Saturday, April 04, 2009
Romance and Religion
I've been thinking recently about the ways that romance novels relate to religion, and more specifically about the ways that they deploy religion and religious discourse, whether or not they are "Inspirational" romances per se. Here's what I've come up with so far--and if you can give me any help, I'd be mighty grateful!
1) First off, and most obviously, romance novels can use religious discourse pervasively, in order to advance a particular religious agenda: e.g., Christian inspirational romance. Books like this explain the coincidences, transformations, and other events of the novel in religious terms (they’re providential, quite literally) and they name the type of love that the novel endorses in specifically religious terms (i.e., as an expression of God’s love for us).
In a way, this first use of religious discourse is implicitly dialectical, or at least engaged in an implied argument. It reclaims the strictly Christian meaning of terms that are also used in the quasi-religion of romantic love: salvation, redemption, forgiveness, worship, even "love."
Books like this let the text minister to its reader, or make itself of use in a community of believers in a way that a "secular" or "worldly" romance would not be. But even within such a novel, we can sometimes find moments of tension or counter-discourse, in which the "worldly" meanings of terms reasserts itself. (I think here of the wonderfully romantic moment in Beth Pattillo's Heavens to Betsy where David, the hero, admits that he "worships" the heroine. In the religion of love, the one that Robert Polhemus calls "erotic faith," that makes perfect sense, but in Christian terms it's problematic, even idolatrous.)
2) Romance novels can use religion / religious discourse in order to give a deeper resonance or meaning or importance to the story by recalling the religious roots of Erotic Faith, the Religion of Romantic Love.
They can do this without worrying about or rejecting its potentially heretical nature, as though there were no particular difference between them: e.g., Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s novel Dream a Little Dream, set in a town called Salvation. It's been a while since I read it, so perhaps I'm misremembering, but my recollection was that this was a deeply Christian novel, but not specifically an "inspirational" novel, in part because the book seemed to equate its theology with romantic love.
They can also do this in a way that brings our attention to the potential tension between Christianity and Erotic Faith without resolving the issue in either direction, leaving the tension unresolved. What do I mean by this? Maybe that romance novels sometimes use religious discourse as one of many explanatory frameworks or languages in the book, thus putting it into dialogue with the other ones without choosing among them or endorsing one over another.
They can also exacerbate that tension in order emphasize or play with the heretical nature of the Religion of Romantic Love, putting the novel into dialogue with previous Christian texts precisely in order to highlight the heterodoxy of the new book. (I think here both of something like Crusie's Welcome to Temptation, which alludes to but inverts various Christian topoi, like the Fall, and also of fantasy novels like the first Kushiel trilogy by Jacqueline Carey, which offer a new, imagined religion in competition with Christianity.)
3) Romance novels can use religion and religious discourse to give a deeper resonance or meaning or importance to a particular scene or moment, letting the novel open onto vistas of meaning without guiding the reader into them throughout. Thus Mary Balogh's Slightly Dangerous ends at Easter, which suggests a number of symbolic possibilities, but the novel doesn’t develop them at any length (or so I remember); likewise Joey Hill's Natural Law invokes the language of body and soul, and speaks of Wicca, at crucial moments, but the novel as a whole is not invested in those references. Does this make sense? Is this really a separate category? I'm not sure.
4) Some romance novels offer an imagined or recovered religion as a counterpart / contrast with Christianity. I've mentioned this already, in point two, but I'm wondering if maybe it isn't a whole separate category.
I think here of various Goddess novels that echo the pop-cultural idea of a "Goddess in every woman," from Nora Roberts to P.C. Cast to the Crusie collaboration, Dogs and Goddesses. These are variously serious and comic, but they seem to me connected, not least by a sort of self-help theology.
I also think of novels that imagine a whole pantheon that allows the author to explore issues of gender, etc., on multiple levels in the novel (mythic, superhuman, human, etc.), reclaimic the mythic dimension of romance. The Scribe Virgin & Omega in J. R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood novels and the religion of Elua in the Kushiel books by Carey set each of these novels into dialogue with Christianity, and perhaps in the process they do to Christian discourse what Christian inspirational romances do with the religion of Erotic Faith, contest and revise it?
What am I missing here? Any categories that you can think of that are not in the list? Do any of these overlap so much that they really aren't distinct in any useful way? Any novels that come to mind that use religion or religious discourse in a way that doesn't fit into any of these?