The Conversion Imperative

(This is the latest entrant in a series my critique partner, Genevieve Turner, and I have been writing about religion in genre romance. The first two posts are here and here. This and the following post were mostly written by Gen.)

Why are characters with religious convictions rarely portrayed in non-inspirational romance? And how is this absence connected with the prevalence of the conversion narratives in inspirational romance?

Emma and I began thinking about these questions when we were discussing the lack of religious references in genre romance, a state of affairs we found puzzling—especially in historical romances. In her series on religion and romance, author Ros Clarke raised the idea that perhaps we don’t see many people of faith in genre romance because those stories are always shunted to the inspirational subgenre.

While batting around our ideas over email, one of our theory was that religion is not mentioned (often) in genre romance because religious differences (at least differences within Christian denominations) are no longer a source of overt conflict in the modern western world.

(Obviously religious conflict remains a big deal globally. I would love to see more romances from places other than the US and Western Europe, either contemporary or historical. But we definitely don’t live in an ideal world. So while this post and series will be western-centric, this is not say that the genre should be. Yay for more diversity!)

I’m old enough to have a grandmother who told me never to discuss politics or religion at dinner parties. The politics bit is less taboo these days (which is why Emma has written a series of political romances), but the “religion as private” prohibition still has currency.

For the sake of civility and ease in contemporary America, religion tends to be reduced to the ecumenical “Judeo-Christian”–a catch-all that implies that the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic experiences in America have all been the same and are basically interchangeable (ha!). Most contemporary Americans would not publicly admit to being uncomfortable if their child brought home someone from a denomination they disapproved of. You might complain privately to your spouse, but in public, most would put on their best smiles. (And  indeed inter-faith marriages are on the rise in the US.)

If we can’t talk about religion in public, and if we’re pretending that religious conflict isn’t a big deal, it is perhaps no wonder that romance fails to represent faith. Romance is a genre that thrives on conflict. There must be both internal and external conflict between the hero and heroine. If only a smile and an open discussion can solve the couple’s problems and lead to a happily ever after, we feel cheated as readers.

So perhaps straight romance does not insert faith into the narrative because faith has ceased to be a conflict for many–or, at least a conflict that we will admit to.

However, for certain religious denominations—denominations who prefer to marry within their congregations, the ones whom inspirational romance are often targeted to—faith may still be a source of conflict. And that conflict is solved by something unique to inspirational romance—the conversion narrative.

A conversion whereby one character must experience a calling to faith or a reawakening of faith is not a requirement of inspirational romance (and sometimes doesn’t appear) but is found in many, many inspirationals. Very often, before the hero and heroine can declare their love, the doubting half of the couple must t be converted to God’s love.

(I should confess here, that as a Catholic married to an atheist, I find the idea that someone must believe in God in order to be worthy of love personally distasteful. The author may not intend such a message, but as a reader, I’m left with the impression that the love—and marriage—my husband and I have built together is somehow less worthy because one of us believes and the other doesn’t.)

In such inspies, the conflict between the religious and irreligious is solved by the conversion narrative. The hero or heroine finds God’s love, and they are then finally free to love each other. It’s almost impossible to find a romance in which the couple begins with a religious disagreement—whether one is areligious or both come from different faith traditions—that doesn’t include the conversion element. And the conversion of the atheistic/agonistic or simply lapsed religious person seems particularly popular.

The persistence of this theme might indicate that inspirational romance is doing important cultural work on the problem of a religious person falling in love with someone from outside her faith tradition—and it is notable that women are often the converters and the men the convertees. (One notably exception to this rule being Elizabeth Camden’s Against the Tide, in which the hero converts the heroine.)

(However, for a different view of the function of the conversion narrative—as a way for the reader to re-experience their own conversion journey—see this comment from Piper Huguley.)

But we’re getting away from the original point! Whether it’s due to the popularity of the conversion narrative or not, almost all overtly religious characters in romance do seem to end up in inspies. This narrow channeling of straight versus inspirational romance—people of faith are only allowed in inspies, inspies must have a conversion narrative—hurts both sides of the binary.

Readers do want to see more characters of faith in straight romance, without a conversion narrative. The enthusiastic reception for Noelle Adams’s Married for Christmas, which featured a pastor hero but otherwise did not fit inspie tropes, indicates this might be true. Take just two reviews: here and here. Both mention how the characters’ faith enhances the story, yet religion is never used as part of a conversion narrative. It is simply part of who they are. And in the forward, Adams specifically argues the book is not meant as an inspirational–even though both the hero and heroine are believers.

While I would love to see religion as a conflict more often in romance (and perhaps a conflict that isn’t resolved by a conversion, as we’ll discuss in a later post), I would also like to see faith explored more as an aspect of character, as part of the shading and nuance of what makes a character real.

And I believe that de-emphasizing the conversion narrative in inspies would help to open those romances to a wider audience. As the comments in the reviews of Noelle Adams’ novel linked to above indicate, very often readers complain about inspies preaching to them—and the conversion narrative, where someone must convert in order to be worthy of love, might contribute to the sense of proselytization.

I believe that romance readers are ready to see a blurring of these starkly drawn lines, to see the entire rainbow of faiths in our reading, and not just as source of conflict, but also as a source of character.

5 thoughts on “The Conversion Imperative

  1. Hallelujah to: “I believe that romance readers are ready to see a blurring of these starkly drawn lines, to see the entire rainbow of faiths in our reading, and not just as source of conflict, but also as a source of character.”

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