Never Say Never Again

(Religion and Romance Parts 1, 2, and 3)

This entire series began as a discussion of why religion was never mentioned in non-inspirational romance, but we quickly decided “never” was too strong a word—people of faith do occasionally appear in genre romance. But what purpose are these people of faith serving in genre romance in the absence of a larger conversion narrative?

So let us count the ways in which it’s acceptable to represent religion in genre romance!

One popular sub-subgenre is “vicar romance,” and includes such entries as Julie Anne Long’s A Notorious Countess Confesses, Jackie Barbosa’s Hot Under the Collar, and Patricia Gaffney’s To Love and to Cherish. Though he’s not technically a vicar, perhaps Mark Turner from Courtney Milan’s Unclaimed also deserves mention on this list. Vicar romances often cast the hero as man of the cloth as a kind of titillation. This morally upright hero is often paired with a “fallen” or morally-compromised heroine, providing instant conflict between the two. After all, a vicar must be very good–and who could be less appropriate for him than a former courtesan? Vicar heroes also tend to be blond and angelic, thus furthering the divide between the divine hero and the devilish (frequently brunette) heroine.

In some cases, vicar romances feature what we’ll term “conversion lite” narratives. In A Notorious Countess Confesses, the heroine, Eve, does reconnect with her faith over the course of the book. (And without spoilers, the denouement includes far more Biblical quotations that the average genre romance.) Gaffney’s To Love and to Cherish also features a conversion narrative on the part of the heroine, which could technically place both stories into the inspirational category. But for the most part in vicar romances, the faith is communal and not theological. The vicar is a community leader who we rarely see giving sermons; instead, his ministry is one of secular guidance and counseling. He tends to offer an anachronistic gospel of love and to offer forgiveness to everyone.

One contemporary example we’ve mentioned before, Noelle Adams’ Married for Christmas, features a pastor hero and a marriage of convenience plot. It’s excellent at approaching religion in genre romance in the multi-dimensional, nuanced way we’d like to see more of. In Adams’ novel there is no “angelic hero, fallen heroine.” Instead the heroine feels she cannot live up to being a pastor’s wife–not through her own moral failings but rather because of narrow social expectations and her personal insecurity.

Changing tack, in BDSM erotic romance, faith has sometimes been offered as an explanation for the characters’ kink. Both Tiffany Reisz’ The Siren and Lisa Valdez’ Patience work in this way. Patience seems to take Phyllis Schlafly-esque rhetoric about gender roles and wifely submission and spin it into erotica. As the hero Matthew explains to the titular Patience: “Men carry the staff of dominance between their legs …What greater proof could there be that feminine submission is God’s will?” In its review Dear Author went as far as to characterize the novel as “inspirational erotica.”

The Siren uses the erotic power exchange of BDSM as a metaphor for religious faith itself. One the series’ heroes, Soren, has an…unusual day job that, rather than being in conflict with his status as a Dominant, seems to be the reason for it. In the series’ first book, Nora is repeatedly compared to Jesus, going so far as to explain to her editor, “The sex isn’t the story, Zachary. The sacrifice is.” (Other books change the allegory somewhat, placing other characters in the sacrificial role, so it wouldn’t be helpful to carry this analysis too far.) While some BDSM romance uses abuse or neglect (erroneously to our minds) to explain a character’s initiation into the lifestyle (such as Fifty Shades of Grey), in the world of The Siren, people are called to be kinky. The practice of kink parallels spiritualism with Nora described as “saving” lost men (and women!) through a sort of sexual healing. (Cue the Marvin Gaye!)

But aside from vicar romances and inspirational erotica, faith can also be something a character is attempting to escape from. In Anne Calhoun’s Uncommon Passion, the heroine has left behind the religious compound where she was raised and is making a new life for herself in the wider world, including shedding her old ideas about purity and sexuality. Once she’s left the compound, the heroine Rachel rarely thinks about her former faith. While her religious past is part of who she is, it doesn’t motivate the conflict.

However in Laura Kinsale’s classic historical romance Flowers From the Storm, religious faith does motivate the conflict–the Quaker Maddy Timms ultimately leaves her religious community behind, somewhat against her will, in order to be with the ironically named Christian. Flowers from the Storm is an example of what we’d like to see more of: spiritual belief (or its absence) as character development coupled with a plot resolution that isn’t neat and tidy–because life rarely is. Faith adds to the book and its reception: literary critics have written about the book’s engagement with Milton’s Paradise Lost and readers are divided over whether Maddy is priggish or strong.

Barbara Samuels’ medieval historical A Bed of Spices also has a religious conflict with high stakes for the Christian heroine and Jewish hero. Without too many spoilers, it is worth mentioning that neither character in Samuels’ novel converts; instead, they leave parochial and unsafe Germany for the comparative religious tolerance of Muslim Egypt. (An ending that really tickled me!)

Allison Parr’s Rush Me is a contemporary New Adult romance in which the heroine’s Judaism is yet another contrast with the hero, who is older, Christian, and an NFL quarterback. Neither converts, but religion both brings them together and is emblematic of the differences that remain between them at the book’s end.

Religion in genre romance can create contrast, explain kink, motivate villains, and, in the best cases, add to characterization and conflict. To this list, we would add the characters of faith that we want to see more of: the characters that are there simply because—because our lives aren’t void of people of faith, because we want to see all kinds of spirituality represented in romance.

So what have we missed here? Are there any favorite portrayals of faith in non-inspirational romance? And what kinds of portrayals of faith do you want to see in romance in the future?

16 thoughts on “Never Say Never Again

  1. Miss Bates would be delighted if faith-portrayals and non-faith portrayals were more matter-of-fact in romance. She’d also like to see a diversity of faiths as part of inspirational romance (if not non); while she holds hope for the former, not so much for the latter. She guesses, ideally, these lines in the sand should waver and blur a lot more.

    Thank you for these wonderful posts! Miss B. so enjoyed reading them.

    • Thank you! And we very much agree.

      As a non-religious person, this might be an odd torch for me to take up. (Particularly since, while religious figured prominently in my Civil War historical, it doesn’t show up in my first contemporary, though the hero of the second is Jewish.) But my investment comes from a concern that writing religion out of genre romance is just one way that we erase complexity in the genre. I want the genre romance to be a more diverse, nuanced place in many regards–religion is just one metric for me.

    • Thank you for reading!
      And yes, more matter-of-fact portrayals would be lovely. Maybe with the recent success of things like Married for Christmas we’ll see more? (I’m keeping my fingers crossed.)

  2. Mary Jo Putney’s characters in her 1990s historical romances were frequently spiritual but not generally members of the clergy.

      • Hmm… Maybe One Perfect Rose (regency), since the hero is thought to be dying for most of it? A lot of readers loved it. My personal favorite was Uncommon Vows (medieval), which has a former monk and a former nun as its protagonists, but it’s a captive/captor story and also includes amnesia and a lot of readers don’t care for one or both of these elements.

  3. Pingback: Links: Tuesday, March 4th | Love in the Margins

  4. I’ve read a few m/m romances where religion is a source of internal or external conflict – often where one or both of the h/h either rejected or were rejected by the religion they grew up in because of their sexuality. L A Witt’s Love Thy Neighbor is about an aetheist and a pastor, and neither has to change their beliefs for their hea.

    I think my favorite m/m treatment of faith and religion is Marie Sexton’s Between Sinners and Saints. A large part of the story is Levi’s struggle with, and desire for acceptance by, his conservative Mormon family, and to a lesser extent, his struggle with God. The other hero Jaime is a survivor of CSA and has pretty serious ptsd. The part where Levi explains to his disapproving father that being gay can’t be a sin (or not a serious sin) because God lead him to Jaime makes me cry every time.

    • Janine: thank you! I will put some Putney in my TBR.

      Cleo: I have to pick up those books! They sound terrific.

      The absence of m/m in these posts is a huge fault–thank you for pointing it out! JL Langley’s Tin Star, for example, in which both heroes are Evangelical Christians and have to reconcile their relationship with their faith probably belongs on here. (And it does that faith/community aspect, which I find interesting.)

    • Cleo, thank you so much for recommending these! M/M is something I want to read more of, but haven’t yet–because too many books, too little time. And I’ll have to search out some of these Putneys as well–again, too many books, too little time. I guess it’s a good problem to have.

  5. Interesting points. I think that faith in general can be a tricky concept to introduce into romance, as often the end game is that protagonists find their faith in each other – so faith/ religion in that instance is used to illustrate an tractable position. And while romance can = escapism there has to be an element of reality as well – I have never met a sexy vicar, and as a lapsed Jew Rabbi’s don’t fare much better !

    • I definitely don’t feel like romance needs more religion as conversion narratives–or at least not more than it already has. But I’m somewhat baffled as to what kinds of character development the genre has embraced vs. what kinds remain verboten. I think spirituality (and political ideology, etc.) could really add to the genre if done well.

      And I agree about realism vs. fantasy! I grew up in a rural American state that often shows up in romance and it always amuses me how many hot cowboys evidently live there…in the minds of romance writers, if not reality. ; )

      • There have been a couple of SBTB threads about Jewish romances (see here and here). In those threads, there are some rabbi romances mentioned, but I haven’t read any of them.

        I do really love the romantic comedy Keeping the Faith and Ben Stiller’s character is a rabbi.

  6. So as soon as I posted that comment, I went through those threads and I can’t find a rabbi hero (though I thought there was one). So other than Keeping the Faith, I got nothing. Can anyone else think of one?

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