I read an opinion piece from a few months ago where it was discussed that belief systems (not necessarily religion per se) are often absent from secular romance fiction. Of course, the discussion that followed tended to ignore the “not necessarily religion” part and went into whether or not readers want to see characters in mainstream fiction as practicing Christians.
Of course, there’s a real divide in attitudes about this. When I thought about it, for some reason we seem much more accepting of non-Christian characters practicing their religion in mainstream fiction. For example, in Cindy Gerard’s excellent The Way Home, there’re two female and two male leads. One of the women is from the Middle East, and her religion factors into her everyday life. I do think that it’s rarer to see Christianity threaded into mainstream fiction – though Gerard does have a book I’ve not yet read where the romantic hero wears a cross around his neck and apparently takes his religion as seriously as you can.
I have to admit, that US (as most contemporary romantic fiction is still US-based) romances featuring Christian characters tend to make me twitchy. It calls to mind people who support outlandish politics like the Legitimate Rape debacle and the Rape Babies are a Gift from God misogynist. It calls to mind homophobia and the like. Contemporary characters who practice their religion openly make me wonder if I could stand them in real life – and therefore if I even want to read about them and their happy ever after.
Is that a fair assumption to make? No. Especially not as only do I attend a Ukrainian Catholic church every so often, but I’m also an outspoken feminist who abhors homophobia.
One (Christian) person commented at the bottom of the article about their annoyance with reviews for a particular book: A Man to Hold on To.
Now, I’m pretty sure my review is one she was referring to. It was one of the first reviews out, and was posted on multiple sites. The commenter was upset that some of us disliked the Christian content in mainstream fiction, but in this case I do think it’s something I stand by. I don’t know if I can draw a line in the sand, but I felt the book crossed the line from mainstream fiction with religious characters into Christian romance.
A Man to Hold on To featured a heroine who read her Bible in the evenings. The characters – even children who were not the hero’s or the heroine’s – were made to pray before their meals. Yes, the book was set in a very conservative southern part of the United States, but it was also a hundred times more Christian than some of the Christian romances I’ve read – books that have been labelled as Christian romance. It distracted me.
I have enjoyed some Christian fiction. Immensely. Most of it is historical romance, however. Interestingly, most of it is set in the über-conservative parts of the United States that the modern books I don’t enjoy are set.
Christian characters can be done well without feeling preachy. Robyn Carr has a reverend as her romantic hero in Forbidden Falls. Though a few readers took issue with him having premarital sex, I found otherwise we were given a multifaceted, modern-day man whose profession just happens to involve his Christian faith.
I’m not exactly sure where the line between involving everyday aspects of a character’s life and turning your book into a fully-fledged religious romance is. I just know it when I see it. It’s quite normal for a lot of people from European cultures to incorporate religion in some way or another into their lives.
Many in my family are from small rural Ukrainian communities where the church is at the heart of the community, a custom that carried over to new countries when they became refugees and couldn’t return to Ukraine (thanks, Russia!). We have very progressive friends from Italy who still attend church, but their religion is a private thing for them, and not practiced as openly as praying before meals or studying religious texts.
My issue with Christian romance is that it’s all so black and white. Christian? No alcohol. Baddie? Perpetual drunk. (And by the way, that alcohol ban? Not a thing in most Christian societies!) Christian? Save the children. Atheist? Child abuser. Such nonsense, and you can see why people who aren’t all that religious get defensive as soon as A Christian turns up on the page.
So I guess I have no problem with mainstream fiction characters having a religion. Where I start to become annoyed is when they’re the kind to start a sentence with, “As a Christian” and wield their Christianity as a giant sign they’re better people. Because they’re not.