Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the film Redeeming Love.

As a young woman, growing up in an early 2000’s Christian home, I heard the praises of Francine Rivers’ 1997 novel, Redeeming Love. I was even given a copy of the book for my fifteenth birthday. The excitement surrounding its feature film adaptation was palpable in Christian women’s small groups. The book is entertaining and a wonderful romance story, to be sure.

God didn’t instruct Hosea to marry an actual prostitute, but simply to marry an Israelite woman. 

As a teen, growing up in the “I’m not single, I’m dating Jesus!” youth group culture, it was just another story that made me feel uncomfortable with seeing my Lord and Savior and the Almighty God as a romantic love interest. Now, as an adult woman watching the film adaptation of Redeeming Love,1 I can see and articulate the problems with the story and, specifically, with how the visual interpretation was handled. Redeeming Love perpetuates a skewed version of romantic love while simultaneously misrepresenting the true redemptive love of God that is shown to us in the Bible. 

We must first understand the Biblical story that inspired the novel and discern exactly what that Old Testament tale is teaching about God. The understanding of Hosea as simply the book in the Bible where God instructs a man to marry a prostitute is misleading. In Douglas Stuart’s Biblical commentary on the book of Hosea,2 he breaks the passage down into parts and looks at the context as well as the original Hebrew. Stuart surmises that the description of the “prostituting woman” is not to be understood in the literal sense of her having the occupation of a prostitute. According to Stuart, “‘Prostitute’ would appear in Hebrew as either ЛЛТ or ГШ 1 ЛИЖ.” In this passage, the word being used is a plural abstract which is not typically used to refer to the profession itself. God didn’t instruct Hosea to marry an actual prostitute, but simply to marry an Israelite woman. 

At this time and in the context of the rest of the book of Hosea, Israel has turned so far from God that all the citizens are participants in unfaithfulness to the covenant. The overall message of the book of Hosea is meant to reflect the relationship between Israel and God. Therefore, Stuart argues, “​​Prostitution is Hosea’s most common metaphor for the covenant infidelity that provoked Yahweh’s wrath against Israel, and the term is used in that sense throughout the book.” At the end of all of this we see that God still loves and cares for Israel as His people, despite their disobedience.

Angel has been taken from one situation of men dictating her life to another… Only this time, serving as a sort of moral and spiritual project of a love-struck Christian boy.

Hosea’s relationship with a woman who has been unfaithful to God and the relationship with his children who are born of an unfaithful woman (regardless of whether she was literally sexually promiscuous) is a symbol of God and His pain over being betrayed by His people. Ultimately, we see how terribly Israel has broken their covenant with God and how He so desires for His people to turn from their wickedness and commit themselves to Him. In the Bible, Hosea and his family are a reflection of God and Israel, but Hosea is not acting as though he himself is God.

In Redeeming Love, however, the allusion is such that the leading man Michael Hosea (Tom Lewis) is supposed to be showing what God’s love looks like—a redeeming love. This meshing of godly love with romantic love is where the trouble lies within the story. It is the utilization of Michael as a Christ-figure that causes this novel to do a disservice to the Biblical story of Hosea. 

The male lead, “Michael Hosea” first sees “Angel” (Abigail Cowen), as she’s known for most of the story, and is immediately drawn to her beauty. It is only after having the sight of her that he determines that God is telling him that she is The One for him to wed. In the film adaptation, we aren’t granted the experience of the voice of God speaking to Michael as we are in the book. In the film, we see him go to the chapel and pray, asking for a wife. He then arrives in town, sees Angel, and proclaims, “That’s the girl.” 

A key issue with the film is that they made the decision to keep the movie from an outsider’s point of view. In the novel, it is written in the third person, but we are at least privy to Angel’s thoughts and feelings about her circumstances as well as Michael’s emotions. The film closes the audience off from Angel and thus, we only know her in regards to how others view her. The direction of the film clearly makes use of “the male gaze,” emphasizing Angel’s beauty by modern male standards. 

When Michael and Angel first meet, she is completely nude. With perfect, voluminous, long hair in beachy waves with an ever-so-trendy middle part, she is displayed to the audience. She walks around the room completely naked with only a strategic prop placement and her long extensions keeping the shots from being full-frontal. Angel eventually covers with a robe as Michael eagerly tells her he is going to marry her. It isn’t a question, but a statement. They’ve had no meaningful conversation and he knows nothing of her personality, but he’s going to marry her. 

When we are given insight into Angel and her past, we are hit with every traumatic experience possible within the span of less than thirty minutes. The film takes no time to handle these delicate subjects with care and compassion: the audience is subjected to her back-to-back trauma. The amount of screen time and attention being paid to the abuse endured by Angel feels exploitative, sensationalized, reminding me of the sadistic treatment in other films that display depraved human suffering as fodder for entertainment. 

Conflating the relentless, unconditional love of God in a literalistic manner with the romantic love of a man and woman is ultimately harmful.

All this culminates in the brutal beating of Angel to near-death, only for Michael to propose to her as she is barely conscious. She responds with, “Sure,” and Michael whisks her out of the brothel. This was not Angel agreeing to a marriage, it was an act of survival—just as everything else she has done. Angel has been taken from one situation of men dictating her life to another where she is just as much an object and commodity as she was before. Only this time, serving as a sort of moral and spiritual project of a love-struck Christian boy.

Angel even has a line that calls out exactly this issue when she says, “I’m not playing into your marriage-slave fantasy.” That is precisely how it comes across: a man so infatuated by the sight of this beautiful woman that he feels compelled to save her and rehabilitate her like a wounded fawn. Michael is constantly telling Angel what she can and cannot do and trying to reframe her identity. It is a portrait of a male fantasy. 

Michael tells her his plans for her and begins molding her into the good, respectable woman he desires her to be. Once Angel has proven herself, Michael rewards her by telling her they’re ready for sex. This sex scene is just like any sex scene in any secular movie directed by a male director. It once again focuses on Angel and her body, lingering on exposing her bare figure. Never once is Michael shown as connecting with her in this intimate moment except to satiate his own lust that he has been projecting onto her for the last hour and a half.

There is a glimmer of hope in the third act of the film. Angel finds out who she is apart from Michael, makes an honest living for herself, and even escapes her first and most terrifying abuser entirely on her own. But then, Angel comes back to see Michael, and tells him she loves him and wants to be married to him permanently. Michael’s response is, “I have always loved you. Welcome home,” while the song “Rescue” by Lauren Daigle plays, illuminating the allegory we’re supposed to be seeing here once again. Michael has a relentless love for Angel and is welcoming her home with open arms, just like God, right? 

Conflating the relentless, unconditional love of God in a literalistic manner with the romantic love of a man and woman is ultimately harmful. It is even more harmful to women to see a man who is manipulative and self-centered presented as the savior of the story. The love of God displayed in Hosea is unconditional, but the romance in Redeeming Love is conditional and focused on what Michael desires.


Footnotes

  1. Redeeming Love. DJ Caruso, Universal Pictures, 2022. ↩︎
  2.  Stuart, Douglas. Hosea-Jonah, Volume 31, HarperCollins Christian Publishing, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/liberty/detail.action?docID=5397258.
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