Religion in . . . (not really) literature

Lately I’ve been reading romantic thrillers (yes, this is my guilty secret after 25 years of reading more redeeming books I started reading romance novels). I’ve found a few authors I like, but I’ve read most of their books, so I’ve been looking for new authors I might like. I looked at some of the Listmania lists on Amazon, and found some suggestions. One of the suggestions was for the O’Malley series by Dee Henderson. What I didn’t realize until I was five or six chapters into the first book is that these are not just romantic suspense novels. They’re Christian romantic suspense novels. And it bugs me. A lot. I really like the characters, and the plot is pretty good, but the discussion of faith and believing makes me want to throw the book across the room.Granted, at least a little of this is because of the way they treat the importance of belief. (i.e. I’m so worried that she might die now, before she believes or It’s okay if I’m in danger now, and if I die now, because I believe) (And you should just hear the way I say that believe, in my best Southern Baptist minister voice. Or maybe you’re glad you can’t.) Anyway, this part of my disgust is understandable, since I don’t think someone is going straight to Hell just because they haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior before they die.

The first real focus on religion in the book, however (and the first time I wanted to throw it across the room), was when the male lead was hesitant about dating the female lead because she didn’t share his beliefs. And my reaction surprised me a little. It didn’t totally surprise me, because it was the first time I realized it was a religious book, and I generally get frustrated and annoyed by religious fiction. Actually, I usually just avoid religious fiction completely (except for Heimerdinger’s Tennis Shoes books, those I always liked, though it’s been many years since I read them). But still, why should I be so bothered by the fact that the guy doesn’t want to date a girl who doesn’t share his religious beliefs? After all, in real life that’s a legitimate concern for most of my friends, and one I respect. It was something I certainly took into account when dating people. Usually I respect reality in fiction, so why does this bit of reality bother me so much?

One idea I had was that the religion parts of the book were just not as well written. And I think this might be true, but I’m not sure, because I’m not sure I’m objective enough to judge. Another reason might be that I don’t like how they introduce religion to her, she thinks about it for a few days, and is suddenly converted. Hooray, all happy and pat and done with. Conversion (in my opinion, and experience), doesn’t work like this. But then again, neither does love, and that’s the way it’s presented in romance novels, and that doesn’t seem to bother me.

I think the most likely reason I don’t like religion in fiction is that it gets too preachy for me. They didn’t just discuss religion, they needed to convert the main character. And while I’m very firm in my religious beliefs, and will happily discuss them with friends and acquaintances, I’m very wary of preaching or trying to convert someone else to my way of thinking. And I know this is kind of opposite of what the church teaches, and sometimes I think I need to work on it, but I never really do. So maybe I’m uncomfortable because this reminds me of my own shortcomings.

Anyway, the point of this post is not only to share my own thoughts, but to solicit your thoughts. How do you feel about religious fiction? Do you find it’s not as well written as other types? Do you like it, hate it, feel indifferent toward it? And is this discomfort I feel reading it a big deal? Should I just continue to avoid the genre, or is it an issue I should actually work on?


  1. Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vada. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Rebel’s hidden fortress…

    Argh! My throat!

    (Sorry – had to be said). 🙂

  2. The funny thing is the nickname actually comes from the main character in the movie My Girl. You really can’t get much different from Darth Vader than that…

  3. Vada,

    I thought that you had chosen the name because of the fried potato (or lentil) dish in Indian food. Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be a bad derivation either. Some vada (vadas? I vaguely think the plural is vadai but I don’t speak Hindi and really don’t know), some spicy chutney or yogurt sauce — tasty!

    Hmm, religious fiction. Well, until relatively recent times, pretty much all fiction was religious, right? The Illiad and Oedipus Rex and so forth.

    But you’re right, I think, that there seems to be something different about the sort of moralizing, proselytizing fiction you’re talking about. And I suspect the difference is the one you point out — that often moralizing just doesn’t read as well as storytelling. We see this in other sources, too. Political moralizing doesn’t read as well as storytelling — the awful preachy socialist doctrine chapters of The Jungle versus the storytelling chapters; the social explanations in Rand, compared to the storytelling (which has its own deficiencies, to be sure, but which is a thousand times more readable than the social lectures), and so on. And sure, there are exceptions — e.g., Dostoyevsky — but in general, you can often tell when someone takes off her storyteller hat and puts on her sermonizer hat, and the change is often for the worse.

  4. Interesting post. My escape reading tends to be fantasy, and like you, I don’t like even my escape reading to be preachy. I’m thinking of one series in particular which gets more and more blatantly ideological the further you get into it, until the plot is largely subordinated to the characters making long speeches espousing the author’s political views. Blech.

    In terms of religious books, I’ve had a lot of similar experiences to the one you’ve described, though more with LDS fiction than Christian fiction more generally (simply because I’ve read a lot more of the former). All problems are neatly solved when the main character decides to come back to church, or reads her scriptures, etc. I’m much more interested in stories which describe how people cope with life’s problems in the context of their faith than ones in which faith is a plot device which magically cures all.

    That’s an interesting question about why the “not dating outside the faith” thing bothered you. I’m just guessing, but I’m wondering if it’s the difference between saying

    “Because of the importance of his religious beliefs in his life, Bob was uncertain about getting involved with someone who didn’t share them”


    “Because he was going to heaven, Bob was uncertain about getting involved with someone who was going to hell.”

    I could be wrong, but the tone of the book you describe sounds a bit closer to the latter. I have to admit that I don’t have much patience with that kind of thing, either, in which faith is an all-or-nothing deal, and some people are in and some are out. (Though I should perhaps confess that I nonetheless read the first eight or so of the Left Behind books. I was oddly intrigued.)

    Some of my very favorite literature is actually quite religious–Chaim Potok’s stuff, Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, Flannery O’Connor. I haven’t read a whole lot of LDS fiction I’ve really liked, but I do think that Levi Peterson’s The Backslider is fabulous.

    (By the way, it’s been fun to see you around the Bloggernacle, Vada; I don’t think I’ve seen you since we were in the same branch back when Seraphine and I were roommates. )

  5. Whereas I find the total lack of sense and relation to reality in romance novels in general to be offensive and I don’t bother with them, religious or otherwise.

    Though I do hope that in Christian-themed ones the leads aren’t hopping into bed with each other at the drop of a lacy handkerchief.

    As for the preachy-ness of it, I’m with Lynnette in that it depends on what is meant by it. If it’s option A (religion being that important to him), that wouldn’t bother me. Option B though is just freaky.

  6. There’s a lot of lack of relation to reality in sci-fi and fantasy, too . . . (and magical realism, come to think of it). I guess I just don’t like the real world, much. 🙂

  7. Katya’s comment reminded me of an intriguing observation from Sven Birkerts:

    To read, when one does so of one’s own free will, is to make a volitional statement, to cast a vote; it is to posit an elsewhere and set off toward it. And like any traveling, reading is at once a movement and a comment of sorts about the place one has left. To open a book voluntarily is at some level to remark the insufficiency either of one’s life or of one’s orientation toward it.

    I’m not sure that I would completely agree, but as someone who spends an awful lot of time reading (or at least I used to, back in the days before I joined Netflix ;)), it does make me think a little about the role that reading plays in my life.

  8. Vada, thanks for an thoughtful post that raises a lot of fascinating questions. It’s good to see you here and around the Bloggernacle. I wish I had something more to add to the conversation, but your post demands more time than I currently have. I’ll try to come back in the next few days and make a more substantial contribution.

  9. Vada, if you ever need more suggestions for romance novels, please, please come to me. I am queen of sharing my opinion on this genre. I have charts.

    I have read a handful of romance novels with a religous element that do an excellent job of avoiding the annoying moralizing thing. (though the vast majority of religous romance sucks rocks) (well okay, the vast majority of romance novels in general suck rocks) Two great ones that leap off the top of my head are Breathing Room, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (she has another in which the hero is a preacher, but I can’t recall the title right now) , and Flowers in the Storm by Laura Kinsale. You should read everything written by both of these women, they are brilliant.

    Anyway, I agree with what has been said, when you get pulled out of the story for the sermon, it is annoying. The thing that makes the books I suggest so very good, is that the characters are confronted with genuine challenges to their relgious and moral beliefs, they struggle, they question, they make mistakes and learn hard lessons.

    Now that I think about it, bad romance novels and bad religious novels suffer from the same malady. They don’t need to be realistic, as in, falling in love in a few days is not realistic, but the emotions need to ring true. Bad romance and relgious novels loudly proclaim, they’re in love, they believe, they have artifical contrived barriers to love/belief that easily disolve with another artifical and contrived change of mind/heart. Good romance/relgious novels have difficult and realistic conflicts and flawed characters who face hard choices, and they show the pain and the joy and the complexity of the real process. Good ones show characters struggling, coming slowly to depend on and trust God or each other in an emotionally satisfying way.

    wow, that was probably totally incoherent. It’s definitly bed time.

    Email me Vada, we need to swap suggestions.

  10. Going back to #5, Chaim Potok and Leif Enger never offer religion or the spiritual life as a tidy cure-all. Far from it. Their attitudes are that life is unbearably hard, and how could you not turn to a higher power in the face of that? Don’t you need all the help you can get?

    The attitude of the writer of Vada’s romance novel seems to be that religion is a magic panacea which allows you to go along your way, smug in the knowledge that you are secretly protected from all of life’s ills. That just doesn’t ring true for me.

  11. fmhLisa, may I just say that I love your reference to romance-novel charts. Charts are a time-honored tradition in the ZD family. If you love something, don’t set it free–make a giant chart about it and stick it to your wall. Among other goods, this will lead to more interesting conversations with your home teachers.

  12. I really like Lynnette’s two kinds of narratives, and Katya’s distinction between religion and magic. And I wholeheartedly agree that much overtly religious fiction waves religion like an infantilizing magic wand over its characters to kiss their boo-boos better. Religion can feel like a tight little collection box into which the author has stuffed all the good people at book’s end.

    I’m a huge fan of Potok and O’Connor and Enger and Peterson. But here’s my question (and I don’t think it has any easy answer): is there a sense in which Dante and Milton are Type-B writers in Lynnette’s scheme? In other words, could the Divine Comedy be summed up as

    “Because he was going to heaven, Dante the Pilgrim was [after being properly educated by the course of the poem] [quite a bit more than] uncertain about getting involved with someone who was going to hell.”


    The debate over Milton’s Satan is a classic example of the problem. The interest, the fun, the downright appeal of Satan to the Romantics is that he offers things God can’t. Satan offers rebellion, non-divine creative power, multiplicity of perspective (which God can’t, God is always right). As I saw it put somewhere, we modern readers are all on the side of Satan because we’re on the side of sides.

    Are the religious elements of a narrative always inherently in tension with the human elements–complexity, ambiguity, change–that we see as making a narrative good? If so, might the Mormon idea of eternal progression (God Himself once was and for all Lorenzo Snow and Eugene England know still is in the murky land of narrative) offer a way out of this bind?

  13. Eve,

    Oh, I think it’s perfectly fair to say that those who are intent on going to heaven should probably not get too involved with those who are intent on going to hell. However, I have to equate “going to heaven” with “trying very hard to be a good person and make moral choices” and “going to hell” with “morally corrupt, evil, and trying to drag down as many other people as possible.”

    What I object to is equating “going to heaven” with a magic bullet, be it baptism (infant or otherwise), accepting Jesus as your personal savior, etc. And I object to equating “going to hell” with the absence of that magic bullet, regardless of someone’s other life choices.

    So, I think we should absolutely avoid the influence of those who are going to hell (or are already there), I just don’t think we should be so smug as to assume that there’s a simple litmus test for determining who they are.

    (You’ll forgive me if I’m not as familiar with Dante and Milton as I should be, and therefore can’t argue those points.)

  14. So, I think we should absolutely avoid the influence of those who are going to hell (or are already there), I just don’t think we should be so smug as to assume that there’s a simple litmus test for determining who they are.

    I agree–I hope I didn’t sound as if were recommending hellish company to anyone or suggesting that hellish persons are easily discerned and rejected by us heavenly types ;). I was actually thinking here not of a practical problem in living but of a tension in literature, especially contemporary literature, between religious and narrative elements. But I also think it’s likely that we often conceive of religion too statically, and that we need to build not only a bigger, but also a more narrative heaven.

  15. I just wanted to thank everyone for their great responses to my post, and to apologize for not responding myself. Just before my mom came to visit was probably not the best time to post.

    Anyway, I feel much more justified in my readiness to throw this book across the room now (though I’m going to have to read fMhLisa’s suggestions and hope I can tolerate them better, and that my prejudice is really justified).


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