There’s a lot of hype among Christian fiction readers over Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love. Originally released in 2005, the book is still ranking high in the genre’s sales states 12 years later. In my cursory search today, I found the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association ranked Redeeming Love as seventh on its February 2017 fiction sales list.
Allegorically a retelling of the biblical story of Gomer and Hosea, Redeeming Love has a strong theme of grace woven through that has, according to many reviews, powerfully depicted God’s mercy for His children. I’ve got a lot of friends and acquaintances that place this near the top of their favorites list.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who decry the work for various reasons including its redundancy, poorly written prose, and a too overt message. There’s actually a great review (and resulting comments thread) found here that provides diverse and well thought out opinions on the matter. It presents various opinions on the writing and on the subjectivity of readers – both of which contribute significantly to the reception of any novel.
But Redeeming Love is not my main concern in this entry. Instead, this launches me into a discussion of one of my strongest opinions regarding fiction in general and Christian fiction in particular: Authors can be widely varied in their talent, creativity, and success at fusing moving plots with spiritual themes. I’m not referring to the wide variation between various authors (that’s certainly obvious). I’m talking about the wide variance in any one author’s entire body of work.
For me, Francine Rivers is a prime example of this. Years ago I read Redeeming Love because I was interested in the acclaim it was getting from many directions (including some of my own acquaintances). What I discovered upon reading was an overly emotional and frustrating novel that all-to-obviously tried to humanize the reality of God’s grace. I was not impacted by the novel. It did not grip me. And I have never once recommended it to another reader.
Despite my distaste for Redeeming Love, however, Francine Rivers is still an author I respect. Why is this? It’s because of a trilogy I read years before embarking upon Redeeming Love. Rivers won me over when I first read A Voice in the Wind. In some ways, this story grabbed me because of my love of history. The first century setting and its vivid descriptions immediately pulled me in.
A Voice in the Wind is a lyrical story about a Jewish girl, Hadassah, who is sold into slavery after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. While serving a Roman family who treats her well, she discovers what it means to serve, what it means to love, and what it means to cast out fear through faith. In some ways, it’s a coming of age story of a girl who has lost everything to war and struggled through the realities of feeling lost and alone. In another way, it’s about the faith required when trying to follow the teachings of Jesus in a culture that scorns his name and those who try to follow his teaching. It is about clothing strength with humility and clothing servitude with love.
This story, which is actually told through three books (though only the first two closely follow the character Hadassah), still moves me upon every re-read. I can identify with the emotions and struggles of the young slave girl and I enter into her world with verisimilitude that goes unbroken. In a lot of ways, I wonder how Redeeming Love was written by the same author as A Voice in the Wind. How can one book move me so fully while another leaves me so unfulfilled?
I’m not certain of the answer. It might rest in plot choices, changes in writing style, or even my own personal frame of reference. Somewhere in there, though, is a reason that A Voice in the Wind grips me. And, ironically, it may be the same reason it failed to grip a friend I recommended it to.
So I depart with two thoughts:
1) If you enjoy historical fiction, the kind with vivid detail, I highly recommend giving Rivers’ Mark of the Lion trilogy a try. Especially if you’re looking for a story that aims to challenge your faith. I’ve yet to find anything in the CBA market that’s quite like Hadassah’s story.
2) As you embark in the world of Christian fiction (or even fiction in general), I’d recommend giving any author more than one shot. If you disliked the first thing you read from them, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll dislike the next. And vice versa. No author should be judged based on one work, for good or for bad. Writing is, after all, a very fluid work. Writers develop and change over time. You may even find their purposes altered. I’ve disliked just as many of Rivers’ works as I’ve enjoyed. Her Bridge to Haven was another allegorical novel that fell far short for me, while The Atonement Child intrigued me with its fascinating indictment of the Christian church and how it analyzes the church’s response to and lack of support provided to unwed mothers. I’ve come to realize I can’t predict which of Rivers’ offerings I’ll like or dislike, so I strive hard not to rush to judgment for any of them.
In the end, authors work hard. Some may appeal to you and some may not. But it’s worth giving some a second or third chance. You might be surprised what you find.