Throbbing hearts and thumping Bibles

Christian authors are staking their claim on pop culture's steamiest preserve: Romance novels.

Published July 12, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

"If you take off your glasses, it looks like a regular book fair," says a Random House sales manager of the Christian Booksellers Association convention. But with its huge Sunday prayer meeting and daily morning devotion ceremonies, the CBA's main annual event hardly resembles the liquor-and-lucre-soaked gossipfest that characterizes publishing trade shows. At CBA International, the Jews for Jesus bagel breakfast is as close as you'll usually come to the New York book game.

But at this year's convention in Atlanta, which wraps up today, the scent of secularism is in the air. Mainstream publishers like Penguin and HarperCollins traveled to the conference to sniff for the next big thing in the Christian book market. They haven't just been looking for the follow-up to that odd apocalyptic crossbreed, the Jesus thriller, which found runaway success in the "Left Behind" series. This year, they've got their sights on another publisher's fantasy hybrid: Christian romance novels. Throw away those paper-bag covers, ladies. The fastest growing set of the billion-dollar American romance novel industry is a huge stack of books you can proudly shelve next to your Bible.

Romance novels represent the newest frontier in evangelical Christianity's adventures in pop culture, following entrepreneurial experiments in spirituality that have tackled TV dramas and the burgeoning Christian pop movement, which Newsweek's current cover story trumpets. In "family-friendly" fashion, these novels -- one hundred-plus of which are published each year -- aim to intensify the faith of their born-again readers, or to introduce their less-devout readership to what their authors consider to be the supreme passion. They take the standard romance formula -- a happy-ending story about the passion between one man and one woman -- and add a third and central character. Yeah, you know His name. "God's story is a romance," says Francine Rivers, one of the genre's most influential writers. "The entire Bible is God wooing man and wanting a relationship with man. That to me is the ultimate romance."

But it's not all wine and roses for the hundreds of women churning out inspirational titles. There are the commandments of the Christian Book Association -- the foremost being Thou Shall Not Publish Sex Scenes. For writers who wish to branch out into the secular marketplace, writing celibate romances can obviously limit their mainstream success. There are skeptics who suggest that some of these women are trying to find a niche in a downsizing industry. And there's always the pressure of answering to the highest of critics.

Rivers, like many inspirational authors, started out writing romances for the secular side, selling over 13 million books to become one of the market's most successful authors. But after a surprising conversion experience ("I was sexually active in the '60s, I even had an abortion -- I wasn't expecting it in the least") she found herself contending with three years of writer's block. "Nothing made sense, my writing didn't work anymore," she says. "God shut it off, and said I'm going to use you to speak my truth through dictation."

"Redeeming Love," regarded as the "Anna Karenina" of inspirational romance, was the dictation that followed. It's a retelling of the Old Testament's Book of Hosea, the story of a prostitute -- an unbeliever -- who discovers first earthly and then holy love through the care of a man who relies on God's guidance between the sheets as well as between the pews.

"Redeeming Love" is as steamy as Christian fiction gets. For that reason, Rivers had great trouble selling the book. "It was far too racy for the Christian market," she says. Most of these books are so tight-bun-and-sweater-set prudish it's remarkable they're called "romances" at all. "Inspirational" foreplay usually involves a church and a white dress, and almost always serves as the book's regulation happy ending. You want steam heat? You'll find far more of it in Gideon's book than in one of these.

But there's a double bind for Christian romance writers. Secular publishers want a little romance in their romance -- "flesh of my flesh" isn't the kind that's marketable to their greater readership. For most secular presses, the Christian content of Rivers' book made it a tougher sell, despite her previous mainstream success. The author thought she had a deal with Berkeley Press, but her editor rejected it as soon as the strains of violins in the first draft gave way to the thump of Bibles. She eventually sold it to Bantam, but had to eliminate the whoring heroine's pivotal (and remarkably erotic) conversion scene. It was only after the book's success that Multnomah, an evangelical house, bought it and reinstated that scene.

It's hardly shocking that Christian romance hasn't gained instant acceptance among members of the church, or within the CBA. It's only relatively recently that fiction, romance or no romance, has been deemed appropriate for Christian readers. The CBA has only published novels for a decade now, when the powers that be finally realized that non-scriptural books didn't necessarily lead to fire and brimstone. This new era of enlightenment has turned out to be highly profitable: The most notable success was the "Left Behind" series, which gave Christian readers all the suspense and drama of secular fiction with an overtly evangelical bent. Romance fans have long demanded the same mix from their preferred form of fiction: faith-based fantasy. They've craved the titillation offered by these novels, but have complained of having to skip what most of us would consider the good parts in order to remain within the parameters of wholesome Christianity, missing plot twists and character turns along the way.

Christian authors have been as frustrated as their readers when it comes to providing sizzle and scandal for a yearning secular market. Robin Lee Hatcher, another secular author who became a Christian after hearing the "call God placed on my heart," says the greater her success, the higher a price she paid in her religious comfort. "That's something I'll always regret, that I gave in on things as I built my career," she says. "But as my own spiritual walk deepened, I recognized that I was not writing the kind of stuff that would be pleasing for me to read."

While sales in Christian bookstores have soared, secular publishers like Random House and HarperCollins have dispatched their acquisitions staffs to nail down distribution deals with Christian companies they previously ignored. Harlequin started up its own line, Love Inspired, that now churns out three titles a month to stack alongside increasingly hotter titles. And so inspirational romance has bridged the religious divide, selling at almost any secular establishment that sells romantic fiction, from Borders to Kmart.

This boom has rejuvenated careers for Christian women, like Francine Rivers, who had seen great success in the secular marketplace. Several years back, top-selling author contracts were being slashed and romance publishers were cutting midlist writers. This shift came just as the Christian romance genre began to gain momentum. Carol Stacy, who publishes Romantic Times magazine, sees the choice to go evangelical as primarily a sound business move. "For authors who have left the mainstream for Christian writing, it was simply a choice for them because there was more opportunity," she says. "Why stay in this really rocky market that's just creating anxiety for them when they can go into a new market that's opening up and embracing them?" she says. "Think about it: Why would I deal with this market when I could become a star in this other arena?"

For those writers who have now made careers in the Christian marketplace, success in the mainstream arena can be alluring, and access can seem as protected as the gates of heaven. Take Dee Henderson, who recently won the Romance Writers of America's highest honor, the RITA award, for her Multnomah romantic thriller "Danger in the Shadows." Henderson is certainly a Christian -- her minister father proofreads every page. Christian fiction was the best place for her to get started. "Frankly, it was the easiest place to sell," she says. And Christian publishing's rise has introduced her to success in the secular world. "Doors swung open at Barnes & Noble and Borders." But to write material appropriate for her publisher, she has to curb the sort of writing that would make her attractive to a secular publisher. "It's too tame," she sighs.

Many of these writers, like top-selling author Liz Curtis Higgs, are former "bad girls" with whose stories less-than-saintly readers can relate. Higgs' writing grew out of a career speaking about her own salvation, offering up titillating and vastly entertaining tales of a bad girl gone good. "Before I walked with the Lord, one of my finest hours was when I put a cigarette out on a woman's hand in a bar in Detroit. I worked in rock radio there, with Howard Stern, actually, at a station called WWWW, if you can believe it, which was perfect because even when I was stoned out of my head I could remember where I worked." Higgs has made this bad-girl persona a one-woman enterprise; her "Bad Girls of the Bible" titles, fictional narratives of biblical vamps from Jezebel to Delilah, have outsold even her most popular romance titles.

You'd think this former bad girl would be the first to unbelt the chastity laws that govern Christian publishing. Yet Higgs' books make "Mansfield Park" read like "The Story of O." And even her chaste narratives have drawn criticism. "Just to show you what a Christian writer has to deal with, I took heat for the kisses!" she says. Robin Lee Hatcher, who ripped her fair share of bodices for a secular publisher, now keeps the door open, the lights on, and one foot firmly on the floor. "I regret that I ever gave in to the market demand in my love scenes," she says. "I don't think it's necessary. And it's not because I'm a prude, because I'm not. Ask my husband."

That these godly writers are so clearly of the flesh has made their personal histories as important as their books to faithful readers. By the thousands, women living in prisons as well as wealthy suburban developments have connected to these personalities with, well, religious fervor, often because these writers find their material in their personal pain. "I always start from a place of pain or question and use writing as a tool to go before Lord and find out what to learn -- like the atonement I had to do with my abortion," says Rivers of writing her phenomenally successful book "Atonement Child." Abortion, prostitution, drug abuse, adultery, you name it -- there's a Christian romance to help you through what ails your soul.

Consequently, and perhaps surprisingly, the trend is that inspirational romance has opened a whole new realm of possible topics for romance writers, who within other romance genres are limited to less issue-oriented story lines. "One of the things we found quickly was that we could handle much grittier situations than you can in traditional romance," says Tracy Farrell, who edits the Love Inspired line. "Readers who are more religiously centered tend to look at life as more of a commitment to certain things; they like to see characters who have real experiences and real purposes."

The emphasis on grit, pain and personal experience unites this literary ministry and its sisterhood of ministers. Hatcher, for example, based her first foray into the inspirational market, "The Forgiving Hour," on her experiences in coping with infidelity. "When God called me to forgive my husband's former mistress -- this is my first husband, and his first mistress; after the third we divorced -- I knew I had to write this book so I wouldn't hold onto any bitterness. Now I get letters all the time from women whose husbands are unfaithful," says Hatcher. "Because of the way my writing speaks to people, I get incredible stories of peoples' lives -- but they are really seeking answers from God."

The evangelical aspect of Christian romance novels doesn't sit well with some critics -- or readers. "I think there's a shameless appropriation that goes on among evangelicals trying to almost commandeer various cultural forms so they can use them for their own ends and advantages," says Randall Balmer, author of "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America." The authors don't deny the charge: while they claim broader intentions in their work, "it can be seen as an evangelical tool," admits Hatcher. And quite a successful one, according to Rivers. "I received letters from quite a few who have had their own born-again experience through reading my books. But," she insists, "it's not the book that saved them; the only one who can save is Christ." Higgs sees her trademark brand of self-deprecating humor as the ideal path out of pagan darkness. "A lot of people use my books to reach out to friends who aren't really involved in God or church because of the humor," she says. "Sneaky deep, is what my friends call me -- it's not in your face but it's there."

Not so sneaky, say Romantic Times magazine readers who have written to voice their discontent at being targeted for conversion, according to publisher Carol Stacy. "They perceive the books as some holy rollers cramming Christianity down their throats." But letters to the editor are hardly slowing down this train to glory. The industry word is that those major publishing houses that don't yet distribute inspirational fiction have their corporate eyes trained on the Christian bandwagon.

To even the most devout writers, like Robin Lee Hatcher, this is just God's way. "Am I surprised that the secular market wants to jump in for the cash cow? No," she says. "This way people are picking up books that make them look at issues of faith." And in this peculiar genre of thumping hearts and Bibles, who need fear market competition -- or even writer's block -- when you've got divine power on your side? "I have one thing to be faithful to in my work," says Hatcher, "and that's every day when I sit at the computer: I pray and ask God what he would have me say today."

By Lauren Sandler

Lauren Sandler is Salon's Life editor and the author of "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement."

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