Unmarried people of faith don’t seem to get laid, at least not in the commercial literature. Sure, there’s a kiss on the cheek, or a meaningful smoldering look, but more than that? Unlikely. And then, imagine the clouds opening, a beam of light illuminating Sally Rooney’s latest book. If you haven’t read Beautiful people, where are you yet the book is strewn with a long chain of e-mails between the two female characters, Eileen and Alice. But this essay is not about Eileen or Alice, who resemble Rooney’s previous heroines in their aloof, biting wit and difficult harmony with a capitalist culture they love to criticize. Instead, we’re here to talk about Simon, Eileen’s handsome friend, who she enthusiastically (and frequently) sleeps with in Rooney’s novel.
Simon is introduced to the plot early on as the Boy Next Door. He is a respectful and calm young man who makes a habit of going to Catholic mass while in college, even though his parents did not raise him to be religious. Simon is your devout everyday Catholic, who sincerely seeks to follow the word of God, but also truly loves his girlfriend. In other words: Reliable. Despite the church’s teaching against premarital sex, he has it – for the most part – with his girlfriend, but he still doesn’t appear to be hypocritical in his faith. What to do with a romantic hero who both chooses God and sex? I like it, or at least that’s what I did.
Christians are having sex, which you can probably guess as more and more Christians are born and have to come from somewhere. And despite what the Bible might teach, not all of these Christians have sex within marriage, or even within what their religious institution thinks is moral. Many evangelical Christian denominations participate and propagate the “culture of purity”: promises of abstinence, rings of purity, True love waits, etc. – and Catholicism reminds the faithful from an early age that sex outside of marriage is bad. But that ideal is separate from the reality of life in 2021. As a recent poll from Pew Research showed, half of all American Christians think casual sex is okaySo whether we agree or not, why don’t we see more Christians having sex in romance novels?
I am not here to encourage premarital sex. I am a boring, married, monogamous Catholic woman, albeit politically liberal. I have received all of my sacraments, attend Mass every week, and volunteer with my church. For me, faith in God is the easy part; confidence in institutions and their orientation is much more complicated. i am also a novelist who reads a lot of books, especially romance novels. And Simon is the kind of nuanced Christian character that I rarely see. He is not the cruel, self-flagellating monk of The “Da Vinci Code or some sort of seemingly pious, but secretly corrupted villain, like Hilary Faye in the movie Checked in! He is not in a sect either; The arsonists and Godshot, two recent novels that I love, talk about the derailed Christian faith, but they portray faith taken to its extreme, not everyday reality.
In Rooney’s novel, Simon’s religion is an important feature of his character, rather than being a substitute for his whole personality. Simon had epileptic seizures; he works for a non-profit association; and he’s more than willing to let Eileen have the kind of sex she wants to have. And Simon believes in God. Rooney writes a scene from Eileen’s point of view the morning after having sex for the first time, and she goes to Sunday mass with Simon. Eileen expects to be embarrassed by all of this or to see Simon in a whole new light. Instead, she’s surprised at how “Simon” he is, both inside and outside church. Simon is not perfect; he’s as messy as the other Rooney characters, but his faith literally drives him to love his neighbor throughout the book (not always just the kind of sexual love, though that is too).
Romance novels are booming 47 million units in the past year, but none of the books listed in the Goodreads nominations for Best romance novel in 2020, nor in the best sales for 2020 at The torn bodice, had the faith mentioned in their blurbs as identifying information about the character. Of course, there are “Christian romances,” but my character preference is more sexually positive than these novels tend to distort. Sexual romance novels make me feel better about my body and rather than indulge me, they make me think more actively about faithful love and romance than I probably would otherwise as a person. stressed bride. I also desperately want to read romance novels of a sexual nature written by people of other faiths.
The authors are starting to respond to this desire. Besides Rooney’s novel, several other books have appeared this year where the main characters actively juggle sexual attraction with religious and cultural expectations. Accidentally engaged by Farah Heron, released in March 2021, talks about what happens if you fall in love with the man your Muslim parents tried to marry with. The novel delves into the cultural mores of Muslim life, including alcohol consumption and gambling, but although there is no sex, there is foreplay, and Accidentally engaged does not hesitate to show how sex, love and religion are intimately linked. At first, Heron wasn’t sure there was a market for books exploring his culture and religion. In a meeting with Kathleen West she said: “Honestly, I didn’t think there would be anyone who would be interested in the light and sparkling novels and female fictions that I wanted to write, if the characters were South Asian Muslims. like me.
Where Heron’s Book is a Romantic Comedy, Rosie Danan’s The experience of intimacy take a more serious tone. The novel, released in April and which the Jewish feminist culture site Alma classified as the Best Jewish Romance of the Year, follows Naomi Grant, a sex worker, entrepreneur and scholar, who is recruited by a local rabbi (young, cute) to start a series of speakers in her synagogue on modern intimacy. The rabbi, Ethan, has to predictably deal with her community’s policies regarding being seen with Naomi, and Naomi has to research what she really wants, and wonders for the first time since her childhood if the faith is on this list. This novel is not only sexy, but also sweet and uplifting.
These novels are not limited to adult literature either. I never saw you coming by Erin Hahn was released in September in the sphere of young adults. Hahn’s main character, Meg, comes from a sheltered and conservative home and takes a year off in the Upper Peninsula before starting college. Micah, the son of a former local pastor, steps in to help fill part of this gap. If it looks dirty, well this principally isn’t, but yes, Hahn writes that Meg has an orgasm on the page. There are many great novels grappling with the evangelical faith, but I never saw you coming ticks all the boxes for a young adult sexual romance, with two characters who don’t lose faith in God or each other at the end of the book.
Talking about religion and sex in the same breath may seem like a third rail, but these books prove it can be done. Faith is part of life and, according to the 2020 census data, only 23 percent of the US population has no religious affiliation. It is important to reflect the messy realities of people of faith in the search for love and sex. In the author’s note at the end of her book, Hahn said she came up with “safer” concepts for her next novel, but her publisher took the risk. The result: a book that does not hesitate to tackle the topics of #MeToo, the culture of purity and faith.
Weaving faith and sex can be awkward, and authors may feel embarrassed to bring those authentic parts of themselves to the page, but with the support of editors and publishing teams, readers of all faiths ( and no faith) can benefit from seeing a larger focus in the genre romance. The best thing we can do is support and show a romance market that complicates, rather than simplifies, religion and its connection to sexuality. More Simons, please!
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