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Christian Publisher Bethany House Defends ‘At Love’s Command’ From Outraged Critics

Plot twist: a Christian historical romance novel shows brutal reality, and secular readers respond by calling for its censorship.
on Aug 6, 2021 · 17 comments

It’s not often critics accuse a Christian historical romance novel of “racism” and “glamorizing genocide.” Yet a vocal contingent of romance fans leveled these charges while demanding the Romance Writers of America (RWA) rescind its 2021 Vivian Award to Christian historical fiction novelist Karen Witemeyer for her novel At Love’s Command.

RWA voters awarded At Love’s Command in the category of “Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements.” Days later, the association stripped Witemeyer’s book of its award.

Why are critics hating At Love’s Command?

The controversy concerned the male lead, a cavalryman who participated in the Wounded Knee massacre of Native American women and children, and his later search for redemption. At Love’s Command portrays the protagonist as anguished about his actions and seeking atonement.

Back in the real world, the mob offers no such forgiveness.

Readers largely criticized the book for portraying a “hero participating in genocide of indigenous people.” They called this repugnant. Some saw the book’s publication as evidence of “deeply embedded… white supremacy.” One reader felt prompted to continue her “boycott against all white authors,” while many others pledged to cancel membership with the RWA.

One critic quipped, “Next up: Romancing Auschwitz.”

Another said, “Real Christians do not excuse, promote, or approve of racism and genocide.”

In fact, the very idea of atonement for such egregious sins torqued the Twitterati.

“Characters who participate in genocide cannot be redeemed,” another critic said. That’s a direct quote.1

Move over, evangelicals: secularists want to ‘cancel’ gritty novels

In retrospect, we could have predicted such a backlash.

In January 2021, I wrote “Militant Secularism Could Force Christians to Create New Subcultures,” about the rampant spread of political correctness, censorship, and progressive ideologies in publishing and the arts.

Social-media mobs now routinely de-platform authors, artists, and celebrities for failing to pass politically correct litmus tests regarding race, politics, or LGBTQ issues.

In today’s politically charged climate, social justice warriors regularly mob authors, forcing their publishers to drop them. So a story written by a white woman about a white man’s participation in the massacre of Native Americans was destined for the beatdown.

Bethany House rides to the rescue

At this time, however, we’ve seen a less-predictable response from the At Love’s Command’s publisher, Bethany House.

Shortly after the RWA rescinded its award for Witemeyer’s novel, Bethany House addressed the controversy. Religion News Service shared the publisher’s response, “saying it supports Witemeyer and has heard from many readers who have been moved by the book’s portrayal of redemption and hope.” RNS excerpted Bethany House’s statement:

In the opening scene of the novel, Witemeyer’s hero, a military officer, is at war with the Lakota, weary of war, but fully participating in the battle at Wounded Knee. The death toll, including noncombatant Lakota women and children, sickens him, and he identifies it as the massacre it is and begs God for forgiveness for what he’s done. The author makes it clear throughout the book that the protagonist deeply regrets his actions and spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the wrong that he did.2

RNS added:

The Wounded Knee massacre was one of “the darkest moments of our nation’s history” and a “deplorable” act of violence, according to Bethany House. Both the publisher and author intended to “recount this history for the tragedy it was,” the publisher said.3

It’s incredibly refreshing to see a publisher stand up and defend its author against the mob.

Bethany House is also absolutely correct about how storytellers portray historical fiction, with the genre’s parameters and liberties.

Neither they nor At Love’s Command’s author downplay the atrocities of Wounded Knee. In fact, the author “makes it clear throughout the book that the protagonist deeply regrets his actions and spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the wrong that he did.”

Christian stories must expose darkness to show gospel light

Secular moralistic mobs offer no redemption, either to the novel’s fictional character nor to the author and her publisher. Biblical history reveals another story. God is merciful and forgiving. No one is beyond his reach. And the last time I checked, good fiction explores these kinds of emotional and theological complexities.

For example, since 1973, abortionists have killed over 62 million infant children. That’s a clear-cut genocide! So can such people find redemption? Can God’s mercy and grace change the heart of a doctor who performs abortions? Now, just extend the question. Can a Vietnam veteran who killed innocent women and children find redemption? Can a KKK member find redemption? Could an Israelite soldier who helped slaughter Amalekites find redemption? Can a murderer, serial killer, rapist, or gangland mob boss find redemption?

Good storytelling explores these questions and fleshes them out.

In fact, history offers many atrocities to explore—wicked deeds done by wicked people. No race, tribe, gender, age group, or culture is exempt from sin. Human depravity is not unique to white Europeans. Yes, it’s wrong to celebrate crimes against humanity. That’s not the same as wrestling with the complexities of human emotion, guilt, and the struggle for redemption.

Sadly, in this case, moral mobs prefer identity box-checking, name-calling, and piling on an author who dared tackle a complex historical scenario, over anything close to novel nuance.

Thank you, Bethany House Publishers, for defending your author against the mob.

If only speculative fiction publishers would do the same!

  1. You can learn more lurid details about this controversy at the Twitter hashtag #RWAVivian2021.
  2. Romance Writers of America rescinds award for Christian novel as publisher defends it,” Emily McFarlan Miller, Religion News Service, Aug. 4, 2021.
  3. Ibid.
Mike Duran is a novelist, artist, and freelance writer. Mike writes fiction and non-fiction. He is the author of The Ghost Box (Blue Crescent Press, 2014), which was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the best indie novels of 2015 and first in a paranoir series that continues with Saint Death (2016), and The Third Golem (2020). He's the author of Christians and Conspiracy Theories (2023) and Christian Horror (2015) His short stories, essays, and commentary have appeared in Relief Journal, Cemetery Gates Media, The Gospel Coalition, Relevant Online, Bewildering Stories, Rue Morgue, Zombies magazine, Breakpoint, and other print and digital outlets. Mike is interested in religion, science, conspiracism, media, books and monsters. You can learn more about Mike Duran, his writing projects, cultural commentary, philosophical musings, and arcane interests, at MikeDuran.com.
  1. Kessie says:

    Interesting how there is no grace in this brave new world of ours. There’s no grace in any religion but Christianity, really. I’m glad Bethany House are sticking to their guns.

  2. Julie Dick says:

    Surprised, but delightedly so.

  3. Kerry says:

    I remember a similar pile-on of the Chris Pratt / Jennifer Lawrence movie “Passengers”. Chris’s character was seen as an unredeemable rapist / murderer simply for–out of loneliness–waking up another passenger. Completely missing the redemptive arc (grace) represented in the film. That’s when I realized these folks are more rigid than the staunchest legalist. And they lived in a world I didn’t want to live in. (And they probably didn’t want to live in either, if they bothered to think it through.)

  4. The current Woke mob reminds me of puritans. They have their own rules but the scarlet letter is in full force.
    Another comparison, McCarthyism. Speak as we rule to be right or we will destroy you. And we all know how history views McCarthyism.

  5. Robin says:

    Thanks for this article. I wrote a blog post about redemption in response to this situation, but it wasn’t nearly this eloquent.

  6. Beth K Vogt says:

    I’ve been following this story, Mike. Been difficult to wade through all the vitriol. Appreciate your well-thought out blog post.

  7. Deborah Rather says:

    Thank you for writing this, Mike. The sanctimony of the mob would be humorous if it wasn’t so vicious and misplaced. Karen’s critics can’t even see that she agrees Wounded Knee was an atrocity. That they try to punish HER for it is both misguided and bigoted, as it smacks of racism and religious discrimination. Sadly, it also speaks, shouts, of a lost world, with no understanding of true redemption or forgiveness, trying vainly to usurp God.

  8. Kelly says:

    Such an excellent post. I totally agree. While the backlash made me heartsick for Karen and a story I loved, I was deeply saddened when someone responded to my twitter post that “the hero was unredeemable.” I don’t know how people live in a world where what is moral one day is heinous the next and don’t believe they can find forgiveness. I’ve never been so grateful for the undeserved grace and mercy of the cross. In At Love’s Command, the hero eventually learns that he cannot atone for his involvement at Wounded Knee by fighting injustice, but only through Christ’s work on the cross–ironically, a lesson many of the book’s critics need to hear.

    • Lori Altebaumer says:

      Thank you Bethany House for defending Karen and her story. And thank you Mike for your defense as well. “Good storytelling explores these questions and fleshes them out.” What exactly is the purpose of storytelling if it’s not to stir in us a hope for a better tomorrow that transcends the reality of the brokenness around us? Like Kelly, I’m grateful for the undeserved grace and mercy of the cross. And I’m grateful for the brave authors who tackle unpleasant truths in order to share that message with me.

  9. “Characters who participate in genocide cannot be redeemed,” another critic said.

    That stands as one of the saddest statements I have ever read. Oh, to know the power of The Blood! To not see any weakness whatsoever in it!

    Some people tell little white lies. Some people rob liquor stores. Some say nothing when they are given too much change back. Some murder innocents.

    And Jesus died for us all. Such agony, not to be understood.

    We are sorry, Lord. We are sorry.

  10. MindySteele says:

    Thank you Bethany House for standing behind your author. This is such a moving and eye opening post. Grace and mercy are so well defined in this book. I remember my college history grade coming down to one project, in which I addressed Wounded Knee, from two POV’s. The professor rolled his eyes when I began, but the perfect A that I received at the end, showed me that even the smartest among us has much to learn. Let’s be better humans and strive to lift up the broken as Christ directed us.

  11. E.F.B. says:

    Yes, thank you, Bethany House for setting a better example than some other publishers. I feel strongly that Christian publishers need to stand apart in how they respond to controversy. Be aware of the culture, do your best to publish books you feel confident are communicating God’s Truth, and when you’ve done your utmost to make sure it’s a book you csn stand by, be willing to keep standing by the book and the author if there’s backlash. Those who hate the book won’t buy more from the author or publisher (and probably weren’t likely to buy from them in the first place) and those who discover they agree with the book and in fact like it, may become life long supporters… which is what happens even with non-controvertial books, just minus the temporary social media uproar. As Disney found out when they dropped Gina Carano, taking cancel culture’s side can hurt your wallet as much if not more than standing with the person whomis being attacked. Loud as cancel culture is, there are other people with different opinions who vote with where they spend, or rather DON’T spend their money instead of jumping on social media.

  12. What do these people think of John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace? Once a captain of a ship for transporting slaves? Somebody needs to write a novel with him in it.

  13. Jenny Chasteen says:

    Thank you for spreading the word about this! So fascinating. I’m proud of how the author and Bethany House are handling these topics!

  14. Jay DiNitto says:

    I dunno. Bethany House’s response was nice and official, but I would just ignore the criticism, or even be mocking/dismissive of it “”Romancing Auschwitz? That’s a great sequel idea!”). Marxoid hall monitors really hate it when you don’t take their moralizing seriously. Christians are too proper about this stuff; they don’t have to be mean, but they sure don’t owe these nerds an explanation.

  15. Lilliana says:

    Honestly, since Christian romance is such a big and popular genre, I’m afraid they’ve gotten too used to participating and intersecting with secular romance conventions and awards, they’ve gotten used to being accepted there and almost being compared to clean secular romance authors.
    But precisely because they are a Christian genre, they should stop worrying about liking their non-believing counterparts: they do not believe in redemption through the blood of Christ, in sexual purity (they believe that fornication is part of romance), they do not consider God in their relationships, it is really normal for them to hate those who write based on the gospel! I wouldn’t be surprised if there comes a time where christian romance writers can’t be so friendly with RWA anymore.
    Some time ago there was another problem because apparently it is horrible that during the second world war a Jewish woman becomes a believer in Jesus Christ from the heart and not just in appearance to save her life.

What say you?