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Of the Books

After Amazon started recommending Christian novels for me, I gathered a group of Jewish friends to explore them and discovered an unexpected reconnect with spirituality

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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.

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lazer says:

ah, the trope of the kindly Jew. I see it still demarcates the thin line between philo- and anti-Semitism.

נידעריקע באשאפונגן

lazer says:

“It reminds me that faith doesn’t have to be serious, it can be playful, even silly.”

Who needs Sholem Aleichem when goyim can suffice?

Jay A Friedman says:

I would suggest that – as much as Ms. Fox has learnt about Christianity – she is woefully deficient in her understanding of Judaism.

Christianity (to me at least — I am no expert) stresses the connection between the individual and God. Angel struggles between Satan and God (the latter providing her with “comfort”.) She does not look for strength within herself. She does not seek help from others.

Judaism stresses the connection between one Jew and his/her fellow Jew and between the individual Jew and all members of the human community. God challenges us — He does not comfort. He aids us but responsibility is ours.

If a Jewish Angel struggled with herself (Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRa), it would be the responsibility of the entire Jewish community to extend love and help and assistance.

Eli says:

I like Mr Friedman’s response. Too bad that the author’s Orthodox High School didn’t teach her the same re her yiddishkeit – not her fault at all but sad that traditional Jewish schooling seems to be light on the spiritual connectivity of her own religion

Yaakov Hillel says:

The type of school the author went to teaches about Jewish laws not Jewish philosophy.

Jesse Bacon says:

Why is it whenever Tamar Fox or anyone else posts anything mildly critical of Jewish religion, commenters feel compelled to say how she must not understand the religion. Can you folks imagine anyone having a knowledgable critique of ones own religion? The lesson of this piece for me is that if Orthodox day schools and other Jewish institutions spent more time studying other groups, it might actually do more fostering connection with Judaism than just cheerleading.

Aaron says:

I agree with Mr. Bacon. If anything, my understanding has been that Judaism puts a particular emphasis on critique, both of itself as a religion and of the specific religious texts that are held sacred. Why else would there be so many different commentaries, if not to explain things that don’t make sense as they are? It also seems naive to think that the only reason a person would express sentiments that are not 100% positive or supportive of Judaism is because they have “misunderstood” Judaism as a whole. I would be shocked if a survey was done of Orthodox Jews regarding their feelings about their religion and the results showed complete satisfaction. In fact, if the results were to come out that way, I would become suspicious that the respondents were afraid to describe their real feelings for fear of the reactions that would come from the greater Orthodox community. Eli, at the very least, appears to have granted the possibility that Ms. Fox’s school was to blame for not offering her the opportunity to establish a more positive connection to Judaism.

Esther says:

I enjoyed this piece. However, I recommend you looking in a dictionary for the words “disinterested” and “uninterested.” They don’t mean the same thing. These days, the dis-word gets used all the time when the un-word is correct.

josh schwartz says:

does jay friedman truly believe that judaism has no room for a personal spiritual conflict? is he unfamiliar with the entire corpus of jewish spiritual writing, from the rabbis on down? while jewish religious literature has tended to lack the personalism of an augustine or julian of norwich, there are plenty of examples of personal experience shining through. in addition, no literature accurately and totally represents the entire set of possibilities described therein. just because it is not stressed in the books does not mean it is not there.

i find it sad that even tablet, which has tended to be a good source of intelligent discourse, breeds essentialism and simply uninformed analysis, as well as knee-jerk defensiveness.

ms. fox should be commended on her intriguing and engaging perspective.

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Of the Books

After Amazon started recommending Christian novels for me, I gathered a group of Jewish friends to explore them and discovered an unexpected reconnect with spirituality

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