Religion and Romance

I’ve been thinking about blogging on this topic for well over a year. No, seriously. I just keep getting overwhelmed by the subject and the multiple audiences and various different things that I think about it, so I don’t know where to start. But now I have a plan! It’s not a brilliant plan, but at least it will mean I say something, even if I don’t say everything and don’t say it perfectly. The plan is to make this a series of posts, coming at the subject from different angles, rather than trying to form one coherent thesis.

Teach Me Tonight blogged about Romance and Religion several years ago. The post mentions a number of ways in which romance novels relate to religion:

1. to advance a religious agenda
2. to give deeper meaning or significance to romance
3. to offer an imagined or recovered religion

Go and read the post. It explains what these mean much better than I could. The novels that come under (1) more or less correspond to the inspirational subgenre of romance. I think (3) is possibly most common in paranormal/fantasy, although they also give interesting examples of ‘self-help theology’ found in contemporaries. (2) is very interesting, since it suggests that religious discourse can be used in almost any romance novel as a way of heightening its meaning without explicitly invoking a religious setting or religious faith for the characters.

Mostly, I’m more interested in non-inspirational romance, since that’s what I prefer to read. I’m also interested in characters who have faith (and their absence). I’m also interested in the way that romance draws on theological themes – and vice versa. So far, I have plans for posts on:

The secularisation of Romanceland (aka Why are there no Muslim sheikhs?)
Reading the Christian gospel as romance, and reading romances as gospel allegories
The limited religious world of ‘inspirational’ romance
The revirgination of Israel and the virgin heroine

If you have ideas for other related blog posts, I’d love to hear them. There was a call for papers on the subject from JPRS a while back, and I’ve been looking forward to seeing the results of that at some point.

The other reason I’ve procrastinated for so long about these posts is because I am painfully aware of my limitations. So this post is mostly by way of a disclaimer.

I do read (and write) romance. But I am pretty picky about what I read. Specifically, I read a fair bit of category romance, some historical romance, and a sprinkling of single-title contemporaries. I don’t read any paranormal, SFF, UF, YA, NA, romantic suspense or any other subgenre you can think of. I can’t speak for the whole genre and I’m not going to try. I’m not planning to do a whole lot of research, because these are blog posts, not an academic paper. I’ll just be talking about what I’ve noticed in my reading. I’m very willing to be corrected and to have the discussion widened by those who know the genre more deeply and broadly than I do.

I am a Christian. My faith informs what I do, what I read and what I write. And because Christians do not all have an identical experience of faith, it may also be relevant that I am British, that I’m an Anglican, that I’m reformed and conservative. I work for a church part-time, and I’ve spent the past 11 years in theological education at various seminaries (yes, I’m a slow learner). I am not an expert in religious studies and although I know something about some other faiths than my own, that knowledge is patchy, limited and theoretical. I can’t speak about all faiths with equal knowledge and insight, and again, I’m very willing to be corrected and to have the discussion widened by people with expertise beyond mine.

In the meantime, here’s AAR’s list of romances featuring characters of faith in case you want to get ahead with the reading. If you have any other suggestions of romances I should be reading while I think about these issues, I’d love to hear them.


  • Jo Beverley’s Dark Champion also has a religious heroine. When I first read it, I thought she was kind of ridiculous; but when I reread it years later I was much more sympathetic.

  • Pingback: The secularization of Romanceland » Ros Clarke: romance novelist

  • Thought of another really good one. The Marriage Bed by Claudia Dain.

  • I’m very interested to read about this. I find I have very little control over which of my characters have faith and what kind of faith they have – this time round I got one character who doesn’t believe in a god but still yells at one in times of crisis and one who bases his morals on a patched-up mixture of several different honour codes, whereas last time I got one who was put off even thinking about religion by family dynamics and one with a faith he’d rebuilt after realising he was doing some morally very dodgy things in the name of God. They just turn up that way, much as they turn up with different habits of speech. And I don’t think any of them believe exactly what I do – if they did, I’d probably start getting worried.

  • So when I read this post, I had this whole “finally, someone like me on the internet!” moment.

    Can we be internet best friends and have a romance book club for people of faith?

    I am a pastor’s wife besides being an evangelical reformed Christian, so I feel like I have a double interest in how faith is portrayed–or not–in non-inspirationals. There are at least three or four novels with preacher/vicar heroes that have come out since that list was updated, and in every case–perhaps because I am married to the best man ever who is a preacher–it felt like the authors, though well intentioned, didn’t actually give a shit about the claims of Christianity. And I understand that for some, preaching is an occupation not a calling, and I live in a very tiny portion of the population, etc., etc… but I had so much trouble accepting the preacher-heroes because they didn’t wrestle with any of the same issues I had seen in my own journey (sorry that’s cheesy) with my husband. Fornication being the obvious one, but lots of others. I would have been fine with a social worker and the exact same plot.

    I just deleted a whole whiny paragraph.

    I am trying to do the whole “write the novel you want to read” thing, so I am in fact, albeit very slowly, trying to write a romance novel with people of faith–Christianity as I’ve experienced it with deep complications and calls on all parts of life. And one that isn’t terrible.

    As far as my reading goes, though, lately I’ve just been giving up on portrayals of Christians (especially preachers), and instead just being happy with the truths have come out with any story arc. Really embracing the creation-fall-redemption-restoration(-and maybe glory?) story archetypes and also –my husband works with college kids so we are always thinking about healthy relationships, whether they lead to marriage or not–just the truths of working relationships (with or without “Jesus at the center”). Ruthie Knox has made me think more fruitfully about marriage than my pastor (not my husband)’s series on marriage.

    I’m not sure how much sense this made. But I hope it’s at least interesting. I have a sociology degree (and an english undergrad)–i focused on religion and race with sociology, and so religion and romance (and race) work together for me–sadly I can’t always just read them and let them go, sometimes i have to stop and think about them. But as a mom at home (for now and probably a while) with three young kids (#4 coming in 22 weeks) romance novels, especially the thoughtful ones are such a …blessing. And being able to watch authors at work on twitter as they think through things/talk about what’s important to them/talk about baking is also pretty awesome.

    • LOL! I remember having the same moment a couple of years ago with Kate Hewitt. I don’t think there are all that many of us, so we should definitely be friends! I think she is brilliant at writing romances which exemplify Christian themes, especially forgiveness, grace and redemption. I totally agree with you about the value of romance novels in helping us think about marriage, love, sex and more. See my latest post on Laura Florand!

      The nearest I’ve got to attempting a romance featuring characters of faith is an aborted attempt at a historical novel. Maybe one day when I have more time and enthusiasm for research I’ll resurrect it. But I’m thrilled that you’re writing one. I would love to see romanceland become just a little bit less secular.