Kay: How Romance Novels Can Reinvent Religion

From the Hot & Bothered podcast site

The first time I heard a feminist definition of a romance novel (female author writes a book celebrating values of love, compassion, community, and friendship, with a female protagonist who fights for what she wants and gets it), I was hooked. Those books were for me.

Can romance novels create a new feminist dynamic? I don’t know. But women and men read romances for the hope they offer, the comfort they give, and the values they aspire to. That’s good enough for me. And if they help create a new feminist dynamic, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

But there’s more! I recently read an article by Kimberly Winston in the Washington Post that suggests that religion can be reinvented through romance novels—that because of the themes and values romance novels showcase, they can be considered sacred texts. Holy bodice ripper, Batman!

Vanessa Zoltan, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, has started a podcast called “Hot and Bothered,” which encourages listeners to write their own romance novels as a sacred practice. “For something to be sacred … it has to teach you to be better at loving,” she says. Zoltan hopes that the podcast will be a place where people can talk about what love is, whether that’s romantic love, friendship, or even hospitality.

Zoltan, 36, says many of the millennial generation have left the church, breaking with traditional religious practices because they want or need to create meaning in new ways.

“The church for many people is a gift, but for others, it is a place of trauma,” she said. For those people, she says, “we need to come up with new spiritual technologies.”

While at Harvard, Zoltan, who is culturally Jewish and a self-identified atheist, studied Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as a sacred text. Then she co-founded “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” a podcast exploring the meaning of friendship, power, grief, integrity, and other themes of the J.K. Rowling novels. It’s one of iTunes’s most popular podcasts, with 9 million downloads a year.

She began the “Hot and Bothered” podcast project after the 2016 election, when she experienced panic attacks and lost sleep over the news. Relief came by reading romances—where good triumphs and love always wins. She read 27 romance novels in 60 days.

Then she started writing a romance novel of her own. Writing led to deep conversations about the nature of love, the value of fidelity, and the power of sacrifice.

But is writing a romance a sacred practice?

“For something to be sacred, it needs three things—faith, rigor, and community,” Zoltan says. Faith that the act of writing can bring real blessings, rigor in the commitment to write regularly, and community in the podcast’s listeners and team.

Zoltan doesn’t suggest that listeners write steamy scenes instead of going to church, temple, or mosque. But, she says, “[A]nything that makes you better at loving is a good thing.”

For the podcast, Zoltan will be joined by Julia Quinn and other writers who discuss a common romance trope on each episode: love at first sight, marriage of convenience, enemies to lovers, and so on. Listeners will be encouraged to write their own romances and to share their writing experience with others in small, local groups. The goal is to explore what is sacred about human relationships.

But can writing romance novels, even with faith, rigor, and community, provide the spiritual sustenance of traditional religions? Maybe. But only if it moves beyond individual fulfillment, says Brent Plate, who teaches courses on religion and popular culture at Hamilton College. “The old-school, churchgoing Christians, I think they’ll have to realize that their stories and rituals no longer meet the bodily and communal needs of people,” Plate said.

Whatcha think? With my own writing, I meet the criteria of faith, rigor, and community. (Thanks, guys!) Does that make my writing sacred? Perhaps. If only to me.

The podcast premieres in October and will appear weekly through the end of the year.


15 thoughts on “Kay: How Romance Novels Can Reinvent Religion

  1. My mom always used to talk about “Catholic guilt,” and if one considers that part of the criteria, then writing definitely qualifies as sacred for me.

    I spent this morning scrubbing (literally) the floor of my garage because my son spilled cooking oil all over it (Him: “What happens when you mix oil and water?”). It was not how I wanted to start off my day. Now I’m exhausted, but I feel like I MUST WRITE. My husband said take the day off if I wanted to, but that doesn’t feel right. I feel as if I must do *something.* Actually, I feel guilty for not writing.

    Today isn’t the sort of spiritually uplifting day that one generally looks for in something sacred, but I believe the path to enlightenment isn’t all fun and games, either, and that this sort of struggle actually makes us appreciate the process even more.

    • I think the path to enlightenment is all about struggle, especially with the decisions you make. And while I personally don’t write because I feel guilty, whenever I feel depressed and don’t want to work, I always feel better if I sit down and write for a while. I feel renewed and refreshed and also comforted in a way.

      As your spiritual advisor :-); , I think the next time cooking oil gets spilled over the garage floor, you should pour Dawn over it, spray it down with the garden hose, and call it done. And then you won’t have to feel guilty (you did something!) and you won’t be too tired to do what you want to do. Uplifting, it probably isn’t. But I guess not all roads lead to Nirvana.

      I’m really messing up the metaphors. Carry on, Justine. Don’t mind me.

      • Actually, my adventure with the cooking oil has led to the complete cleaning of the garage today, and I do feel very good about that. It means that some Saturday when I thought I would be cleaning the garage, I will be able to scoot off to a coffee house and write. So either way, the writing will get done. And I do feel very good for accomplishing what I did in the garage. My floors are so clean, I could literally eat off of them.

        • Fantastic! You know, there’s nothing like getting a long-put-off chore done to make you feel great, not to mention accomplished. Today, I thought I’d get my “auxiliary desk” cleaned off. But no. It’s still staring at me, which does NOT feel good. Congratulations on time well spent!

    • Oh, that’s such a good point. Not writing does make me feel very guilty. It makes me feel like a liar, and like I’m betraying . . . someone or something. It doesn’t make me feel guilty enough to write, though. When I write, usually I’m in a rested place with at least an hour of open time, and I’m ready to have a little fun.

  2. I was baptized into the Church of England, which I guess could be considered religion-lite (Henry VIII invented it because the Pope wouldn’t let him annul his marriage). Maybe that’s why I don’t feel comfortable getting up close and personal with adjectives like ‘sacred.’

    OTOH, I’m 100% comfortable with “Anything that makes you better at loving is a good thing.”

    Sounds like a fun and interesting podcast. Thanks for sharing, Kay!

    • “Sacred” isn’t my favorite word, either, but it’s the one the interview subject used, so I went along. I’m totally on board with ideas that include bringing more love into our lives, and discussing what that means in all areas. But I hear you about religious training—I was baptized into the United Church of Christ, and one of my deeply Lutheran friends once told me that “those people will believe anything!” Which is not far off, I must say. 🙂

  3. This is such an interesting concept! I’m an atheist myself, both logically and as a comforting belief. The only thing that really makes me doubt is the act of creating art. It seems so magical to me, the way it seems to come out of nowhere.

    I do think romance novels promote love in a lot of different forms — the diversity has gotten a lot better with the advent of self-publishing, and also, a lot of romance is about building a good and safe community that benefits everyone. You can see the community in Jennifer Crusie’s work, and Jane Austen, the grandmother of the genre, is all about community. And while there are romances that don’t feature a best friend, there are also plenty that have best friends — and such a diversity of best friends!

    Love is often mocked, but the older I get, the more I think it’s the only thing worth working for. Love of community, love of family and friends, lovers, even loving things . . . there’s a lot to choose from.

    • Hear, hear, Michaeline! I so agree. Romance novels are popular with those who value love and community—usually women, who are usually in charge of love and community in their families and towns—precisely because they celebrate love and community. Especially these days, when the concept of “love” and “community” in the news is shredded before our eyes.

      I don’t understand why some people have artistic talent and others don’t—I’m in awe of painters and sculptors, and maybe that’s because my best natural talent is a skill for parallel parking. But you’re right: it’s like magic

  4. I seem to be in the minority here, because I’m perfectly comfortable with the word “sacred,” and with applying it to writing romance, which is about love in its many forms–eros (sexual love), philia (friendship), ludus (playful love), agape (selfless love), pragma (longstanding love) and philautia (self-love). There’s also storge, love of children.

    As I think about it, I think really good romance novels show all six.
    o The couple is attracted by eros.
    o They also need philia, support from their community, to survive.
    o Romances are much more fun to read if there’s an element of ludus, typically portrayed through banter, although I’d argue that Christian Grey’s playroom fulfills that need for those so inclined.
    o To earn their happy-ever-after, the protagonist must display agape.
    o And to complete their character arc, the protagonist must learn philautia.
    o Finally, the happy-ever-after ending is a promise of pragma.
    o The desire for storge may explain readers’ love of epilogues, which often feature the children of the couple making an appearance.

    I should have saved this to use as a blog post!

Let Us Know What You Think

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s