Romance as Conversion

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Image used via WikiCommons License, by Sailko

So a funny thing happened after lots of people read and commented on my post about romance and religion: a series of demands ate my time and made it difficult for me to finish this post. I also found the attention somewhat paralyzing. It’s easier to blog if you think no one is going to read what you have to say—because if people are going to read it, then one is under an obligation to say something interesting and unique.

I am sorry about that; and since I can’t leave the conversation unfinished, and because Gen has some lovely posts on the subject that deserve your attention, I want to offer a few unformed thoughts about how non-inspirational (straight genre) romance may still have a central conversion narrative, but one that substitutes romantic love for religious faith.

Conversion stories and genre romance share a narrative structure. In the opening of each, we generally find our hero or heroine untouched by either romantic love or faith and claiming to be happy without it. But beneath the surface there is an aching lack.

Cue the meet cute! Our hero or heroine is exposed to the charms of their future partner in romance, or the illuminating truth of the gospel or the guiding actions of one of the faithful in conversion stories. The hero or heroine begins to doubt the previous aversion to love or faith.

In the final triumphant act, our hero or heroine is fully converted, often in a rush of some strong emotion forcing them to declare their newfound love or faith. And then they live happily ever after–either in this world, or in Heaven if they’ve been martyred.

My thoughts in this matter have been informed by scholarship on early Christian martyr and conversion narratives. I briefly considered changing my major from English to classics and did take a year of Latin, a Roman history course, and a seminar on gender/family in ancient Greece and Rome. Long before I’d ever read a genre romance, I had read novels from the classical world in which the convertee’s relationship with the converter seemed very…heated.

So in “The Acts of Paul and Thecla,” Thecla’s dad complains, “my daughter … like a spider’s web fastened to the window, is captivated by the discourses of Paul, and attends upon them with prodigious eagerness, and vast delight; and thus, by attending on what he says, the young woman is seduced.”

This pattern continues in medieval accounts. An early version of the life of St. Katharine has the saint telling us, “I am given and married to Jesu Christ, he is my spouse, he is my glory, he is my love, and he is my sweetness, there may no fair words ne [sic] no torments call me from him.” St. Catherine of Siena records this vision, “Then I felt a tumult of joy and an odour of his blood, and my own also, which I desire to shed for the sweet Bridegroom Jesus. And as the desire of my soul waxed and I felt his fear, I said : ‘ Comfort thee, sweet my brother, for we shall soon come to the nuptials ; thou wilt go to them bathed in the sweet blood of the Son of God, with the sweet name of Jesus (may it never leave thy memory), and I wait for thee at the place of justice.”

As William Hansen summarizes in his introduction to “Paul and Thecla” in the Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, early Christian novels were similar to the small-r romantic novels popular at the late second and third centuries CE in that in the romances:

Lovers and lustful persons … fall in love at first sight; similarly, female converts in the apocryphal Acts fall in love with apostle’s message at first hearing. Enamored characters in the romantic novels value chastity above all, even above death, in their faithfulness to each other; the Christians in the apocryphal narratives value chastity even above their relationships to their spouses, in their faithfulness to their religion. Hostile rejected lovers, kindly helpers, women dressing as men, narrow escapes from dangerous situations in which the commitment of a character to his or her ideals is tested, and many other narrative ideas are common to both kinds of novel. Obviously the Christian authors composed their fiction in the idiom of the apostolic novel. (51)

Others have more fully considered contemporary genre romance’s debt to various literary traditions; I particularly recommend Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel, which discusses the 18th and 19th century roots of the genre focusing on what I would call canonical texts (e.g., Austen). But the link to very early conversion narratives hasn’t received its due.

(In Romancing God, which I read after Laura Vivanco’s excellent comments on the first post, Lynn Neal discusses some very late 19th and early 20th century inspirational romance writers like Grace Livingston Hill. I haven’t done the literary scholarship one would have to, but I suspect the genealogy of those books could easily be traced back to something like “Paul and Thecla,” but I digress.)

What I’m trying to say is that in the moment when Christian fiction constituted itself, it took a secular form (the episodic adventure and romance stories popular at the time) and used this form as a metaphor to understand the spiritual relationship.

I’m not really adding much to the critical conversation in making this connection; we’ve all seen Bernini’s Saint Theresa in Ecstasy (if not, it’s above).

But my question is whether contemporary romance is now repeating the process in reverse.

In other words, maybe faith has fallen out of contemporary romance not because of market pressures or self-censorship but because it would be redundant with the extant secular, romantic conversion.

In the initial post, I used Lord of Scoundrels as an example, but even more obvious is paranormal romance. In the subgenre it’s de rigueur to have a normal, human woman and a man who is marked in some way: he’s a vampire, he’s a werewolf, he’s a shape shifter. He’s not human and he is dangerous to her. They are instantly drawn to one another; neither can explain the connection. Sometimes it’s a fated mate thing where he’s relentlessly pursuing the bond and she resists but it’s futile (e.g., several entrants in the Psy/Changeling series). Other times, she wants to convert but he resists because he’s afraid his world will hurt or damage her (see Twilight). Regardless, the book or series ends with her conversion and integration into his lifestyle.

(And this does get reversed, but the woman converting in PNR seems more common. It almost directly contrasts to the man’s religious conversion being more common in inspirational. I’d love to see someone explicate that.)

Small-town contemporary romance features the same thing. I have often joked that the Ur-text in small-town contemporary is the movie Doc Hollywood, but I don’t think that’s entirely wrong. The genre generally begins with either the hero or heroine coming home for some reason and/or with a stranger arriving in town. The reason for the hero/heroine coming to the small town is always time-limited: dealing with the death of a relative, a short-time work assignment, or, in the case of Doc Hollywood, community service after a traffic citation. But against the clock tick-tick-ticking, the hero and heroine fall in love and the out of towner always, ALWAYS, converts to the small town lifestyle.

(Seriously, can anyone point me to an example where they go to the big city at the end? Or compromise in some way?)

Or what about motorcycle club romances–which I’ll admit I have a certain weakness for. In Motorcycle Man, Tack tells Tyra that he’s opened her eyes to a “bigger world,” a world whose rules she must learn if the romance is to succeed.

(And again, I’ve yet to see an MC book in which a heroine converts a hero to the MC lifestyle. Does this exist?)

Historical romance narratives often bear striking similarity to the conversion of St. Augustine. The hero is a reprobate or rake, sowing his wild oats, keeping a mistress, with no intention of settling down. His mother despairs of his behavior and often nags him about it. (In Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do, the hero’s mother actually kidnaps him in order to force him to choose a bride. While St. Monica certainly nagged St. Augustine about converting, she never quite went that far.) The hero promises his mother that he will settle down someday, but not yet. As the teenage Augustine prayed, “Lord, grant me chastity and continence. But not yet.”

But after meeting the heroine, the hero has an epiphany. Perhaps a still, small voice within him says, “You love her.” As Augustine put it, “the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” He believes now in his love for the heroine and is ready to throw aside all dissolution and be faithful to her for life.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you!

What seems significant to me is that so much of genre romance and religious literature hinges on one or both parties changing in some way for the relationship to succeed. These changes are possible and inescapable within the genres’ structures. In romance, the acceptance of love and monogamy are assured, just as the conversion to faith in a religious conversion narrative. Both of these inevitable conclusions are comforting, albeit in different ways. And as Gen will discuss in her post, the secular conversion in genre romance seems related to the inevitable religious one in inspie.

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16 thoughts on “Romance as Conversion

  1. Interesting view. I’ve never thought of these small-town romances as conversion stories, but you are right. However, the trope has always bothered me, especially in the happy-go-lucky way that it is discussed in the larger culture, as if small towns were the answer to all troubles. Small towns represented danger and fear for six million African Americans during the twentieth century. Their fear caused them to leave rural America for the big city and better opportunities. My Great Migration series features five sisters who leave small -life for the big city and are more than happy to do so.
    I do appreciate your post because it does give me some insight as to why some people insist on reading my stories away from romance and into some other genre like women’s fiction. How could it be romance if my sisters want to abandon that idealized small-town life? Thanks for pointing these things out.

    • I absolutely agree with you. The politics of small town romances are very out of step with the reality of small towns (and I grew up in one!). Small town romances tend to ignore not only the troubling history of racial violence to which you allude, but also the drug and alcohol abuse, the parochialism, etc. I have read small town romances that show the darker side, but they are mostly nostalgia for Mayberry-esque places that I don’t think ever existed. And with the pervasiveness of the trope, I remain astonished that in all of the small town romances I have read, they always end up in the small town. Never in the city. Never commuting back and forth or otherwise compromising.

      That’s definitely doing some “machine in the garden” cultural work.

      • Don’t forget the inescapable poverty and the lack of employment/educational opportunities! So charming.
        (I live only 45 minutes from the small town I grew up in and I refuse to even visit.)

  2. You are very right, Gen. (And everyone, Gen wrote a significant percentage of this post and the first one. Definitely stay tuned for her posts on religion and romance, one of which has been written for forever and I’ve been the one slowing her down.)

    Poverty is almost completely absent from the contemporary small town romance. And when money anxieties or lack of job opportunities do show up, they get resolved easily. (Also an inordinate number of heroes and heroines in small town contemporaries are small business owners. I’d love to see a comparison of that to reality.)

    Small-town contemporary seems the most conservative of the romance subgenres in terms of their longing for an older and yet more homogenized social and economic structure–one that I suspect is a simulacrum, a mirage, a myth. There are darker small town books, and perhaps ironically MC romances do present the grittier sides of small town life (though also unrealistically), but on balance, I think small town contemporary romances say less about real small towns than they do about anxiety about social change. (Though that’s probably true of all fiction.)

    • I think you’ve hit it right on the nose that small town romance isn’t really about small towns, but rather anxiety about the future and longing for a past that perhaps never existed.
      Also, I should point out that this entire series was all your idea and the big questions all came from you–I’m only embroidering on your thoughts here. :)

  3. Yes, guys, I agree. The longing to cling to small-town life would seem to reflect the anxiety and reaching for a time that really never was. And certainly, poverty, poor employment opportunities, drug abuse and parochialism are all part of it. I think this is one reason why a novel like Peyton Place was such a huge hit back in the 1950’s. It disrupted a number of those idealized narratives about the small town, but the trope has a firm grip on the cultural imagination. As far as small town contemporary stories featuring MC characters, I can only think of Candice Poarch and her series of romantic suspense novels, but even then, the gritty small town was where people were murdered. Yikes. I have a hard time thinking coming up with any titles beyond that, unless some of the stories in the Kimani series feature a small town setting Most of them don’t. Thanks for the great post, both of you!

    • Three grittier small towns that come to mind are Unforgiven by Anne Calhoun, Lean on Me by Helen Kay Dimon, and Move the Sun by Susan Fanetti. The Calhoun book is almost Gothic, the Dimon book shows the dark side of all that “everyone is in everyone else’s business” stuff which the subgenre usually plays as cutesy, and the Fanetti book is a darker MC book. All of these books are, however, lily white.

      It’s a fascinating that the Kimani books tend to be urban. I need to think about this some more, but I think this entire discussion (romance, religion, race, urbanity, etc.) would benefit from a more intersectional lens than I’m bringing to bear here.

      • I’ve been reading Robyn Carr’s small town (Virgin River) series and there’s not too many POC but there’s a lot of poverty, pot growers, bad stuff happening. I’m not sure if more happens in the earlier books because I’ve been reading them all out of order, as they are available from my library. Not every book ends with the characters living in the town, though most of them do get converted to the rural life.

        I don’t have any analysis to add about the series, but just thought I’d throw that out there, since I was reading them when I read this post.

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  5. *putting on my evangelical hat*

    I don’t disagree with the bulk of this, but it’s interesting to me that you’re building your argument from Christian martyrs and old conversion narratives, when there are plenty of examples of comparisons of romantic love/marriage relationships to religious/God relationships in what I would consider the primary source.

    The Bible itself is full of God using relationships between men and women to illustrate how he relates to his people–from Song of Solomon to Hosea and Gomer, to when Paul says about husband and wives “this mystery is profound, but I’m speaking of Christ and the church.” And even Revelation ends at the marriage feast of the Lamb. So essentially you can argue (or maybe not even argue, just state?) that the whole big story of the Bible is one big romance between God and his people/Jesus and the church. I’m pretty sure I could get my husband to dig out a more exhaustive list (from his brain or from a book) if you are interested, but romance or relationships that lead to marriage are throughout the Bible and are frequently used as pictures of God’s relationships with this people, both corporately and individually.

    I think it was Friday when I kept up with a twitter conversation about Jo Beverley’s Rogue’s series. I’m okay with all the heroes, but at least one of the people participating just couldn’t deal with the behaviors of the first two heroes–both of whom were in arranged marriages and for various reasons did some things that broke their vows or did things that seriously compromised the possible success of their marriages. (being spoiler-free, just in case, but it’s not as fun). As I was listening(?) to the discussion I realized why I could be okay with their actions was because their stories did follow a classical conversion narrative. Both guys thought they were okay, probably even better than other people, then were married not by their own choice–to pretty awesome ladies (not perfect ones, but ones that have strong characters and the possibility to be a good and interesting wife). Then they each do things that make them question their conception of themselves as “pretty awesome guy” and it shakes them to the core. Their wives end up forgiving them (not at the same speed), and not because the heroes have “redeemed” themselves, necessarily, more because the heroine’s characters decide that’s the kind of person they want to be (I think? I’m not writing this with either text in front of me and it’s been a couple months. But I’m pretty sure that’s right.)

    But those scenarios fit nicely in with at least our reformed evangelical understanding of conversion. The individual who gets converted has to come to the point where he/she no longer trusts him/herself (or their works) as sufficient, and must come to trust Jesus both as the one who saves from sins and the one who provides righteousness…and then you get all sorts of stuff you don’t deserve–I mean, that’s grace. (sorry my literary critic hat slipped off and my tired mom hat was underneath.)

    So I think I’d better stop now, but does any of that make sense?

    • That makes perfect sense!

      My interest in conversion isn’t a theological one but one of literary history. For me in this post, the animating question was how the way early Christian writers used a secular form to amplify a Biblical metaphor and how today secular writers may be doing the same thing in reverse. I guess at the moment I’m more interested in Christian fiction than Christian theology, even as I recognize that’s a somewhat superficial take on the material.

      But in terms of a theological argument–which I would love to read!–I think the idea that the entire Bible is a romance between God and his church is fascinating. (And seems very consistent with how the women in Lynn Neal’s study of inspie readers were reading.)

      Thank you also for the note about Robin Carr. I haven’t read her but I’m happy to add her to my list of gritty/more realistic small town writers. I was amused by reviews of Anne Calhoun’s new book today characterizing it not as “yet another glorification of small towns but about people finding what happens to be right for them” as Willaful argued on Dear Author today.

  6. I completely agree that the Bible is full of conversion stories–it wasn’t a conscious decision on our part to leave those out. I suppose we focused on the conversion narratives we did because they are so narrowly focused on one person’s journey to faith–much like romance focuses narrowly on one couple’s journey to love. There’s quite a bit more happening in the Bible than just the conversion narratives, even if you view it on the whole as one all encompassing conversion narrative. :)

    You raise an interesting point about redemptive potential in romance vs religion. You do often hear that a hero’s (or heroine’s) behavior in a romance goes too far and that the character can never be redeemed for the reader.
    Yet in most Christian denominations, like you said, no one is considered to be beyond redemption. And I admit, that while I believe that as well for real people, there are some romance heroes that are beyond redemption for me. It’s interesting to see where everyone draws that line in terms of fictional characters.

    (And yes, it made sense!)

    • I’ve been thinking about the redemption question and specifically the line beyond which a character in romance is irredeemable.

      Why, for example, aren’t there a lot of ex-con romances? (The only one I can think of is About Last Night by Julie James; I’m sure there are others but there can’t be that many.)

      Particularly in historicals, there are heroes who fight in duels, take mistresses, work as spies, etc. etc. etc., but these sorts of fantasy violences don’t seem to make someone not heroic. (Although violating certain standards of masculinity by equivocating or acting “weak” might.)

      What I’m trying to say very incoherently is that one of the things that I like about romance is the idea that everyone deserves love and that love can redeem almost anyone. But I know for myself as a reader that isn’t true, that there are lines I don’t want to see characters cross.

      In the Dear Author essay about hard lines, I thought things turned pretty quickly to individual readers–what worked for one person and not for another. Which is fine and perhaps inevitable. But I am curious about the genre implications. The fact that the genre would say on the one hand, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” but on the other “not those things” is really interesting.

      • Oh, fantasy violence in historical romance…I might have written an entire book to work through my feelings on that. :)

        I think hard lines will always be specific to the reader–and the writer. The only hard and fast genre rule seems to be end with a “happily ever after.” Rapists, murderers, lizards–there seems to be an audience for all it, even if that audience might not encompass a majority of readers.
        Carla Kelly even had a cannibal hero! (Although it was a survival issue there.)

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