Villainizing Romance & Other Dumb Things Christians Do
A bold title, ain’t it? I hoped it would attract your attention, and I hope the post that follows is worthy of your attention. If it isn’t, well, what can I say? I am only human, and though I have put much thought and many words into this article, perhaps it will still fall flat for some.
That said, I do have something to say, and I will say it with as much boldness as I can muster:
I don’t like how Christians discuss romance in fiction.
Specifically, in Christian fiction, but this applies more broadly to all fictional works as well.
My thesis is simple: we have become a culture, in Christianity, that either glorifies romantic relationships in and outside of fiction to an unhealthy extreme, focusing in on marriage-seeking couples as the ideal of God-serving people …
Or we have tossed out romance completely in an unhealthy and downright impossible way that leads to nothing but frustration, cruelty, and perhaps even sin.
If you thought my title was meant to incite the rabble, well, here I am making my introduction even worse! But I don’t mean to incite the rabble—mostly because I am the rabble, and I am too lazy to be incited.
That said, maybe you can think along with me and wonder if, perhaps, there’s something silly about the way Christians approach romance in fiction (& in general, though that is far too big a subject for this post).
The Christian Culture Toward Romance
There are two types of Christian cultures when it comes toward romance, and they are equally bad. The first is easy to diagnose—an obsession with romantic relationships that may be best summed up by that elderly woman from your church who is constantly asking if you have a boyfriend and recommending her nephew as a potential option when you say “no.”
Okay, maybe that’s a bit unfair, but there is certainly a subset (even a fairly large subset) within Christian culture that prioritizing getting those rings glued on tight ASAP as a must for all men and women, but especially women, everywhere.
And romance just seems to confirm that.
Now, though I disagree with the concept that the secular patriarchy is responsible for promoting the importance of marriage within the Church, this is one area where I’d give a nod to today’s culture—and the culture of romanticism in general.
Romantic love and therefore marriage is the end-all, be-all. For both men and women, whether you see if that way or not. Women who don’t seek marriage become old maids, bitter and resentful and in possession of far too many cats (as if there’s such a thing). Men who don’t seek marriage are also bitter, but in a uniquely “I’m scarred by my past and can’t open myself to love” way (because believe it or not, women are writing this narrative, and women are more sympathetic to men than to themselves!).
The church has fed into this, prioritizing romance and marriage over all other relationships, callings, states of being … whatever you want to call it, it has become ingrained into Christian culture (in Protestantism, at least) that you should marry, soon, and raise a healthy batch of pretty babies.
Now, I love that, actually, to a certain degree. I married pretty young, am pleased with my church, and desperately want a large family. But that’s me—and when I talk about me, I never mean it to apply to anyone but me. There are many, many Christian men and women who will never marry or who perhaps shouldn’t marry. The command was not that we should all marry, but that we should do it if we can’t help it (1 Corinthians 7:2; 7:9).
Look. Marriage is beautiful. It is the only relationship that is a truly perfect representation of Christ’s relationship with and love for the Church. That said, is it the end-all, be-all? No.
And Christian romance should reflect this in being both taking the relationship with the weight it deserves and in showing that it is not the sum total of the characters’ lives and in particular, their relationship with God.
The Christian Culture Against Romance
And the alternative, proponed largely by progressive groups, single women, or people from all groups who are fed up with the silliness of most romance novels (which would technically include me—I just arrived at a different conclusion) …
Romance is BAD.
Now, I feel like there are two subsets of the “romance is BAD” group.
1: There is too much romance in fiction, and
2: Romance is just bad.
I’ll address the latter first:
Part 1 of Anti-Romance: Romance is Bad
Don’t be that way.
God created romance and romantic love and sexual intimacy is a part of that, too, so stop it. *sprays you with a water bottle*
Okay, that was way too condescending for me to just leave it. I’m not that way—try as I might, it does not sit right with me to disregard a whole sector of my audience that way even if I disagree with them.
The first thing I’d say to the “romance is bad” (or mostly bad) is this: Romance is a Relationship, Not a Genre. That blog post lays out a lot of great points (written by Grace A. Johnson) which I deeply appreciate.
The second is … Well, let’s actually take a moment to come to the root of the majority of the “romance is bad” arguments I’ve seen, and it’s this: romantic fiction shouldn’t be consumed unless you are in a romantic relationship because it tempts the reader to longing for romance. And, uh, other … temptations.
Okay, fair enough. Let’s take these points on a bit at a time.
The Longing for Romance
First, the longing for romance. Okay, why not?
If you were not meant to long for romance, and if you are a Bible-reading, pray-without-ceasing, God-serving reader, you should be able to discern that even while reading romance. So instead of blaming the genre—or anything—for your sin, blame yourself and deepen your relationship with God.
Granted, this may mean removing romance novels from your TBR list for a while, but they are not the problem. You are the problem. Be accountable for your actions. I promise you, the sin was always there—the romance novel may just have brought to light what already existed within you.
And really, doesn’t that make the romance novel a tool?
It is also important to call yourself to discernment rather than throwing every book under the bus. Use all fiction you consume to sharpen your skills of discernment rather than requiring that every novel you read is inoffensive and trivial.
Further, this argument ignores all the good effects romance novels can have. In my personal life, I’ve seen again and again how romance can show us a true vision of God’s love for humanity as well as our need for companionship.
Let’s move on to the second point.
The Temptation to Sin
Usually this is sexual in nature, as people will argue that romance novels are basically a soft intro into pornography or something of that nature.
As someone with a history of “other temptations,” I fully understand the depth of “temptations,” and I think the influence of Christian romance on temptations is very overstated. In fact, it’s borderline nonsense, if we’re talking about quality Christian fiction novels written by strong Christians. Which is 90% of what I’ve read, regardless of what people may say about the inherent goodness (or lack thereof) of this subgenre. (Maybe I’m just pickier about what I actually read than y’all.)
Why? Because from the beginning of my reading of them, Christian romance has saved me from “temptations” by turning me back toward reality, Christian relationships, and most importantly, God. It continues to do this for me daily by helping me acknowledge and turn away from my own continued temptations (as these do not stop in marriage because nothing but God can heal a sin—especially not a human relationship).
Here’s another point in this variation of the argument. I’ve seen the verse from Song of Solomon, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases,” used to justify not showing young women romantic works until they are married.
To me, this seems a stretch of an interpretation of a largely sexual verse set within a largely sexual work. (Just to clarify, I disagree wholeheartedly with the interpretation that Song of Solomon is largely figurative or that the poetry is not inherently sexual or that it’s just about God’s love for the church. Sure, it has elements thereof, but when studied with an open mind and an understanding of the era’s poetry, it reveals that is also about the beauty of married love and in particular, sexual love within marriage.)
But let’s separate ourselves from the verse and the Bible and focus in on the thought process behind this. The question posed is, “Does reading romance novels cause young women to have their sexual or even simply romance-related thoughts be awakened too early?”
Yes and no.
Here’s my take:
Worldly media does that to you, if you’re unaware of it. We are bombarded with worldly romantic and sexual messages that make romance seem like the end-all be-all, especially in the women-centric romantic fiction genre that prioritizes romance relationships about all else.
But you can again use discernment to see that and therefore protect yourself against it. One of my favorite memories as a young teen is watching Gilmore Girls with my mother and seeing the real-life (and yet fictional, lol) consequences of sexual immorality and even just emotional intimacy in unsure relationships. Oh, and what it means to be a commitment-phobe. Oh, and why … Okay, lots of lessons in that show.
That’s what discernment does, folks. It turns everything into a fun lesson!
But with Christian fiction? Eh. Once again, use discernment, but I feel like Christian fiction is doing a better and better job at differentiating itself from the modern take on romantic relationships and presenting a godly model. (There are notable exceptions.)
And guess what? We need godly models of romantic relationships. NEED them. And we need to stop demonizing romance simply for existing.
Personal storytime: I have known many Christian families who have doomed their children to misunderstanding romantic relationships and sexuality, to hiding all hints of romance and sex in their own lives from their parents, and to struggling for years to establish a healthy view of romance and sex if they ever did at all.
Leaving a girl’s heart empty of any knowledge of romance and sex will not make her desire the good, God-approved version.
It has to be fought for, looked for … LONGED for.
If there’s an emptiness there in the first place (some of us don’t have this, but some of us do—not all people are created equal, and not all people even care about romance and sex that much—really), it will be filled by something. It’s the choice of the parents and then, as time goes by, it should be the choice of the teenager and then adult, what goes in. Because “nothing” is not a legitimate answer.
It applies to other areas of life: you cannot remove a bad habit by just removing a bad habit; you must replace it with something healthy. You must take out the weeds and then plant the flowers, because if there’s dirt, it’s gonna have something in it.
So choose what kind of information you will fill your head with or allow your child’s head to be filled with. If you give no information, your child (or your brain) will probably make up their own—and guess what? Kids (and brains) are pretty evilly imaginative—and the more you hide something from them, the more they will make up what that something is.
Romance exists in this world. What you choose is how you view it.
Now, granted, you can’t save your child or yourself definitively. I’m a good example of someone who was given all the right tools and simply chose my own path for a number of years. That said, there is such a thing as giving them a good start.
But is all romance inherently evil or even inherently unhelpful? Does it all contain the potential for sin? Is there no such thing as helpful and edifying romance, regardless of who you are and what your background is? Certainly not.
With that out of the way, let’s discuss the alternative “romance is bad” conversation: there is too much romance!
The Solution to Too Much Romance? More Platonic Relationships!
This one I have a hard time talking about because I feel like it’s much more nuanced. Because yes, the world is oversaturated with worldly romance.
But I’ll say it again for those in the back who might not have gotten my true point here:
The WORLD is oversaturated with WORLDLY romance.
So if you read primarily secular YA fantasy (which is fine! I’m not judging you; I’m just pointing out that it is going to contain some non-Christian elements!), yeah, you’re probably seeing a real problem. The world is obsessed with worldly romance. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s the world! (I will never stop being annoyed with Christians for expecting the world to be Christian. What Bible are you reading?)
As one of the few things that God created primarily for unselfish pleasure*, sexual love is an easy thing to pervert. So easy, in fact, that it takes a ton of effort to keep it pure and loving even in the strongest of Christian marriages.
*I feel like people are gonna come at me for this, but in truth, sexual love should be all about pleasing your husband or wife, not all about you. But obviously if both of you are Christians who want to have a successful marriage, and you should allow nothing else because otherwise your Christian marriage is gonna get good old-fashioned perverted, you should be mutually going about and beyond the call of duty to please each other. So basically, if you’re not getting as good as you give, put on
(take off?*) your big girl pants and communicate like a grownup because it’s supposed to be mutually pleasurable. *shrug* *I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.
When divorced from Christianity and from marriage, all sexual and therefore all romantic love falls into unhealthy and evil patterns very quickly.
And almost any secular romance will reflect this in some way (though not all, because the ideas of godly romance are also a big fixture in our culture, and even secular creators can reference it).
Yet I disagree with the concept that there could ever be too much Christian romance. I don’t think we could ever write enough beautiful relationship featuring a man and a woman loving each other in a godly way.
That said, are there not enough stories in certain literary genres featuring platonic relationships? Sure.
So write them! And read those that are written! But you don’t have to diss romance in the process. And don’t close your mind off to it completely, either.
But before I go off this subject:
Are Platonic Relationships Equal to Romantic Relationships?
This is a conversation subject I’ve heard often. “Romance are bad because they make romantic relationships seem like the only relationship or even the best relationship.” Yeah, I get that perspective. Yet I think there is a reason why we elevate romantic relationships in the way that we do.
The first part does have to do with sin. If sin can’t make us disregard romance, or pervert romance, it will make us elevate us to a status above our relationship with God. This is bad.
However, the other parts are actually healthy.
Healthy Reason #1: a romantic relationship was the first ever human relationship and the one God originally gifted to humanity when He first created humans. We value it, therefore, for obvious reasons. God didn’t make Adam a cool bro or a son or a mother. He made him a wife. (You could argue that was just for practicalities sake, because there are some things Adam and his Cool Bro could NOT do once the human race needed to, um, you know … expand … but still.)
Healthy Reason #2: romance is inherently different from a friendship. It’s important to note that God has compared His relationship with us to just about every type of relationship. However, marriage is the one that is inherently meant to be a picture of God’s love for and relationship with the church. It’s honestly a pretty perfect metaphor, or as close as one can get with sinful, imperfect humans.
Honestly, sometimes I can feel like the conversation easily disintegrate into “I just hate romance” with no qualifiers, and I don’t think that’s fair or what anyone truly means when they say that. Let’s talk about that for a bit.
What Do We Really “Hate” About Romance?
I think there are some things we hate about romance that are bad and yet seem to be featured in every romance.
I could sit here and list trope after trope, plot point after plot point, and character after character, but it gets down to this:
A lot of romances, influenced by the world and divorced from God’s original intent, fall into worldly sins that make romance unbearable as a genre. Therefore, the solution is not to cast off romance, but to write better romance.
A Subgenre of the Discussion: Romance in Middle Grade and (Some) Young Adult Fiction
This is one area where I think romance is unnecessary.
Because there is a certain age in our culture where romance is unnecessary. These audiences are largely comprised of populations who need to see romance* … but probably not have their own romances.
*In the sense of seeing healthy adults like their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, older cousins and siblings, family friends, their church, Bible stories, family films and books that include romance … there are so many options!
Further, a healthier relationship with platonic relationships is very needed in our culture. But if we had a healthy relationship with romance to begin with, it would be a lot easier to have a healthy relationship in all other areas.
Yet at a young age, in middle grade, it is best that kids are exposed to healthy relationships between adults—not hormone-fueled or nonsense-fueled relationships between children. And in the young adult genre, it’s very important that young adults see both healthy romance AND healthy friendships, because that is an important time for community-building and learning to relate to other humans in a platonic way.
So when I make this discussion, I am largely leaving those two genres out of it, which I think eliminates 90% of the people who are concerned with the amount of romance in fiction.
In Conclusion: Choose the Middle-Ground
There is rarely such thing as a healthy extreme. There never has been, nor will there ever be. God Himself shows this clearly by being the most dual-purpose Thing* in existence.
*If y’all think that’s disrespectful, well, maybe it is. But God is inherently multi-faceted while also being one, always and only GOOD, Being. He is also inherently steady, even, and gentle, even when He has no cause to be. His anger and judgments are slow but decisive, strong, and intense when they arrive. And we had best seek to emulate that in every way possible.
Honestly, if nothing else, we can stop with the finger-pointing and holier-than-thou attitude. Romance is not evil. Not reading romance doesn’t make you special or pure or cooler than the rest of us. Yet neither does enjoying romance give you an edge on others (unless others are completely walling themselves off from all romance like a good Puritan, in which case … you’re a little better than those people #sorrynotsorry) (and on the opposite end of the spectrum, not reading romance is better than the extreme of only reading romance or reading smut or finding yourself constantly tempted to sin by romance … any number of things).
Look. It’s okay to not like a certain plot or genre. But it’s not okay to dislike a certain kind of relationship that is God-ordained.
In conclusion, with 3,000 words in this article, I leave you with this: villainizing romance eventually comes down to shooting yourself in the foot in many cases. Not always, but many of us are created to desire romance and will someday have real-life experience with it.
Anyway, it’s up to you to not read romance if it’s not good for you or you don’t want to. I don’t like reading mysteries because I’m impatient. I don’t read a lot of Christian nonfiction because 90% of it causes more troubles in my weak lil’ mind than it fixes. I am not saying you should read romance. I’m not saying you should write it, engage with it, promote it.
I’m just saying you shouldn’t actively villainize it.
And honestly, some of the biggest “romance haters” (sort of) I know support this idea 100%. In fact, I’ve somehow garnered a large readership who read my books even though they hate romance, and I love all of these readers because:
- It makes me laugh (I thought I was boring?? Plainly some of y’all don’t know how lame I am!)
- It proves that everyone gets to choose their favorite genres and yet sometimes will read out side of the genre like balanced humans.
But also, I just really value non-romance readers reading my books because that means I did it right. 😛 Though maybe my readers are just dumb. That’s your call. (If you’re one of my readers, I’m sorry for calling you dumb. You did willingly read some of my writing, though. So what am I supposed to think?)
And that’s all I’ve got.
Well … give thoughts! I’m so curious about how this post will be received because somehow I know a lot of people who don’t like romance. (Honestly, a lot of them are dear friends who I deeply respect, too, but I think I’ve had this exact same conversation with 90% of y’all, so meh.) What are your thoughts on romance?
Are you interested in getting to know me & my books better?
I want to invite you to my super secret club. I mean, it’s not really a secret, because I’m telling you about it now, but here goes.
Join Mrs. Roth’s Society Column, my street team! We’d love to have you along for the ride!