Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction | A Review

Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction by Lynn S Neal (University of North Carolina Press, 2006; ISBN 978-0-8078-5670-3, $18.95).

I bet you’d never imagined reading a TTC post praising cheesy Christian Romance novels. Well, I never thought I’d be writing one. But I came across this book about the vast number of Evangelical women who enjoy these novels—religiously—and I was confronted by my own prejudices.

The immensely lucrative popularity of romance novels over the last several decades has recently attracted feminist and womanist scholars to the bodice-ripping genre. Dr. Lynn Neal expertly expands these efforts by bringing Protestant Evangelical romance fiction to the table in her monograph Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction. Neal claims that, not only does this niche genre’s similarly lucrative popularity merit her scholarly attention, but that the project Romancing God tackles provides a better understanding of this pop-sub-culture craze, which in turn yields a fuller, richer understanding of the large numbers of complex women who read these books.

Neal winningly challenges her colleagues—people like me—whose impulse is to ignore, dismiss, even scoff at the genre, and worse… its readers… including the religious views both the books and readers espouse. As one who specializes in the study of religious intolerance in America, Dr. Neal is ideally positioned for such an undertaking, and it shows in the ease and grace of her prose.

Neal contends that taking these women and their spiritual, or “devotional,” practice of romance reading seriously “defies simple dichotomies of liberation and oppression or reductionist theories of delusion and repression” and makes room for a “critical yet empathetic exploration of these women’s religious lives” (10). Through this double-paned window of empathy and critical analysis, Neal tracks how and why these novels cause masses of women to devote themselves (often reading a novel a week or more) to a genre generally disparaged by their own spiritual leaders. 

Well-organized chapters guide readers through discussions regarding Evangelicalism’s historical relationship with media and technology and how Christian romance novels supply their faithful readers with three basic needs: identity, value, and theological support—needs that these conservative Evangelical women find in devotional romance reading more than they do from male-dominated pulpits (12-13). Chapters 1-3 discuss why Evangelical women are “devoted to” Evangelical fiction, while Chapters 4-6 provide a framework for understanding why and how these women are “devoted [to Evangelicalism] through” liturgical romance novel reading. These stories provide role models for their faith—If she can, with God’s help, have faith through her trials or battle her demons, so can I!—and they reiterate the overarching biblical narrative of God’s long suffering love for and romantic pursuit of his people (13). 

Each chapter opens with an excerpt from a popular Christian romance novel—a surprisingly enjoyable way of easing her audience from a position of unfamiliarity to familiarity—and weaves the novels’ plots, themes, settings, and ideologies together with testimony from readers and insights from authors. This method effectively demonstrates how Evangelical romance readers “are both devoted to and through the genre in ways that reflect and configure the contours of their conservative Christian piety” (12).

Neal further situates the Christian romance genre, and thereby her work with the genre, amid the past and present leaders and scholars of Evangelical theology and aesthetic thought. This—combined with Neal’s methodical and open-hearted interviews of romance readers and authors and her archival analysis of reader-to-author letters—makes Neal’s conclusions regarding what Evangelical romance novels supply their readership largely well supported and logically consistent. 

Neal’s weakest argument suggests religious romance authors’ frequent employment of historical settings provides readers a way to “imagine and define their role in history as evangelical women” (177). Given the political and social ideologies of modern conservative American Evangelicalism, which Neal establishes in the first chapter and expounds upon throughout the book, Neal creates a plausible argument, but the strong support from interviews and letters, or even reader-response theory, that otherwise consistently characterizes Neal’s work is simply lacking here. Had Neal discussed anthropological scholarship showing how readers of all demographic stripes enjoy historic fiction in part because it empowers them to see themselves as heroes of history, her argument would have been stronger. 

Overall, Romancing God is a project Neal hopes “will contribute to… ongoing conversations” about romance novels, Evangelicalism, gender, and particularly Evangelical women “in helpful and provocative ways,” including “help[ing] us as scholars and as citizens to tell more complicated, textured stories” (14). Romancing God succeeds in being academically satisfying while also engaging, accessible, even artfully written. Not knowing anything about Neal’s aims for the book, I picked it up hoping it would broaden my own perspective of Christian romance novels and deepen my understanding of the women I know who participate in the genre. It did.

Neal’s endeavor in empathy, which she recognizes puts her at risk of being misunderstood as “antifeminist”—which is a damn shame—is a marginalized-other-oriented form of scholarship that puts her reputation where her mouth is (11). Neal seems to disagree with several tenets of conservative Evangelicalism, perhaps particularly its gendered ideologies; and yet, she values the people who hold these views enough to risk being found guilty by association.

I hope others take up this stereotype-defying text as I did and defy their own stereotypes: both the categories they have for others, for we all have our prejudices, and the categories they feel pressured to fit into themselves. As we challenge ourselves to understand those who espouse ideas we consider “most unpalatable or unfathomable” (195), we become better scholars—and better human beings.

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    • Renea McKenzie