Last month a listener to the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books/Dear Author podcast wrote in asking about depictions of Clergy and church-going in contemporary romance. I wrote to Sarah Wendell with my thoughts after listening a few weeks ago. I am not sure they will get around to using my letter as I am sure they get lots of responses, so I figured I would share what I wrote here, as this is the last Sunday of the year. This is not a comprehensive list, but rather recommendations and thoughts on some of pastoral/clergy depictions I've read in the past year.
I had to stop listening to this week's podcast after you finished talking about this question, because my brain was bubbling with thoughts on contemporary romance's depictions of faith and church-going and the lack thereof.
My husband is ordained minister and has either been in seminary or serving as lead pastor for the whole of our marriage (going on 17 years). As result I always perk up a little when I see Pastors, clergy or church-life are depicted in Romance novels.
I don't generally read Inspies, because the theology in them tends to drive me a bit crazy, but I grew up reading and loving Janette Oke's Love Comes Softly series, an inspirational family saga, that followed a family of American Pioneers, staring with a romance that develops on a covered wagon train journey across the prairie. It was all petticoats, bonnets, hard-work and faith. That series is a staple in Church Library collections everywhere and I think the popularity of that series must in some ways have led to the current fascination with Amish romance. The Amish are the modern stand-in for those early pioneers, farming, courting along with conservative sexual values.
This year I read two Erotic Contemporary romances that had wonderfully nuanced portrayals of pastor and pastor's families.
The first was Molly O'Keefe's "Between the Sheets", the third in her Boys of Bishop series. It is an enemies to lovers story with a great emotional punch. The heroine is Shelby, the daughter of complete scoundrel of revivalist preacher. He had abused his wife and terrorized her. Although he is long dead, he left deep scars. Shelby had grown up repressed, feels trapped by a good-girl persona that doesn't reflect her desires, and is completely conflicted about her faith. She is still a regular church-goer however, accompanying her ailing mother to a different church than the one founded by her father out of duty and habit. One of the most interesting encounters between
Shelby and Ty early in the novel occurs when Ty unexpectedly shows up at her church. Ty is a former Biker & mechanic struggling to raise his troubled new-found son. Turns out that ever since he straightened out his life, he has been a regular church attender. While not deeply religious, he looks for churches that "don't preach hate", attending church because he finds them great places to find community and support. O'Keefe did a great job portraying the legacy of a bad pastor/father who used faith as a weapon without condemning all clergy or believers.
The second book was Shiloh Walker's Deeper than Need. The novel is the first of her Secrets and Shadows series. The series is set in a picturesque Indiana small town, whose most upstanding citizens might be linked to (trigger warning) a ritualized sex abuse ring going back decades. The hero Noah is a recovering alcoholic ex-youth pastor contractor who unearths evidence of a long-ago crime while restoring the home of his love interest Trinity. Walker did a great job portraying Noah as someone who entered ministry looking for redemption after a turbulent time in his late teens and twenties but left it once he realized it was it not his true vocation. He is still a believer, retains the respect of the community, who lovingly still call him 'Preach' and has a strong pastoral heart. The novel is far from perfect as I thought the romance suffered in comparison to the romantic suspense and mystery elements, as Walker spent considerable time on the extremely dark sex-abuse ring/missing person plot that links the series together.
One of the most interesting portrayals of clergy in recent years however has to be Tiffany Reisz's Original Sinners Erotica series. One of the leads in this kinky, polyamorus series is Soren. a Catholic
priest, who is also a sadist dom. One of his loves is Nora, an erotic novel writer, and member of his congregation. When I first ran across this series, my eyebrows nearly popped off my face. But Reisz is deeply versed in Catholic theology, imagery and ritual (she is a former seminarian and practicing Catholic). Her characters' faith journeys and reasons for believing and behaving the way they do are
complex, conflicted but consistent. The church is often being both a refuge and oppressor but Soren is devoted to his calling as Priest even if he isn't celibate. Reisz doesn't ignore the conflicts she raises and I have a lot of respect for what she is doing with religion in her books.
My friend Emily (@emilyjanehubb) another pastor's wife and fellow romance fan, really liked Noelle Adams' marriage of convenience story, "Married for Christmas", where all that seems to be standing in the way of Daniel a widower, being named pastor of the congregation he
grew up in is his lack of a wife. I haven't finished it yet because I really struggle with Marriage of Convenience stories in general and as someone intimately familiar with how hard it is to maintain a loving healthy marriage in the semi-public sphere of ministry, a marriage of convenience seemed like a horrible idea, but the initial chapters I read did a very good job portraying small-town ministry life.
Robyn Carr has novel in her Virgin River series, reissued this year, "Forbidden Falls" where the hero is a pastor. Virgin River is one of those strange romance novel towns that is seemingly populated only with giant former military men. While the denominational politics that allow Noah to buy a church on e-bay seem really odd, and the theology is sort of vague, I did like the romance between the widowed pastor and his pastor's assistant, a former stripper, who is desperately
trying to regain custody of her kids. The conflicts and believable were nicely developed. I also
appreciated how many of the the other former heroes and heroines starting attending church now that they had kids, because that actually happens.
One writer in whose work I consistently find evidence of faith life/church going is Ruthie Knox. While her main characters are rarely personally religious, many have grown up in the church or have family members who are active church goers. In the Camelot series, Amber, Caleb and Katie's mom is church-lady. Mrs. Clark we discover through the series converted to Christianity and Catholicism when she married Mr. Clark. She is far from a perfect mother and wife, but her
faith is not something that vilifies her, just one more element that makes up her character. Amber from How to Misbehave and Making it Last attended a Bible college, were she was slightly traumatized when her boyfriend started crying out of guilt and shame after their first sexual encounter. Roman from Roman Holiday has a powerful moment of personal insight while confronting another character in a Miami area Catholic church with a large Cuban Virgin Mary mural. I feel that her characters are often trying to sort of big faith issues around, belonging, acceptance and love in secular ways, but they do so while acknowledging the existence of church going folk is part of what makes her books feel genuine to me. While I know less and less people are regular church-goers especially among millennials, many of them should still have friends or family who do, even if it is just on Christmas or Easter.
I know there are more contemporary romances with pastors out there, but these are just a few that I have enjoyed.
Who is your favorite romance novel pastor or clergy member (Historical or Contemporary)? Any depictions you hated? Personally I really enjoy Austen's vicars even or maybe because they are often pompus, vain and human but not Evil just very human, as flawed and mock-able anyone else in her book.