Why don’t romance novels tend to feature religion?
To spin it another way, why is it that outside of inspirational romance, religion tends to be excluded from or mentioned only in passing in non-inspirational (or straight genre) romance?
This is a particularly salient question in the historical context as church membership was a significant part of culture–in fact, perhaps one of the most significant parts of culture, especially in some of the popular settings for historical romances.
(For example, in The Feminization of American Culture, a book which despite its title is largely about Victorian American theology, literary scholar Ann Douglass argues that three-quarters of mid-nineteenth-century Americans were active members of churches, perhaps the highest degree of religiosity in American history. The period was also one of great religious fervor in the UK. And while we’re having a bit of an aside, let me say also that for simplicity’s sake, and because it reflects the bulk of the genre, this post will assume a western lens. I would love love love for the genre to be more diverse in terms of ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, class, race, religion, and politics than it is, so don’t take my discussion of the genre “as is” as endorsement of the status quo.)
Even in the contemporary period, religion remains a significant part of the cultural landscape. So if romance is a realistic genre, if it is frequently set in the world that we know, and if it represents scenarios that could happen/are familiar to us, then what gives with the absence of faith?
My critique partner, Genevieve Turner, and I have been debating the question over email for more than a month now in response to several posts on religion and romance including this one by romance writer Ros Clarke and this one by romance scholar Laura Vivanco.
Initially, Gen and I theorized the elimination of religion from genre romance might be market-driven; that editors and publishers might pressure authors overtly or covertly to downplay religion on the presumption that such content might turn readers off.
If so, they might be right. At the beginning of this post I differentiated between inspirational romance and genre romance. After several negative experiences with preachy examples of the former, I rarely read inspies. In my admittedly-limited experience, inspirational romance tends to feature a conversion or reawakening of faith story running parallel to the romance, with the two narrative strands having tandem lows and highs that seem to flow into or even orchestrate one another.
And this is reified in the Romance Writers of America definition of the subgenre:
Novels in which religious or spiritual beliefs (in the context of any religion or spiritual belief system) are a major part of the romantic relationship. … the love story is the main focus of the novel, religious or spiritual beliefs (in the context of any religion or spiritual belief system) are blended with and form a significant part of the love story, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.
For example I’ve read at least three books in which the heroine must first convert the hero in order to marry/love him. The opposite exists (see Against the Tide), but there does seem to be an interesting gender component to conversion. There is always going to another participant in the relationship in inspie: God.
It’s perhaps worth saying that I am not religious so this sort of narrative doesn’t have a lot to offer me in the abstract. I left the church quite deliberately in college and haven’t looked back. So while I might care about such a plot if I care about the characters—as compelling romances have led me to care about a range of issues such as the modernization of farming infrastructure or the in and outs of the art market—it doesn’t have an inherent claim on my attentions.
I seem not to be alone in this. When inspies are reviewed on mainstream genre romance sites, reviewers tend to comment on whether the conversion plot is heavy-handed, whether non-believers are portrayed as comically materialistic or amoral, whether in other words there’s anything there for a non-religious audience (or at least one for whom religion isn’t the draw).
Additionally, while the RWA definition is careful to emphasize that the subgenre doesn’t have to be Christian, in my experience the theology and ritual in inspie is almost exclusively Protestant and evangelical, which may further alienate readers.
So if editorial and publishing gatekeepers encourage non-inspie writers to avoid religion in genre romance, there might be evidentiary support for that censorship. (As Gen will discuss, it may also be possible that gatekeepers ghettoize religious characters and writers into inspirational lines, further policing the boundaries.)
But for my purposes in this post, I suspect there might also be a structural, narrative reason why religion doesn’t appear in genre romance in addition to a market-drive one. In the piece by Laura Vivanco that I linked to above, she suggests that romance might function as Marx suggested religion does: as an opiate for the masses.** But what if, in addition to or in supplement of that, romance offers its own conversion narrative? What if love is being offered as a metaphor or substitute for religion?
In a Christian context, the faithful accept the love, limits, and laws of God the father in exchange for eternal life. The Bible is replete with conversion stories. In chapter 9 of Acts, Saul, traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus, is struck blind, spends three days in darkness, and then is healed, baptized, and claimed for God by a man named Ananias. The now Paul became one of the most fervent promoters of the new church. An undergraduate religious studies professor of mine claimed he could imagine Christianity without Christ but not without Paul.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but I do want to set up the skeleton of the Christian conversion narrative and to suggest that there are some similarities between it and the structure of genre romance. After all, in genre romance the lovers meet, are often struck immediately with attraction for one another (which they often fight), and (often) find that they must change in order to be together.
Take Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase’s classic historical romance.
At the opening, our hero, Dain, is a rake. He drinks heavily, gambles, avoids polite society, cavorts with prostitutes, etc. until he meets the heroine, Jessica, who almost instantly ensnares him. Dain fights his attraction, tries to convince himself that it’s not love. He even experiences what turns out to be hysterical paralysis, which resolves itself when he works out his relationship with his illegitimate son and with Jessica. The Dain at the end of the book is not the Dain at the beginning—he has seen the light.
(END LoS SPOILERS)
Over the next few weeks, Gen and I want to discuss many things, including the importance of conversion narratives to the inspie subgenre, positive portrayals of religion in genre romance, and more about how romantic and religious conversion may be connected. Over the course of the series, we hope to get a handle on the relationship between faith and love in genre romance. We’ve both written religious characters and scenarios when our plots required them. The presence of religion in our books is just another dimension to the character, backstory, and atmosphere. We just wish we saw more of it within the genre.
** This isn’t correct. She’s summarizing critics of romance who have suggested this. See her comment and my response below.