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Faith Plays Role in Christian Romances : Publishing: The cleaned-up courtships involve hand-holding and religious experience rather than the explicit sex of more conventional novels.

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From Religion News Service

Francine Rivers is a name readers of love stories know well. She’s written more than a dozen romance novels, reaping top awards for her work.

But after becoming a born-again Christian in 1986, Rivers crossed over from the secular market to inspirational romance with a decidedly religious bent.

With that move, she came to symbolize a growing belief in the publishing industry that romances are for Christians, too--without the explicit sex of mass market novels and with specific references to faith.

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Evangelical Christian romances are a small fraction of the overall book industry, but an important part of the burgeoning Christian fiction market. Romance titles make up about 50% of the best-selling fiction on the list of top Christian books published in July’s Bookstore Journal, the trade publication of the Christian Booksellers Assn.

Having been on both sides of the fiction market, Rivers knows the differences between secular and Christian romance.

“In any love story in the Christian market, it’s a triangle and God is at the top of the triangle,” she said. “In the secular market, it’s just between the man and the woman and there’s usually sexual involvement.”

Phyllis Tickle, religion editor for Publishers Weekly, said people in the trade put it more vividly: “It’s the difference between whether the bodice rips or just bulges.”

But the contrast goes beyond sexual content. Some Christian writers say readers want books with more meaningful relationships than those often depicted in secular fiction.

And for some writers of Christian romance, the books can be tools for subtle evangelism. The authors hope non-Christians who pick up their books will be inspired to become Christians themselves.

Janis Reams Hudson, president of the Romance Writers of America, composed mostly of members who write secular romance novels, said more publishers are distributing so-called inspirational love stories.

“The market for inspirational romance is growing in part for the same reasons that the regular romance is growing,” she said. “All of the books deliver messages of hope that . . . at least for fictional characters, things can work out.

“I think it’s a reflection on society that people want more hope in their lives.”

Later this month, her organization will announce awards for inspirational romance, chosen from both published novels and unpublished manuscripts. Rivers is a finalist for her book “An Echo in the Darkness.”

Some Christian publishers feature book lines or clubs aimed at loyal readers who like to follow characters from book to book.

Barbour & Co., a Christian publisher in Uhrichsville, Ohio, features its Heartsong Presents romance line in a mail-order club that sends members four new romance novels a month--two contemporary and two historical.

Steve Reginald, Barbour’s vice president of editorial, said about 15,000 members have joined the book club since Heartsong’s debut in October, 1992. The company plans a fall campaign aimed at boosting membership to at least 25,000 by Jan. 1.

Some of Heartsong’s readers were quietly reading secular romances, but switched when they found novels more in keeping with their religious beliefs, Reginald said. “We know for a fact that Christian women are reading the other stuff . . . in their closets and feeling a little guilty about it,” he said.

The plot lines of inspirational romance novels are as varied as those of secular books, but far tamer.

In Rivers’ “As Sure as the Dawn,” a German warrior contends with a beautiful widow who has cared for his infant son from birth. The plot twists through a “dramatic conversion to Christ, trust, dark temptations, family tensions, false religion, tragedy,” a reviewer wrote in Christian Retailing magazine.

Barbour has drawn up guidelines for potential writers of Heartsong Presents books. No heroines can be cast as pastors, and foul language--including “euphemisms like heck or darn"--should be avoided.

Palisades, the romance line started one year ago by Questar Publishers, also has parameters for its “pure romance” books.

“There will be hand-holding, light kissing and then you’ll even see in some of our books where someone will say, ‘Hey, let’s back off,’ ” said Michele Tennesen, spokeswoman for Questar, a Christian publisher in Sisters, Ore.

Questar’s books typically open with a Bible passage that serves as the theme for the novel. The firm has published about a dozen of its Palisades romance novels and sold close to 200,000 copies. Some of the titles have hit Bookstore Journal’s best-seller list.

Even publishers of secular romance novels have been producing inspirational romance.

Marsha Zinberg, senior editor and editorial special projects coordinator at Harlequin Books in Toronto, said its book “Unanswered Prayers"--which details the relationship between a preacher and his wife, and is a finalist for a Romance Writers of America award this month--prompted “a lot of reader mail.”

“We never labeled it inspirational as such,” Zinberg said. “That was not our intention when we published the book. People have sort of come back to us and . . . labeled it for us.”

The popularity of inspirational romance has a long history. In the 1920s and 1930s, the prolific Grace Livingston Hill brought the genre to the revival circuit.

“She went to camp meetings and read her stuff there and so she kind of got accepted on a level that no one else did,” said Dick Malone, vice president of product purchasing for Spring Arbor Distributors, a Belleville, Mich., distributor of books to Christian bookstores.

There were other Christian romance novelists in the 1950s through the 1970s, but their success was erratic, Malone said. A steadier growth has occurred since Janette Oke, a popular author published by Bethany House Publishers in Minneapolis, started writing books with romantic elements in 1979. Now she’s at the top of the Christian best-seller list.

“I think it’s very exciting that God can take fictional characters and teach spiritual truths,” she said. “We know that Jesus used little stories all the time in his ministry. It relates to people in a different way.”

Like Rivers, Oke used to read secular romances, but shunned them when they increasingly featured sex outside marriage.

She also didn’t like the way some secular romances feature a couple resisting each other’s attentions through most of a novel, only to fall madly in love late in the book.

“I think it’s important to make young people realize that a good relationship is much more than physical attraction,” she said. “It’s a commitment that you stick with through tough times and the good times.”

Rivers, too, said she hopes she’s a “tool for God.”

“I would be delighted if God uses my work to help people look at their faith,” she said.


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