Just Because You CAN….

…doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

Yes, this is about That Book.

Let’s go ahead and Voldemort it now that it’s hit mainstream media:

For Such a Time by Kate Breslin, published in April 2014 by Bethany House.

Last week, a bunch of us on Twitter decided to actually read the damn book. We all read it for different reasons — as romance readers and romance authors, as Protestants and Catholics and Jews and Hindus, as educated people who like to think of ourselves as enlightened, open-minded human beings.

We are still in the midst of an epic discussion via Google doc¹, and I am learning so much. I am obsessing over this book, because the unpacking is endless.

ETA:  The great posts by our discussion group

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This post is my introductory brain dump on why I read it. Stayed tuned, and hang in there with me. This will require a lot of wine and chocolate.

ETA: My follow-up posts:

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I read this book because…

I am an inspie reader.

I’m a (former) participant in the Bethany House blogger review program (I am soooo getting kicked out for this), and a (former) fan of the imprint and most of their authors. I’ve read dozens of Bethany House books, rated many 4 or 5 stars on Goodreads, and full-on squeed over a few.

I feel like I should apologize to everyone for this.

I am very disturbed that book people I felt a spiritual affinity with could possibly think the premise of this story was acceptable.

I am Christian², raised Liberal Lutheran in whiter-than-white northern Iowa. Our synod name has the word “evangelical,” but Stoic Swedish Lutherans are really not comfortable with anything overt; we much prefer the passive-aggressive approach. When a visitor to a worship service clapped after a choir performance, we were scandalized. “Evangelizing” was something the Baptists and Pentecostals did.

I haven’t gone to church regularly in years because of the schism over gay marriage and clergy (and, to a lesser degree, my discomfort with the reactions of other members to my status as a divorced single parent, I don’t need your self-righteous pity, thank you very much), so I turned to books to help heal my growing crisis of faith.

The first inspirational romance I read was 2010’s The Silent Governess by Julie Klassen, which, of course, kicked off a serious inspie glom that has continued for five years. My favorite inspie authors were published by Bethany House – Klassen, Deeanne Gist, Jody Hedlund, Siri Mitchell, Elizabeth Camden. I’ve read dozens, and I have dozens more in the TBR. The faith messages were rarely preachy, the romances were believable and the historical settings were everything I craved.

I read other inspie publishers like Howard Books, Tyndale House, Zondervan, Multnomah, David. C. Cook, Cedar Fort and the Harlequin Love Inspired line. When done right, some of these books gave me that sense of peace that I longed for, that I previously only found in music worship.

I’ll read nearly anything (I work for Riptide, remember), but even I have my limits, especially when it comes to inspies.

  • I can’t read Amish romance (struggling with a really cute one now) because I feel like I’m violating their hard-won privacy and contributing to non-Amish people exploiting their “otherness.”
  • I hate conversion stories because I really shouldn’t have to state why these are appalling. “White Savior” missionary stories are an absolute no-go, I made that mistake once and never again.
  • I hate Magical Bible Verses because my Bible doesn’t work that way, and /yay/ for making the Bible even less approachable and accessible, you idiots.
  • I especially hate the “You’re Not Worthy Of My Love Until You’re As Godly As Me” trope, which usually goes hand-in-hand with a “License to Judge.” See example here.
  • I’m not drawn to Biblical allegories and retellings because it always seems like a lazy way for an author to get out of actually plotting anything, and because the foregone conclusion drains all the tension.

I remember seeing For Such a Time in the Bethany House blogger review email, and I recall glancing at the blurb and thinking “oh, geez, not another one” (in reference to this one: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18491967-simple-faith). I don’t remember if I chose another book that month.

But now I keep thinking that blurb should have been a BIG RED FLAG.

I should have requested it and read it and reviewed it before it won all the awards and the controversy erupted. I couldn’t have prevented it from being published, but maybe I could have raised enough eyebrows to bring it a larger audience sooner.

I think I was also intimidated because I didn’t know enough about Judaism and the story of Esther to make my opinions worthwhile. The synagogue in my hometown was (and still is) the only Jewish congregation within hundreds of miles. Before this book, my familiarity with the story of Esther came primarily from an episode of VeggieTales.

Despite my white-bread upbringing, my parents and my church tried to make sure we weren’t spiritually isolated; I feel I have a very basic understanding of Judaism as a world religion and a cultural heritage.

  • We read and watched and discussed The Hiding Place in church confirmation class.
  • My favorite book from high school English class was My Name is Asher Lev.
  • I worked as a nanny for a Jewish family for a summer in college.
  • I skipped classes and drove 16 hours to see Anne Frank’s diary when it was on a traveling exhibit.
  • I went to the Holocaust Museum on my honeymoon (I was wrecked. Still remember everything).
  • I have non-fiction titles like The Everything Judaism Book and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jewish History & Culture and A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People (a gorgeous book) on my home bookshelf.
  • We celebrated “Chrismukkah” with our mixed-faith neighbors.
  • My son and I are reading MAUS together.
  • I sometimes say “Oy vey” (a leftover from the nanny summer, along with calling pop “soda” and standing “on line” instead of “in line”) and then I feel guilty about it because I should say “uff da” instead.

Does a pat-myself-on-the-back bullet list of superficial touchpoints qualify me as an ally?

I have no idea. I only hope it demonstrates my willingness to read, listen, ask questions and learn — and to teach my kids to do the same.

I decided to put my own self-righteousness to the test. In a few ways, I feel vindicated that my first assumptions of “OH GOD NO” (in a very non-blasphemous sense) were justified, and others with similar backgrounds were similarly offended. NOT ALL CHRISTIANS *sob*. And in more ways, I feel unworthy. And nauseous.

And…here I go again, making it All About Me. Feel free to smack me around. ³

Here is my high-level take on the general premise of For Such a Time by Kate Breslin:

On the surface, it’s easy to see why the author chose this particular setting for an allegory — the parallels between the Esther story and the Holocaust are downright eerie. And every Christian likes to think “I would have stood up for my Jewish friends. I would have hidden them all in my basement and thrown myself in front of Gestapo bullets to save them.” We all want to be the heroes. We all want there to BE heroes. Americans are so obviously the heroes of WWII. Without us, Hitler would have won, right?

As Alexis Hall commented on a blog post about the RITA nomination:

It’s almost the centrepiece of western culture’s narrative of the twentieth century and every nation that was involved in the Second World War sort of feels a degree of ownership over it. There’s a very strong history of portrayals of the Holocaust that strip it down to Good Gentiles versus Bad Gentiles, and which treat Jewish people as sort of tokens by which everyone else can prove their virtue or villainy. This is really deeply embedded in western culture. And can, I think, genuinely be seen as a subtle and pernicious form of anti-Semitism.

I don’t feel comfortable labeling Kate Breslin the author as an anti-Semite. I truly think her intentions were good, and she clearly made an attempt to treat the subject with what she felt was heartfelt respect.

But I can, without qualm, say that For Such a Time the novel is an unquestionable example of “subtle and pernicious” anti-Semitism.

I don’t care that there was no on-page conversion or that most of the Bible verses were from the Old Testament. There is NO EXCUSE for appropriating and exploiting a concentration camp to promote a “Christian worldview.”

None. ZERO.

Yes, the horrors are mentioned explicitly and prominently in the novel. But the scenes came across as deliberately paced and placed for shock value, instead of an integral part of the story. And most of the horrors are fleeting and momentary; the heroine shrugs off her icky worries about Her People when she’s distracted by another glimpse of uniformed broad shoulders. It’s all seen through the gloss of a fictional romance and buckets of glamorized intrigue and action.

This book has “smug superiority” oozing out of every page.

In the Esther episode of VeggieTales, the moral of the story for the kiddies is “You never have to be afraid to do what’s right.” I don’t think the author and her book team have seen the Veggie version —because from a “Christian worldview,” no matter how much we want to rewrite history, we didn’t do what was right. We didn’t do anything.

This morning, Ros Clarke blogged about her attempt to read it, and why she DNF’d it early on. As she emphasizes, we need stories about the Holocaust. We need fiction about the Final Solution because it’s the only way we can feel it and grasp the full meaning on a personal level as we despair and hope with fictional characters.

But a “Christian worldview” of the Holocaust is NOT OUR STORY TO TELL, and it never will be.

The Holocaust is our EVER-LASTING SHAME of APATHY and SELFISHNESS and COWARDICE. Our story is the UTTER FAILURE to do what was right.

And you know what, Kate Breslin and Bethany House? That right there is THE OPPOSITE OF THE STORY OF ESTHER.

I AM USING A LOT OF ALL CAPS BECAUSE WHY IS THIS SO DIFFICULT FOR THE APPROVERS OF THE BOOK TO SEE? That last bit deserved the extra bold and italics.

And you know what else, Bethany House? This book violates your own guidelines for a “successful” Bethany House publication:

Successful BHP novels include the following elements:
…an intriguing, well-written story with well-developed characters, a compelling plot, colorful description, and a strong authorial voice
…a coherent, identifiable theme and/or particular characters who reflect Christian values or teachings without being preachy
…historical/geographical/social accuracy
…relationships that portray the true meaning of love—commitment and responsibility rather than merely emotional and physical attraction
…clever, original ideas and use of words

It fails on all those points.

Other bloggers, reviewers and authors have discussed it brilliantly, and communicated everything I want to say much more succinctly and impactfully. I worry that my reactions will come across as #notallchristians. I am not worthy as a reader or as a writer or as a believer.

But I am glad I read it, because I am learning so much. Our epic discussion has lead me to research anything I can get my hands on about Theresienstadt and the Book of Esther. Every time I glance at the book and our discussion and my growing list of bookmarks, I have more and more and more questions.

And in a (disturbing) way, reading this book has made me a better Christian. I’m back to studying my Bible closely, which I haven’t done in a very long time, and I’m internalizing how we go to such lengths to adapt God’s word to fit our history, our modern life, and the way we want the world to be.

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¹ It’s an open Gdoc, but I don’t feel comfortable posting the link because a lot of the commentary is intensely personal stream-of-consciousness, and it’s extremely snarky, and I don’t want to risk violating anyone’s privacy. If you’d like to view it, please DM me on Twitter (@kelly_instalove).

² I found myself waffling over “I am Christian” vs. “I am a Christian.” Not sure what to do with that.

³ Seriously. Call me out and smack me around about any of this. I am here to learn.

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17 thoughts on “Just Because You CAN….

  1. I don’t know what to say other than thank you and also that from what you said, the Veggie Tales take on it seems to have gotten it right, which I suppose is a relief.

    • Kelly says:

      It floors me how an uber-Christian child-centered organization like the VeggieTales producers can get it right, and a publishing house full of academics and theologians is so f’ing clueless.

      • Hate to be a D’vorah Downer on this, but as a Jew and a parent, I have to say, I was actually pretty squicked out by the VeggieTales version of Esther. The original Book of Esther isn’t unproblematic, but it’s ribald and raucous and anything but pious; God is never mentioned, for example, in the Hebrew text, and Esther doesn’t pray. Turning Esther’s story into a tidy moral lesson with lots of ethnic stereotypes? Not really kosher in my book.

        Really looking forward to this whole discussion, and very interested in your take on the novel!

      • Kelly says:

        Thank you for calling me out on this. I need to watch it again – we always get distracted by quoting the one-liners at each other. Have you seen any of the other episodes? Also “D’Vorah Downer” made me snort Diet Coke out my nose.

      • cracking up at “Dvorah Downer” lol! Well played. And I’ve never actually seen VT beyond the “Pepino bailarin” video, so I have no idea. I like vegetables but I prefer to celebrate them Jewishly 😉

      • The only other VeggieTales bit I know is the song that goes “I am a C-H, / I am a C-H, / I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N / And I am H-A-P-P-Y all of the T-I-M-E time / Because I’ll L-I-V-E E-T-E-R-N-A-L-L-Y.” I think that was it, anyway. Not sure if it was in the same episode, though, or some other one. I bust that song out in class sometimes, when discussion turns to various more adult / nuanced versions of Christian spirituality, and a few students always smile in recognition & surprise.

  2. Darlynne says:

    I had no idea any of this was going on and am grateful for your thoughtful post, Kelly. Thank you. I will be paying closer attention as this unravels further.

  3. I could so relate to what you said about this making you study the Bible more closely. That happened to me, too. I couldn’t remember Esther being particularly romantic and when I went back and read it, the focus is really more about Esther’s steadfast courage and less about a love story. All of which makes this feel even stranger. Like you, I can see why one would consider setting an Esther allegory during the Holocaust, but definitely not as a romance.

    As I said on Twitter, I own the book because I got it as a gift (because nothing says ‘Happy Birthday’ quite like…that?) The reaction to this book has made me feel torn between reading it for the reasons you and others are, and just not wanting to even look at it.

  4. What a great post. I’ve only heard about the controversy in the past couple of days – somehow it skipped right by me before.
    I am a Christian and hearing about this book, the subject matter, the faith theme, the romance all bothered me a great deal but I couldn’t figure out exactly how to put it until I read this line in your post “But a “Christian worldview” of the Holocaust is NOT OUR STORY TO TELL, and it never will be.

    The Holocaust is our EVER-LASTING SHAME of APATHY and SELFISHNESS and COWARDICE. Our story is the UTTER FAILURE to do what was right.”

    THAT’S the reason the thought of this book bothers me so much. It is NOT our story and in no way, shape or form should any writer use this horrific world event to their advantage. The world stood by and did nothing while a genocide against the Jewish people went on and the nerve to then turn around and use it as background for a romance is abhorrent to me.

  5. Crow Girl says:

    Late to this party, sorry for the necropost. What’s really sad about this whole controversy is that, if the author had checked her privilege just a bit, there’s a whole realm of terrific WWII stories that COULD have been told…and have been, of course. A professor at a local university published his parents’ memoir of escaping the ghetto, joining the Jewish Resistance in Poland, falling in love, and finally emigrating to the U.S., an incredible story of survival (I was working at a bookstore back then and got to meet them all at a signing). A friend of mine, whose father was an American-Jewish military doctor present at the liberation of Dachau, published her parents’ wartime letters–her book is less a love story than a home-front family story, but it wouldn’t take much work to create a heartwarming (or even heart-wrenching) romance from a similar scenario. What about the Jews of Denmark? Now that’s an inspirational epic, all the better for being historically true. There’s a long and ugly history of antisemitism in Russia, but I could see a romance between a Soviet officer and a Jewish character, whether Partisan or otherwise, working if handled with even a morsel of sensitivity, to say nothing of the other Allied forces and the various occupied nations. Anything, anything at all, except what Bethany House actually produced.

    BTW, if anyone’s interested, the titles of the nonfiction books I mentioned are “Jack and Rochelle” by Lawrence Sutin and “Dear Poppa” by Ruth Berman.

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