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.


  • You’ve most definitely identified the narrative and thematic dilemmas I’ve noted when reading inspirational romance. I find myself reading less and less of it, which is disappointing because the subgenre, were it more open and diverse, could be interesting. My recipe: a diversity of Christian characters (Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox should cover it), characters of other faiths, atheists/agnostics, delete the conversion narrative, leave the romance (even if said “faith-filled” hero/heroine achieves an HEA with a character of no faith, or one other than Christian), add nookie … and a nice shiraz.

    • LOL, I love it! Have you read the Noelle Adams book? One of the parts I most enjoyed is when the heroine lets out the f-word and, you know what, doesn’t immediately get struck down in judgment. And there is definitely nookie and a nice shiraz.

  • I haven’t read the Adams book. But everything is pointing in that direction! ;-)

  • Have you read One Perfect Rose by Mary Jo Putney?

  • Pingback: Links: Saturday, December 14th | Love in the Margins

  • 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 couldn’t understand her either: why would you give up on the testimony to simplicity in order to be with someone like Jervaux? It was explained by what seemed to me to be a dollop of “trickle down” economic theory but I really wasn’t convinced. And in that context, if someone told me I was a “duchess inside” I’d be insulted rather than flattered because it would show they hadn’t grasped the significance of the testimony to equality.

    I just didn’t believe that it was Maddie’s “spirit within” which was guiding her at that point: it was the romance plot.

    • I believed it because she’d so clearly had the sense of God calling her to look after him and therefore to marry him. I could believe that vocation would ultimately outweigh the call to the simple lifestyle. I liked that it wasn’t an easy choice and that she went back to the Quakers and wrote her testimony and wrestled with it in the context of her faith and her faith community.

      But I also don’t think that’s the part most reviews that I’ve seen have a problem with. Mostly they don’t get why her faith would ever mean she shouldn’t be with him if she wants to.

      • “she’d so clearly had the sense of God calling her to look after him and therefore to marry him”

        I don’t see the two as automatically being connected, though. I could understand marrying someone to save them from being deemed mentally incompetent but Kinsale did too good a job of making him seem satanic for me to accept him as someone that Maddie could or should love as a husband.

        I suppose in romance novels it’s common for the hero to be a “devil” type who’s redeemed by love but when the issue of religion is brought to the fore, as it is in Flowers from the Storm, then the theological implications are too close to the surface for that to work for me.

        In any case, the novel as a whole felt to me like an emotional misrepresentation of, and a rejection of, Quakerism and when you feel like you’ve been metaphorically slapped in the face, it’s kind of hard to turn the other cheek to the extent that you’re thrilled for the people whose relationship did it to you.

        “Mostly they don’t get why her faith would ever mean she shouldn’t be with him if she wants to.”

        That doesn’t surprise me. A lot of romances seem to suggest (implicitly, mostly) that sexual attraction should be so overpowering that it overcomes all sorts of things.

        • “In any case, the novel as a whole felt to me like an emotional misrepresentation of, and a rejection of, Quakerism”

          I can see that and why it would evoke that sort of response if that’s how you feel. It didn’t feel like that to me, but I admit that my understanding of Quakerism is not firsthand or particularly extensive.

  • I think you pinpoint some major issues here. I can’t bring myself to read inspirationals, but I love books in which faith is expressed as an important part of people’s lives. Although I have yet to read Flowers from the Storm, it’s huge in Kinsale’s Shadowheart.

    • I haven’t read Shadowheart. There are several Kinsales that weren’t available digitally in the UK for ages but I think are now, so I will check that one out.

  • I don’t usually comment about my books in this sort of discussion, but I was saddened to see Laura Vivanco’s comment that FFTS felt like a slap in the face to Quakerism.

    It was not written so. In fact, the opposite. I am not a “religious” person–when I’m asked about religion, spirituality and faith, my only reply is that I am content to wonder. One of the most clear memories to me of the experience of writing that book was the research on historical Quakerism and learning about the concepts and how they were applied in action and organization. I found it to be the most appealing organized religion I’ve come across, because of the clear emphasis on direct ethical decisions and life in relation to God, with no intervening clergy or rules. The inner light was everything, the final word, and that’s pretty much what I think about how to live life.

    Many readers have seen the Quakers in FFTS as rigid and authoritative in trying to bring Maddy back, but they believed that because when the internal feeling of what God is asking is the primary directive, it becomes very easy to mistake one’s own self-will for it, and so all the members, particularly elders, were responsible to help an individual distinguish the voice of God from the voice of “The Reasoner.”

    This was Maddy’s central conflict, trying to distinguish her own self-will, which was obviously to be with the man she loved, from God’s will. Laura V felt he was too satanic for her to love him as a husband, which is exactly what Maddy thought too, so she left him. But when she heard him speak to her, at the end, and thought and listened and wrote another paper, she felt sure it wasn’t only her self-will, but also God’s. I guess if a reader doesn’t accept that as possible, then it won’t ring true. But even though not a religious person myself, I’ve grown up in a Christian tradition, and I’m very sure that it’s taught that Jesus loved sinners more than righteous people. Beyond a romantic connection, or anything about his lifestyle, I think that is the impulse within her, that not only she but he are both sinners, and full of questions about how to live rightly, and that he was her husband and it was wrong to leave him and right to stay with him, however that would play out.

    So, I just wanted to say that I wrote the book in a deep respect for what I learned of Quakerism, not as it is today, which I’m not familiar with although I’ve been to a meeting, but as it was historically. I remember thinking at the time that if I ever could join a church, the Quaker church would be the one.

    Perhaps Laura V won’t happen across this reply, as several days have passed since this conversation, but in any case I wanted to write it because however the book appeared to her, it was not written in a spirit of rejection, but of respect and a bit of that wonder that I find in the world.

    • Thank you very much, Laura, for writing such a detailed reply. I really appreciate the insight into your thought processes.

      I don’t mean this to sound flippant but it strikes me that the author is, in a sense, God as far as her characters are concerned, which would mean that Maddie was indeed doing God’s will. However, the reader, even when engrossed by a book, is still outside that world and unfortunately the Spirit didn’t lead me to see things in Jervaux which would outweigh the more problematic aspects of his beliefs and personality.

      Or maybe the problem is just that I’m not as forgiving or trusting as Maddie?

      • “unfortunately the Spirit didn’t lead me to see things in Jervaux which would outweigh the more problematic aspects of his beliefs and personality.”

        I do think this is the main difference between your reading and mine. I never saw Jervaulx as ‘satanic’, or irredeemably wicked. Yes, he has serious flaws, and Maddy is aware of them, but he also has good qualities, and for me he is redeemed to some extent over the course of the book. Not a complete reformation, but enough to make me hopeful for their future happiness.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Laura. It’s fascinating to hear how you understood Maddie’s inner conflict and how she came to her resolution.