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?


  1. I think recent books are doing pretty well in how they include religion in books. It's no longer Good vs Evil in that my religion is good and your's is evil. You get a good diversity in pros and cons of many faiths inserted almost seamlessly into a romance. It's not THE story but it sure enhances the cultural richness of a lot of books.

    I think the Kushiel series did a fantastic job of not only inluding Christian dialouge but also included what we'd call pagan religions, a form of Judaism, Islam, Norse Gods and others.

    What about Sharon Shinn's Archangel series? They have the physical manifestation of Angels, set up something like Christian idealogy.

  2. I agree about the Kushiel books: they're brilliant, and really compelling on multiple levels. I haven't read the Shinn books--will put them on my TBR list!

  3. 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.

    Just thought I'd note that this is often made quite explicit, as in the guidelines for Harlequin's inspirational romance Steeple Hill imprint:

    "Steeple Hill’s fiction program features wholesome Christian entertainment that will help women to better guide themselves, their families and other women in their communities toward purposeful, faith-driven lives."

    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.

    I don't think it is, though, Eric. The marriage ceremony includes

    the familiar "with my body I thee worship" retained in both the Catholic and Protestant marriage service of England. (New Catholic Encyclopedia)

  4. Medieval books based in Scotland like to exploit the tenuous hold that Christianity had over the Celtic and Nordic religions. It makes for fascinating stories when politics and religion are combined since they were extricably entwined then. Barring historical details, Garwood neatly captures the religious tenure of the times.

  5. Thanks, Laura! I should have known that, pagan though I am; it's quoted at the end of one of Eloisa James's novels, and I remember liking it and making a note of it at the time.

    I've just looked up the actual passage, and it looks like I've misremembered it, too. David says that he "adores" Betsy, and she asks him "Adore as in cute-little-fluffy-bunny kind of adore, or adore as in worship-like-a-goddess." He "growls" that it's the latter.

    Hmmm... So would "with my body I thee worship" entail "worship-like-a-goddess"? Or is it something different?

  6. Caryn Gracey Jones05 April, 2009 00:00

    The first thing that comes to mind for me is the Nora Roberts Gallaghers of Ardmore series. There's a good deal about the Catholic faith of the characters including a section in one of the books (I think the last one) about the Church's stand on premarital sex. I'll have to keep thinking.

  7. Hi, Caryn! Thanks for commenting. Is there anything that comes to your mind about how or why Roberts seems to include that section? Is it a sort of teaching moment, for example? Or a place where the Church's stand can be argued with? I'm wondering which category this would go into, or if there's some new one I'll need to think up!

  8. I'm sorry to keep bringing up my own novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, but this topic touched on something in it that I've had virtually no response to, and I suspect it's because it's so transgressive that people felt safer just crossing their fingers, spitting three times, keeping their head down and hoping God's wrath fell on someone else:

    That is, the scene at the end of the novel, in which a "dissenting preacher" performs a double marriage using the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer to marry two same-sex male couples, in each of which one of the men is also married to a woman.

    When I wrote this scene, I genuinely meant it in the third way that Eric mentions, to give a deeper resonance to the moment; to explore the implications of this ending and the way it resolved (or didn't) the issues facing these unusual families.

    I was brought up in the Episcopal Church (the American version of the CoE) and when I was young we used the older version of the Book of Common Prayer that has since been updated. While not identical to the one that my characters in 1812 England would have used, the text was similar in language and mood. Although I now consider myself an atheist, I am, like many nonbelievers, still moved by many of the rituals of the religion of my childhood.

    In trying to find a genuinely HEA ending for these bisexual men and their partners, male and female, I wanted the men to be able to consecrate their love for their male partner as well as for their wife. I felt that the CoE marriage ceremony provided the only possible solution. The men had married their wives with this ceremony, and it seemed only fair to allow them to use the same rite for their male partner.

    The little sermon I gave the minister to preach at the beginning was my own interpetation of how the concept of Christian marriage could apply to same-sex marriage just as well as opposite-sex. I realize that none of this resolves the issue of monogamy, but that is for another discussion.

    It only occurred to me much later, after the book was published, and some of my neighbors, still attending the Episcopal Church, didn't quite warm to the idea the way I had hoped, that not everbody had had a sudden conversion to my way of thinking after reading this scene. ;)

    I imagine many people felt this scene was blasphemous, and Smart Bitch Sarah, in her review, felt it was too modern. But at the time I wrote it, I really intended it as a beautiful and moving happy ending.

    Of course, Phyllida is a comic novel, and I naturally wanted to hint at all the naughty sexual practices that accompanied the actual "molly weddings" that this dissenting minister performed in molly houses. Most people feel that these molly-house ceremonies were just sexual antics, making fun of heterosexual marriage. But it seemed to me that since we can't know for sure, there's no reason not to suppose that some of these molly-house weddings might have been intended as genuine expressions of love by the participants. At any rate, by having my fictional characters invite the minister into their home to perform these weddings, it allowed the ceremony to take on a more serious meaning.

    Like so much about this book, I wanted to have it both ways.

  9. One of Joey Hill's very first novels, "If Wishes Were Horses" is explicitly pagan. Hero, in fact, is Justin Herne, the embodiment of The Lord, and the heroine and hero have transcendent sex in which they are possessed (in a good way) by The Lord and Lady. Hill herself is pagan, of course.

    I adore James Buchanan's recent m/m romance "Hard Fall" that has a Mormon hero. Similar to DALD, I think. Deeply held religious belief that agnostic me could respect and recognize as fundame tap to hero's character. Beautiful book.

    Ditto for Alex Beecroft's historical m/m Age of Sail "False Colors." Religious character realistically reconciles his same sex love with his religious belifs, I think. Very eu fly and beautifully done.

  10. Fundamental. Sorry. I'm on my iPhone.

    And "subtly and beautifully done." Subtly.


  11. Well here are some brief thoughts about the use of Christian theology (which is the one I feel the most confident discussing)in Romance novels.

    I think part of the resonance religion has within the romantic/erotic is due, in part if not whole, to the Courtly Love tradition which was not just about chivalry but a heterodoxical interpretation of Christian theology----and I'm sort of stealing this somewhat from Octavio Paz---but it was in diametric opposition to the Platonic & Aristotilian interpretations of Christianity. Greek philosophy tends to debase and define the body as an inferior entity. By contextualizing divine love, even constrained by a concept like chastity, within the embodied persons of a knight and his lady, what we have is a religion that not only values the individual soul above the tribe but one that puts on an equal footing the body with the spirit.

    For women this is an extremely important theological idea, and I think, inextricably connected to romance because it allows for femaleness to be not only holy but equally holy as maleness. There is nothing debased or unclean about the body. It is divine, too.

    So when we are talking about the way Christianity and romance interact,I think what we see a lot of is that erotic love is the catalyst for the hero and heroine to live in a state of grace. Two examples of this are Flowers From The Storm and Thunder & Roses where both heroines religions are tied to both their introduction to the hero and the their happy ending. The acceptance that love can come through unexpected sources unconnected with a conventional conception of purity or chastity brings both Maddie & Clare closer to God.

    I could go on and on about this but that's just off the top of my head.

  12. Hi, Ann! Your explanation of how you "had it both ways" where religion is concerned is quite similar to how I talked about that scene with my classes this year, so I feel very smart and gratified.

    Two other doublings that we noticed in class. First, the prefatory sermon both is and is not Christian, since the distinction it draws between the Old Testament and the New might well be seen as heretical (Marcionite), but not in such an obvious way that most of my students even notice. Second, the sermon and wedding are not the last word on same-sex marriage in the novel; there's a later, "pagan" critique of it by another character. It's like a fractal novel: the idea of multiplicity plays out at every level. A perfect playground for a critic & teacher like me!

  13. Oh oh oh! Penelope Williamson's incredible book "The Outsider" has an outlaw coming gravely wounded into a community similar to Amish--separate and very religious. It's one of the most unbelievable books I've ever read and religion is a pervasive and brilliantly handled theme. Amazing book and both characters deal with losing and gaining religion.

  14. Alina Adams' "The Fictitious Marquis" deals with Judaism in Regency society. I'm reluctant to spoil any further. It's a wonderful romance, though.

    It's been many years since I've read "Minister's Wooing," by Harriet Beecher Stowe, but my memory of it is that it's about a woman who is in love with a man who has a different view of Christianity than she does. It tears her apart, and if I remember correctly, she thinks about marrying the minister of the title because he shares her specific religious beliefs, but she doesn't feel for him the love she feels for the other man.

    Stowe always has fascinated me. :)

  15. Aren't some paranormal romances a combination of #2 (recalling the religious roots of Erotic Faith) and #4 (offer an imagined or recovered religion), or perhaps a genre that can go either way depending on the combination of elements? Some vampire stories have a lot of Christian references and symbols, and many paranormal romances between human and "other" require a fundamental change in faith or worldview.

    One example is the Feehan-style vampire/human romances, in which often there's a cult of love (without love, we become monsters) as well as a conversion--spiritually and physically--to a new set of beliefs. But even paranormal stories without strange critters can reinforce the extra-ordinary or miraculous; perhaps it's open to interpretation whether that accords with mystical Christianity or mongrelizes several types of faith. Even a mainstream author such as Elizabeth Lowell treads that line with characters who combine different belief systems. IIRC, she blends Christian and tribal and vaguely Buddhist belief systems (or perhaps popular Western beliefs about those systems) as well as a sort of cult of pragmatism, e.g. in her hero/ines who've lived outside of social norms and come to their own views on religion (and the law).

    3) Romance novels can use religion and religious discourse to give a deeper resonance or meaning or importance to a particular scene or moment

    Here's a non-romance short story about love and sex that invokes both religion and politics :)

    From Steve Almond's How To Love a Republican:

    The female sex was, in political terms, the equivalent of the inner city: a dark and mysterious zone, vilified by the powerful, derided as incapable of self-improvement, entrenched and smelly. Going down on a woman was a dirty business, humiliating, potentially infectious, best delegated to the sensitivos of the Left.

    I relished the act, which I considered to be what Joe Lieberman would have termed, in his phlegmy rabbinical tone, a mitvah. It required certain sacrifices. The deprivation of oxygen, to begin with. A certain ridiculousness of posture; cramping in the lower extremities. One had to engage with the process. There were no quick fixes.

    (Almond's My Life in Heavy Metal collection was one of my best reading finds of the last few years. Only one of the stories is straight-up romance, but the subject matter is all people and relationships.)

    Oh, lovely! The word verification is "geoduc", which reminds me of an old discussion of sexy were-sealife.

  16. It's interesting that you mention Mary Balogh - she uses Christmas a lot in her books as a special time at which wounds can be healed etc. I've also noticed that her H/Hs have religious experiences when listening to music and being in nature and those strike me as quite specifically Christian and not just general feelings of transcendence.

    I contrast that with the other main sense of the religious I get from romance novels which is where the thing that is 'sacred' is either the love between the H/H, or perhaps even the heroine herself. This strikes me as a replacement for religion rather than an expression of a wider belief; a sense that all answers are provided by this pairing; a little religion of its own. And there are many novels with strong themes of sacrifice, salvation and healing.

    One last area you've not mentioned is the 'man/woman of God'; the protaganist whose faith is either a barrier or at least a source of conflict. E.g. Flowers from the Storm by Kinsale and A Woman Scorned by Liz Carlyle. Isn't there a Gaffney with a vicar as well? To Love and To Cherish? I've not read it.

  17. Hi, Eric--

    Oh, you'd never catch me disagreeing with your assessment of yourself as "smart. "Gratified," I think I'd better leave alone ;)

    And yes, you're absolutely right: the Rev. John Church's (via Ann Herendeen's lapsed theology) sermon was definitely unorthodox. Part of that was justified, I felt, by his being a "Dissenter." This was a genuine and controversial interpretation of Christianity that led to bloodshed, revolution and bad feelings all around from the beginnings of Protestantism in England. While I'm not up on all the distinctions among the many sects, I'm pretty sure that some of them denied the divinity of Christ and followed his teachings as a moral man, not a god.

    But I did (and still do) feel that the Christian marriage ceremony need not, in itself, explictly deny same-sex marriage. It's easy enough to replace any "man / woman" language with gender neutral terms or simply say "man / man" or "woman / woman." For believers, the concept of swearing one's love for one's partner before God is clearly meaningful and desirable. A simple civil ceremony is no substitute.

    And yes, the "pagan" view, embodied in the character of Sylvester Monkton, was meant less as a critique of Christianity and religion than as an expression of the somewhat outdated "contemporary" view of marriage, and same-sex marriage in particular, as unnecessary, stifling, heteronormative conventions. Now that same-sex marriage is becoming a reality, we hear this view less often. But I remember in the earlier days of the gay and sexual revolution that marriage was rejected by a substantial part of the gay community. Why should gay people have to imitate the society that rejected them? Many gay people felt monogamy and marriage had nothing to offer them and embraced their status, as does Monkton, of "sexual outlaw." (There was a book by John Rechy with that title).

    But I'm delighted you enjoy the playground of multiplicity in my book, and that you noticed all these details. And now I'm going to look up "fractal."

  18. Have you looked at the "imagined" religion in Lois McMaster Bujold's Paladin of Souls and its sequels?

  19. You mentioned some books I love between your post and the comments. But how could you all forget FLOWERS FROM THE STORM? *g* And right now I'm reading Moriah Jovan's THE PROVISIO which is Mormon and erotic. Maria Isabel Pita clearly alludes to her Catholicisim within her BDSM erotica, although I can't think of particulars at this moment.

    I'm working on a story that is based in Christianity, but follows my struggle to find the Feminine in a Christian God. (along the lines of Sue Monk Kidd's Dance of the Dissedent Daughter) So in my worldbuilding I consciously broke down the trinity to add in the feminine aspect of the Godhead but not using Catholicism's adoration of Mary. I haven't found many romances that are not pagan/wiccan that examine the feminine Christian perception of God. lol, write from your heart, right?

  20. I have not spent a lot of time thinking about this particular subject, but what comes to mind is Lindsay McKenna's books. I believe she was one of the first to write military romance and all of her characters (except the bad guys LOL) are humanist whatever religion they profess to follow.

    And it seems now that at least 1/2 of the couple is Native American and are either learning or following their tribes original beliefs - which include being good to mother earth and each other. In some ways she is almost "preachy" about the subject.

    Blogger rebyj said...

    I think recent books are doing pretty well in how they include religion in books. It's no longer Good vs Evil in that my religion is good and your's is evil. You get a good diversity in pros and cons of many faiths inserted almost seamlessly into a romance. It's not THE story but it sure enhances the cultural richness of a lot of books.

    McKenna's books do the same thing - the good is the humanist "do unto others" and respect mother earch (the environment) and the evil is the opposite - greed, murder, damage to the environment, etc. The religion is portrayed as a way of life that embraces everyone of diverse beliefs in a positive way.

  21. Eric and all,
    I am so enjoying this thread. I wonder, though, if it might be worth drawing a distinction between religion and spirituality. As I understand it, religion of whatever variety is an expression of spirituality-- religion is a set of principles, concepts, and practices that give shape and form to spiritual convictions and experiences. Spirituality is a much wider idea that encompasses the human being's search for ultimate meaning and purpose, and sense of connection to something greater than oneself. I would assert that, although only some people claim a religion, most (all) people have an innate sense of spirituality.

    Thus, a novel need not be explicitly (or even subtly) religious to explore spiritual themes. For example, I see Anna Campbell's books as reflecting very spiritual questions such as the search for meaning and purpose, the quest for self definition and determination, what is most important in life, and relationship with others and the world.

    Campbell's work also uses the (many times sexual) conflict between protagonists to explore what lies between the extremes of contract and covenant, body and spirit, sex and intimacy-- and integration of these extremes (and others) into self and relationship is what brings the hero and heroine their hard-won HEA. I see this exploration and integration as a foundationally spiritual task.

  22. I don't know about categories, but Laura Kinsale's great novel, Flowers from the Storm, has a Quaker heroine whose faith supports her, but whose community almost exiles her because she marries outside the religion. And the religion (Quaker) makes her an outsider in society. It's a complicated relationship-- she's an observant Quaker, but when it comes to love, well, she's a defiant one too.

    One of the most entertaining secondary character is a total rake whose family pushed him to take Holy Orders. He's like the worst clergyman ever, but he comes in handy because he can legally marry them.

    So Kinsale has a strict but sincere religion contrasted with a cynical but enlightened secular post-religion society. And there are no simple answers... except, of course, love. :)

  23. I'd broaden it out, Eric -- I've long felt there was something of the western, Christian religious modality in romance's redemptive and redundant forms -- and in how I return to them in my own imagination, no matter how secular, snarky, and downright Hitchensy I may be about such matters most ways. (But then, my deepest convictions about romance are always those those I find I can't help.)

    I'll be speaking to some of these formal concerns in my PCA talk on Saturday -- hopefully not sounding Hitchensy there.

  24. Great thread, great discussion, and the original posts mentions two of my very favorite universes.

    I do believe that the rise of the paranormal romance genre lends itself to discussion of the Big Question of Good vs. Evil, and in romance, it's a perfect fit to set up Love as the ultimate Good, and romantic love as the human-scale expression. Perfect example is Nora Roberts' Circle trilogy from a couple of years ago, and the more recent Blood Brothers trilogy (which is pretty much exactly the same story-- but I digress).

    I think the question of religion and the place of Christianity in JR Ward's universe is a really interesting one, and perhaps about to get more interesting, with the introduction of an angel into the mix and hints that the Scribe Virgin and the Omega are "children" of a common father. Two of the human characters are deeply enmeshed in the Catholic religion, as well (Butch and Mary).

    A couple of other places to look--

    The Wayfarer Redemption trilogies by Sara Douglass. While not precisely romance, they have interesting questions about the ability of love to conquer evil.

    Going back a bit, I love how Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon puts love, loyalty, politics and religion into a big sausage grinder and seasons with a little bit of taboo.

    Then there's Meljean Brook's Guardian books, mashing up angels, biblical mythology, redemption and damnation, with a big beautiful romance bow on the whole thing.