s prelude Last Friday on Twitter, I saw Wendy the Superlibrarian tweeting about how inspirationals have changed. No kidding! This is a development that has THRILLED me in recent years – not to mention adding some variety to my reading. I read Janette Oke books, Serenade Saga romances and some other inspirationals from the time I was in middle school, but as I got older, the content started to seem more and more staid. Romances with heroes and heroines who spent a lot of time preaching and did not so much as even THINK about the temptation of going beyond the occasional kiss were common. The very dated-looking covers didn’t really help matters. When looking at some of the inspirational offerings from the early 90s, one cannot help feeling as if both the editorial departments and the art departments were stuck in an idealized 1950s world.

Back when I started reading (late 80s/early 90s), historicals made up the lion’s share of the inspirationals I saw. I grew up reading the Mandie series from Bethany House, which centered on the adventures of a young girl in western North Carolina at the turn of the century. There were also the Janette Oke books I mentioned, and a whole host of series – mostly American-set- about various devout pioneering families.

Some of these books were real gems. For example, Bodie and Brock Thoene’s Zion Covenant and Zion Chronicles series, historical fiction focusing on the pre-war and early stages of World War II, and the founding of Israel respectively, feature vivid characterizations, well-researched settings and fantastic storytelling. The books show almost no signs of preachiness, focusing instead on religious characters integrating their faith into their daily lives. However, compared to other books which came out around that time, these were way ahead of their time. While I recall some good reads from those earlier days, simplistic storytelling, preaching, an emphasis on traditionally domestic heroines and a wealth of platitudes were common. If heroes and heroines felt anything resembling physical passion toward one another, it was usually very well-disguised. As I got older, I grew rather tired of these books. After all, if one already had very traditional Christian beliefs, that certain simple level of preaching found in many of the older romances wasn’t saying anything not already accepted by the reader. And for someone who does not believe, if they’re not seeking out the essential message of Christianity, I doubt these folks were hitting the Christian bookstores and picking up lots of inspys anyway.

Obviously, it was not all bad back then. For years, especially when compared to secular romance, inspirationals have been rather innovative in terms of their openness to a variety of character and setting types. In other words, you won’t find umpteen variations on the plot of Lord Syphilis falling in love with Lady Special Snowflake. I still remember reading a romance about a young woman who grew up in grinding poverty out in the hillls somewhere who was swept off her feet by a traveling book salesman who taught her to read. Can you see the secular presses publishing that one? Unfortunately, aside from the willingness to use unusual settings and characters from a variety of social classes, “breaking new ground” is not a phrase one would have used to describe most elements of those older inspirationals. Most of the ones I read were exceedingly wholesome and one would be hard pressed to find anything in them that would have given anyone the vapors. In the past decade, however, things have started to change.

One can still find plenty of historicals, and these historicals (thankfully) still feature unusual settings and characters from all walks of life. Whether you’re curious about the Roman Empire, the Old West, Colonial America, Renaissance France or Czarist Russia, you can probably find books set there. However, in more recent years, I’ve also noticed a shift in tone in many historicals. Sometimes, I still find the dreaded preachy romance. Thankfully, it’s more common now to see characters openly expressing their spiritual beliefs and integrating these beliefs into their lives without having to speak in paragraph-long sermons. Even more refreshing, characters nowadays face problems, doubts and struggles that don’t always resolve themselves with language one might expect to find in a Hallmark card.

The romantic plots have changed, too. Even though one still generally won’t find explicit sex in inspirationals, it’s more common to find characters at least acknowledging the chemistry between them. If they hold back from sex, the religious reasons for doing so or the temptation involved is seen being discussed more often as opposed to the rather unrealistic plots of old where the characters might engage in a chaste kiss or two all the while acting as if that’s all one might ever want to do. Themes have also become more daring. Whether it’s unwed pregnancy in Julie Lassen’s Lady of Milkweed Manor or Carla Capshaw’s The Gladiator featuring a gladiator hero who once killed in the ring, inspirationals have definitely evolved away from being “safe” or “milquetoast”. The religious values remain, but authors are exploring them in ways not often seen in romances of 20 years ago. I find these journeys both intellectually and emotionally more satisfying.

I’m seeing more inspirational romances dealing with difficult and possibly controversial issues such as substance abuse or domestic violence. It’s also more common now to see some very good romantic suspense novels and thrillers in the inspirational market, and these novels of necessity must handle the idea of how their characters will view evil in the world. In the recent Without a Trace series published by Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired Suspense line, various books dealt not only with solving crimes but also with themes such as forgiveness for past wrongs or how bitterness can twist a person.

In addition, if you were looking for fantasy or science fiction, your options used to be limited pretty much to the Chronicles of Narnia, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness or the Left Behind series. Needless to say, options nowadays are more plentiful – and a good deal edgier. One can now find Christian publishers marketing everything from high fantasy to vampire novels which promise not only a paranormal tale, but one laced with consideration of the deeper moral issues raised by vampires.

The options in inspirational romance definitely excite me now much more than they used to. The packaging of the books has changed and many of them now feature absolutely gorgeous cover art such as the photo shown above for an Alaska-set book that I recently added to my TBR pile and plan to try reading soon. In addition, I see new authors out there on shelves almost every month, and the variety of story themes and character types is almost overwhelming. It’s a very exciting time to be reading!

-Lynn Spencer