The Secret Sermon In Every Romance Novel

photo (7)Welcome once again to the fabulous Amber Belldene, Episcopal priest and author of the Blood Vine Series of paranormal romances …

Thanks so much for inviting me back to guest post on Wonkomance!

This essay is really just one extended metaphor, but maybe you will find it useful. It all started with an interesting post/conversation on the romance blog Dear Author about the desire to see characters motivated by religious and philosophical values in mainstream (as opposed to Inspirational) romance. I’ve advocated for the same thing, so I appreciated the thoughtful piece and equally thoughtful commenters, including a person late to the conversation who strongly stated a preference religion be kept out of books.

I’m sympathetic to this opinion. Religion can be very divisive. I’m a priest in the Episcopal Church, and people assume things about my beliefs, values, and behaviors all the time. I’m often grateful for the polite reluctance to discuss religion. Members of my large extended Southern family privately scratch their heads over me being both a priest and a romance writer. But when I visit, we simply drink wine and play viciously competitive cards, which is really altogether more fun than debating theology.

The Dear Author commenter, who signed her comment Pet, also expresses this concern:

I am afraid that some authors will lose their common sense and try to give in to preaching. It is a huge turn off.

I think what she means by preaching is proselytizing—that authors might try to convert readers to their own religious perspective, which would turn me off too. (That’s why I don’t read Inspies!)

But on another level, we’re all preaching. Not the Christian gospel, or the Buddha’s four noble truths, but Romance with a capital R.

Romance novels are full of values and philosophy with lots of bonus sexual tension which, like a spoonful of sugar, helps the big ideas go down. The romance arc is so generally compelling, most readers don’t even realized they are being preached to. And yet, every romance novel is making a statement about the nature of romantic and erotic love. What’s more—this is a bold, hopeful thing to do!

Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a lovely interview with the novelist Marilynne Robinson, who writes brilliantly about faith. There were a million quotable gems in the piece, but this one especially struck me:

A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things. Because…[of] the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’

Her observation made me so proud to write romance, and to be an enthusiastic reader and evangelist for the genre.

Literary culture disdains earnestness, especially about the most sacred things–love, sex and religion, probably because all three are so hard to write that, as Robinson says, the fear of getting it wrong prevails. But romance does not skirt the sacredness of each person, nor of the bonds that form between us. We are not afraid of a little sincerity! (Though, admittedly, a lot of sincerity makes me queasy.)

I know authors pen romance for many reasons—love of the genre, compulsion to write, unexpected detours from Literativille or Ivory Towers to Romancelandia. But it’s also because we share some core beliefs:

  • Romantic love is good, redemptive, a source of meaning and joy.
  • Sex is an important expression of love.
  • Self-acceptance and authenticity are necessary for one to find/keep love.

We could debate these semantics, and there are probably more core values, but the list of universal doctrine is ultimately pretty short.

Less foundational, but still important to the tradition, we have the tropes that scaffold our stories and sometimes make us the butt of jokes (like, say, The Italian Billionaire’s Secretary Mistress. I actually sort of love how the Harlequin Presents line doesn’t even bother with a titles, as if someone once unabashedly said, “Why not just call it 3 Tropes and a Setting?”). Underlying each trope is another bit of slightly less universal romance doctrine. For example:

  • Friends to Lovers stories uphold true love is worth risking a friendship.
  • Opposites Attract argues love can help us find balance or complementarity.
  • Boss/Secretary suggests true love is worth breaking the rules for.

I’m coming to think of each romance novel as a sort of sermon, shining new light onto a familiar truth, deepening our appreciation of it and our ability to live it out in our own lives. Those faithful readers of the trope-heavy category romances remind me of devoted church goers, longing for the comforting ritual of being told again in fresh words their most dear truth–that love heals, or that mistakes can be redeemed, that an ugly duckling is secretly a lovable swan, just as a seasoned preacher will tell you everyone needs to hear God loves them every Sunday.

Each writer has her or his own take on the romance doctrine, a distinctive world view which colors and flavors the way we tell these familiar stories.

Last year, Mary Ann and Ruthie wrote fabulous Wonkomance posts (which I refer back to every time I get bogged down in revisions) about how a romance novel is an argument in the sense of classical rhetoric. The argument is made up of logos, pathos and ethos. Their posts are well worth the read. I especially like how Ruthie offers the schema as a tool for analyzing our own work and why we may or may not like a particular book:

What’s so interesting to me, here, is two things: first, the idea that I might love an author’s work, love her characters, but hate her argument so much that I can’t even read her book…And second, the idea that I might dislike an author’s writing and her characters, her plot, and her style, and yet find her argument so fascinating, so convincing, that I can’t put her book down.

Later, Ruthie astutely points out that those masters of trope–category writers–are the experts at this kind of argument, and I would go even further to say if you don’t like a particular trope, you may be skeptical of its underlying dogma. (Ex. Maybe Boss/Secretary is never okay because you see the abuse of power as irredeemable, or both the billionaires you slept with were lousy in bed, as the incomparable Remittance Girl reports here, so you prefer to read about less wealthy guys).

A romance novel’s argument reflects the writer’s beliefs about romantic love and why it matters. If you write like me, you may not know what that belief is when you start a story, or that you even believed it until you finished your first draft.

Once I grasp hold of it though, I am most certainly writing to persuade you of it, to show you with all the logic, appeals to sympathy, and authorial credibility I can employ.

I am preaching!

I’m trying to convert you to my vision of love, trying to stretch your already spacious heart a little wider, to embrace to the kinds of conflict and affection that move me and turn me on because I believe it’s good for you and for the world to love this way (and by the way, I’m entirely open to being converted to your way, too!).

Maybe I think about writing this way because I cut my teeth penning sermons instead of fiction, but I’m convinced we’re all doing it. I can certainly understand readers preferring not to read books with religion in them. But to me, the romance writer undertakes that courageous task Marilynne Robinson describes, we admit we “sense sacredness in things” and we want others to sense it too. A romance novel is our attempt to persuade. The story of a conflicted romantic couple is an ideal, page-turning, heart-tugging, arousing medium to argue for our take on this sublime truth.

Counter-culturally, romance novelists resist fear, irony, and cynicism to profess love matters. But it’s okay lots of readers and writers think it’s just a story. It’s way more fun for all of us to pretend we aren’t really preaching, we’re “just” writing a romance novel.

Darling Serena Bell suggested I end this post by asking, “Can I get an amen?” But it feels more right instead to tell you that when I finish one of your books or any truly well argued and sublime romance novel, my whole body hums with that ancient word:

Amen. So be it. The affirmation of, the assent to, the beliefs that unite a community.

Love is good. It matters. Now go back to your life and make it real.

About Amber

Amber Belldene grew up on the Florida panhandle, swimming with alligators, climbing oak trees and diving for scallops…when she could pull herself away from a book.  As a child, she hid her Nancy Drew novels inside the church bulletin and read mysteries during sermons–an irony that is not lost on her when she preaches these days. 

Amber is an Episcopal Priest and student of religion.  She believes stories are the best way to explore human truths.  Some people think it is strange for a minister to write vampire romance, but it is perfectly natural to her, because the human desire for love is at the heart of every romance novel and God made people with that desire. She lives with her husband and two children in San Francisco.

Amber writes scorching and smart paranormal romance and quirky-hot contemporary romance–all of which draw on her interests in spirituality and sexuality.



About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
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11 Responses to The Secret Sermon In Every Romance Novel

  1. Edie Danford says:

    Thank you, thank you for this awesome piece, Amber. I was nodding and maybe tearing up a bit and smiling and nodding some more as I read it.

    The concept of what is sacred and what is profane (and how the two mix) in our culture has been a constant source of fascination for me from the time I was a wee kid. Romance novels have always been an incredible place to explore the concept/s, and this post really gels a lot of the feelings I’ve had but haven’t been able to articulate.

    I am going to come back to this a LOT, but I am taking this little bit and pasting it willy-nilly in various parts of my WIPs.
    I’m trying to convert you to my vision of love, trying to stretch your already spacious heart a little wider, to embrace to the kinds of conflict and affection that move me and turn me on because I believe it’s good for you and for the world to love this way (and by the way, I’m entirely open to being converted to your way, too!).
    Love it so much!

    • Edie! Yes, I’m also fascinated by the boundary between sacred and profane. I’m so glad you enjoyed this piece, and especially that quote. I will try not to feel embarrassed about the typo I left in it ;-)

  2. Fiona McGier says:

    Hear hear! Having been raised by atheist parents, I can’t stand someone proselytizing to me. I’ve examined the world’s main religions and found all of them lacking in their implementation. Their ideas are all wonderful, just as capitalism, democracy, socialism and communism are all good in theory. But you get people involved, along with all of our inherent selfishness and unfortunate habit of thinking we know better than you how you should live, and things change dramatically. Which irritates me. Charlie Brown of Peanuts said a long time ago, “I like humanity, it’s the people I can’t stand.” And Ghandi said, “I like your Christ. But not His followers.” (Incorrect quote? Sorry.)

    But you are also correct about romance preaching to the choir in our readers. Romance books are revolutionary in that they are a medium by and for women, to allow us to see importance in our lives, and what we do with them. Those who denigrate our genre merely exhibit their own misogyny. Falling in love and choosing a mate is probably the most important thing that any of us do in life. Giving that act center stage is wonderful and empowering, and allows for readers to share in it vicariously. Women need to hear that we are important, that our needs should be met, that our dreams can come true. And not just in romance.

    BTW, I’m still not a conventionally religious person. But I am spiritual. I don’t see how you can be a part of the cycle of life, having children grow in you, and raising them, without sensing some spiritual dimension that transcends our reality. So good on you for being both a practicing minister and a paranormal romance writer. People truly are like onions, in that when you peel back each layer, there’s another layer beneath that one. And they’re all interesting.

    • Hi Fiona, so true about the onions! Which is part of what makes writing characters fun!

      Also, I really appreciate what you said about the revolutionary-ness of romance. I was recently appreciating how unique the entire culture around the genre is, and the whole (largely) by and for women thing. I couldn’t agree more!

  3. Eden Connor says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I’ve long said that the romance genre is the world’s largest wiki on matters of the heart, and matters of the heart matter. That’s why I chuckle when I hear a young woman say, “Oh, you just write romance?” Sooner or later, she’ll take a pew. :)

    • Hi Eden, I love this! I was one of those women who would have said that in my younger years, and my life is so much richer for having learned better. I guess that’s what it means to evangelize for something–that you want to share its joy with others!

  4. Have always believed that sermons can be found in the strangest places. Have written on songs, Sunday comics and romance novels, and Anne Rice books too

  5. Love this post, Amber. I was most of the way through composing my QRM post (the first one…I’m stopping at two, I promise) when I found myself writing: “The thing is, I do have an agenda. I believe that all stories have value, because I believe that all people have value. And I believe that sometimes story can lead you to see things in a new light, because narrative and wanting to know “What happens next?” are more powerful than many of our own prejudices.” It was very much an, “Ah ha, I *am* writing sermons” moment for me. And your post here articulates what I experience quite perfectly. Thank you!

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