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!
(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.
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.
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?