Other people are talking about romance and religion too!

Ruthie Knox read and recommended Noelle Adams’s Married for Christmas earlier this week and the comments have some great discussion about religion in non-inspirational romance novels.

One of the links mentioned in the comments is this list of vicars as romance novel heroes from Heroes and Heartbreakers.

Amber Belldene who is a romance author and a minister also mentioned that she is involved in a panel at next year’s RT convention discussing spirituality and sexuality.

Laura Vivanco draws some parallels between religion and romance in a blog post from a while ago.

Have you seen any other discussions of religion in relation to romance novels? Or have any other recommendations of books to read?

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.

Romance is my religion

This is the third post in my series on Religion and Romance. You don’t need to read the previous posts before this one, but if you are interested they are:
The secularization of Romanceland

Today’s post was perfectly formed in my head as I was in bed, just before falling asleep, one night last week. What you’re getting is a poor reconstruction of that in the cold light of day. Sorry.

A few weeks ago, I read Laura Florand’s latest novella, Snowkissed. I read it in the bath and by the end (actually from about a third of the way through) I was weeping. That’s not true. I was sobbing. There were moments during the book where I thought I might not be able to go on, because whenever I’d got myself back under control, I only had to look at the page again and the tears would start flowing. Reading it was a raw, painful, emotional experience. And at the end, my overwhelming feeling was, “I want to be loved like that.”

I’m nothing like the heroine in the book, Kai. I haven’t been through any of the experiences that inform her character in the book. I liked the hero well enough but he wasn’t a man that I thought I would fall in love with. What I wanted, passionately and desperately, was the experience of being loved the way that he loved Kai. Their love for each other prompted a desire in me to experience that same love for myself.

Okay, so what does that have to do with religion, huh?

Well, for the last 5 years I’ve been writing my PhD thesis on the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is the romance novel of the Bible. Except it’s not a novel, it’s a cycle of poems. (And yes, there are other romances in the Bible, too. And yes, the whole Bible is a romance. That’s another post for another time.) It’s a cycle of poems about a pair of lovers, together, apart, yearning, content, passionate, anguished, tender, delighting, fierce, satisfied, longing. And it’s in the Bible. Which is both interesting and challenging. It forces the intersection between religion and romance, for both Jews and Christians who have this book in their sacred text. It challenges readers to see what is sacred in romance – and not merely tender, sweet, clean romance. The Song of Songs is passionately erotic and unashamedly so. Sex and sexual desires are celebrated in the Song.

For me, the Song does what Florand’s novella did. It leaves me with that same passionate, desperate desire to be loved like this. To have this other person to cling to, and to be the person clung to. To delight in another and be delighted in. To find satisfaction, safety, contentment and peace – the shalom that the shulammite brings. To know the fierceness of this love that is stronger than death, that cannot be bought or sold or washed away. In reading about the passionate desire of these lovers, the book makes me passionately desire that same experience of love. It’s not a didactic book, teaching what love is in a theoretical, dispassionate way, though by showing and celebrating and reflecting on this particular experience of love, of course it does teach us what love is. But the point isn’t to learn about love, the point is to feel that love.

Because the Song does something which no romance novel can do. It fulfils the longing it evokes.

The phenomenon of the ‘book boyfriend’ tries to do this, I think, by acknowledging that the feelings a reader has for a character are real. But the character is fictional and ultimately the relationship will never satisfy.

One of the things I have tried to do in my thesis is show how the Song works differently in the context of the rest of the biblical canon(s). Taken as an isolated text, it seems as unsatisfying as any other romantic text. It shows the reader love, it creates the desire to be loved, but it can’t fulfil that longing. But in the context of the canon, something else is going on. The woman, who is given no name, is described using the language of Eden, of Canaan, of the land flowing with milk and honey, of Israel who is God’s own bride. Her loved-ness is the reversal of the fall, the redemption out of Egypt, the return from exile. Her lover is the messiah, the Christ, who adores and delights in the beauty of his bride. And though both are still longing for the final consummation of their relationship after which there will be no mourning or separation, there is already a joyful declaration of love and mutual possession as each claims the other for their own.

Which means as a reader, at least as a reader who identifies by faith with Yahweh’s Israel or Christ’s church or both, this isn’t somebody else’s love story. This isn’t a fictional presentation, or a historical retelling. This is my experience. This is how I am loved. This is how God delights in me, as part of his bride. This passion, this desire, this fierce, unyielding love that provides shalom, this yearning to be together and never parted again – that is mine.

I read Florand’s book again, sobbing again, tears of joy, this time. Not ‘I want to be loved like that,’ but ‘I am already loved like that.’ And it reminds me that for every romance novel I read, every happy ending I bear witness to, there’s no place for envy, because it is already mine.

Romance is my religion.

The secularization of Romanceland

aka: Why are there no Muslim sheikhs?

In my introductory post, I mentioned that my romance reading tends to be limited to contemporary, category and some historical romances. Within those genres, I read books set in Europe (I have a strong preference for the UK, but have also read books set in France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and made up European countries), North America (mostly the US), Australia, New Zealand, occasionally Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore and India that I can think of), and the Middle East. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in a real Middle-Eastern country; they are always made up. The nearest I can think of are some historical romances set in Egypt. For the moment, I’m going to focus on the contemporary settings and then I’ll come back to historicals.

How secular is the real world?

It’s easy to think that we live in a secular world. Well, it’s easy to think that if you live in a Western country with secular media and education. It’s easy to think that if you’re in a society that is significantly more secular than it was, say, 50 years ago. Religion is easily dismissed as a thing of the past. For many, many Westerners, this is simply true. There are a lot of people with no belief in God, with no religious affiliation, who take no part in religious activities, and who see religion as having nothing to say to their contemporary experience of life. But even in the most strongly secular countries, that is not the whole picture.

In the 2011 UK census, the religious affiliation of the population was as follows:
59.5% Christianity
4.4% Islam
1.3% Hinduism
0.7% Sikhism
0.4% Judaism
0.4% Buddhism
0.4% other religions
25.7% no religion
(7.2% did not state an answer).

More than twice as many people claimed a religious affiliation than claimed no religion. But, of course, people tick a census box for many reasons. Things like family loyalty and ethnic identity can be as important in claiming a religious affiliation as faith and practice. Wikipedia cites an interesting survey done by the Guardian:

An ICM poll for The Guardian in 2006 asked the question “Which religion do you yourself belong to?” with a response of 64% stating ‘Christian’ and 26% stating ‘None’. In the same survey, 63% claimed they are not religious with just 33% claiming they are. This suggests that almost a third of the non-religious UK population identify with Christianity out of habit.

People identify with a religion even if they are not religious. I’m not sure it’s just ‘habit’ that makes people do this, but it’s true that for many people a religious label is not much more than a label. However, even if 33% of the population are ‘religious’, rather than the 67% from the census, that’s still a sizeable part of the population claiming that religion plays some active part in their lives. That’s not the same as regular attendance at religious meetings, though. Only 18% of the UK population consider themselves practicing members of a religious organisation. Just 6% regularly attend church. People who claim non-Christian religious affiliations are much more likely to be active in their religion:

One study shows that in 2004 at least 930,000 Muslims attended a mosque at least once a week, just outnumbering the 916,000 regular church goers in the Church of England. Muslim sources claim the number of practising Muslims is underestimated as many of them pray at home.

Around a third of the UK population say they believe in God and about 20% pray daily.

Statistics aren’t everything, obviously, but those statistics suggest to me that religion is still an important, active part of the lives of a substantial minority of the UK population.

What of other countries? Here’s the percentage of the population affiliated to the dominant religion in each of these countries:
France – 63% Christian
Italy – 83.3% Christian
Spain – 78.6% Christian
Greece – 88.1% Christian
USA – 78.3% Christian
Australia – 67.3% Christian
New Zealand – 57% Christian
Hong Kong – 14.3% Christian (by far the biggest group in HK is unaffiliated at 56.1%)
Singapore – 33.9% Buddhist
India – 79.5% Hindu

With the exception of Hong Kong and Singapore, all of these countries have a dominant religious affiliation. Most of them have much stronger religious affiliations than in the UK and in some of these places, religious affiliation is also more likely to involve active religious practice than it does in the UK.

Since Romanceland sheikhs almost invariably live in their own, made-up countries, it’s impossible to gather actual statistics. But for actual Middle-East countries, here’s some numbers:

Bahrain – 70.3% Muslim
Iraq – 99% Muslim
Kuwait – 74.1% Muslim
Oman – 85.9% Muslim
Qatar – 67.7% Muslim
Saudi Arabia – 93% Muslim

The Middle East as a whole is 88.94% Muslim. In most of these countries, Islam is the dominant cultural force, influencing every aspect of life, the legal system, government, education and so on.

What to make of all the numbers and what do they have to do with romance novels?

If we were to assume that fiction merely reflects its surrounding culture, we would expect that to be true with respect to religion as much as any other aspect of culture. Since most of the romances I read are written by UK, US, Australian and NZ authors, I would expect them to reflect the religious culture of those countries most accurately, but I’d also hope that when the books are set elsewhere, they would reflect the religious culture of their setting. That is, I’d usually expect books set in southern Europe to have characters who are Catholic or Greek Orthodox, books set in India to feature Hindu or occasionally Muslim characters. For books set in the Middle East, I’d automatically assume characters were Muslim unless the book made it clear otherwise.

But books are about individuals, not societies.

Well, yes. And also, no. Yes, it’s true, every romance novel will have specific characters. And writers are free to give these characters any background they like. They can be the exception. They don’t have to conform to the majority expectation. Why not write about a French Muslim character? Or a member of the Jewish community in London? (I’d read both of those books in a heartbeat, by the way.) Why not pick the atheist living in an Islamic Arab nation? Or, as mostly seems to happen, why not write about the atheist with some Christian background that means they want a church wedding in the UK? There are plenty of those in real life, why not in romance novels? No reason at all.

What’s interesting to me is not the individual characters, but the overall effect. That’s why I’m talking about the secularization of Romanceland. If Romanceland is the accumulation of all the romance novels I’ve read, it’s a place with all sorts of odd biases and divergences from the real world. Enough billionaires to go round, for one thing. Extreme whitewashing, for another. And it has almost no religion, even in the parts of it that reflect the most religious places in our world, like the Middle East. When was the last time you read about a sheikh who attended mosque, prayed five times a day, or kept Ramadan? No, I can’t think of one either. I’ve lost count of the number of sheikh books which include a ‘Western-style wedding ceremony’ or end with babies being christened. Yes, really. No, I have no idea.

In the Teach Me Tonight post I referenced in my introduction to this series, three reasons for using religion in romance were suggested, the first of which was ‘to advance a religious agenda’. I can’t help wondering if Romanceland as a whole is unconsciously advancing a secularist agenda. Characters of faith are exceptionally rare outside of the inspirational subgenre. Much rarer, I think, than they are in real life. Religious ceremonies still sometimes mark out significant events such as births, marriage and deaths. But regular religious practice is all but non-existent in Romanceland, and faith is rarely a factor in character motivation. Religion, where it exists, is relegated to the periphery of romance. That AAR list of romances featuring characters of faith is significantly shorter than most of their other special lists* (29 historicals, 34 contemporaries, 7 alternate realities = 70 titles. Compare cross-class romances: 245 titles, addiction: 88 titles, mixed-race: 92 titles.) When I’m reading romances it often feels like I’m in a parallel world where there simply is no place for religion or faith.

The existence of a separate subgenre for inspirational romance encourages, I think, the marginalisation of religion in mainstream romance. That’s problematic to me for a number of reasons, but especially because inspirational romance really only represents one tiny sector of the religious community. It’s exclusively Christian and a very specific brand of Christianity at that. That leaves no room for characters of other faiths and other forms of Christianity in the romance genre at all. In fact, it’s very noticeable on the AAR list that there are only two Jewish and one Muslim characters – all of whom are matched with a Christian partner.

It’s interesting to note that the secularization of Romanceland extends into historical romances too. If religion is a thing of the past, then perhaps we might have expected it to feature in historical romances even if not in contemporaries. In Jane Austen’s Regency novels, the clergyman is a central figure in the community (Mr Elton in Emma, Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice; both Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park aspire to be clergymen). In Regency romances, not so much (Jackie Barbosa’s Hot Under The Collar is a great counter-example to this). Historical romances are written for modern readers and reflect modern sensibilities with respect to religion.

So, why are there no Muslim sheikhs in Romanceland?’

Truthfully, I don’t know. But I can speculate with the best of them!

My first guess is sales figures. No, really. This is a business and publishers are savvy about what sells. I bet Muslim characters don’t sell, especially in the huge North American market. You don’t need me to tell you why.

My second guess is sales figues. I know. But I think it’s probably true that religious people are more likely to buy books without religion in than vice versa. My top favourite romance featuring a character of faith is Laura Kinsale’s masterpiece, Flowers from the Storm. Reviews of that book show that a LOT of readers hated Maddy and found her priggish and prissy. Many couldn’t understand why her religion was such a strong motivating force in her life. I think that it is always going to be difficult to write characters of faith in a way that makes them accessible and sympathetic to readers who don’t have that experience, or who have negative experiences of religion.

My third guess is fear. Which is also about sales figures. Fear that if you include religion you might unwittingly offend or alienate parts of your readership, or even the wider religious community. It’s 25 years since Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses but the response to it is still vivid in my mind and although I think a romance novel is unlikely to create anything like that sort of outcry, it is still a reminder that religion is not a subject to treat lightly or cavalierly. It’s something that people feel passionately about. It’s a powerful force, even in increasingly secular societies. Religious groups still get books banned.

I admit, I don’t see the secular landscape of Romanceland changing any time soon. I’m sad about that. I’m sad because I’d like romances to give people of all faiths and none a chance to see their experiences reflected, valued, and challenged in their reading. I’d like women of all faiths and none to know that they can love and be loved. I’m also sad because I think the absence of religion diminishes the genre, by excluding such an important part of the human experience.

*I don’t want to pretend that the AAR list is anything like a rigorously-examined representative list of the genre. But since this is a blog post, not an academic paper, I’m using it as an easily available guideline to what’s out there. If you’ve got things to say that challenge its usefulness, please let me know in the comments.

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.