Romance and/as religion

Publication year

From the introduction to the volume:

Eric Murphy Selinger and Laura Vivanco’s chapter (Chapter 22) [...] extends the exploration of love and romance to consider how these representations of these entities overlap with religion and are themselves invested with the structure, purpose, and practice of religion. Chapter 22 begins with a consideration of how religion—especially Protestant Christianity—can be read as a discourse of romance: a redemptive and ennobling relational experience that ends in a happily ever after. Rather than a secularization of the romance novel occurring throughout the twentieth century, Selinger and Vivanco argue that the romance itself took on religious qualities, representing romantic love as unconditional, omnipotent, and eternal, and therefore redemptive or salvific. It is an act of faith. Love as religion is something that romantic characters must learn to “believe in,” so that lasting happiness may be achieved. The chapter ends with a call for the connections between romance novels and other forms of religion—such as Islam or Buddhism—to be explored, especially in light of the diversification of the genre with regard to gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and cultural diversity in the twenty-first century. (18)


This chapter surveys how romance scholars have discussed how religion, especially Christianity, can be read as a romance; how Christianity and other religions have shaped the history of, and been represented in, the romance genre; and how the vision of love promulgated by the romance genre, even in ostensibly secular texts, can often be read as a religious or divine phenomenon: something unconditional, omnipotent, and eternal. (486)


On a structural level, it might well be said that the romance genre itself would “be nothing” without the exaltation of romantic love which gives meaning and purpose to its plots. Simon May has argued that in Western culture romantic love has been given characteristics “properly reserved for divine love, such as the unconditional and the eternal” (4) and credited with the power to redeem “life’s losses and sufferings” (2). Even when they are not made explicit, these are precisely the kinds of claims about the power and durability of romantic love which are embedded in the deep structures of the genre. John Cawelti’s early description of romance as a genre founded on the “moral fantasy” of “love triumphant and permanent, overcoming all obstacles and difficulties” speaks to this structural role of love divine (41–2), and we can hear it in the theological discourse embedded in the Romance Writers of America definition of the genre. “In a romance,” the organization declares, “the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love” (Romance Writers of America). Sidestepping the question of precisely who or what will reward the lovers—karma? Christ? the conventions of the genre?—this definition insists that the universe of any romance novel will be a providential one, and its deployment of the phrase “unconditional love” as part of the lovers’ reward for their “risk and struggle” signals that a divine or religious type of love is now seen as definitional of the genre, at least in its North American context. (496)