Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Harlotry was in my blood

{A review of Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, sort of}

When we were house-hunting, we came across a house that was described in the listings as having "good bones." Seeing that it was within our price-range, we went and had a look.

As we walked through the door, stench of urine hit us without warning. Strong and concentrated. The carpet was blackened with grease and mud. I could see where the couch had been. There was a time when the carpet was not black. I heard water dripping somewhere behind the walls of the moldy bathtub, covered in thick black slime. But I can't be too sure because none of the lights were working.

Then, my heart sank. Along the walls, I saw the familiar scribbles of crayon and markers. Children lived here. Babies crawled on this carpet. Good bones or not, my children will not step foot in this place. It's not worth it. Forget this.

But I couldn't.

Weeks later, the scribbles along the walls and the crawling darkness stayed with me. My mind was staring the chaos of my heart when the Lord found me, devastated and lost. That godless place I thought I had forgotten, or try to not remember. There was nothing desirable or beautiful there. Certainly nothing that was worth his death on the cross, the atonement of his blood.

There was a time when I loved historical fictions. I probably still do, but reading fiction is a luxury I cannot afford with two little boys running around. Years ago, when I was in my teens, I read a retelling of the story of Hosea, Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. A few of girls at church read it recently and asked for my thoughts. I am revisiting it for their sake. Because it is my (delightful) duty to teach them the Bible, I am primarily going to comment on whether this book is drawing us nearer or further away from the original story.

As I scrolled through the reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, I was most concerned to find that so many (women) identify themselves with Gomer and see God as the husband who continues to love and pursue them. Though there are some things to say about the depiction of Hosea, for the sake of your time, we are just going to focus on Gomer for now.

In Rivers' retelling of the story, Gomer is depicted as an exclusive, upscale prostitute. In fact, she is the most desired prostitute among lustful men. A victim of a horrifying childhood, she is raised by a pedophile, and knows nothing else except bad, bad men who take advantage of her. The rest of the story is about how she fears happiness and distrusts his husband's love, runs away from him again and again, and how her husband continues to pursue her.

Unlike Redeeming Love, the book of Hosea does not tell us very much about Gomer's background except that she was the daughter of Diblaim. But one thing is certain: Gomer is not a victim. Gomer loves being a prostitute. She adorns herself and pursues after her lovers. It concerns me whenever we give excuses for our sins and put the blame on our lot in life. I would know, I am the queen of excuses. Just ask Hans. Or, maybe not.

True, we are all victims of deceits in one way or another, but we are also fully culpable. We want to believe in these lies. We love our idols more than we love God. It's not that we are incapable of being happy, it's that we seek after happiness in things other than God. And other things can never fulfill.

Secondly, the book of Hosea does not say much about Gomer's looks. The Bible is not incapable describing fine-looking women (think Genesis). However, it is silent in this story precisely because it doesn't matter. In Redeeming Love, however, Gomer's beauty is emphasized again and again. She is described as the desire of every man, the most beautiful woman, a frozen heart behind a "flawless veil." Men are enthralled, they get lost looking into her eyes, etc. Though it may not be historically inaccurate, emphasizing her beauty changes the story.

Imagining Gomer as a beautiful victimized woman changes the story. Women lust after the desire of men. We want to be desired and rescued. This is what women daydream about. The story sells. But in the original story, Gomer is despicable in her unfaithfulness. She pursues and loves other men. We should be disgusted with Gomer. We should not desire to be like Gomer in any way.

When Nathan tells King David the story of the rich man who killed the poor man's beloved sheep, King David is disgusted with the rich man. He does not identify with rich man, or try to see things from his perspective. No, David finds the rich man to be revolting. In fact, it is his abhorrence toward the rich man that propels him to see his own sin, and repent.

To emphasize a fictional detail that Gomer is beautiful is like saying, the house that we saw had some good features, but it had a pungent odor. That's not the same story! The house now sounds as though it has desirable quality that is worth saving. In such imaginings, we de-emphasize God's grace, his mercy, his compassion, his steadfast love -- which is the essence of the story of Hosea.

God loved Israel. He chose Israel not because she was better than the other nations. In fact, Israel was powerless and her people were slaves. She was rebellious and ungrateful, unworthy in every way. She continued in her unfaithful ways and pursued other gods. There was nothing desirable or beautiful there. Certainly nothing that was worth his death on the cross, the atonement of his blood.

I find John Piper's narrative poem on Hosea to be a more faithful rendition of the original story. In it, the old woman Gomer tells her husband at the end of their years together,
Your love for me
Was like a mountain waterfall,
And I the jagged stone. Of all
The knives and hammers once applied
None made me smooth or clean. They tried,
But harlotry was in my blood,
Until your love became a flood
Cascading over my crude life
And kept me as your only wife.


E! said...

i do not know how far the east is from the west

Teyen Chou said...

I read this book at least 6 times ever since a friend of mine from church gave it to me on my baptism in 8th grade haha. Perspective on Gomer has definitely been something I've been trying to grasp and understand and also but sometimes I stop and wonder, what's the point? Am I trying to dig deep into Gomer is because I am trying to identify myself through this? And from there, try to find a "happy ending"? I can write a long comment about this but haha, I'm at work so maybe next time :P

Seda said...

Esther -- yes. Lord help us to know how much we've been forgiven, in order that we may love him rightly.

Teyen -- Please come back and write a long comment! =) I am curious to hear more. LOL And perhaps provide some thoughts to the questions you asked.

Michelle @ The Willing Cook said...

It's very interesting that you have brought up this book today. My husband and I had a short discussion about River's historical fiction just the other day. I was telling him that they are great books to read as far as story development goes. They definitely keep you interested. But you must have a strong discerning eye because you cannot, must not start to get her stories confused with the Word. I have quit reading her books for that reason. I almost feel like she adding to the Word, and thus taking away from it. I have enjoyed her books, but I want an uncomprimised understanding of the true Story - that beautiful story of redemptive love that needs no flowery character development or can't walk away plot. Christ is my All in All!

Seda said...

Michelle -- I completely agree!
"...she adding to the Word, and thus taking away from it." Scripture warns us against doing this over and over again (Proverbs 30:6; Deu 4:2). The Lord established the boundaries of his Word for specific reasons.
Having said that, however, I wonder whether it is possible to flesh out a context for these stories faithfully.

ruth@gracelaced said...

I'm so blessed to read this, Seda, and all the comments here. This is insightful and discerning. I have not read any of her books because of these concerns, though I'm sure they are enjoyable reads. I think the point you've made is the one I keep coming back to...there's a reason why the Lord told us the story the way he did--let us not add to it!

Seda said...

Ruth -- Thanks for dropping by! So true... let us not add to God's Word. And may he help us to trust the boundaries he has given and find safety and freedom within them.

Jean Tsen said...

Haha...so interesting that you ended with Piper's poem. I have a story to tell about this. I had avoided Piper and developed this stigma of him during the year i compromised God's Word. Because of the novel "Redeeming Love," the first sermon I gathered enough guts to download of Piper's was on Hosea, thinking Piper wouldn't be too harsh in that sermon since it's all about love. Well, you can guess what happened...lol! I found myself called a prostitute who chases after Hostess Twinkies (Hosea 3:1 illustration)! But, in spite of the sting, the sermon did me good. It whet my appetite for truth which quickly overrode my fear of truth. Piper sermon after Piper sermon, i was brought to repentance, so that I became indebted to Piper for awakening me to see how I had prostituted myself, forsaking God, in exchange for (gross) Twinkies!! Thanks for giving shin the occasion to share my testimony here, jie. :)
Piper sermon: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/call-me-husband-not-baal

Michelle @ The Willing Cook said...


I wanted to reply to comment before now, but we've been on vacation and it's been a bit hard to get to the computer. Anyway, I do think that one can faithfully pluck out portions of the stories for our good and His glory! However, one must put on the armor of discernment and hold it tight. These books are so easy to toss that aside. Having said that...a couple years back, I started reading her Women of the Bible series (these are the stories where I think the liberties are quite dangerous), but I was never able to read all of them. A few months back, I finished the last two in the series. Again, I was put off back her "fictional" liberties with God's word, but nonetheless I was able to glean something beautiful from it. I have a guest post at Beautifully Rooted today that was born out of her series on biblical women. I loved what I was able to glean, but careful not to stretch it to overshadow God's truth. Here is the link: