A Golden Age for Inspirational Romance?

s prelude Last Friday on Twitter, I saw Wendy the Superlibrarian tweeting about how inspirationals have changed. No kidding! This is a development that has THRILLED me in recent years – not to mention adding some variety to my reading. I read Janette Oke books, Serenade Saga romances and some other inspirationals from the time I was in middle school, but as I got older, the content started to seem more and more staid. Romances with heroes and heroines who spent a lot of time preaching and did not so much as even THINK about the temptation of going beyond the occasional kiss were common. The very dated-looking covers didn’t really help matters. When looking at some of the inspirational offerings from the early 90s, one cannot help feeling as if both the editorial departments and the art departments were stuck in an idealized 1950s world.

Back when I started reading (late 80s/early 90s), historicals made up the lion’s share of the inspirationals I saw. I grew up reading the Mandie series from Bethany House, which centered on the adventures of a young girl in western North Carolina at the turn of the century. There were also the Janette Oke books I mentioned, and a whole host of series – mostly American-set- about various devout pioneering families.

Some of these books were real gems. For example, Bodie and Brock Thoene’s Zion Covenant and Zion Chronicles series, historical fiction focusing on the pre-war and early stages of World War II, and the founding of Israel respectively, feature vivid characterizations, well-researched settings and fantastic storytelling. The books show almost no signs of preachiness, focusing instead on religious characters integrating their faith into their daily lives. However, compared to other books which came out around that time, these were way ahead of their time. While I recall some good reads from those earlier days, simplistic storytelling, preaching, an emphasis on traditionally domestic heroines and a wealth of platitudes were common. If heroes and heroines felt anything resembling physical passion toward one another, it was usually very well-disguised. As I got older, I grew rather tired of these books. After all, if one already had very traditional Christian beliefs, that certain simple level of preaching found in many of the older romances wasn’t saying anything not already accepted by the reader. And for someone who does not believe, if they’re not seeking out the essential message of Christianity, I doubt these folks were hitting the Christian bookstores and picking up lots of inspys anyway.

Obviously, it was not all bad back then. For years, especially when compared to secular romance, inspirationals have been rather innovative in terms of their openness to a variety of character and setting types. In other words, you won’t find umpteen variations on the plot of Lord Syphilis falling in love with Lady Special Snowflake. I still remember reading a romance about a young woman who grew up in grinding poverty out in the hillls somewhere who was swept off her feet by a traveling book salesman who taught her to read. Can you see the secular presses publishing that one? Unfortunately, aside from the willingness to use unusual settings and characters from a variety of social classes, “breaking new ground” is not a phrase one would have used to describe most elements of those older inspirationals. Most of the ones I read were exceedingly wholesome and one would be hard pressed to find anything in them that would have given anyone the vapors. In the past decade, however, things have started to change.

One can still find plenty of historicals, and these historicals (thankfully) still feature unusual settings and characters from all walks of life. Whether you’re curious about the Roman Empire, the Old West, Colonial America, Renaissance France or Czarist Russia, you can probably find books set there. However, in more recent years, I’ve also noticed a shift in tone in many historicals. Sometimes, I still find the dreaded preachy romance. Thankfully, it’s more common now to see characters openly expressing their spiritual beliefs and integrating these beliefs into their lives without having to speak in paragraph-long sermons. Even more refreshing, characters nowadays face problems, doubts and struggles that don’t always resolve themselves with language one might expect to find in a Hallmark card.

The romantic plots have changed, too. Even though one still generally won’t find explicit sex in inspirationals, it’s more common to find characters at least acknowledging the chemistry between them. If they hold back from sex, the religious reasons for doing so or the temptation involved is seen being discussed more often as opposed to the rather unrealistic plots of old where the characters might engage in a chaste kiss or two all the while acting as if that’s all one might ever want to do. Themes have also become more daring. Whether it’s unwed pregnancy in Julie Lassen’s Lady of Milkweed Manor or Carla Capshaw’s The Gladiator featuring a gladiator hero who once killed in the ring, inspirationals have definitely evolved away from being “safe” or “milquetoast”. The religious values remain, but authors are exploring them in ways not often seen in romances of 20 years ago. I find these journeys both intellectually and emotionally more satisfying.

I’m seeing more inspirational romances dealing with difficult and possibly controversial issues such as substance abuse or domestic violence. It’s also more common now to see some very good romantic suspense novels and thrillers in the inspirational market, and these novels of necessity must handle the idea of how their characters will view evil in the world. In the recent Without a Trace series published by Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired Suspense line, various books dealt not only with solving crimes but also with themes such as forgiveness for past wrongs or how bitterness can twist a person.

In addition, if you were looking for fantasy or science fiction, your options used to be limited pretty much to the Chronicles of Narnia, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness or the Left Behind series. Needless to say, options nowadays are more plentiful – and a good deal edgier. One can now find Christian publishers marketing everything from high fantasy to vampire novels which promise not only a paranormal tale, but one laced with consideration of the deeper moral issues raised by vampires.

The options in inspirational romance definitely excite me now much more than they used to. The packaging of the books has changed and many of them now feature absolutely gorgeous cover art such as the photo shown above for an Alaska-set book that I recently added to my TBR pile and plan to try reading soon. In addition, I see new authors out there on shelves almost every month, and the variety of story themes and character types is almost overwhelming. It’s a very exciting time to be reading!

-Lynn Spencer

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15 Responses to A Golden Age for Inspirational Romance?

  1. Virginia DeMarce says:

    Then there are the “really old” inspirationals (Grace Livingston Hill, etc.) going back to the 1900-1940 era. My grandmother read them by the score.

    They dealt with the suppression of labor unions, the treatment of immigrants, child labor, and goodness knows what else. A lot of them, I seem to recall, were set in “settlement houses” and other social work establishments in urban slums or Appalachia, with plenty of crime, brutality. domestic violence, and other rather gritty violence.

    Two of the later books in the “Prudence of the Parsonage” series by Ethel Hueston, which was aimed at a YA audience, dealt with the death of the hero of a prior book by way of tuberculosis in a sanitarium out west (including the fact that he and his wife had to be separated from their little girl for the sake of her own health) and the temptations of the daughter of one of the earlier heroines when she struck out for NYC to be a working girl in the flapper culture.

  2. Virginia DeMarce says:

    As for “contemporary” inspirationals, have you looked at the series by Harry Kraus that starts with “Could I Have this Dance?” There aren’t all that many romances that include families with a history of Huntington’s Chorea.

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  4. Lynn Spencer says:

    @Virginia DeMarce I haven’t tried Harry Kraus – I’ll have to look for one of his books.

    And I remember Grace Livingston Hill! They reprinted some of her books in the early 90s, I believe, and I remember reading some in high school. My mother thought they were nice and wholesome. I remember thinking it was hilarious that you could always spot the villainess because she wore nail polish and (gasp!) sometimes even danced!

  5. Michelle says:

    I have to admit that I haven’t read that many inspies. When I do, it’s usually to read about more interesting/varied historical settings. Some of them have been incredibly powerful and moving – and they tend to be the less “preachy” – the faith journey is so well integrated into the plot and character growth.

    I just read one last week – Tamera Alexander’s The Inheritance. I enjoyed it so much I trotted over to Amazon.com to buy all her other books. I’d love to know some of the other great historical inspirational authors.

  6. I agree – inspys have improved considerably in quality over the past ten years, and the cover art for some titles (those from Bethany House and Tyndale in particular) is beautiful. Although I’m not religious myself, I find myself reading inspys every so often because of the strong storytelling and the diversity in their settings. I don’t have much patience for the super-preachy ones, but I appreciate how they portray their characters’ religious values (I read mostly historicals, and oddly enough, faith is one thing I rarely see adequately addressed in them). Lord Syphilis and Lady Special Snowflake = LOL!

  7. Tracy Krauss says:

    Even though I love to read and have been a Christian for years, I often found I couldn’t stand the ‘sappiness’ of so many of the traditional inspirational books that were out there. don’t get me wrong – good morals values are great and all, but after one or two they do begin to seem rather cliche. Probably why I gravitate more toward edgier fiction (okay, I admit it, I’m a Sci-Fi/fantasy buff). My favorite Christian authors though are, hands down, Frank Peretti and Francine Rivers. The latter has never shied away from issues that might raise a few eyebrows. Thanks Francine! Anyway, as a compulsive writer myself, I finally got my first novel published and I hope it smacks more of what Lynn was talking about. As Christians it’s time to stop hiding in the closet, so to speak and address ‘meaty-er’ issues without fear. Hopefully, my book “And The Beat Goes On” does that. It’s about an archeologist who discovers Pterodactyl and human remains in the same site in Zimbabwe. Speculation points to the mythical race called ‘Nephilim’, but soon sabotage threatens to ruin the find and even puts his life in danger. Of course, there is romance too!
    Anyway, thatnks for the forum! Good article Lynn! For those who want to check it out, you can view my book at http://www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/AndTheBeatGoesOn.html

  8. anon101 says:

    My favorite inspirationals authors are Lynn Austin (historical) especially Eve’s Daughters and Kathy Herman (contemporary) start with Trials by Fire (she writes severak interconnected series) wgich is confusing or Poor Mrs. Mrs. Rigsby (her one stand alone)

  9. Lynn Spencer says:

    @Michelle – For good authors, I’d advise just trying a variety of books that sound good to you to see what you end up liking. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the Love Inspired Historical line, particularly authors Victoria Bylin, Janet Tronstad, Anna Schmidt, Elizabeth White (who also does wonderful contemporaries!) and Carla Capshaw. I’ve also liked historical books by Deeanne Gist, Julie Klassen, Lynn Austin and Brock and Bodie Thoene (that last is more hist fic than romance, though)

    @Sarah Johnson – I agree with you about liking how inspy historicals portray religious values, too. I don’t care for preachy books, but books that show characters living their faith seem authentic to their time periods in many cases and faith of characters seems to be avoided in many mainstream historicals.

  10. LizJ says:

    Thanks for this refreshing look at inspirational romances. From time to time I just really crave the different perspective expressed in them. However, I easily got burned out on the frequent Amish and historical old west settings that dominated the sub-genre for years. I ended up reading either non-romance inspirational sf&f such as Ted Dekker’s Circle Trilogy (now quartet), Karen Hancock’s Arena, and Randall Ingermanson and John B. Olson’s Oxygen series; or, more general inspirational fiction such as Lisa Samson’s books (too deep to be considered “chick lit”). I only started back with inspirational romance fairly recently after discovering Deeanne Gist, who writes American historicals, but not sterotypical “old west” settings.

  11. Lynn Spencer says:

    @LizJ – Thanks! I got a little burned out on the older inspys, but there is so much more out there now. And lots of different settings! That’s one innovation that I wish secular publishers would borrow from the inspys.

  12. Pamela says:

    I’ve never read many inspirational romances but you’ve intrigued me with the idea of a vampire/supernatural one. I always think religion is one area that was skimmed over in the mythology of most paranormals.

    I remember in a movie (Queen of the Damned?) a vampire whose not held off with a crucifix and say, “I’m an atheist.” While in Anita Blake they mention (just once) that the power of holy objects lies in the faith of the holder.

    Any recs for paranormal/fantasy/sci-fi?

  13. LizJ says:

    I’m not sure how someone could portray vampires in a sympathetic/heroic light in an inspirational fantasy without going a similar route to Twilight…but I just found the first vampire-related inspy I’ve ever seen in stores – Tracey Bateman’s Thirsty, which has tie ins with alcoholism in the plot (could be an interesting angle). An inspy sf&f that seems interesting is Shade by John B. Olson (I liked his Mars series), but I suspect it’s not really vampires in the story but perhaps either demons or hallucinations.

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  15. Julie P. says:

    Except for the Narnia books, I am not usually a reader of Christian fiction, but I did like Debra White Smith’s modernizations of the 6 Jane Austen novels. Some of what happens in Austen’s novels is difficult to modernize (such as the Lucy and Edward’s secret engagement in S&S or Anne being convinced to refuse Frederick’s proposal in Persuasion), but these worked for me.

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