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?