Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Review: Lynn S. Neal's Romancing God

Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Excerpts are available via Google Books and the whole of the first chapter can be found here, because the University of North Carolina Press is offering it as as an excerpt. That chapter provides a brief history of the modern inspirational romance. Neal, as she reveals in her prologue, had initially intended to continue with this text-based focus: "As I first imagined it, this project would be about the novels' plots and prescriptions. I would analyze gender depictions, historical descriptions, and evangelical prescriptions. It would be a study about the novels' contents" (6). As her research proceeded, however, her attention came to focus on the readers of inspirational romances and she "spent thirteen months interviewing fifty readers and twenty authors" (7). More details about these readers can be found on page 8-10.

Neal's first chapter deals with "The History of Evangelical Romance." She places this history in the context of developments within evangelicalism, and begins by looking at the work of Grace Livingston Hill (1865-1947), who began writing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.1 Hill, "Like other Christian authors, [...] viewed her work as an extension of her religious life" (17) and her "goals reflected common evangelical ideas about the utility of media and the arts" (18). As far as her literary influences are concerned, "Even as sentimental fiction declined in popularity in the late nineteenth century, Hill built on this foundation as she constructed her vision of the Christian romance" (20). Neal notes, however, that
in the realm of fiction, literature and religion forged an uneasy alliance. Utilitarian concerns for evangelism governed evangelical literary efforts; nevertheless, even as they experimented with fiction's redemptive possibilities, such fiction remained suspect. Unlike other types of media, novels directly juxtaposed the truth of Christianity with the falsehood of fiction. Departing from truth, unleashing the imagination, promoting idleness (and perhaps even idolatry), fiction was an unwieldy weapon at best in the war for lost souls. [...] Fears about fiction also reflected doubts about women. Their domination of novel reading raised concerns about the "nature" of woman and her ability to handle imaginative material. (19)
In addition,
After 1925, as many scholars have documented, the once prominent and respected evangelicals became the parochial and ridiculed fundamentalists. [...] Advocating "muscular Christianity" and a "Christ against culture" position, fundamentalists became increasingly suspicious of women, fiction, and the arts in general. Grace Livingston Hill, however, while remaining a committed conservative Protestant, continued to write her brand of fiction. Evangelistic goals and her call from God superseded fundamentalist fears. (22)
the 1940s, during the twilight of Hill's career, fundamentalism became increasingly divided over its rigid separatism from the wider culture [...]. A more moderate evangelical leadership, including Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Billy Graham, emerged with a vision of Christianity as "engaged orthodoxy." [...] In 1950, these new evangelicals [...] established the Christian Booksellers Association. (23)
However, "Despite evangelicalism's newfound theological and entrepreneurial commitment to the 'holistic gospel,' Hill's novels remained one of the only sources of Christian romance during this time" (24) because although it was the case that, "Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, religious books continued to meet with success, [...] during this time Catherine Marshall was one of the few to join Grace Livingston Hill in the field of evangelical romance" (24) with her novel Christy, published in 1967. Another landmark in the development of the genre was Janette Oke's "first novel, a prairie love story titled Love Comes Softly, was published by Bethany House in 1979" ( and Neal explains the reasons for its success:
Oke attributes her success to God, an important belief to understand; however, historical developments also explain why Bethany House was willing to take a chance on her prairie romance manuscript. The long history of evangelical media usage, its unprecedented achievements in the 1970s, and the rising popularity of secular romances all contributed to Oke's success. (27)
and, "Just as Kathleen Woodiwiss revolutionized the secular romance novel industry, Janette Oke transformed the landscape of Christian fiction as she inaugurated the contemporary form of evangelical romance" (29). Other Christian publishers followed Bethany House's lead.

Neal notes, however, that "Despite the popularity of evangelical romances, in many ways they remain, like Hill's earlier work, overlooked or invisible in the evangelical subculture" (33-34) and "the genre remains suspect" (35).

In Chapter 2, "The Discipline of Fun," Neal explores the ways in which, for the women she interviewed, the reading of evangelical romances "rests on a series of constantly negotiated relationships between escape and entertainment, forgetfulness and attention, faith and friendship, religion and recreation" (44). For example,"When asked why they liked evangelical romances, almost all the readers I interviewed - with astonishing continuity among them - mentioned two words: escape and entertainment" (45) but "For these women, the definition of fun [...] remained inseparable from their faith" (45). Nonetheless, "They constantly negotiated competing demands [on their time] and some spoke of 'reading guilt'" (57).

I can't help but speculate about the extent of similarities between these readers and those interviewed by Janice Radway who in June 1980 found that "our conversations about their reasons for romance reading were dominated by the words 'escape' and 'education'" (61). This dual vision of the purpose of their reading is not identical to that of Neal's interviewees, but both groups value "escape" and also justify their reading in terms of another benefit which would tend to be considered worthier. Given that Radway's research took place only a very short time after the publication of Jeanette Oke's first inspirational romance, it is perhaps not surprising that the Smithton readers seem to have read "secular" romances. I wonder, though, if some of them later switched to reading inspirational romances when these became more readily available, because
attendance at religious services was relatively high among Dot's customers. Although eight (19 percent) of the women indicated that they had not been to a service in the last two years, fifteen (36 percent) reported attendance "once a week or more," while another eight (19 percent) indicated attendance "once or a few times a month." (58)
However, since Radway didn't re-interview the women some years later, my curiosity will just have to remain unsatisfied. Another similarity is that romance reading and selection often seem to be shaped by relationships between women. The Smithton women all bought books recommended by Dot, and Neal found that"For many [inspirational romance readers], their choice [of reading material] reflects the influence of a Christian past and a Christian woman, usually a mother [...] mothers not only teach their daughters how to read as children, but guide them in what to read as teenagers" (48-49). More recently, and again turning back to "secular" romances, at the 2009 Georgette Heyer conference "many of the attendees had picked up their mother’s copies" (McCormack), including the few male attendees who also "tended to have picked up the novels from their mother’s shelves, although a couple of women indicated that it was their father’s who had inspired them with interest" (Lewis).

One type of connection between women which arises from romance reading but which is very particular to inspirational romance is the way in which, "In churches dominated by male leadership, women often claim the library. [...] the church librarians I talked with, who were all women, knew their evangelical romance patrons" (66).

Unlike Radway, Neal did interview some African American readers but she seems to have had some difficulty in locating them, perhaps because "To discover readers, I employed the snowball method, an approach in which I asked each reader interviewed to refer me to another reader whom they knew" (8). The reason the "snowball" method might have had consequences for Neal's sample is that
literary bonds remain limited by church affiliations. A few women I spoke with exchange novels long-distance, but most remain tied to their local religious communities. [...] Friendships, network analysts demonstrate, tend to be homogeneous. They flow through churches, family, and groups of people that are demographically similar. In evangelicalism, Sunday morning segregation intensifies these patterns. Few white readers of the genre connected with African American readers, or vice versa. I encountered only one instance of an interracial evangelical romance reading relationship. (68)
It was between two librarians, and the African American librarian referred Neal to an African American library patron,
But the snowball stopped there. I found Mona's Book Club, a reading group comprised of African American women from suburban Chicago, only through the help of African American author Sharon Ewell Foster. (68)
The members of the book club "had only read a few African American Christian romances, and seemed unfamiliar with its white counterparts" (71). Given that Neal also mentions this "genre's novelty" (71), another possible factor affecting Neal's ability to find African-American inspirational romance readers may be the fact that African-American inspirational romances have begun to appear on the market only relatively recently and "stories depicting women of color in realistic and relevant ways remain in short supply" (92). In 2008 Patricia Woodside wrote that when it comes to romance
there’s one flavor that’s all too often missing: African American Christian romance. In fact, there is such a dearth of these books that when one looks at bookstore or library shelves, one has to wonder such a thing even exists.

Before I get hit on the head, let me point out there are a number of successful African American (AA) authors writing and publishing Christian fiction. Victoria Christopher Murray, Jacquelin Thomas, and ReShonda Tate Billingsley are longstanding successes. Tia McCollors, Claudia Mair Burney, Marilynn Griffith, and Angela Benson are among the more recent multi-published AA Christian authors. Then brand new authors, like Sheila Lipsey, Keshia Dawn, Leslie Sherrod, and Kimberly Cash Tate are making their debuts.

However, most AA Christian fiction is more than plain, simple romance. Many are ensemble stories featuring multiple heroines, and are bigger, broader stories that are more likely categorized as women’s fiction.
Neal writes that "publishers are challenging the racial homogeneity of the genre by actively recruiting minority authors. The three African American authors I interviewed, who had never heard of 'Christian fiction,' became part of the industry this way" (54).

In Chapter 3 Neal takes a closer look at "what readers look for in an evangelical romance and the ways they assess them" (74). Not surprisingly for those of us aware of the lack of agreement among readers of other romance subgenres, Neal found that "while readers share similar expectations, their evaluations reveal a range of views on what constitutes a good read, a spiritual message, and a happy ending" (75). The readers of inspirational romances, however, apparently like to stress their differences from other romance readers:
Rather than emphasize the historic relationship between evangelicalism and romance, the women I interviewed situated their reading in opposition to the world's secular romance. In this "culture war," romance - as a concept and as a genre - represents an important battleground on which the boundaries of sexuality are fought. "The world," according to my consultants, "has totally distorted it [romance]." The us versus them, subculture versus the world attitude exhibited in this assessment reflects broader evangelical views about their relationship with the wider culture. (76)
and "Nowhere is this distortion more visible, for readers, than in the pages of secular romance novels. Naming sex as the biggest difference between the two genres, my readers indicted the secular and endorsed the evangelical" (77). Yet "While readers and authors agree on seeing portrayals of sex as the biggest difference between evangelical and secular novels, they do not always agree on how much sexuality should be present" (82). Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love is mentioned as a somewhat controversial inspirational romance which some readers found too explicit. Another area where readers agree in principle but disagree on the details is that of spiritual content: "Too much evangelicalism or not enough, as well as the amount of biblical content and its application, emerged as vital boundaries monitored by my consultants" (87). Neal also refers to a wider debate about the purpose and nature of evangelical art because "Placing my consultants' reading amidst the broader background of evangelicalism helps situate the practice" (103).

Chapter 4 examines the ways in which
The genre becomes an instrument for the performance and composition of evangelical women's everyday religious lives. In viewing the novels as a devotional tool, as well as a source of wholesome fun, they set themselves apart from their non-evangelical romance-reading counterparts, as well as from evangelical men. (106-07)
In other words, "With the pulpit and the pastorate (as well as other church leadership roles) closed to them" (108), these novels "represent a ministry by, for, and about women" (108). Rebecca Kaye Barrett, in an article about inspirational romances which is not mentioned by Neal, relates that
For the women to whom I spoke, the value of a text is not located in the text but in their own experience with the text. That is, overall, comments about the books did not focus on the book (for example, praise about diction or criticism of plot devices) but instead focused on their personal responses to the books, to, in other words, what the books did for them. Women's responses to the texts were not primarily critical reviews of texts (though most fan letters began with an enthusiastic but very general sentence or two about the novel about which they were writing), but were personal stories about how their lives changed in response to the novels.
and "Nearly all of the women to whom I spoke discussed the ways that the books provided them with spiritual encouragement" (Barrett). Neal similarly reports that these "Novels become a conduit for an experience of the divine" (109). For their part, some of the authors of these romances "invoked the language of calling and ministry as they discussed their vocational certainty" (111) and readers "believed in God's calling of authors and his use of their writing" (115).

Chapter 5 is about reader identification, particularly with the heroines of these romances: "For these women, heroines who are like them provide a sense of belonging and companionship. Fictional women validate readers' experiences and affirm that they are not alone" (134). Heroines also "demonstrate, through example and not exhortation, the solution to problems and the possibilities of faith" (137). Some readers found that as a result of their reading their "spiritual lives and marital relationships improved" (151) but there are, "at least two ways [in which] romantic fiction and evangelical faith could work at cross purposes: evangelical romance heroes competed with real-life husbands and reading the novels often took precedence over Bible reading" (149). Christian romance heroes "are confident enough in their masculinity to reveal their sensitive side and their domestic desires. [...] Heroes willingly cook, do dishes, move furniture, and even clean" (150). Given that Neal's priority is the analysis of readers, it is the readers' reactions to the Christian romance hero, rather than the heroes themselves, which are more fully described here. The details Neal does give about romance heroes, however, are complemented by Rebecca Barrett-Fox's 2007 article.

Chapter 6 takes readers' responses to Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love as a case study. In Redeeming Love Rivers
overlays the love story between Angel and Michael with a larger love story: the unconditional love of God for all people. Set in the nineteenth-century West, Rivers's novel is modeled on the biblical book of Hosea. It chronicles the loneliness and love experienced by the heroine Angel, a woman sold into prostitution as a child, and Michael Hosea, the moral man who loves her. (158)
Neal chose to focus on this particular novel because "For many of my consultants, Redeeming Love was the novel that provided the most accessible means to voice their views about the romancing God" (159), "a view of God as the great romancer, offering unconditional love" (163). Rivers
originally published the novel in 1991 with Bantam Books not as a Christian romance but as a historical romance. However, in 1997, Multnomah reissued the novel as an evangelical romance. The volume had the same title, author, and characters [...] but it was not the same book. The copyright page states that the novel "is the redeemed version of Redeeming Love [...]" (159-60)
Neal then moves on to look at the parallels that readers draw between God's love and heterosexual marriage. Interestingly, Neal notes that for one of her interviewees "So intertwined were romance and God that she later said, 'It is amazing that they can have the same love story as a worldly novel.'" (168) Neal also found that "While some novels feature contemporary settings, many of the most popular titles set their heroines in the past" (174) and
The novels depict a past where God and conservative Protestant women (and men) dominate. For my consultants, reading about evangelical heroines who influenced world history affirms their importance and God's providential control.
Consider, for example, representations of the "Old West," the backdrop of many evangelical romances. [...] Women enjoy "pioneer stories" that portray the West as a promised land. (175)
In an Epilogue, Neal looks at what readers do after the end of a romance, and she comments that "for most [...] the story is never really over. The ending of one novel means the beginning of another" (187), or the re-reading of one of their favourites. The story is also never over in another sense: their "devotion reminds readers of a love story that has no end. As a part of this tale, no matter what their failures or their flaws, women can rest assured that God's romance - his unconditional love for them - remains constant" (188).

  • Barrett, Rebecca Kaye. "Higher Love: What Women Gain from Christian Romance Novels." Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 4 (2003). [This article is freely available online.]
  • Barrett-Fox, Rebecca. “Hope, Faith and Toughness: An Analysis of the Christian Hero.” Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty-First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Ed. Sally Goade. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 93-102.
  • Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006.
  • Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.
  • Woodside, Patricia. "Writing the Multi-ethnic Romance Novel: African American by Patricia Woodside." Kaye Dacus's blog, 12 May 2008.
1 More than one bibliography of her novels can be found online, and many of her earlier novels are freely available online]. She is also mentioned in AAR's brief history of inspirational romance.

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