This week, we’re reading books featuring Men of God, coinciding with the release of Andie J. Christopher’s Hot Under His Collar, which we buddy-read and had a LOT of thoughts about. (Review coming tomorrow!) To get us started, we had a chat about the Man of God archetype in romance, and the kind of work is does.
Bottom line: Do you like the Man of God archetype?
Holly: I don’t not like it.
Erin: You know, I really don’t. Which is not something I expected to say, actually.
Ingrid: I do not, generally. No.
What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a Man of God archetype?
Holly: One of the main characters is a professional religious person. Usually, it’s a male main character. (I can think of one single book where the Man of God was a female nun.)
But that’s actually a huge category of people with really different types of relationships to the divine—and different views on and rules about interpersonal relationships. So should we really count Catholic Priest/Nun books, where the archetype is about the taboo and stealing the person away from God, as within the same archetype as Protestant Minister / Jewish Rabbi books, where the main character has a job that’s also a calling, but where relationships are not a big deal? I’m not sure.
Erin: Holly makes a good point that there’s a slight difference between what’s going on with a protagonist who’s celibate and supposed to be married to God, as it were, and the protagonist who is expected to be more pure than mere mortals but not full blown forbidden fruit. However, for me, it all boils down to the protagonist is fully committed to a religion and there are morality expectations that come into play as part of the conflict.
I also argue that these characters are usually portrayed as gentle shepherds, not fire and brimstone preachers, with the job being “Man of God” but not really completely tied to the hierarchy and tenets of the religion or denomination in question.
Ingrid: It’s definitely an Eve with the apple situation…usually.
What do you think is fun about the archetype?
Holly: If you like angst, there is a lot of space for angst in these books. Even in non-Catholic ones, there is usually some dynamic of “I have to behave a certain way because my career is really intrinsically tied to my identity as a good person”—and when the relationship happens, it often pushes against the man of god’s preconceived notion of what his good life would look like. If that’s not angst-inducing, I don’t know what is.
Erin: I like it when authors push against the commonly held perceptions of who these characters are and what they represent in their greater social circles. (But if I’m being totally honest, they don’t usually go far enough for me to really get excited about them.)
Ingrid: There have absolutely been books where the developing relationship really pushes the characters to examine who they are and strip all the nonsense bare, and that is always more satisfying for me, personally.
What do you find problematic about the archetype?
Holly: I don’t love the dynamic of “I will steal him away from God.” I get it, that makes the love interest extra special, but, like, if you really believe that God is omnipresent, then maybe there’s space in the Man of God’s life for both of you?
Erin: So… the entirety of this archetype seems to be centered on shame. It’s a good (boy) falling rather than a bad (boy) rising. The archetype is based on the notion that there is something intrinsically morally upright about the MoG character, and the conflict is that what is happening to the MoG character is directly oppositional to the expectation of what should be happening. Maybe it’s straight up sex shaming: “I should not be having these sex feelings because I am a MoG and it is wrong.” Or maybe we’re talking about some super progressive, cool, sunglasses wearing, motorcycle riding MoG man of the people who is still expected to be a pillar of the community leading by example who is thrown off course by a love interest.
I recently read a book where the MoG had feelings for the owner of the sex shop, and part of the conflict was that she felt like he couldn’t be seen with her because what would the parishoners think. Props to the author for making him be true to himself the whole time, but also 1. this book was absolutely playing to the idea that a pastor could never be into absolutely filthy premarital sex (gasp!) and 2. it ignored the fact that MoG are called to serve and if the leadership of the parish or whatever don’t agree with how the MoG is presenting himself, they can oust him. Bottom line, the archetype is very much centered on external social expectations and the protagonist’s ability or lack thereof to meet them.
Ingrid: I mean, all of the above, really–but I bring it back to the pervasive and constant refrain that women who don’t conform will tempt men away from righteousness, and no matter how you spin it, that seems to be the bubble these books live in.
Regarding priest and/or nun books specifically, would you say the appeal is centered on the taboo or on the thoughtful transformation of the protagonist’s changing relationship to God / religion? Does it matter if the book is thoughtfully constructed if the desire to read it is centered on the taboo?
Ingrid: Well, it’s impossible to lump all of them into one or the other category I think. And I can say what I prefer here, but ultimately the romance genre is meant to be inclusive and so while I prefer the books to thoughtfully examine the transformation of a protagonist’s relationship with God and faith, I certainly think there’s a readership for people who are really into pushing that taboo or kink, and in that case it really only matters what that reader thinks. We don’t yuck other people’s yums, man.
Erin: This question primarily came up because we buddy read Hot Under His Collar for this week, but I think it might actually be really reader dependent. A few months ago, we three were discussing how our understanding of the genre shifted when we all started reading more romance because when we read so much romance, it’s possible to see what ideas authors are trying to play with more readily than when one only sometimes reads romance. So I feel like an occasional reader might feel it’s super taboo and OMG!!!, and books like Priest tap into that, but also for someone who is more immersed in the content and thinking about it from a more literary standpoint, the taboo might be entirely secondary.
Would you say that all Men of God protagonists are inhabiting some level of taboo space, or is the taboo aspect limited to priests/nuns or others who have taken a vow of celibacy as part of a religious calling?
Holly: This is an interesting question. I think, given Erin’s point about moral expectations that the MoG shoulders, that I’m going to go with yes, all MoG inhabit some level of taboo space.
Ingrid: They certainly dribble their toes in water of taboo, I think. At a minimum.
Erin: Maybe it depends on angst level. I can think of some kind of historical (or maybe Amish or something? Heartwarming Harlequin line?, but I’ll be honest, I’ve never actually read one of those) in which the gentle preacher has tender and tame interactions with the shy village maiden, and it’s all very sweet until (WHOOPS!) they’re naked in the field or whatever, and that wouldn’t have the same level of taboo as, like, Fleabag (which is very fun, BTW). Unless you just think sex is taboo in general. Which some people do, I guess.
Is this archetype always paired with a foil? Is one protagonist the Man of God and the other is some level of non-believer?
Holly: Not always! That is absolutely a dynamic that plays out frequently—but in every Catholic priest book I’ve read, the love interest has also been a devout Catholic. That way there’s double the guilt! A non-believer wouldn’t care about pulling the priest away from his vocation.
Ingrid: Nope, not always. And I will say that I’m waiting to see what rolls out post Priest because I bet there are some romance authors who read Priest and immediately thought, “hold my beer”, and these authors will be putting out some fresh and interesting takes on this trope in the near future.
Erin: I guess this is also a little bit context dependent. I think the temporal and geographic setting would impact the read. Not that we can’t have historical atheists, but definitely the mental framing caused by the setting changes the expectations for the protagonists’ cultures. But I do feel that, while Holly makes a good point that Catholic/Catholic pairings are double the angst, I have read a few books recently in which the more religious protagonist is somewhat challenged by a love interest who does not hold the same beliefs. I guess it adds to the drama.
What’s one book you loved that features this archetype? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the archetype?
Holly: I know Ingrid is expecting me to recommend Priest (again), just to tweak her, but I’m going to go with A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long. It was the first romance I remember reading that starred a minister (in this case, a proper English vicar), and his moral uprightness was such a breath of fresh air after years of reading nothing but degenerate rakes, as I did from approximately 2000–2012. But also, this is a book about kindness and acceptance and finding the moral high ground not through moralism but through actual morality.
Erin: I think the best I can do is The Jezebel Files series by Deborah Wilde, which begins with Blood and Ash. Levi isn’t really a Man of God as such, but he’s the leader of the magical community, and that’s directly tied Judiasm, so religion is a focus of the narrative, though Levi’s position is more political than overtly religious. Wilde’s largely secular society was extremely grounded in religious roots, and shifting from a Christian-centric worldview to a Jewish-centric worldview makes religion’s influences on secular life more obvious.
Slash I like The Sound of Music.
Holly: Then you should read It Takes Two to Tumble by Cat Sebastian! It’s just like The Sound of Music, but queer.
Ingrid: I love a good Mary Lancaster and she has a very classic historical take on it with The Wicked Lady.
Books we mentioned in this discussion: