The reviews are in on “Redeeming Love,” and redemption is not what our culture thinks it is.
I can’t begin to estimate how many female Christian friends have urged me to read Francine Rivers’ 1991 bestselling book Redeeming Love over the years (so many!), and I finally got around to it last year. Now, romantic fiction, Christian or not, is not my cup of tea, and I’ve read very little of it. So I’m a poor judge of books in this genre. I would have a hard time reviewing something in a particular category that I’m mostly unfamiliar with … other than that it’s a book, and I’ve read plenty of books.
Unfamiliarity with a genre (or the actual subject matter) doesn’t stop movie reviewers, though, and they weighed in this past weekend with their thoughts on the new movie adaptation of Redeeming Love. Full disclosure: I don’t have plans to see the movie, and it’s not even the movie itself that I find interesting—it’s the reviews, and one review in particular.
I still read a print newspaper every day (thank you, Lord, that my city still has one), and much to my surprise, there was a regular-length, official movie review of Redeeming Love in the weekend paper—giving it a legitimacy not usually given to movies with overt Christian themes (they’re usually not reviewed at all). The review was from a female movie reviewer at Tribune News Service.
A little background for those who aren’t familiar with the book or movie: Redeeming Love is based on the book of Hosea in the Bible, and Francine Rivers is not light-handed about it. The main male character’s name is Michael Hosea, in case you might have had any doubts about her intent. The female character’s name is not Gomer, as in the Bible (no surprise there), but instead is Angel—a name given to her by the man who abused her and forced her into prostitution as a young child. (Neither the book nor the movie, so I gather, are appropriate for children.)
In the Bible, Hosea is a minor prophet (meaning, his book is comparatively short), but he has one heck of a story to tell. God has chosen him to live a real-life allegory: the story of God, the faithful and loving husband, and his wife Israel, who is a prostitute. The book paints a picture of God’s redeeming, forgiving love for Israel and his relentless pursuit of her, despite her repeated rejection of his love and her unfaithfulness to him. For Christians, this redeeming love is also a picture of Jesus’ saving love for us—redemption that we all need, even the seemingly saintly like Michael Hosea or the misused and abused like Angel.
I read the movie review with great interest, knowing the biblical background and also having recently read the book. I wasn’t curious about the movie itself nearly as much as I was curious what a (most likely) non-Christian reviewer would say about it. Not just because the movie was “Christian,” but because of the hot-topic themes it addressed.
The reviewer actually had very little to say about the movie as a production, and she mentioned a few positive things about the female lead’s acting ability. Yet she gave it 1.5 stars out of 4—a dismal rating. Here’s why:
“Every female character in ‘Redeeming Love’ is a wife, a sex worker or dead, and the story lacks any imagination to envision a woman’s ‘redemption’ (if she even needs that) outside of a hetero-patriarchal family structure, arguing that what women need is for men to carry them off to the country to save them from themselves with some fresh air and brisk housework. “… it’s so hard to shake the lingering icky feelings about this text, which plays like ‘tradwife’ fan fiction, the 19th-century setting protecting the story from the pesky ‘women’s lib’ movement, which would suggest that Angel have her own autonomy, that she might be redeemed by her own self-love. However, such radical concepts have no purchase here.”
And here at the end of the movie review is where I met myself coming and going, because the reviewer’s forceful words struck me as something I could easily have written back in the day.
When I was in my mid-teens to mid-twenties, before I became a Christian, I was a dedicated feminist, outspokenly independent, and yes, often snarky or bitter. I could easily have seen myself as a strong proponent of “self-love” as the only true path to redemption, (although the word “redemption” wasn’t much in my thoughts back then and I certainly didn’t have a Christian understanding of it). I would have been happy to give my opinion loudly and clearly on a topic (such as biblical allegories or other women’s life choices) which I knew very little about. And I was messing up my own life in a stunningly oblivious manner, without Jesus, without humility, and without any awareness that I was in need of redemption. Redemption from God, not from myself—Lord help me if I’m the only solution to rescuing my own life.
Maybe Redeeming Love really is a bad movie, I don’t know. Maybe it deserves 1.5/4 stars. Maybe the book is heavy-handed and formulaic (okay, I would agree with that). But the still-relevant truth of the Bible’s book of Hosea is that no matter what trials and tribulations you’ve had, no matter how badly you’ve messed up your own life or others have messed it up for you, there is a God who pursues you relentlessly, and will not stop until you finally, willingly, turn to him with faithfulness, obedience, and trust. I know those concepts are anathema in today’s culture. I used to care about things like the priorities of today’s culture, but in the words of the missionary Jim Elliot, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Willingly giving yourself to others, to a marriage and family, to God … it’s all so very countercultural—much more so in the 21st century than in the 19th. Radical concepts such as these do indeed have purchase, though, and I thank God that Jesus has purchased me.