She gripped my hand in the doorway of the church, following the Good Friday service, “I’ve never really liked Jews.”
I had just finished decrying present-day harassment of Jews in the Ukraine and noted that we are kidding ourselves if we thought we would treat Jesus better now than he was treated then. We prayed. We grieved. I again felt the chasm between the religion of my heart (Christianity) and the religion of my blood and my ancestors (Judaism). Always the tension between betrayal and the realities for anyone of Jewish ancestry or culture, here I was, being told by a parishioner I love deeply something that amounted to, “I’ve never cared for an entire race of people [to which you belong through your mother and her parents and your grandparents].”
Gripping her hand in that doorway, I looked her in the eye and said, “Do you know any Jews?”
“No,” she admitted.
“Well, now you do.”
This story comes to mind as I watch the turmoil around Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time (Bethany House, 2014). Nominated for a 2015 RITA, For Such a Time tells the story of a blonde, blue-eyed Jewish woman who is rescued from a firing squad by a Nazi commandant and becomes his secretary. She hatches a plot to save people from the trains to Auschwitz and her uncle, Morty, foils a plan that would have killed the commandant. The commandant pressures her to kisses and into an engagement. And, in the way of magical realism, a Bible continues to appear unexpectedly and she learns to find some consolation in the New Testament, instead of in the Hebrew Scriptures of her childhood. All ends as most romances do with a happily ever after with our lovely Jewess marrying the Nazi commandant, who helped Jews escape the camp in question. Presumably, they raise lovely blonde Christian children.
I think I need to wash my hands after typing that. The to-do over this book is that many, many people- Jews and non-Jews- believe that romance between a Jewish prisoner and a Nazi commander violates any spirit of consent. In the portions of the book when Stella/Hadassah wrestles with her feelings about Aric, I was reminded of the guilt rape survivors sometimes feel when their bodies responded to the act of violation in a different way than their heads and spirits were. No matter how humane the Nazi in question was made to seem- he had the power to kill her or those she loved at any time.
This retelling of Esther misses a critical piece of the story. We never hear that Ahasuerus and Esther had a great love story because she was property, a girl more beautiful than the others who were culled from the countryside to see who would please the king. She made the best of a bad situation and, in so doing, saved her people.
For Such a Time is not the same thing. It is what I will call “supercessionism porn”, wherein the ultimate happily-ever-after for a Jew would certainly be to become a Christian. Breslin and her publisher, Bethany House, have received criticism for the book on the grounds that it violates consent at best and allows for a kind of truth of the Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism at worst. These criticisms have generated their own backlash to the backlash, with such authors as Anne Rice arguing that speaking against For Such a Time is a kind of censorship.
If one must write a romance about the Holocaust, one could write about the impossibility of one occurring between Jews in a ghetto, in a camp, or in the Russian front. One could write about two German non-Jews, who fall in love as members of the Resistance. One could write about a French, British, or American soldier or nurse rescuing non-Jews from a concentration camp (they were there) and falling in love through the healing process. Some of those stories could adequately include an aspect of Christian faith that would satisfy the audience of an inspirational novel. Any of the scenarios and a number of others allow for an equality in the relationship that would never, never be the reality between a Jewish woman and a Nazi camp commandant.
What it means to live as a Jew in modern America is to have complex feelings about history, about G-d, about Israel, and about one’s own practice. It also means, at a certain level, a wariness. No country has ever allowed us to stay, unharmed, permanently. We cannot take anything for granted. You never know when someone will say to you, “I’ve never liked Jews”. And you can’t always be sure what will follow that statement.
Arguing that anyone can write anything about anyone at any time, or else it is censorship, is the publishing equivalent of #AllLivesMatter.
Would a book about a Yazidi woman “falling in love” with her ISIS rapist be nominated for romance awards?
Would we hope for a movie based on a relationship between a police officer employed by Bull Connor and a young black woman?
Would ratings soar for a novel about a Cherokee teenager being “wooed” by the soldier escorting her family along the Trail of Tears?
Some stories belong to the people who lived them, the people who still grieve them, the people in whose bones they rest. Leave the Holocaust and its survivors alone. They’re not there as easy emotional background for your novel. If you aren’t sure, ask a Jew.
If you didn’t know any, now you do.
17 thoughts on “The Pastoral is Political: Not Your Story to Tell”
Wow! This is powerful! Thank you, Julia.
Well, there’s another reason not to read “Christian fiction.” (I’m a librarian. We provide the books but that doesn’t mean we agree with the contents. “For Such a Time” could provoke discussion about why the premise is impossible and wrong, but too likely those who like the story aren’t going to engage in conversation with those who disapprove of it.) I note that the original (Jew/Nazi) and the imagined examples (Yazidi/ISIS; black/white; Cherokee/soldier) are all “persecuted woman + oppressor man” — a whole ‘nother set of power issues.
Not all Christian fiction involves conversion stories. I have read some nice stories. However, I’ve also read some books that really weren’t for me in terms of theology or the “savior complex” of one of the protagonists. Likely any genre, there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think there are people who dislike this book precisely because of the power imbalance, because the religious aspect doesn’t resonate for them as it does for others. Being a librarian is 1) very admirable to me and 2) something that raises such questions about how to engage with material one dislikes. Thank you for commenting.
Thank you for taking the time to write out both your story and the real concerns about the message in this book. I gave up reading “Christian” fiction many, many years ago because of the way the authors tended to wrap up their stories in an unrealistic glow of perfection and salvation. The plot of this story nearly makes me ill.
This is an excellent piece, Julia. Thank you for it!
Also, I hope someday you will write a book – fiction or non-fiction, I will read it. Your writing is never anything short of outstanding.
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Deuteronomy 23:28-29: “Suppose a man is caught raping a young woman who is not engaged. He is to pay her father the bride price of fifty pieces of silver, and she is to become his wife, because he forced her to have intercourse with him. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”
*Sigh*. I always feel sorry for the girl in that particular situation – but you see why people can write books like the above (which, incidentally, I have not read).
Gosh. mrs r. That’s like blaming all Christians for the Crusades. People can write all kinds of books, but I don’t want to excuse them based on an ancient text.
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I’m not sure of the connection you are trying to make here. In the book, there is no one to whom reparations could be made. I’m not certain that this verse was an impetus for the author In what she thought was a meaningful story. Additionally, Talmudic sources would argue that this law is for the purposes of respecting the woman. Therefor a story that does not allow for consent because of power dynamics violates the fundamentals of the Deuteronomic law.
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Mrs. R, I’m not sure what you are saying…? It sounds almost like you mean that Jews deserve to be converted because of scripture passages like that one, and this novel is just a clumsy example of encouraging Christians to engage in that behavior.
I certainly hope you are not saying that the scriptures of Jesus (and of us, and of our Jewish sisters and brothers) somehow justify this kind of writing and the behavior it encourages.
Can you say more?
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I started reading Christian romance in the 1980s when it first came out because I liked the stories which were not always wrapped up in the sexual act. By the 1990s, I had abandoned the genre, along with much of the romance genre, for other interests. But I particularly quit reading Christian romance because there was an undercurrent of the woman always being subservient to the man. There is not enough space in this response block to begin to list how out of line Bethany House is in accepting the manuscript for publication. The Holocaust is not something to be glamorized. In my younger years, I saw survivors with the numbers from the concentration camp tattooed on their arms. I saw the pain in their eyes. This is a sick and twisted plot that should not have seen the light of day. The August issue of Vanity Fair chronicles the rising anti-Semitism in France, a country that prides itself on being religion neutral. Julia has made outstanding points on all counts. Excellent job, Julia!
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This comment knows whereof she speaks! Thanks, Mom! ❤ ❤
What is additionally painful about Bethany House publishing the book is that many eyes- including editors, publishers, copy editors, layout people, and other authors- saw this book before the publication. Did anyone speak up? Was anyone willing to be an Esther against publishing this?
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Julia, your writing is powerful and forthright. Mrsredboots, your comment is confounding. Are you suggesting there’s Biblical support for rape? surwly not….
This is such a powerful piece. Your words are prophetic. Thank you.
Julia, as always, I am grateful for your wisdom.
Just thank you.