Religion & Romance: a Non-Theoretical Perspective

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.

8 comments

  1. Lovely post! And Glitterland seems a natural for your blog, since my favorite scene is when they each cook each other a metaphor… 😉

    1. Thanks so much! And yes, there is a recipe post in the works 😉

  2. I am so glad you enjoyed Glitterland. It was my first m/m romance and a just all around fantastic book. I am looking forward to your review.
    I totally understand where you are coming from. It is an awkward place to stand in between what people expect me to because I profess faith in Christ as my savior, and what I actually believe and how I believe that faith should impact the world and I engage with the material I read.
    I am also a progressive Christian who reads and reviews romance and I do sometimes struggle with how much more visible I am online as an advocate for books, comics, librarianship & making than as cheerleader for Christ. However unlike you I am in a very visible position offline as my husband is pastor of mid-sized congregation in mainline reformed denomination. Online and offline I am honest about my faith, work and passions and it sometimes puts me in awkward and sometimes awesome conversations. I know I am much further left than most people in my denomination, as I try to be vocal supporter of LGBQT visibility, rights and marriage equality in a denomination that only recently gotten comfortable with women serving as pastors and has a long way to go before they can honestly say they are ministring to all of God’s children.
    When I launched my review blog I wrote a post on why I read and review romance, and in it I addressed a bit of how I see my faith & reading life intersecting. At the time I was concerned I would get push back from church members on my reading and endorsing books with graphic sexual content . Maybe the fact that my husband got criticism for reviewing comics back when he started ministry here seven years ago and didn’t stop reviewing or reading them has inoculated me. I haven’t as yet gotten in trouble, despite reviewing ménage, kink, MC and m/m books.

    1. I think you're amazing and I'm glad you haven't gotten much push-back. I'm always surprised at how many people admit that they read romance too when I tell them about my reading habits. Maybe not all quite the same stuff as I do. I seem to know quite a number of older women in our former congregation who read current HPs, something I really don't read much, but they're very far from judgmental.

  3. I was mesmerized by your post and the comments that follow, as I am by any discussion of romance and religion, or the inclusion of religion in romance, outside of the inspirational subgenre. As an Orthodox Christian, I belong to the most conservative of Christian denominations; like you, I am disappointed when Christians are "lumped" uniformly into one, let's call it, political camp. My reasons for being a part of a worshipping Orthodox community are not political, but salvific. They are also, and to some this may sound superficial but to me it is essential, aesthetic. The services are beautiful: the light is, the candles, music, scents, and poetry. The metaphor of Holy Week is the most profound and moving one for me: Christ as the Bridegroom, His Church as the Bride, and we the witnesses and wedding guests to Passion and Feast. This metaphor is defining to my understanding of Christianity and also why I read and review romance: the metaphors are philosophically beautiful. Two people meet, struggle (like Jacob and the Angel), fall in love, and are united in a physical and mystical marriage; thus, they save each other in a way that echoes the redemption of our earliest parents, Adam and Eve. Romance, like Christianity, is a chance to come in out of the cold, to leave the desolation of exile and find a home with the other, to save the stranger and to save oneself. I've never thought that hopeful vision is exclusive to many churches', including my own, narrow definition of marriage as that between a man and a woman. I hope and pray that, as we say in the Orthodox Church, in "the fullness of time": "There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female," which I've never thought as an erasure of identity, but the freedom to be fully ourselves, without hatred, or rancour, or prejudice.

    1. I love it when you talk about your church because it's so far outside my own experience. I mean, the Catholic church can be fairy conservative, although where I grew up, it wasn't especially: just wealthy and complacent. And I'm with you on inspirationals. They're just too literal for me, among other things. The idea that we can't find God anywhere but with our butts in a church pew (or in a romance that explicitly refers to the Christian God) seems crazy to me. I'm sure there are good ones, but I haven't read enough of them to find out who writes them. Anyway, why would I when there are so many wonderful love stories within the subgenres I do read? My ever-growing TBR pile can certainly attest to that.

  4. Hi, I just found this today in response to Alexis Hall mentioning it on Twitter!

    I just want to say, this is wonderful! First, I also feel “Glitterland” is absolutely something special. I agree on the theme of redemption, though I’m not sure I consciously thought of it in that way as I read it. But, in fact, that word kind of crystalizes for me something I felt about the book that I wasn’t able to put my finger on before. Which may be part of the reason I’ve never managed to review it despite how much I love it. Also, Alexis is such a lovely & extraordinary person & now also a dear friend. I'm so glad you will be writing about this on QRM & really looking forward to your articles 🙂

    I also really liked what you had to say on the subject of spirituality & religion. I’ve long taken a view of religion (not to mention the nature of God & reality itself) that’s best represented by the parable of the blind men & the elephant. Which, I know, is such a cliché. But as a person who does not attend church yet holds some very profound (though eclectic) spiritual beliefs & values, I have never felt that my belief in God & Christ were incompatible with non-Christian religious beliefs, science, political liberalism, or lots of other things. Yet I’ve never been able to find a church that holds similar views, which is frustrating. So it’s really nice to know there are practicing Christians who feel the same, or at least somewhat similarly.

    Thanks for this very interesting post :-)

    Pam/Peejakers

    1. Hi Pam! Glad you liked it and happy to have connected with you on Twitter too! I just read another of Hall's books, Prosperity, over the weekend and it was delightful. I can tell he's going to become a quick favorite.

      As for church, it look us a long time to find just the right place for us. Our church is what's called "emerging" and it's a little different than even a non-denominational one. We have a tendency to refer to it as trans-denominational or even post-denominational. It's a very diverse group, theologically, but what binds us together is that being a community that supports each other and helps the world is more important than any specific philosophical point and that when new people enter the community, the community naturally reshapes itself around them. There are "emerging cohorts" in a lot of different places. If you're interested in learning more about emergence, this NPR/Radiolab podcast is a good place to start: http://www.radiolab.org/story/91500-emergence/. There are also some Christian writers who have written about this, but that quick podcast is the best way to get the general idea, even though it totally has nothing to do with church.

      So glad to have "met" you!

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