Aside from the first romance novels consumed in utter stealth beneath my covers after midnight while still in high school, I’ve always been a pretty open romance reader. I mean, I’m not shy about cracking a vintage Harlequin while waiting for the bus or pulling out my Grace Burrowes at the doctor’s office. My female friends have always known I read romance in addition to the fantasy and science fiction and YA that are our bigger points of reading overlap.
But when it comes to men, I’m a lot more shy. Most of the guys I play Dungeons & Dragons with don’t know about my romance obsession. I’d guess they probably wouldn’t be judgmental about it, but I’m not really sure. It’s like our Christianity: it just doesn’t come up all that often.
Speaking of my faith, it’s not something that comes up terribly often here on my blog or on Twitter either. I’m more of an evangelist for Laura Kinsale than I am for Christ. But in the upcoming week I’m going to talk a bit (ha, okay, a lot) about Alexis Hall, who is a queer man writing m/m romance and I figure it might come up. Not because it seems weird to me, but because it will probably seem weird to some other people that I loved his book Glitterland so very much. People make assumptions about Christians and think it’s a monolithic religion. It’s not. It’s so not. I have very little in common with Pat Robertson or any other conservative evangelical theologically other than a mutual belief in God.
I was raised Catholic in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m a feminist and a political progressive and I walked away from the church at 15 over issues with the church’s position on birth control and the ordination of women. I’d been reading a lot of Mercedes Lackey, Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce by then and I knew full well that there was no reason for any of the church’s positions except to use traditional gender roles to reinforce traditional power structures and I didn’t want any part of it.
When I wandered back to the church a few years ago, it was because even though I considered myself spiritual, I had a hard time exercising that spirituality without the structure of organized religion. But I was very, very careful not to put myself into any box that didn’t mesh with my understanding of Christ’s teachings, none of which involved the shunning, exclusion or persecution of sinners. Christ was much harder on the self-righteous Jewish religious and political elite than he was on the woman at the well. And I was very careful not to align myself with any group that wanted to label certain categories of people sinners while reserving the label of righteousness for themselves.
My specific theological positions are less important here than the bottom line, which is probably what you’re looking for if you’ve gotten this far. And the bottom line is that I believe that we were put here for a higher purpose and that the purpose is for us to help each other muddle along together however we can. Because life on Earth isn’t always easy or pretty and we’re not fulfilling our purpose if our primary goal isn’t to help each other. Also, which is a little more distinctively Christian (or at least theistic), that when I succeed in doing so I honor God. That purpose does not include leveling judgment at LGBTQ people. In fact, it excludes it. If I were told by the church that I had to, I couldn’t do it. I’ve walked away from that twice and I’d do it again.
I don’t read romance as a political or religious statement. I read it because I like stories with happy endings about people falling in love. I also don’t belong to my church for political or religious reasons. I do it because life, especially life in America in the early 21st century is isolating and selfish and acquisitive and I’d rather not be like that. And so I’m a member of a community that encourages me to be otherwise. I’ll be talking more specifically about Glitterland next Thursday and the following Monday, but for now, just know that in Ash I recognized myself in my brokenness and desperation and in Darian, I recognized Christ as I know Him. If I’m honest, I’m unable to process that story any other way. I can tone it down. I can use non-Christian, non-theological terms to express what I thought about it and how I felt about it. I’ve been doing it for a week, in fact: talking about mental illness, intellectual snobbery and class differences. But that was the intellectual taking over. The gut-level reaction was a relieved sigh: that love and redemption is offered to everyone, even the most messed up and selfish of us.
There has been a conversation this week taking place at Dear Author and a few other places about religion as texture or context for character relationships. And while I’m all for less superficiality in our examinations of work, philosophy, ethics and other cultural and contextual elements of romance, the fact is that in the best books, it’s all there. We might wish for more of the best books, but that has been ever the struggle, right? There’s superficial sci fi, fantasy, mystery, “literature” and every other genre. The key is relishing the good stuff where we find it and being enlightened enough to know when we have, whatever the form, for whatever our definition of enlightenment.