Religion in Romance

Kyiv Ukraine 2013 Sonya Heaney Oksana Heaney

Kyiv, Ukraine.

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.

The Way Home by Cindy Gerard

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.

A Man to Hold on To by Marilyn Pappano

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.

The Wrangler's Inconvenient Wife (Wyoming Legacy #4) by Lacy Williams

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.

Forbidden Falls by Robyn Carr

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.

kyiv-ukraine-2013-sonya-heaney-oksana-heaney-1

Kyiv, Ukraine.

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.

The Week: 24th February – 2nd March

Parliament House Canberra Australia 20th February 2014 Sonya Heaney Oksana Heaney

Parliament House in Canberra

Well, there goes summer. 😦 On a happier note, the weather tends to be wonderful in Canberra in autumn, and we have all those colourful leaves to make things look pretty. 🙂

On a less-happy note, Vladimir Putin did what we all knew he’d do: played nice during the Olympics, and then went straight back to ruining the world. There’re Russian troops taking over Ukraine’s territory of Crimea – why?!?!

russiapoisedtoinvadeukrainefebruary2014

On another less-happy but nowhere near as serious note: the M key on my computer barely works. Try typing all day and having that issue!

This week I read a really greatest historical story by Theresa Romain (to be released in May) and made an attempt to get back into paranormal and urban fantasy books. It’s a bit of a mixed bag so far (though Patricia Briggs is a genius) – while there’re some good books, I don’t think it’s going back to my #1 genre any time soon.

So – my reviews this week:

My review of Sinfully Yours by Cara Elliott

Sinfully Yours by Cara Elliott

My review of The Chance by Robyn Carr

The Chance by Robyn Carr

My review of A Man to Hold on To by Marilyn Pappano

A Man to Hold on To by Marilyn Pappano

My review of Going Twice by Sharon Sala

Going Twice by Sharon Sala

My review of The Troubled Texan by Phyliss Miranda

The Troubled Texan by Phyliss Miranda

My review of Remembering That Night by Stephanie Doyle

Remembering That Night by Stephanie Doyle

A Man to Hold on To by Marilyn Pappano

A Man to Hold on To by Marilyn Pappano

A Tallgrass Novel

A MAN TO HOLD ON TO

Therese Matheson doesn’t know if she’ll ever get over losing her husband in Afghanistan. Surviving Paul’s death has been hard, but raising his sullen son and his thirteen-going-on-thirty daughter alone has been even harder. All they need is a fresh start, and Tallgrass, Oklahoma, could be the perfect new beginning . . . especially when Therese meets Sergeant Keegan Logan. The sexy combat medic and single dad soon awakens a desire she’d thought long buried.

Keegan always wanted to be a father . . . someday. So when his ex-girlfriend disappears, leaving her daughter in his care, Keegan’s hands are tied. He has to find the girl’s father. His search leads him to Tallgrass and to a beautiful brunette widow who has no idea her husband was ever unfaithful. What begins as a friendship soon ignites into something far more and gives him the courage to be the kind of man-and father-he always dreamt he could be. But his secret still stands between them. Can Keegan reveal the truth and convince Therese they share something too special to lose-a love that can bring two families together?

A Man to Hold on To by Marilyn Pappano

Why would any woman agree to raise the illegitimate daughter from her dead husband’s affair when she was already saddled with two legitimate children from his previous marriage?

After I requested this book for review I checked out some early reviews and got worried.

It seemed A Man to Hold on To was a story than leaned very heavily on religion, something that was more inspirational women’s fiction than the contemporary romance it was listed as.

However, I decided I’d try it myself instead of dismissing it, unread, and I have to say that both the critical and glowing reviews make valid points. I really enjoyed the story and the concept, but I don’t think this is a book that should be marketed to me.

On one hand, it wouldn’t pass the publishers’ rules for Christian fiction, as there’s some language and there’re some intimate (not pornographic) scenes – before marriage. On the other hand, it was definitely fiction with Christians in mind – little things, like the heroine reading the Bible in the evening instead of picking up a normal book. I can see how some people who don’t like religion in their books might feel duped by the marketing of this one.

On the not-so positive side of things (from a non-religious person’s perspective):

A Man to Hold on To presents the reader with the clichéd version of the US South non-Americans tend to imagine: a dislike of liberal California, Bibles and lots of praying, flag-waving, fast food restaurants as the staple of everyone’s diet, and everyone thanking soldiers for their service every time they see one.

“She cried. Not because she was worried but because she was proud. All the Dupree men have done their service all the way back to the Civil War.”

It did very much read like the few US Christian fiction books I’ve read in the past.

The book seems to become more religious as it goes on – I wasn’t bothered by it at all at the start, but by the end, we were getting a lot of this:

“Things happen for a reason, sweetie. You’ve heard enough sermons to know that. If God intended you and Keegan and Paul’s three kids to be together at this point in your lives, then He had to get you all here somehow.

God didn’t promise us easy, sweetie. He just promised He’d help us through.”

Bible and prayer-related things aren’t a huge motivator in the story, but they are everywhere. There is a lot of talk of asking ‘The Lord’ for guidance and that sort of thing. If I was invited to someone’s house for dinner (as the hero of this book was) and it was announced we were going to pray first… I’d be offended they made an assumption about my religion (or lack thereof).

I also wasn’t fond of the image of the saintly woman who is first and foremost a baby-lover and maker presented against the evil women who didn’t want children who formed the villains of the piece. It’s a trope that offends me in any women’s fiction, and it’s something I was hoping we were finally moving away from.

There was also a passage that annoyed me – about how the heroine was a better woman for immediately forgiving her husband for cheating on her. That makes her better – why?

However:

It was a really good story.

Despite the heavy focus on good people love babies and bad people don’t, I did really like the characterisation of all of the children involved. I thought they were the best things about the story, which took me by surprise.

The story was engrossing and had plenty of angst. I would have liked to have seen it take place over a longer period of time (a week and a half for such – and so many – life-changing incidents seemed pretty short!), but if you overlook that, it was a really great story full of realistically flawed characters.

There is a side story that seems to be setting up another book, which was pretty interesting. I liked that there wasn’t shaming involved with the secondary character’s situation, and I’d be interested to see how the author handles her (presumably) happy ending.

I did miss the lack of an extra chapter or two at the end. There were some big things I would have liked to see addressed, though maybe that would have been tying everything up in too many bows…

Oh, and one more thing: telling your teenagers the facts of life when they’re already in their mid-teens = incredibly irresponsible! Maybe the characters wouldn’t have been running around having oops babies everywhere if they’d had more responsible parents!

Review copy provided by NetGalley.