a bunch of RITA awards
Reading Time: 9 minutes RITA awards collected by Barbara Samuel O'Neal, a romance novelist. (Barbara Samuel, CC-SA license.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Recently, a Christian romance novelist, Karen Witemeyer, wrote a book called At Love’s Command. On July 31st, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) awarded this book the win for ‘best romance with religious/spiritual elements.’ It’s a deeply disturbing book due to its racism toward Native Americans — and its casual revisionist treatment of real-world events like the slaughter of Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee. Karen Witemeyer and her professional organization don’t understand all the fuss here at all! Today, I’ll show you that fuss — and then why these Christians are just soooooo mystified.

a bunch of RITA awards
RITA awards collected by Barbara Samuel O’Neal, a romance novelist. (Barbara Samuel, CC-SA license.)

(As always: all quoted material in my work comes from original +sources, as do all emphases unless stated otherwise.)

Karen Witemeyer and Her Favored Genre.

Karen Witemeyer has written oodles of historical romances. All of the ones I’ve seen so far involved Wild West/Texan/country themes. Every one of them also seems to fit easily within the overall sub-genre of Christian historical romance, as well.

If you’ve never heard of this cringey category, count yourself lucky. I’ll let Lisa Jordan, another writer within this genre, explain what it even is:

Writers of quality Christian fiction do weave in a thread of faith, but we try not to preach to our readers. Instead we strive to show our characters’ faith in Jesus through their actions–you know, show not tell. We show our characters’ longings from emotional tenderness than physical desire. There is a time and a place for those steamy scenes. In Christian romance, it’s usually after the couple is married and happens behind closed doors. I say usually because a character may have a past, but once she commits herself to Christ, she should be depicted as wanting to honor God with the way she lives her life.

Of course, I’m not sure any of that would have mattered to my old crowd. Back then, evangelicals and fundamentalists alike openly called all romance novels “porn for women.” Most condemned them completely and out of hand.

My ex-tribe’s disapproval seemed to derive from a deep resentment of how these stories centered women’s needs and desires. These Christians didn’t really care about the euphemism-loaded smut scenes these books sometimes contained. Even if the book tiptoed carefully around sex, even if it featured no sex scenes at all, it could be counted upon to contain male characters who cared deeply about the women in their lives and treated them with consideration and adoration. That alone was enough to earn these books my tribe’s utmost hatred.

But here we are in 2021. Christian romance novels are now a distinct sub-genre of romance fiction. Yep, a lot of things have changed since I was Pentecostal!

(Incidentally, there exists a popular sub-genre of the Christian romance sub-genre. It involves Amish-type people. Seriously. I’ve heard ’em called “bonnet-rippers.”)

At Love’s Command, by Karen Witemeyer.

This particular Karen Witemeyer romance, At Love’s Command, tells the story of Matthew Hanger, a Wild West Texan military hero with a dark past. He falls in love with a female doctor and finds redemption through Jesus Power. Blahblah, you get the idea. Religion figures prominently in the book. Witemeyer sprinkles Bible verses and Jesus Power into the book at all turns.

Luckily, Amazon offers this book to subscribers for free! So, I read the part everyone’s upset about.

Allow me to summarize:

  1. Witemeyer opens her book by telling us this Prologue takes place at Wounded Knee Creek on that fateful day in 1890.
  2. She names her hero: Captain Matthew Hanger of the 7th Cavalry.
  3. Witemeyer writes, “According to the Good Book, there was a time for war and a time for peace.” Then she describes how Matt aimed his “Remington Army revolver” at “a Lakota Sioux warrior on the other side of the ravine.” Just like Jesus! Right?
  4. It’s okay for Matt to be doing this, see, cuz he’s totally sick of war. But he’s been “Indian fighting,” it seems to him, ever since the day “a Comanche war party” murdered his whole family when he was little. He just feels so sad! What can possibly help him???
  5. Still, he “prays” that the Lakota Sioux don’t cause a ruckus when the white guys ride in, guns trained on their future victims, to confiscate their weapons.
  6. He also complains out loud that “these new Ghost Dancing rituals have the men on edge.”
  7. Yes.
  8. A “medicine man” begins to chant. It gets all the warriors riled up. “Matt clenched his jaw” over it. Gosh, the Lakota had been “docile” yesterday while getting rounded up! But now..!
  9. Indeed, a Lakota man fires first!
  10. In the ensuing war crime, Matt gets knocked out while trying to rescue an old woman and children (but after shooting a child).
  11. He awakens after everything’s over.
  12. OH NOES!
  13. Gosh, y’all!
  14. He’d totally joined the Cavalry to “protect settlers, people just like his family!” To “bring justice and order to the frontier!”

So, yeah.

This prologue represents all kinds of sickeningly-bad choices made by Karen Witemeyer.

The Award Karen Witemeyer Received.

The Romance Writers of America (RWA) was founded in 1980 by Vivian Stephens.It’s a nonprofit for people who write romance novels. Members don’t need to be published, as long as they have a full novel typed up — as long as its main plot describes a romantic relationship between two people and it ends happily — and are actively pursuing a career writing romance novels.

The group puts on charity events, offers workshops and conferences, and — most relevantly for today’s story — presents an award ceremony every year.

Every year since 1982, the RWA used to hold the RITA awards, named after Rita Clay Estrada, the first president of the group.

Recently, though, some have accused the RWA of being, shall we say, somewhat less than ideally diverse in their chosen RITA winners. So they decided to rename the awards “the Vivian,” after Vivian Stephens. Last May (2020), they decided that in 2021, they would offer the “Vivian” award instead.

Since Vivian Stephens was a Black woman, RWA’s leaders felt this change would symbolize their desire to be more inclusive in their award selection process. In addition to the renaming, judges needed to calibrate and train to new standards as well.

How Karen Witemeyer Received Her Award.

On July 31st, Karen Witemeyer won in the RWA’s religious category this year.

According to Religion News, she told the RWA in their virtual ceremony that she was “delighted and humbled” by her win. Predictably and as TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are contractually obligated to do, she gushed that she couldn’t possibly have written such a book without the help of Jesus Christ. As she put it:

I just want to say thank you to Jesus. He is the author of the greatest love story ever told, and I can do nothing without him.

I think we can pinpoint the problem right now, if she thinks Christianity’s abusive, controlling, gaslighting, extortionist god-myth represents “the greatest love story ever told.”

(Obligatory image.)

But just remember that Karen Witemeyer has declared to tons of people that a god helped to create this novel she wrote. Yeppers, y’all, nobody could possibly ever have written an award-winning romance novel like hers without this god’s singular assistance.

Things Jesus Apparently Got Wrong.

Part of the problem here involves some historical facts that Karen Witemeyer took it upon herself to settle and revise.

First of all, according to History.com, nobody really knows who fired first in that massacre. Witemeyer took it upon herself to decide that the Lakota Sioux had started it.

Secondly, it doesn’t sound like the Ghost Dance inspired violence. It did discourage Native Americans from assimilating with American expansionism, but I’ve never seen anything about it that told the Lakota Sioux: Oh, and hey, if God doesn’t magically make the white people go away and stop bugging us, then we should take up arms and help him out. I just don’t see that anywhere (but here, sorta) in any impartial descriptions of the custom.

The Ghost Dance scared white people and probably did make the Americans at Wounded Knee that day very jittery. However, there’s no reason to believe that a Lakota Sioux “medicine man” was performing it while deliberately “taunting” and “inciting” Native warriors to violence as Witemeyer describes.

Oh, and the Ghost Dance strikes me as very Christianity-influenced. Just sayin’.

Something Jesus Might Have Mentioned, As Well.

Third, Karen Witemeyer blithely inserted herself into ongoing complaints about this massacre. As this Native American news site tells us, Wounded Knee is still — rightly, I’d say — a sore point for Native Americans:

For 19th century Americans, it represented the end of Indian resistance and the conquest of the West. For Indians, it represented the utter disregard of the U.S. toward its treaty responsibilities, its duplicity, and its cruelty toward Native people. In the 20th century and beyond, Wounded Knee continues to fuel controversy and debate over the impetus and intent of the government that day, the role of the military, and the conflicting ways the tragedy is remembered today.

And here’s Karen Witemeyer cheerfully bopping past that still-ongoing complaint, picking up this horrifying massacre that epitomized America’s treatment of Native Americans.

Worse, she utilized a white-person-favoring revision of this atrocity to make her romance novel’s hero into a tortured, broken soul in need of Jesus’ healing touch and a good woman’s love. Which he received. Which fixed him.

Hooray Team Jesus!

The Romance Novelist World Erupts in Flames.

Romance novelists are surprisingly progressive, as it turns out. A great many quickly spoke up with their reaction to RWA’s Twitter announcement that At Love’s Command by Karen Witemeyer had won the first Vivian for religious/spiritual novels.

Indeed, a lot of folks flocked to Twitter to express their disapproval:

  • “How did this racist garbage get published. Starting with a massacre of indigenous people and then giving the hero a redemption arc because he quoted some Bible verses!?!” (Petra Lockhart)
  • “The author actually had him wonder afterward, “How had it turned into a bloodbath?” I was glaring at the page, thinking, “You murdered them all, that’s how.” (Katherine Harris)
  • “The depictions of the Natives during the massacre are nauseatingly racist.” (London/L. Setterby; their whole fisk of the prologue is worth the read)
  • “As a Taino, I’m not at all surprised that a book has romanticized genocide. However, I am VERY disappoined to see it won an award. After I naively believed in new beginnings and gave
    @romancewriters a second chance? They will NEVER learn.”(Mimi Milan)
  • “As long as a subgenre claiming to be romance makes heroes of genocidal bastards, they have no place amongst romantic fiction. No one who commits genocide, whether Nazi or participant in the Wounded Knee Massacre, should be called a hero” (Pamela Clare)
  • The hero calls it a massacre… But it was their own fault! He didn’t mean to! They STARTED it! He’s a PROTECTOR! He has a REDEMPTION ARC! :(” (Tammi Labrecque)
  • “As a Native American author who was raised on these Christian redemption love stories- I have some things to say. This keeps happening because it’s not a glitch in the system. It IS the system.” (Delaney Williams, Antifa Treasurer)
  • “This is gross. No.” (Heart1lly back in the writing mines)

One guy wandered in to ask if “the story here” was just that the hero was “sickeningly masculine.” Then, after various people told him about it, he quickly agreed that the situation was “a disgrace” and “completely shameful.” I liked that 180.

And Levana Taylor was kind enough to show us the possible source for the title of the book. “At love’s command” is an adapted line from a Robert Frost poem, “In Equal Sacrifice,” about the medieval Crusades. Yeah, that about fits.

Why Karen Witemeyer and RWA Thought This Would All Be Fine.

In response to the outrage they garnered on Twitter, RWA issued a statement:

Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements, as a subgenre of romance, requires a redemptive arc as a genre convention. Essentially, the character can’t be redeemed by human means; only through their spiritual/religious awakening can they find redemption for their moral failings and or crimes against humanity. According to its subgenre conventions, the book in question finaled and won for this category. [. . .]

We regret any harm experienced by the romance community. Our Vivian Task Force is now charged with assessing the overall effectiveness of the contest to include the contest process, rubric, and entry and judging guidelines.

So At Love’s Command centered around a “redemptive arc.” And it involves religious themes and imaginary friends.

End of story.

But don’t worry!

They’ll totally take all this kerfuffle into consideration when they decide on next year’s award-winners.

Why We’re Still Talking About This.

RWA’s leaders and award judges don’t care that the redemptive arc Karen Witemeyer created completely revises Lakota customs and the massacre of Wounded Knee to blame its Native American victims for starting everything and forcing those white men to murder everybody.

They don’t care, either, that the hero of their winning novel mangles Bible verses to seem more heroically sympathetic — or that their winning writer also mangles Lakota Sioux customs to make this massacre’s victims seem more alien and evil, or that the hero completely forgets his own Witemeyer-assigned active role in the massacre.

Nor do they care that all of this stuff sounds really racist for an organization that thinks it’s now “RWA 2.0” — now with 78% less systemic racism!

However, I’m not done with this topic yet.

Next time, we’ll take up where we left off by exploring why Karen Witemeyer reached for Wounded Knee apologetics to justify her hero’s “redemption arc.” She did it for a reason. And she knew her tribe would fully approve and support her reason.

NEXT UP: Why redemption stories are so important to Christians that they’re happy to look like atrocity  apologists to the whole world — and get caught lying — and all the other stuff that comes out about their “redemption arcs.”

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...