I never thought I would read a romance novel--but Lynn Neal changed my mind.
After reading Neal's Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction several years ago, I determined that at some point I should break with cultural stereotypes and read my first romance novel. Not just any romance novel, mind you, and certainly not one with a shirtless Fabio on the cover. No, I wanted to read an evangelical romance novel. As I designed my course on religion and American popular culture for this semester, I decided it was finally time.
In Romancing God, Neal describes how evangelical romance novels (or inspirational fiction) overlay the basic plot structures of secular romance novels with the theology of conservative Christianity. In addition to sanitized language and censored sex scenes that rely upon euphemism, these works differ from their secular counterparts by presenting obstacles somehow related to the characters' religious beliefs (or lack thereof) that separate the male and female protagonists. In turn, heroines and heroes overcome these problems not through fate or their own designs but rather through faith and the power of God's love. The focus of Neal's book, however, is not upon the explicit plots and implicit theology of inspirational fiction. Instead, through interviews with both authors and readers, she primarily analyzes why women (who are the main readers of these books) choose to read evangelical romance novels and how these works shape readers' religious imaginations and experiences. Neal draws three primary conclusions (12-13):
First, these women read (and write) evangelical romance novels as a way to demonstrate their religious identities. Choosing this genre sets them apart from nonevangelicals, even as it affords them ways to indulge in the fun of romantic fiction…Evangelical romance reading, then, becomes a way for women to assert their evangelical identities even as the novels provide them with ways to improve and sustain their conservative piety.
Second, the genre, while upholding contemporary evangelical ideas about gender, transports these women from the periphery to the center of evangelical life. By foregrounding women's spiritual lives, as well as their concerns about marriage and family, the genre validates women's experience of evangelicalism and their roles as wives and mothers, friends and leaders. In a subculture where men continue to dominate religious leadership, the genre offers fictional worlds where women occupy center stage."
Third...through these novels, readers maintain a theology of hope as they realize the power of God's love amidst the struggles of daily life. For them, a relationship with God represents the ultimate happy ending, an ending that evangelical romances reflect and help them achieve.
Through the course of this study, Neal ably demonstrates the centrality of inspirational fiction in the devotional lives of many women. Such stories of romantic love and personal relationships with God can become as important as--if not more important than--the Bible or formal religious instruction in shaping how readers expect to experience both romance and religion. As with other studies of lived religion, therefore, Romancing God redirects our attention away from institutional settings and doctrinal formulations and helps us see other contexts and forces that shape religion in America. As Neal writes, her work "shifts our focus from the church and the pew to the home and the sofa," analyzing how her "consultants maintain their religious commitments through evangelical romance reading." (10)
Thus I decided to include a unit on evangelical romance novels in my course this semester, both for its pedagogical value and to satisfy my own curiosity. After reading excerpts from Neal's work, my students and I read one of the most popular examples of this genre: Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, which has now sold over a million copies.
Rivers based her story upon the Hebrew prophet Hosea but re-contextualized the tale in mid-nineteenth century California. The saintly Michael Hosea follows God's directions to marry "Angel," a prostitute. Through his patience and persistence, Michael demonstrates God's unconditional love and forgiveness even as Angel runs away from him several times. (Spoiler alert that I'm sure you would never guess): Ultimately, Angel has a personal conversion experience and returns to Michael. The brief epilogue describes their idyllic life and how--despite expectations of Angel's infertility--God answers their prayers and blesses the couple with many children and grandchildren.
My class had great discussions of Redeeming Love's implicit theology, gender ideology, and debatable literary merits. Most students readily identified how features of this evangelical romance novel made it an inspiring alternative to secular novels for many women.
For my own part, reading Redeeming Love confirmed the insights of Neal's argument in Romancing God and the importance of analyzing the ways in which religious groups appropriate pop culture media to advance their own causes. To enrich our understanding of religion in America, let us continue to evaluate under-appreciated phenomena such as evangelical romance novels that shape people's beliefs and behaviors.