-telling of Scripture, and it presents a man’s purchasing, abuse, and rape of a woman as God’s command. God’s will. He is a godly man. And this is marketed to Christian women as a Christian book with a good message. I wouldn’t actually give two hoots about RL if it were a non-Christian book, or if it used the story of Hosea as inspiration but didn’t include all the stuff about it being God’s will in it. But because it markets itself as Christian, it leaves the realm of pure fiction (where pretty much anything goes) and puts itself into a teaching position. It is, to me, the same as my issue with Mark Gungor’s “jokes.” If he were just a comedian, him making off-colour jokes about how all men want from women is sex wouldn’t really be an issue because he’s just joking. But he’s not “just a comedian”–he includes teaching about marriage in his routines, he is marketed as a marriage expert, he gives advice and counsel throughout his programs. So his jokes aren’t harmless but just in bad taste–they are actively telling people, “I am an authority on what God wants for you, and this is it.”
Similarly, by invoking the name of God, Rivers puts a Christian stamp of approval on men who use God’s word to abuse, assault, and erase the agency of women. That’s why I don’t like this book.
What do you think? Have you read Redeeming Love or seen the movie? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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