I’m not sure how or why Amazon.com started suggesting I read Christian fiction, but about a year ago, every time I bought something online, I got an automatic recommendation for a book with a pastel cover featuring a fair-haired woman looking thoughtful. I clicked on a few of them, only to find that my history of buying novels by or about Jews had somehow led to these adamant suggestions that I’d like books about blondes finding Christ.
The descriptions of the books were vague enough that I was left wondering what they were about. I knew Jewish literature was a loose term, applied to everything from Portnoy’s Complaint to Anne Frank’s diary. Did “Christian fiction” just mean novels about Christians? If so, isn’t that just most novels? Are they romance novels involving ladies who sometimes go to church? If so, was there sex? Is it the equivalent of As a Driven Leaf, but with pastors? I figured the best way to find out was to read one and see.
I emailed some friends, all Jewish, and invited them to join me in my spiritual fiction exploration, spinning the project as a fun-filled romp through foreign territory. After some research and a vote, we settled on Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers, which was billed as a retelling of the biblical book of Hosea set in the California gold rush. It features a prostitute, so I was hopeful that it might be raunchy.
Reading Redeeming Love turned out to be a lot like watching a Lifetime Television movie, in that it was both horrifying and enjoyable. The protagonist, a prostitute named Angel, lives in a dusty California town, a wretched place where she has a predictably wretched existence. In a scene that’s clearly meant to be romantic, a farmer named Michael Hosea buys Angel from her madam after Angel has been beaten to a pulp. I read the scene while lying in bed with my boyfriend and cringed when Hosea insists on marrying Angel before taking her from the brothel. Angel isn’t fully conscious, but, writes Rivers: “She would agree to wed Satan himself if it would get her out of the Palace. ‘Why not?’ she managed.” I audibly gasped while reading this, and when my boyfriend asked me what was wrong I had to admit both how deeply creepy the scene was and how much fun I was having reading it.
Hosea brings Angel to his farm and nurses her back to health, but she and her husband battle constantly. They also abstain from sex, because he suspects she’ll treat it like a job. She wants to return to prostitution so she can earn money and live independently. He wants her to become a Christian. Both of them are tempted by Satan and comforted by God. Rivers gives her theology a typographical treatment: Bold italic type means God is talking, simply bold type belongs to the devil. There is, as you might expect, a completely implausible happy ending.
When it was finally time for my newly founded book club to meet, eight of us gathered in my living room to discuss Redeeming Love. Sipping wine, we began picking apart the book, reading aloud the most bizarre and hilarious parts. We talked about the way that Christianity comes off as a last resort for people in pain and the way that independence is presented as a way of running away from love. But pretty quickly the conversation moved from Christianity—and the treacly way that Rivers wrote about it—to the way the ideas about God and religion in the book mapped onto our own, Jewish thoughts on the same subjects. Angel’s understandable resistance to becoming a frontier homemaker spoke to our own disinterest in becoming observant Jewish housewives. We wondered about the way that God speaks so directly to the characters in the book. Do the Christian women who read Redeeming Love feel that they, too, frequently hear from a bold italic God, who comforts and infantilizes them? As Jews, this sentiment was both foreign and somewhat attractive. We wondered aloud if a Jewish version of this book could be written, and how different it might be from the Christian text.
I had intended the book club to be a one-off thing, but we all had so much fun we decided to continue meeting, and so far we have read The Choice, by Suzanne Woods Fisher, which is part of a sub-genre of Christian fiction that focuses on the Amish, fetishizing the “plain” way of life, and The Pastor’s Woman, by Jacquelin Thomas, which is part of the “urban” sub-genre of Christian fiction, meaning it’s about African Americans. Next month we’re moving to Mormons with The Last Promise, by Richard Paul Evans.
Like Redeeming Love, the plots in these books creak forward unevenly, and the writing is at best mediocre. But in contrast to our first book, the heroines in The Choice and The Pastor’s Woman are presented as feisty women who never seem to encounter real conflict. The books set them on the road to marriage, and on the way, nothing much gets in their way. It is both boring and reminiscent of the countless conversations I’ve had with friends, both religious and secular, about tying the knot. In my experience, in the real world, people—even observant Jews—make a decision about whether or not to get married based on personal preference, not spiritual pangs. In Christian fiction, it seems, women who have doubts about their relationship just wait around until they feel themselves being pushed by God.
Wedlock, however, wasn’t the only aspect of the books we felt was at odds with our modern lives; modesty was another point of contention. All of the books we read dealt explicitly with issues of modesty, and we returned at every meeting to how our own perceptions of what’s modest and appropriate have been shaped by our Jewish backgrounds. In The Choice, the protagonist wears traditional Amish garb and shuns zippers, but kissing her boyfriend is apparently not a problem by community standards. In The Pastor’s Woman, the main character is berated for wearing a leather skirt to church (the pastor sends someone with a blanket to cover her legs), but later she runs a fashion show for teens because, she says, “I mainly wanted to give the teens some ideas on how to be fashionable without having to show all of their goodies.” Modesty is important to all of these women, and it’s presented as an important part of the Christian way of life, but even for an Amish woman, modesty doesn’t seem as restrictive a concept as it was at the Orthodox Jewish high school I attended.
Most curious, however, were the Jews, appearing in two of the three novels we’ve read as mini-savior figures. In Redeeming Love, Joseph Hochschild is a genial shopkeeper who offers Angel a place to stay when she runs away from her husband. “We can’t offer you grand accommodations,” the kindly Jew tells the destitute prostitute, “but we can give you a clean cot and blankets and kosher food.” Later, always a mensch, he reunites Angel with her husband. In The Choice, one Dr. Zimmerman takes care of the surprisingly high number of Amish people who end up in the hospital in the course of the 300-page book. He’s big on wise-cracking and great at saving Amish lives. We wondered why all these Jewish characters in Christian fiction, and then we looked at ourselves: Perhaps these authors were as titillated by writing about Jews as we Jews were by reading about Christians.
It makes sense: Nothing, it turned out, has made me feel quite as Jewish as reading and discussing Christian fiction. And these novels—as poorly written and developed as they all are—have helped me have fun with religion for the first time in ages. Book club functions as a low-stakes, no-grades, comparative religion class, pizza and wine included. It reminds me that faith doesn’t have to be serious, it can be playful, even silly. And you know who I can thank for this reminder? Jesus.
Tamar Fox is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com.