The inspirational’s roots

Modern inspirational romance novels form part of a tradition stretching back to the 18th century. In these early works, Puritan authors modeled ways to balance the love of a jealous God and the love of a mortal spouse. In novels today, heroes and heroines love God and one another without worrying about loving either too well. Eric Selinger looks at how this evolution took place.


What are the roots of inspirational romance?

The roots of Christian romance run very deep, and they are many and various. Most immediately, Christian Evangelical romance is a direct continuing, unbroken tradition back to the 19th century, and really back to the 18th century, a tradition of Christian sentimental fiction in which we have a plot that is providential, in which the hand of God is visible in the punishments of those who are bad or the reformation of those who are bad, the reward for those who are good, the reward for those who persevere, the reward for those who come to Christ. Those Christian stories are imbedded in a sentimental context so that human love, the marriage plot, becomes the site of spiritual experience. Whether it be a conversion narrative, or whether it be a reformation—a personal reformation—narrative, whether it be the slow influence of a good Christian woman on a hard-drinking man who gives that up and etcetera, etcetera.

This is a long tradition and an enduring tradition and one of the things that I find fascinating about Christian romance is precisely the fact that in many ways it’s the oldest form of popular romance fiction. It’s the kind of romance fiction that hasn’t changed in many profound ways from its origin. Now that said, there are at least two other things to add to that story. The first is that there has been a change in the kind of triangular relationship between the three great characters in any Christian romance story—and that’s between the hero, the heroine, and God.

Again and again you find a fear that I will love my husband or my wife more than I love God. The fear of idolatry is a very real emotional thing; it’s a very real spiritual thing in Puritan writing. Part of the reason for that is that in the narratives these authors tell, God has a way of reminding you that human beings are mortal, and he is not. That human beings are created and there is a creator and there is a fundamental ontological difference between them. If you love your husband too well, if you love your wife too well, he or she might be taken from you. You can see Puritan diarists when their spouses die agonizing over whether in some way their attachment might not have been a kind of cause of this. It’s terribly moving, I think.

How has God’s role changed in inspirational romances?

One of the things that’s striking, if you go from those stories, move forward the 300, 400 years to 20th- and now 21st-century Christian romance stories, that plot is not there anymore. The God who is such a jealous God in every sense of the word in those Puritan narratives is now the author of romantic love, is now the guarantor of romantic love. And one of the plot points you will sometimes reach in these novels is the moment where the hero or the heroine realizes that he or she is running into this danger and sidesteps it, manages to negotiate, manages to find a way around that temptation, that mistake. So that’s a real change over time. So you have the continuity of certain plot elements, you have the continuity of the aesthetic of using Biblical allusion, Biblical quotation, stories that echo Biblical narratives. That’s an enduring tradition that Christian romance authors in some cases are extraordinarily adept with, Francine Rivers is one, but there are others. And yet you do have these changes.

How is marriage represented?

You have changes within the way that the marriage is represented. We might think that Christian Evangelical romances will have in them terribly traditional sort of 1950s-style division of gender roles; and there are some perhaps that do, but more often what you find is a very interesting attempt to negotiate on the one hand a kind of 20th- and 21st-century sense of egalitarian marriage, of the equality between, fundamental equality between men and women; and on the other hand a sense coming out of scripture, coming out of Evangelical culture that there are different roles and different duties and different character traits that belong to the two sexes.

And so the attempt to figure out how do you square this circle, how do you make both of these work, that’s something that I think is part of the lived experience of folks in Evangelical communities around the country. And I think that’s part of the cultural work of these romances to show characters, whether they are in contemporary settings, or whether they are historical romance novels, to show characters modeling, this is how you confront this difficulty, this is how you think about this difficulty, and this is how you arrive at a successful and enduring conclusion—resolution of this seeming paradox without leaving behind either a sense of gender equality or a sense of theological, scriptural—the theological and scriptural foundation for what a marriage ought to look like. These are fascinating texts.

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