NEW YORK – A growing number of romance novels are cleaning up their act, and burning up readers with stories of love, commitment, marriage and faith.
"In traditional romance fiction you have growing body parts. We don't do that," said Lynn Coleman, founding president of the American Christian Romance Writers, which this week holds its first national conference.
More than 100 members and participants are expected at the Oct. 17-20 event, to be held in Kansas City. Among the scheduled events are the usual retinue of speakers, workshops -- and a closing worship service.
And while bodice-rippers are still prominently featured at many supermarket bookracks, fans of Christian-themed romance novels say it's about time readers had an alternative.
"I was a little up-to-here with the graphic sex and what-not," said Dorothy Featherling, an ACRW member who was once an avid reader of mainstream romances. "People used it to cover up a deficiency in plot."
Christian romances, said Featherling, "realize there are physical attractions. But they don't go into all the nitty-gritty details. They satisfy women's emotions."
Rebecca Germany, an editor at Barbour, a Christian book publisher, said staples like pre-marital sex, heaving kissing, and heavy petting are eliminated in these more chaste novels. "They take [readers] to the bedroom door, shut the door and leave it at that, and assume everything is natural in there," she said.
Instead of forbidden trysts, the religious genre focuses on solving crises of faith, overcoming obstacles and making decisions about dating and marriage.
"Often both characters, or at least the Christian character, will seek God's guidance on decision-making, even, 'Do I accept the first date?'" Germany said in an interview from her Uhrichsville, Ohio, office. "It's just a reminder to bring God into one of the biggest decisions of picking a mate."
And the characters aren't unrealistically chaste, said Coleman, 46, who has written 10 books, including Keepers of the Light and One Man's Honor.
"There can be characters who have had sex. We don't negate real life," she said. "My character [in a book I'm writing] had been living with a boyfriend for five years because she'd walked away from her faith. But she moved out from her boyfriend and got right with her faith."
Spiritual storylines are woven into all Christian romances, and have become more sophisticated and contemporary in recent years. Today's works rely on scripture and prayer more sparingly than their predecessors.
"You don't want to get too heavy on the theology," said Coleman. "It's still a romance. We're not trying to preach here."
But just because the characters consult their Bibles and keep their clothes on doesn't mean the stories aren't titillating. In fact, fans say stopping at the bedroom door can be even more exciting than crossing the threshold.
"Most stories do take the ending of the book to where the couple gets together and you know they are together. But they don't ever get that explicit," said Featherling from her Austin, Texas, home. "But your imagination is the best writer there is. If you can give readers a hint, their imagination can take care of that."
Of course, holding hands and exchanging knowing glances aren't enough to satiate some romance fans.
"There are whole lines that readers pass up because there's very little even sexual tension in them," said Carol Stacy, publisher of Romantic Times Book Club Magazine. "Some readers, ones who prefer steamy romance, won't read the sweeter books because they're reading for the sex."
But as a veteran in the biz, Stacy said reading about couples consummating their lust is often less thrilling than the chase.
"A lot of our readers skip the hot sexy scenes," said Stacy. "After awhile, they all start sounding the same. How many ways can you describe making love?"