Unmarried people with faith do not seem to be mistaken – at least not in commercial literature. Sure, there’s a lump on your cheek or a meaningful smoldering look, but more than that? Unlikely. And then, imagine the clouds opening, a ray of light shining on Sally Rooney’s latest book. If you haven’t read Wonderful world, where are you however, the book is dotted with a long electronic chain between the two female characters, Eileen and Alice. But this essay is not for Eileen or Alice, who are similar to Rooney’s previous heroines in their detached, biting wit and awkward harmony with the capitalist culture they like to criticize. Instead, we are here to talk about Simon, Eileen’s lover’s lover, with whom she enthusiastically (and often) has sex in Rooney’s novel.
Simon was introduced to the plot as the literal boy next door. He is a respectful, quiet young man who acquires the habit of attending a Catholic liturgy while in college, even though his parents did not raise him to be religious. Simon is your daily, moderately devout Catholic who sincerely strives to follow God’s word, but also truly falls in love with his girlfriend. In other words: Connected. Despite the church’s teaching against premarital sex, he has it – a lot – with his girlfriend, but he still doesn’t seem so insincere in his faith. What do you do with a romantic hero who chooses both Gods and sex? I love it or so I did.
Christians have sex – which you could probably guess, as more and more Christians continue to be born and they have to come from somewhere. And despite what the Bible may instruct, not all of these Christians have sex within the framework of marriage or even within what their religious institution considers moral. Many evangelical Christian denominations participate in and spread a “culture of purity” – promises of abstinence, rings of purity, True love awaitsetc. and Catholicism reminds believers from an early age that sex outside of marriage is wrong. But this ideal is detached from the reality of life in 2021. As a recent Pew Research study showed, half of all Christians in the United States think that casual sex is goodSo, whether we agree or not, why don’t we see more Christians having sex in romance novels?
I’m not here to cheer about premarital sex. I am a boring, married and monogamous, albeit politically liberal Catholic. I received all my sacraments, participated in local weeklies, and volunteered with my church. For me, faith in God is the simple part; faith in institutions and their leadership is much more complex. I am also a novelist who reads an awful lot of books, especially romance novels. And Simon is the kind of nuanced Christian character I rarely see. He is not the cruel monk of self-flagellation The Davinci Code or some outwardly pious but secretly corrupt villain like Hillary Faye in the movie Reserved! He is also not a cult; Lighters and Divine, two recent novels that I adore are about the Christian faith that has derailed, but they depict the faith pushed to its ultimate, not everyday, reality.
In Rooney’s novel, Simon’s religion is an important feature of his character, not a spare part of his whole personality. Simon had epileptic seizures; he works for a non-profit; and he’s more than willing to let Eileen have the sex she wants. And Simon believes in God. Rooney writes a scene from Eileen’s point of view in the morning after having sex for the first time, and goes to Sunday’s liturgy with Simon. Eileen expects to be embarrassed by everything or to see Simon in a whole new light. Instead, she is surprised at how consistent Simon is, both in the church and away from her. Simon is not perfect; he is as messy as Rooney’s other characters, but his faith literally makes him love his neighbor throughout the book (not always just the love of sex, though definitely that).
Romantic novels thrive 47 million units in the last year, but none of the books listed in the Goodreads nominations for The best romantic novel in 2020, nor in the best-selling for 2020 of The torn corsage, they had a faith mentioned in their texts as identifying information about heroes. Of course, there are “Christian romances,” but my preference for characters is more positive about sex than these novels tend to distort. Sex-positive love novels make me feel better about my body, and instead of tempting me, they make me think more actively about true love and romance than I probably would otherwise as a stressed, married person. I also desperately want to read gender-positive romantic novels written by people of other religions.
The authors begin to respond to this desire. In addition to Rooney’s novel, several other books have been published this year, in which the main characters actively combine sexual attraction with religious and cultural expectations. Accidentally engaged by Farah Heron, issued in March 2021, is about what happens if you actually fall in love with the man with whom your Muslim parents tried to arrange a marriage. The novel delves into the cultural customs of Muslim life, including drinking and gambling, but although there is no sex, there is a prelude and Accidentally engaged he does not hesitate to show how sex, love and religion intertwine. At first, Heron wasn’t sure there was a market for books that delved into her culture and religion. IN interview with Kathleen West, she said, “Honestly, I didn’t think there would be anyone interested in the light, sparkling romances and female fiction I wanted to write if the characters were South Asian Muslims like me.”
Where Heron’s book is Roma, Rosie Danan’s The intimacy experiment adopts a more serious tone. The novel, which came out in April and which the feminist site for Jewish culture Alma cited as The best Jewish romance of the year, follows Naomi Grant, a sex worker, entrepreneur and academic, who is hired by a local (young, sweet) rabbi to begin a series of speakers in her synagogue on contemporary intimacy. The rabbi, Ethan, predictably has to deal with the politics of his community about being seen with Naomi, and Naomi has to look for what she really wants and ask questions for the first time since she was a child if faith is on that list. . This novel is not only sexy, but also sweet and challenging.
These novels are not just in adult literature. I’ve never seen you come by Erin Khan came out in September in the field of young adults. Khan’s protagonist, Meg, comes from a sheltered, conservative household and is on vacation in the Upper Peninsula before starting college. Mika, a local former pastor, intervenes to help her fill part of this gap. If that sounds dirty, fine at most it’s not – but yes, Han writes that Meg has an orgasm on the page. There are many great novels that struggle with the gospel faith, but I’ve never seen you come checks out all the boxes of sexually positive adult romance, with two characters who don’t lose faith in God or each other until the end of the book.
Talking about religion and sex in one breath may feel like a third rail, but these books prove that it can be done. Faith is a part of life and according to Data from the 2020 census, only 23 percent of the U.S. population is unrelated to religion. Reflecting the scattered realities of people with faith in finding love and sex is important. In the author’s note at the end of his book, Hahn states that she presented “safer” concepts for her next novel, but her editor took the opportunity. The result: a book that didn’t shy away from taking up the topics of #MeToo, the culture of purity and faith.
Weaving faith and sex can be awkward and authors may feel uncomfortable bringing these authentic pieces of themselves to the page, but with the support of editors and publishing teams, readers of all religions (and without faith) can enjoy see a wider lens in the romance genre. The best we can do is to support and show a market for romance that complicates, not simplifies, religion and its relationship to sexuality. More Simons, please!
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