If romance novels are expressions of faith, it would seem logical that they should share features of other belief systems. In particular,
It has long been recognized that “religion” encompasses two very different sets of dynamics: Max Weber (1930, 1947) distinguished routinized and charismatic religious forms; Ruth Benedict (1935) contrasted Apollonian and Dionysian practices [...]. And these are just a few of the many attempts to characterize a fundamental divergence in modalities of religious experience and practice [...]. At the root of all such dichotomous models is a recognition that some religious practices are very intense emotionally; they may be rarely performed and highly stimulating (e.g., involving altered states of consciousness or terrible ordeals and tortures) [...]. Whereas, by contrast, certain other forms of religious activity tend to be much less stimulating: they [...] are often accompanied by the transmission of complex theology and doctrine. (Whitehouse 293-294)
Harvey Whitehouse’s own theory “distinguishes doctrinal and imagistic modes of religiosity” (294) but since all kinds of romance use imagery, his terminology might be confusing if used in this context. For the purposes of distinguishing the two modes as they appear in popular romance fiction, I have therefore settled on a dichotomy between “ecstatic” and “legalistic,” drawing on the terminology used by Martin P. Nilsson who, while writing about Greek folk religion, made the broader observation that there are
two main streams of contrasting ideas which appear in all religion [...]. Man may seek union with God in mystic and ecstatic forms of religion, or he may seek to make peace with God and win His favor by fulfilling His commandments to the last item. The latter is legalism. (103)
The “legalistic” corresponds with the half of the binary which others have labeled routinized, Apollonian and doctrinal, whereas the “ecstatic” refers to that labelled charismatic or Dionysian. These two modes can, as Whitehouse clarifies,
occur quite separately, as the organizing principles of religious experience, belief, practice, and organization. But often the two modes of religiosity occur together, in a single tradition, and interact with each other. (294)
In the context of popular romance novels, the two modes do indeed occur together: there is frequently mixing of the two modes within individual works and, indeed, aspects of the reading and production of romances can also be ascribed to one or other mode.
With respect to the legalistic mode Whitehouse suggests that:
In order for people to believe in a set of doctrines, they have to be cast in a highly persuasive fashion. This is commonly achieved, at least in part, by special techniques of oratory established over time through processes of selection. Routinized religions tend to be associated with highly developed forms of rhetoric and logically integrated theology. (298)
Publishers and associations of romance writers have played a role in developing such “processes of selection.” Over time, especially as romance has developed in the US market, the broad category of romantic fiction has been transformed into "the popular romance novel," defined as having a "central love story" and "optimistic ending" (RWA 2020). At writers' conferences, through competitions, and in workshops, authors learn to hone their techniques and make their writing more effective. Moreover, in the legalistic mode, doctrines are “commonly illustrated by poignant narratives, that can easily be related to personal experience" (Whitehouse 298) and, as we have seen, this is true of romance, since romance authors’ own romantic relationships are often adduced as evidence of the truth of the doctrines expressed via fictional "poignant narratives" in their novels.
One “of the most conspicuous features” of the legalistic mode, however, is the way in which “the transmission of religious teachings is highly routinized (i.e., frequently repeated)" (297). Janice Radway, author of one of the foundational scholarly works on romance, was probably not the first, and was certainly not the last, to observe that there is a "repetitious or formulaic quality" (63) to romance novels. Whereas Radway considered this a flaw, a theological reading of the texts suggests instead that it should be considered a deliberate strategy for strengthening and spreading the faith. As Angela Toscano has argued, repetition in the language and plots of romance novels is
a liturgical act, a ritual speech. [...] In the repetition of the gestures, of the actions, of the words, romance attempts to summon into the present mythos – to manifest myth into reality. And in the retelling and re-performance of this form, the invocation alters the world of the real, infecting it and invading it with the impossible.
This is a liturgical language, a ritual narrative. Like liturgy, it suspends linear time, opening up a space for the divine to enter the realm of the human. (2019)
The liturgy is, moreover, “highly routinized (i.e., frequently repeated)” not just within texts, but also in the way in which they are used by many readers. Radway herself described romances as novels which
are consumed repetitively by the same readers [...]. If this phenomenon of repetitive reading is accorded the importance it deserves, it becomes clear that romantic novels function for their reader, on one level at least, as the ritualistic repetition of a single, immutable cultural myth. (198, emphasis added)
There are, then, many reasons to consider romance novels legalistic. However, there has also been a strong perception that romance novels are ecstatic. Romance has been one of the forms of fiction most likely to be identified as having the potential to transform readers into the modern-day equivalent of frenzied maenads, the ancient Greek women who, as a result of worshipping the god Dionysus, “go creeping off / This way and that to lonely places and give themselves / To lecherous men” (Euripides 198). Nancy Leigh DeMoss, for example, in her Holiness: The Heart God Purifies (2005), states that “A woman whose diet includes mostly romance novels or popular women’s magazines is setting herself up for moral temptation, if not failure” (107-108) while Neil T. Anderson warns that he has heard “accounts from women about being sucked into fantasy and unfaithfulness through their involvement with romance novels and dramas” (42).
These condemnations of women’s reading form part of a long tradition. In the sixteenth century, for example, moralists raised concern about women readers of popular chivalric romances:
Such pronouncements are based on three premises: that romances exercise undue freedom concerning erotic matters; that women are especially susceptible to the charms of such erotic entertainments; and that the consequent effect of romance upon women will be to make them sexually unruly. (Hackett 10–11)
Critics with this attitude towards romances have, however, often been inclined to go yet further and question the morality of fiction as a whole. From the mid-eighteenth century through to the early decades of the nineteenth, “It seems there was hardly any crime, sin or personal catastrophe that injudicious reading was not held to cause directly or indirectly—from murder, suicide, rape, and violent revolution, through prostitution, adultery and divorce, to pride, vanity, and slapdash housewifery” (Pearson 8). W. F. Gallaway, writing about “The Conservative Attitude Toward Fiction, 1770–1830” finds that in this period it was thought novels were able to “tear down the standards of a conservative Christian morality, to unfit the reader for the humdrum monotony of common life” (1048).
Such attitudes have persisted and according to Ursula K. Le Guin “traditional Puritan values” have caused Americans,
as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible. […] Such a rejection of the entire art of fiction is related to several American characteristics: our Puritanism, our work ethic, our profit-mindedness, and even our sexual mores. (40)
Suspicion of fiction is so strong that even evangelical Christian authors of "inspirational" (Christian) romances, who offer their readers novels which “embody, at least ideally, a perfect combination of romantic elements and religious themes” (Neal 2006, 82),
have expressed their frustration with how other conservative Protestants view their literary endeavors. […] Janette Oke relates, “I think there are a number who still feel that what we should be spending our time reading is nonfiction, self-help, and devotional study books.” (Neal 34)
According to Le Guin, all that “cannot be justified as ‘educational’ or [...] ‘self-improvement,’ [...] in the Puritan value system [...] can only be self-indulgence or escapism” (40). Fiction’s escapist nature, the way it appears to transport readers to other locations and enables some to imagine themselves in the place of one or more of the protagonists, may perhaps cause unease because it parallels some elements of the most unruly ecstatic religious experience. The very word “ecstasy,” after all, “is derived from a Greek word, with the original meaning of removing oneself from a given place” (Holm 7).