By Arin Chapman
We love, because He first loved us.
-1 John 4:19 NIV
The Christian romance novel, which shares some similarities with secular romance but has many distinguishing features, rose to prominence in the later twentieth century to eventually claim a significant percentage of the romance fiction market. This form of the romance novel allowed Christian authors to tell love stories while conveying lessons about family, relationships, and faith to both Christian and non-Christian readers.
Though Christian romance novels have distinguishing characteristics that set them apart from secular romance novels, the two genres have more in common than differences. In 1998, Harlequin Christian romance novels had “constant references to ‘God and ‘God’s plan,’ but references to ‘Jesus Christ’ [were] rare or non-existent” (Woodard, 2), and this trend has remained pretty consistent since. I believe this may be why they are often referred to as inspirational romance novels, rather than Christian, and marketed and sold that way as well. Even though “religious or spiritual beliefs are an inherent part of the love story, character growth and relationship development and could not be removed without damaging the storyline (myRWA : The Romance Genre : Romance Subgenres),” it seems that by not taking the next step and referencing Jesus, Christianity is not fully integrated into the novel. Therefore, there may be a kind of distance put between Christianity and the character’s experience, so it is easier to market and sell as inspirational romance. Other distinguishing characteristics of Christian romance are a “lack of explicit sexuality and a focus on God as a third party in the romance” (Toscano, 1).
Some similarities Christian romance shares with secular romance is that “at the center of the romance plot is the love story between [protagonists] that must involve strong sexual tension, however euphemistically it is described (Toscano, 1).” Both genres also share moral values, such as “fidelity, monogamy, mutuality, consent, and marriage” (Toscano, 1), and have a variety of plots and plot settings. Furthermore, characters in Christian and secular romances have and participate in conversion experiences on similar time tables (Neal, 14), with conversion experiences referring to sexual, emotional, or religious changes. However, within the subgenres, there are differences in the progression of the sexual conversion experiences, where Christian characters often experience sexual encounters together for the first time, while secular heroes are more likely to be more experienced than their secular heroines, and thus take on a teaching role, as they help guide the heroine through her first sexual encounter (Clawson).
The Christian romance genre also frames gender, masculinity, and femininity differently than secular romance genres. This trend is especially seen in the differences between the genres’ heroes. Though there have been some changes in the genre since the 90’s, heroes in secular romance are often “depicted as overwhelmingly strong, economically and physically, but that strength is frequently overcome by the emotional strength of the heroine, who tames them” (Krentz), while Christian heroes are “less overpowering figures at the beginning of the texts but are more dominant within the relationship, subject instead to the will of God” (Clawson, 1). Secular romance novels put more importance on worldly success, so for example, in contemporary secular romance, heroes are more likely to work in “managerial or entrepreneurial professions” (Clawson, 7), “have their profession mentioned on the book’s exterior, be identified as a parent in the title, pay for a first date, and give gifts” (Clawson, 9). However, in contemporary, Christian romance, the heroes’ “morals and religious strength” (Clawson, 13) and ability to lead a family are his most important attributes, where worldly measures do not define them nearly as much as their secular counterparts. Overall, Christian heroes are also less likely to participate in childrearing than their secular counterparts, and it is more common to see women being the primary caregivers to children in Christian romance. Speaking of heroines, secular ones are more likely to have more autonomy outside the home, while Christian ones are more likely to stay home and take on housewife roles.
Along with shaping gender, Christian romance “stresses the importance of traditional family structures relative to secular novels” (Clawson, 3). Traditional families are defined as families with a husband, wife, and child, that have conventional gender roles, where the husband is the primary breadwinner and the wife is the primary homemaker (Christopherson). Furthermore, “characters in Christian romances, given biblical injunctions against sex outside of marriage and the recent evangelical trend toward courtship [which started around 1985], will be less likely to be sexually experienced than characters in secular romances” (Clawson, 4). Non-traditional family structures, which are any structures deviating from what was previously mentioned as traditional, are also almost always mentioned in a negative light or lead to future problems. Along with that, previously married protagonists in Christian romance novels are more likely to be widowed than divorced, and this could be that because marriage is sacred under God, having a spouse die is better than getting a divorce.
Before Christian romance existed, there was “sentimental” fiction in the nineteenth century. Sentimental fiction was said to be fiction “for and about women that celebrated conservative Protestant piety as well as love and home” (Neal, 3). Two prominent authors of sentimental fiction were Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Susan Warner, who wrote The Wide, Wide World.
Grace Livingston Hill, evangelical and author of over seventy Christian novels, started the shift from sentimental fiction to Christian romance fiction at the start of the 20th century. As a child she always enjoyed writing, and following the death of both her husband and father, she began to write as a career. Hill also began to search for editors and publishers to help make her work better right away. In 1908, she was able to find a publisher, J.B. Lippencott, who was willing to publish her first novel, Marcia Schuyler, which had “religious inspiration blended with boy-meets-girl romance”(Neal, 32). Throughout her career, her novels “preserved the nineteenth century emphasis on God and Protestant faith” (Neal, 36), and until the 1960s, Hill was one of the only authors publishing Christian romance, as other Christian authors’ focuses “revolved around ministries and Bible stories” (Neal, 40).
Changes in the evangelical church in the US in the first half of the twentieth century, and subsequent cultural changes, eventually influenced the creation of the Christian Booksellers Association. In 1950, the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) was created as a “trade association for anyone selling Christian literature” (Neal, 39) and Bethany House emerged in 1956, with the goal to “help Christians apply biblical truth in all areas of life—whether through a well-told story, a challenging devotional or the message an illustrated children’s book” (Neal, 39). In 1967, Hill was joined in the Christian romance world by Catherine Marshall, with her publication of Christy and, “the industry truly exploded during the 1970s, and the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) was formed in 1974 to help give these new religious storeowners a chance to network and strategize” (The Rise and Fall of the Christian Bookstore).
The 1970s also saw the romance industry become an ideological battleground that “reflected the political struggles around women’s rights in American society at the time, and it manifested itself in two new trends in romance publishing: the hard-core, sexually explicit romance and the Christian romance” (Darbyshire). Increasing sensuality in mainstream romance novels in the 1970’s, and the parallel rise of Christian romance, led at least one Christian academic, Professor David Lyle Jeffrey, to state that romance was in fact Christian at its core, and that with this new type of Christian romance the genre was finally retuning to its roots (Woodard). This boom in Christian publishing houses and bookstores introduced the romance reading world Janette Oke, who some claim “inaugurated the contemporary form of evangelical romance” (Neal, 44) in 1979 with her novel, Love Comes Softly.
The growth continued into the next decade: in 1983, Christian booksellers saw “their business[es] grow by 20 to 25 percent for each of the last 10 years” (AP) and by the mid 1980’s, the CBA “boasted 3,000 members and approximately 4,000 Christian retail stores” (The Rise and Fall of the Christian Bookstore).
Before the Christian publishing industry exploded into popularity in the 1970’s in response to the American cultural revolution and progressive social change movements from civil rights to feminism and anti-war protesting to environmentalism, where Christians “felt as if their religious values were under siege” (The Rise and Fall of the Christian Bookstore), “the 4% of pulp fiction that was Christian was in the hands of small houses like Crossroads of New York or Bethel in Elkheart, Indiana” (The Rise and Fall of the Christian Bookstore). Sales of Christian romance continued to grow over the next decade, and finally the romance giant Harlequin Publishing House released its first ever inspirational romance novel, under Steeple Hill Imprint, in September of 1997. Harlequin did not just release one novel, but three, and took what was being sold under small publishers, such as Crossroads and Bethel, and helped make it into a growing phenomenon. Harlequin knew that in order to grow Christian romance readership, they would have to publicize and market strategically. Though “tiny in comparison to a general romance book trade of roughly $1 billion,” Harlequin did something right because months after the release of those three novels, Christian romance accounted for “5.25 million books yearly, [and] rang up some $43 million” (Woodard, 1). By 2002, “Christian romance account[ed] for more than a third of all popular fiction sales and over half of all paperback fiction sales” and had 51.1 million readers (Clawson, 2). Some Christian romance authors, who wrote for smaller publishing houses, were hesitant to attribute Christian romance’s growing mainstream market to Harlequin Publishing House. Bethany House of Minneapolis author, Janette Oke, “[thought] the new Harlequin series constitutes less the entrance of a mainstream publisher into a now-sizeable Christian niche market, and more a Christian influence on the mainstream market” (Woodard, 2). Furthermore, she believed “Christians [would] always discern what is or is not a truly Christian book” (Woodard, 2), and Harlequin would not be able to misguide the already existing Christian romance readership.
Christian “authors and readers overwhelmingly agree on the purpose of evangelical romances: the novels represent a ministry by, for, and about women” (Neal, 108), however there are many different reasons why readers, who are mostly women, choose to read these novels and authors choose to write them. Women read Christian romance as entertainment, as an escape, and as a way to strengthen their faith, as they “hope to combat despair with a theology of hope and perseverance” and “maintain her faith amidst the ups and downs of daily life” (Neal, 104). For some Christian readers, like Lynn Neal’s interviewee, Charlotte, these books are a way to “forget about the impure books out there that offer danger rather than safety, [and] filth rather than wholesome fun” (Neal, 61). Similar to other romance, Christian romance novels also allow for the establishment of communities, networks and women’s ministry (Neal). That said, the amount of novels readers read “depends upon a variety of factors, [including] amount of leisure time, interpretation of romantic elements, and level of spiritual commitment” (Neal, 126). Sometimes “they do not always need or want the resources, spiritual or otherwise, offered by the genre” (Neal, 126). Below in Chart 1, the reader can see that in 2015, among Christian fiction novels, romance and romantic suspense were in the top four most popular genres read (Study: Christian Fiction Readers Buy, Read More Books).
Similar to how readers read romance for different reasons, authors write Christian romance for many reasons. Besides writing because it is something they enjoy, some write in hopes that “non-Christians who pick up their books will be inspired to become Christians themselves” (Religion News Service) and others view their work as an extension of their religious lives, as Christianity is “reflected in the language, actions, deeds, thoughts, and Christian worldview of their characters” (Martin). Bestselling author Gail Gaymer Martin notes that, “The decision to write Christian romance offers an amazing opportunity to spread God’s Word and touch lives through stories that inspire and offer hope” (Martin). Furthermore, whenever they are met with criticism, authors of Christian romance “readily provide a twofold justification for their work: the example of Jesus and a calling by God” (Neal, 108). According to these authors, in the Bible when Jesus was asked by his followers why he told stories, he responded that he wrote “to create readiness, to nudge the people towards receptive insight” (“Matthew 13”), and in taking after Jesus, Christian authors want to “use their stories to minister, thereby finding divine inspiration for writing the evangelical romance” (Neal, 109). Authors also have to find the balance between their artistic vision and what their readers want. Readers of Christian romance want religious inspiration and romantic imagination in the books they read (Neal). Furthermore, “evangelical consumers expect artists to seamlessly weave [secular and religious elements] together and offer products that are neither too preachy nor too wishy-washy (Neal, 97). Overall, “evangelical women read and write romance for three main purposes: first to demonstrate and maintain their religious identities; second, to validate women’s experience of evangelism and their roles as wives and mothers, friends, and leaders in a culture where men still dominate leadership and discourse; and third, to both express and strengthen women’s devotion to God” (Toscano, 3)
The Christian romance industry has seen an increase in its authors, readers, booksellers, and publishing houses since the 1970’s. Though Christian and secular romance novels share similarities in their moral values and the love story centrality to the plot, Christian romance distinguishes itself from secular romance in that religious beliefs are inherent to the plot and differing attributes of their respective heroes, family structures, and gender roles. Both Christian authors and readers write and read them for different reasons, but at the core of many of those reasons is to maintain and strengthen their faith and their relationships with God.
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Clawson, Laura. “Cowboys and Schoolteachers: Gender in Romance Novels, Secular and Christian.” Sociological Perspectives 48, no. 4 (2005): 461–479.
Darbyshire, Peter. “The Politics of Love: Harlequin Romances and the Christian Right.” Journal of Popular Culture; Oxford 35, no. 4 (Spring 2002): 75–87.
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“myRWA: The Romance Genre: Romance Subgenres.” Accessed April 2, 2018. https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=579.
Neal, Lynn S. Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/duke/detail.action?docID=413372.
Religion News Service. “Faith Plays Role in Christian Romances: Publishing: The Cleaned-up Courtships Involve Hand-Holding and Religious Experience rather than the Explicit Sex of More Conventional Novels.” Los Angeles Times, July 15, 1995. http://articles.latimes.com/1995-07-15/local/me-24030_1_christian-romance.
Toscano, Margaret M. “Review: Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction, by Lynn S. Neal.” Accessed April 2, 2018. http://jprstudies.org/2012/10/review-romancing-god-evangelical-women-and-inspirational-fiction-by-lynn-s-neal/.
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Woodard, Joe. “God Starts Cleaning up the Pulp-Romance: Harlequin Brings out An ‘inspiration’ series to Feed a Growing Hunger for Religion.” Alberta Report; Edmonton 25, no. 4 (January 12, 1998): 36.