Teaching inspirationals

What defines an inspirational romance novel? Eric Selinger teaches courses on popular romance fiction—including inspirational novels—at DePaul University. When did he first encounter inspirational romances? How does he frame them for his students? How do these stories fit into the panoply of romance genres?


When did you start teaching inspirational romance?

As of this point I’ve taught about 25 courses on popular romance fiction at DePaul University, and in each of those courses I try to introduce my students to a range of authors and a range of subgenres. And after the first half a dozen times that I taught the course, I kind of stopped and looked over my syllabus to see what’s missing. I wasn’t teaching any male-male romance, okay, so I need to bring that into the syllabus. I’m not teaching any lesbian romance, I should really bring that in. Oh, there’s some bisexual romance? I should bring that in, too. What else is missing? Wait a minute. I’m not teaching any Christian romances!

Well, Christian romance, especially at the time that I was designing this course, the two fastest growing segments of the romance market were erotic romance over here, and inspirational romance over here. And so it was a gap in my teaching and I didn’t want to falsify the record for my students to pretend that these books didn’t exist. And I was a little bit annoyed at myself for not having read any because, for the same reason that I was annoyed at myself when I started reading romance novels at all in my mid-30s, I thought, you know, “How long has this been going on? Why did I never look at these books before?” And I thought, “Okay, I don’t want to make that mistake again.”

So I’ve started reading, and I asked some of my students for recommendations. I had students who were avowedly Christian in class and were talking to me about the secular novels from that perspective. And I thought, “Let me ask them for advice.”

How are inspirationals similar to other romance novels?

One of the things that really struck me when I started reading them was how familiar the providential design in the novels were. Right? These romance novels were novels in which there was a guiding hand behind the plot that was beneficent. It wanted good for the hero and heroine. It had a sense, right—this guiding hand was leading them to a particular version of the happy ending. Sometimes starting at the very beginning with the selection of, you know—“love this person, here is the one.” And then at other times sort of arranging—bringing good out of bad, arranging circumstances, arranging coincidences—all that kind of plot stuff.

And I thought to myself, well, that’s all very familiar, except in the secular romance novels it’s just the author. Right? In the secular romance novel, we know that the same things will happen, we just attribute it to the genre—it’s a romance novel—we attribute it to the author making compositional decisions. We attribute it to fate. If it’s a paranormal, it could be “This is your destined mate!” The distinction between a moment like that and a moment of a still, small voice in a hero’s head that says “This one,” they’re the same moment in the narrative. It’s just a question of what things are being attributed to.

What does this look like in a novel?

One of the most moving examples of this is the great Christian Evangelical romance novel Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, which is a brilliant and very, very moving book. There’s an exchange between the hero and heroine where the hero says flat out, “Look, I can’t be everything for you. I don’t have to be everything for you. There’s someone else who is. I don’t want to be your God. I just want to be your husband.” There’s a profound spiritual truth to that within a Christian theological context. It’s a very wise thing to say. There’s an important psychological truth to that. When I’ve taught that novel in my classes on popular romance fiction I’ve had male students and female students alike, who are entirely secular, they do not identify as Christian, they’re not Christian, say, “I read that passage and I realized, this is how I’ve screwed up every relationship I’ve been in in my life, because I’ve thought I had to be perfect for this other person. What a relief to have a romance novel that actually says, “The way you make a marriage work is by realizing that that’s just not gonna happen and it’s not supposed to happen, and thinking that it’s going to happen is asking more of yourself or of this other person than a human being could possibly accommodate. But luckily, there’s someone who can!’” You don’t need to ask it of another person, ask it where you’re supposed to ask it.

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