Redeeming Love's Critics Reveal a Problem with Christian Audiences
Unlike what some reviews suggest, there is no actual nudity in Redeeming Love.
By now, I think I've seen pretty much every argument against watching Redeeming Love from the conservative Christian blogosphere, a place filled with people I consider my dear friends.
Criticisms of the film range from reasonable to ridiculous, but I'll do my best to address them all and explain why the swift condemnation of the film was a huge but unsurprising misstep, and why we should fix it.
I'll give you a little context first: For those who are not familiar with Redeeming Love, it was written by Francine Rivers a few years after her conversion to Christianity and published over thirty years ago. It is still the #1 bestseller in numerous Christian fiction categories. Before her conversion, Rivers had a successful career writing secular romance novels, but as a new believer, she went through painstaking lengths to remove those books from the marketplace. She also speaks openly about her deep regret over an abortion and how writing Redeeming Love was, in some ways, a personal exploration of the depth of God's deep love for terrible sinners. The controversial, beloved book was recently released as a film that has many women frenziedly warning others against seeing it. Interestingly enough, the secular media hates it, too.
I'll begin with the most reasonable criticism, which is that the movie includes sexual content that will be challenging for some viewers. Specifically, there is partial "nudity" in the form of bare shoulders, backs, a belly button, and a woman's breasts covered by hair and hands. Additionally, there are two, two-minute scenes that clearly allude to sex between main characters Michael Hosea and his wife, Angel, an abused woman who he rescues out of prostitution. These scenes are not visually graphic, but they are highly sensual.
There's no reason to deny that those elements are extremely edgy for what we typically expect in a Christian movie—they are—and it's also fair to argue that they could've been portrayed differently, especially since Rivers was heavily involved in the filming process. There's also no reason to deny that there is a line that can be crossed when it comes to sexual content in films. It's not just a matter of whether or not one feel's temptation or not. Actors can debase themselves through nudity and graphic portrayals of sex, and Christian audiences should not partake. Redeeming Love gets surprisingly close to that line, but the film does not include actual nudity or graphic depictions of sex, as some critics were quick to claim.
Understandably, some may read what I've described above and choose to forgo the film and voice their concerns about it. I don't judge anyone for that. It's a reasonable response. But, there are others, including many faithful, devout Christians, who are comfortable with Redeeming Love. And that's a group of people who are currently being slandered as lovers of pornography by a whipped-up gaggle of Pharisees.
I've seen many anecdotes from women claiming they left the theatre with a dark, troubled feeling in their hearts, but I've also seen just as many stories—more, actually—that the film resonated deeply with those who have suffered abuse or who simply questioned God's ability to love them despite their sin and brokenness. These vastly differing experiences from people with the same core beliefs—and usually similar beliefs on secondary issues, too—suggest this is an issue of conscience and liberty.
Thankfully, Paul gave us very clear instructions on matters such as this:
"Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding."
While we should clearly respect and protect the convicted brother or sister, the convicted believer also needs to honor God and be truthful about the thing they are avoiding. Being hyperbolic in an effort to shame a believer who doesn't experience the same conviction is clearly not the proper response. Otherwise, how can we have peace and mutual upbuilding?
As I've made this argument over the last few days, many people have objections. Some have said: "This book is recommended to young women all the time! I was way too young when I read it. I just think Christians need to be much more discerning about what they recommend to others. You don't know what struggles they're going through."
I heartily agree with the sentiment, but here's some food for thought. Redeeming Love was written thirty years ago, before trigger culture was mainstream. One was simply expected to stop reading if they felt uncomfortable with the content rather than being handed a long list of all the various sexual or potentially disturbing things they might encounter within a story.
Here's where some will likely interject "It's a Christian book, though! It's not supposed to have those!"
My sincere question to those people would be, what did you possibly expect from an adult romance novel about a trafficked, abused prostitute? How could it not have disturbing elements? How could it not include sex? It's perfectly reasonable to not want to read it for those reasons, but it makes very little sense to lament that this particular story is disturbing and sexual. Especially given that now, in 2022, there are countless reviews and articles and warnings about the book. Some popular women in the Christian commentary world have built their entire careers around criticizing it. So, again, my sincere question: Exactly how many warnings do we need? I am sympathetic to those who were caught off-guard as they started reading, but I don't think their angst should be projected onto others who loved the book unless they were forced to finish it with a gun to their heads.
Another response I've received is along the lines of: "You can't tell me that you read those scenes and they didn't stir up a bunch of sexual longings in you as a young woman."
My honest reply is that they didn't stir up anything. I already had sexual longings, as any normal young woman does. Redeeming Love simply gave me a reference point for a very Godly and self-sacrificial man, that would prove to be very helpful to me later when I found myself in the throes of a confusing and abusive relationship. In a way, I had my own Redeeming Love story, as many women have.
The movie sticks very close to the book, so there are also various allusions to pedophilia, rape, violence, abortion, and suicide, but, interestingly enough, the film's harshest conservative critics seem to be much more upset about the mostly implied sexual encounters between the married couple than any of that, which troubles me greatly. I've always been a bit skeptical about the supposedly far-reaching effects of purity culture, but this backlash had me rethink that a bit. It appears that in some of these very conservative circles, there is a real and misguided aversion to the idea of sex, no matter the context.
Another criticism I've seen lobbed towards Rivers is that she is lax in her Christian convictions for writing something like this, or that her previous career as a secular romance writer means all of her books post-conversion are tainted in some way. To this, I will simply point the critic to Luke 15. Or, perhaps I could point them to the character of Paul, Michael's brother-in-law, in Redeeming Love. Paul shows up on the scene just as Angel is healing and learning about Christianity, and he quickly reminds her of her filthy past and how much better Michael's life could be without her.
The last and strangest criticism I've seen is that "The film is ineffective for teaching or evangelism. Just tell women to read the book of Hosea instead."
I have no doubt that many women would be powerfully moved by the book of Hosea if they ever picked up a Bible and read it, but, unfortunately, your average nominal Christian or secular woman isn't going to. They've been trained to view the Bible as hard to understand, boring, and condemning, and that belief has most likely been reinforced by dour Christian women shooing them away from romance and suggesting their senses should be deadened to anything except abstract spirituality.
Thankfully, though, your average nominal Christian or secular woman is probably still willing to see a movie about the same subjects in Hosea, especially a well-executed one like Redeeming Love—but, apparently, we need to be very upset about that rather than embracing the opportunity to plant seeds in a post-Christian society that has suffered immensely from the American church shielding itself from the relevant issues of the day.
Will viewers get an entire Gospel presentation, plus an introduction to the Bible, plus apologetics training, plus a road map to discipleship in a great church as they watch the movie? No, but let me submit that putting those kinds of expectations on Christian films is what makes most of them so awful. And it points to a terribly low, utilitarian view of art.
The job of the Christian artist is to be as truthful and inspiring as possible as they point to Christ creatively. There are obviously some important constraints, but there's also more freedom than many people currently realize. Powerful Christian art will not look anything like the Christian films we're used to, nor will it look like secular entertainment. Instead, it'll be challenging to both audiences—as Redeeming Love is.
More simply put: As important as it is to believe rightly, that almost always comes after someone has a powerful experience of connection with God, and art is one of the most neglected ways we can achieve that.
There were reasonable, level-headed objections raised against the film, but much of the backlash was an emotional overreaction. I fully understand the tendency to react strongly in a culture that is so depraved—most modern Americans are exposed to debased, hyper-sexualization from a very young age—and to want to run fast in the opposite direction, but one can still overreact and impose false standards on others, and doing so is counter-productive.
Unfortunately, instead of reflecting on that overreaction, many of the overreactors have decided to double-down, and the result is divisive and embarrassing. These are women who I love and generally agree with, but this particular issue brought many problems to light, and I hope it will lead to some self-reflection in the future. If not, I fear many will end up like the older brother in Luke—needlessly angry and missing out on the party God is throwing.
Carmen Schober is a wife, mother, writer, and cultural commentator. You can read her cultural work at Staseos, The Stream, and her debut Christian romance novel, After She Falls, is available online wherever books are sold. Follow Carmen on Instagram and subscribe to her website for writing updates.