The limitations of inspirational romance

So, yay, characters of faith have an entire subgenre to themselves, usually known as “inspirational romance”.

My enthusiasm for this subgenre is as limited as the genre itself. Here’s some obvious limitations:

1. It only features Christian characters, not characters of other faiths.
There was an RWR article about inspirational romances recently, in which the author referred to ‘Christian romances’. The magazine included a disclaimer, pointing out that ‘inspirational romance’ was the standard term and could include other faiths. Except it never does. Unless I’ve missed it? I’d LOVE to know if there are non-Christian inspirational romances out there, but all the publishers I know of are specifically Christian (see e.g. Harlequin Love Inspired, Harlequin Steeple Hill, Bethany House, Desert Breeze).

2. It represents and is targeted at one specific kind of Christianity.
This is not completely true. There are, for example, Amish romances. I don’t know if Amish people read them, but I suspect that the Amish community is not the main target market. I suspect that the main target market is Bible Belt America. Because, ultimately, inspirational romance is about making money for publishers, so they are going to want books which appeal to the largest possible market. This shows itself, I think, in the strong focus on morality, and the tendency to small town settings. Here’s what the Love Inspired writing guidelines say:

Strong contemporary romances with a Christian worldview and wholesome values.
Relationships that emphasize emotional intimacy rather than sexual desire.
Mandatory faith element that is integral to story and shows rather than tells, avoiding didactic, preachy tone or doctrinal language.
Family and community are strong features of this line.
Stories can be set in small town USA or close knit communities in urban settings.
No drugs or alcohol consumption, gambling, or profanity by Christian characters.
No graphic violence or pre-marital sex within the course of the story.

These books represent a very specific image of what Christian life is like. It’s wholesome. It focusses on family and community. Christian characters do not commit specific kinds of socially-unacceptable sins. No alcohol consumption is a dead giveaway here. Most Christian denominations don’t have any formal rules or unspoken taboos against drinking. The Southern Baptists, however, are generally teetotal. So if you want them to read your books without clutching their pearls, don’t let your Christian hero relax in the evening with a beer. The Southern Baptists are the second largest denomination in the US, after the Roman Catholics.

3. Inspirational romances are often focussed on lifestyle, rather than faith
So, our hero and heroine probably go to church. They may or may not say grace before meals. That’s often the extent to which their faith is recognisably Christian, to me. For many, their Christianity mostly seems to be about doing good things for the community, for others it’s environmentalism, nursing, or just being plain nice (or a doormat. Either one is fine.)

4. When they are focussed on faith, it gets confused with the romance.
This is the conversion narrative. In order for the romantic happy ending, one of the characters has to become a Christian. I find this incredibly problematic for two reasons. First, it can be hard to distinguish true faith from the willingness to go along with it for the sake of a loved one. Authors do their best with this, but I’ve seen it fail too often in real life to find it convincing in a narrative. Maybe this is a place where an epilogue could help to show that the faith as well as the love is longlasting. But I also find it problematic from a narrative perspective. When I’m reading a romance, I expect the climax of the story to be in the romantic resolution. But for me, a romantic resolution is always going to be eclipsed by a faith conversion. It is more important to me that a person has saving faith in Christ than that they fall in love. I think it’s really hard to negotiate the two separate journeys towards faith and love in one novel while getting both in their right place.

5. Writing about the interior life of faith is hard.
I think it’s incredibly hard to do this in a way which will resonate with readers who have their own faith and still be comprehensible and plausible to readers who don’t. For me, one of the great examples of a romance character of faith is Maddy in Flowers from the Storm. But if you read reviews of the book, she is regularly castigated as prim and prissy. A lot of readers hate her and many more can’t comprehend why she acts in the way that she does. I suspect that this is partly why many writers of inspirationals stick to the external things – church attendance, for instance, is easier to describe and understand than discerning God’s call to the mission field.

I think that the inspirational subgenre is faced with an almost impossible task. It’s aiming for a particular target audience who can be easily alienated by all kinds of characters and tropes, including many characters of faith. It’s struggling with a fundamental narrative that outshadows romance, and an interior life that is incomprehensible to many readers. I’m not surprised that I’ve struggled to find inspirational romances that I enjoy.

Here’s a sampling of the ones I have read:

The Cubicle Next Door by Siri Mitchell
Cute romance, hardly any religious content. Heroine is strong environmentalist and this seems more important to her than her faith. They end up going to a Roman Catholic church because, although they aren’t Catholics and can’t take Mass, they are asked to help serve coffee after the service.

The Boss’s Bride by Brenda Minton
Small town America is not my favourite setting, but if you like it, you’ll probably enjoy this. I think it’s part of a series but I hadn’t read any of the others and it didn’t matter. In this one church is basically community involvement – they paint old ladies’ houses and organise a shopping festival. They say grace before meals but other than that, there’s almost no Christian element. At one point the hero considers inviting a friend to come to church with him, but decides against it.

Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden
I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It’s a historical in a really unusual setting with a fascinating plot. The hero is a Christian, having come to faith after being involved in some serious criminal activity. The heroine has an interesting background, with no formal religion. I believed her journey towards faith and I liked that even at the end, she’s not a cookie-cutter Christian. This does, however, suffer somewhat from the salvation-is-the-happy-ending syndrome, though it’s complicated by another redemption storyline too.

The Doctor’s Mission by Debbie Kaufman
I had high hopes for this one. It’s another historical, featuring a medical missionary and the female nurse sent to work with him. Unfortunately, the book suffers from a tendency to preachiness and I also found it hard to believe in the romance. There’s also some problematic depictions of the African characters in the book (see this great review for more details).

The Earl’s Mistaken Bride by Abby Gaines
Historical marriage of convenience category romance. Totally up my street. And there was a lot I liked about this book, but I couldn’t get past the mingling of the conversion and romance plots, so the ending left me worried and dissatisfied.

So, I think inspirational romance is not for me. On the other hand, I read a fabulous contemporary romance yesterday about a pastor which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m going to interview the author and talk about how she made religion work so well in her romance.