Tis the season for snow-kissed romance. Now is the time when all the single ladies (and plenty of us married ladies) are snuggling up under a big fuzzy blanket in warm socks with a cup of hot chocolate watching romantic movie after romantic movie.
Actually, it’s never been my thing, personally. The hot chocolate, fuzzy blanket and warm socks, absolutely! I’m not necessarily into the romance movies, but I know it is a thing for a lot of women.
And that’s ok. Sort of. Let’s talk about it.
“Can you please address what is wrong with Christian romance novels?”
To be honest, I haven’t really addressed this much throughout the years because it has never been much of an issue for me. That entire genre of literature doesn’t really interest me, so I feel a little underqualified to sit here and tell you why you shouldn’t read it. I’d much rather make this an argument to start reading mystery novels or Ted Dekker thrillers (my favorite!).
But it is Christmas time and there is something about this season that just awakens the romantic in so many of us. Maybe it’s the snow, or the holidays, or the mistletoe. Maybe it’s Hallmark. Who knows.
What I do know is that the only “romance” novels I ever received and read was a collection of Christmas-themed Christian romance stories. They were nice, nothing super noteworthy, a little cheesy, and I “lost” them after a while.
Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of Christian leaders rail against romance literature as the struggle for women. It’s planting unrealistic ideas for relationships in their heads. It’s making them have too high of expectations. It’s awakening love (which is a horrible misapplication and interpretation of Song of Solomon, more on that another time).
So I know that this can be a hot topic for many. I think that’s especially true among those who insist (wrongly) that romance novels are exactly the type of “porn” and the only type of porn Christian women can struggle with. You’re here reading this on my blog, so I feel like this goes without saying, but that’s a very incorrect assumption.
What’s Wrong with Romance Novels?
First, it’s important to understand that writers write to meet a demand in an audience. It’s simple writing economics. If there is a demand for a specific type of material and it does well, then writers are offered contracts to keep writing. The writing world is a business.
I point that out because I think it’s really important we don’t attack authors or publishers who are publishing content that people are asking them to publish. Christian leaders often complain about the entertainment industry eroding culture, but I believe it is actually a reflection of culture.
One of the more obvious problems people can have with romance literature is that some of it is honestly just an attempt at a God-honoring replacement for hardcore erotica.
I know God isn’t pleased if I read a story that spells out in graphic detail the sexual escapades of a couple. If the mental image painted by the words is so graphic, I might as well be watching pornography, then I know that’s wrong.
But… what if?
What if, the couple is married? What if they meet at church? And what if, instead of graphic detail, the author leaves just enough open to imagination that I can picture sort of what is going on, but not quite everything. That’s ok, right?
And if you’re using romance novels as a replacement for pornography in order to get turned on, you don’t need me to tell you why you shouldn’t be reading them. You already know you shouldn’t be reading them. It doesn’t matter if your childhood best friend or the preacher’s daughter or the pastor’s wife is reading them. You shouldn’t be.
But that’s also not every romantic novel out there. Just like every “thriller” doesn’t have blood, guts, and gore, every romance novel doesn’t have disguised sex scenes.
When we’re railing against the “corrosion” of culture, we can start to make broad, sweeping generalizations that do more harm than good.
We throw out the baby, the bath water, the tub, and the soap all in the name of making sure we don’t get anywhere near anything that looks like it’s “worldly.” That leads people to have to say things like this:
Romance is not bad.
Women hoping to be pursued is not bad.
Feeling all the warm fuzzies when hearing/reading/watching a love story is not necessarily lust.
It’s very unfortunate, but I think for years Christian young women have been raised in Christian cultures that tell them that anything that looks romantic is evil, sinful, sexual, wrong. Then after marriage it’s acceptable, encouraged, but not with too high of expectations because then you could frustrate your husband. But this discussion deserves a more nuanced approach.
The Anatomy of a Romance Novel
A romance novel’s driving point is “falling in love.” It taps into the longing that so many women have of being seen, chosen, and accepted.
Think about any of the romantic shows that pop up this time of year. The clumsy country girl ends up in the big city and just so happens to, on day one of her new job, spill her boss’ soy latte all over the lawyer in the coffee shop. He is, of course, breathlessly handsome and finds her ravishingly attractive. And so the rest of the story is this cat and mouse, hard-to-get game. Her family wants her to move back home. His friends think he’s insane for settling, and, in the end, they beat all odds, finally kiss, and live happily ever after.
It’s a grown up fairy tale, really. We’re primed on Disney. We just trade the poisoned apples for dead-end jobs, the wicked step sisters for overbearing families, and Prince Charming for a city man in a suit or country cowboy in boots.
If it’s a Christian romance story, they meet in church and she ends up directing the church Christmas play while he’s building the set. We trade in the fairy Godmother for Jesus.
But what do they all have in common? The girl is chosen. She is known. She is pursued.
And when we read it, it just awakens something in us.
The question you need to ask yourself is what.
What is awakened?
Because it’s normal for stories to awaken emotion. Good stories do. Emotions are not bad. They are not wrong. It is not evil if a story makes you smile, or sigh in delight, or brings a tear to your eye. That’s the sign of a good writer. If you want to feel nothing, do crossword puzzles.
That being said, we, as Christians, do need to be careful that the entertainment we’re consuming isn’t driving our hearts in a way that is contrary to our faith. It is not contrary to God’s plan for me to desire love. It is not contrary to feel compassion for someone. It is not contrary to feel joy, even at a fictional story. But it is contrary if a story begins to drive me toward impatience, distrust, or frustration.
Here are four “awakenings” to look out for.
Envy is wanting something someone else has. It’s not just a longing. It’s a resentful longing. Does reading a romance novel make you basically hate every single married/dating/engaged person you know?
2- Unrealistic Expectations
Can we just be real here? If you spill a soy latte on a guy in Starbucks, please don’t expect him to kiss you. Life is not a fairy tale. Nor is it a romance novel. Romantic relationships are hard work. As one of my college professors once said, “You don’t fall in love; you fall in holes.” Love is more than just “hey, he’s cute and I think he likes me and what a coincidence that I just so happened to sit down near him at the coffee shop! It must be destiny!” We call that infatuation and it is different.
Do not expect your life and the story of love in your life to look anything like it does in romance novels. That may seem like a “no duh” statement, but so many women struggle with this. In the romance novels, all of her dreams come true. He has the perfect eyes, the perfect hair. He’s the right height, strong, deep-voiced. He can sing, cook, juggle, dance, loves animals, had sisters growing up, has the perfect mom, a steady job, zero debt.
And it leaves a reader thinking, “I can find a man who checks all the boxes on my list. He’s going to be tall, dark, handsome, funny, have a Masters, drive a nice car, already have the perfect house with the fenced-in yard, have the perfect family, love Jesus, sing in the choir, fix cars, ride horses, have blue eyes…”
Is it too much to ask for!? Absolutely.
It’s ok to have some expectations. I expected to marry a man who loved Jesus. I expected to marry a man who wouldn’t abuse me emotionally, verbally, physically, sexually. I expected to be able to serve alongside my husband. I expected a man who didn’t expect me to be his mother. I expected a man who would help around the house and be a good father.
Expectations are totally fine, but please be fair and realistic. There are too many women (and men) who are way too picky about way too many things that don’t matter. Don’t let romance novels set you up for this.
I have good friends who have “must have” lists so long that I simply pray for the friend (not her list). Because when you start dictating his height, hair color, eye color, gym habits, food choices, movie choices, music choices, type of car, amount in the savings account and exactly how you’re going to meet, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. You could overlook an absolutely amazing man simply because he was wearing the wrong color shirt when you met him.
(Jessica, that’s ridiculous. No one has those sort of expectations. Oh yes, they absolutely do. They shouldn’t, but they do.)
Ladies in relationships (married, engaged, dating seriously), this one is for you. Romance novel commandment 1: Thou shalt not compare thine husband to the male lead.
You already know life isn’t a romance novel. No matter how romantic your man is, you already know that the romance novels leave out the bad breath and the pile of dishes neither of you wants to do. Those pages don’t capture impatience, frustration, clumsy communication. Do not compare your significant other to the made-up man in the made-up story and don’t compare your real life story to the made-up story.
I have a sweet friend who is recently engaged. Over the course of their relationship, there have been many times she has reached out with concerns, worried that this isn’t “how it’s supposed to be.” And in almost every situation, the circumstance she describes is totally normal. It’s a hiccup in communication or just a difference in their personalities or love languages, normal things that normal couples have to work through. Nothing abusive. No red flags. And to put her mind and heart at ease, nearly every time, I’ve given her a recent example of the same thing in my marriage.
She’ll share a story of failed communication and wonder if it means they’re doomed. I’ll, in turn, share a story of failed communication that happened in my marriage “just the other night.” Because these things are normal. It’s part of living life with a flawed human being as a flawed human being myself. We talk about how my husband and I worked through it and brainstorm how she and her future husband could potentially tackle the same thing.
When I was engaged, I had married friends who did the same for me. They helped pull back the curtain on what real love and relationship looks like, and it doesn’t look like those romance novels. It doesn’t look like the movies. It doesn’t sound like the love songs. And that’s ok.
If you find yourself walking away from a romance novel feeling crabby and expecting your husband to launch into song to save the day and are disappointed that he doesn’t ride horses, then perhaps this isn’t the genre for you.
I’d encourage you to take a moment and heal that relationship (even if in your own heart) by expressing to him out loud five things that you are grateful for about him.
On this note, one thing that romance novels tend to do is present men as mind-readers. Somehow this perfect man knows exactly how to respond, exactly how to touch, exactly how to win a complete stranger’s heart.
I want to put this very gently: this is not normal.
Stop expecting men to do this.
Stop assuming you can say nothing, ask for nothing, give zero feedback, and he’s just going to somehow know what you need, want, hope, etc. You want him to know something? You want him to give you something? Tell him. It’s called communication.
“But that’s not romantic!”
Of course it is!
We get this idea that romance needs to be organic, unspoken, and unprompted, but that doesn’t come until you know someone. My husband can’t get me my favorite things if he doesn’t know what they are. But if I tell him, “Actually I love chai tea and scones” when he wants to be all romantic and get me something, he knows exactly what will speak my language. It saves him the stress of guessing and walking in the door with coffee and donuts, which would be sweet, but chai and scones are next level.
Romance novels present novel relationships with the ease and intimacy of a couple who has known each other for years.
4- Sexual Desire
In some cases, as I mentioned earlier, this is an obvious one. There’s a scene where the Christian married couple is gearing up for sex. The imagery might stop after the foreplay or it might try to explain things in less graphic detail.
But it’s important to note that it doesn’t have to have a “sex scene” to awaken sexual desire (which is, again, not the same as love).
If you have friends who have gotten married, you know what it’s like to listen to their love story. You feel that little twinge of “I want that too!”
There’s just something about it that stirs up hope and love and awe and joy. It’s really beautiful.
But in the height of my struggle with pornography, I remember love stories stirring up something else.
I couldn’t count the number of times I watched a couple walk away from a wedding and thought, “Now they get to go have sex.”
That’s just always where my mind went. It could have been the most God-honoring, modest wedding and they could be the most God-honoring, modest people and my mind would still leap into that area.
I would then argue, “Well, I’m not wrong!” As if that justified me dwelling on that thought. But the reality is, that’s not a thought I needed to be dwelling on and it would quickly open the door to lust and fantasy.
Romance novels can be that same “trap door.” It’s “just a love story” but soon you find yourself fantasizing, lusting, even masturbating, filling in all the gaps that you know are there.
What if I struggle with romance novels?
What if one or more of those “awakenings” is common for you?
The quick, easy answer is stop reading them. There are literally thousands of other books out there.
In time could you come to enjoy a good love story? Sure. But if everything heart-shaped right now sends you head-first into the gutter or sets you on a disgruntled path of disappointment, stop. That’s ok. There is no rule that says girls have to love romance novels and have shelves full of them. You aren’t proving anything and if any of these areas is a struggle for you, the best way to fight it is to eliminate the trigger (which would be the romance novels).
When it came to my friends, I didn’t stop going to weddings. I didn’t disown all of my married friends when they got married. I had to learn to control those errant thoughts.
But when it comes to entertainment, we absolutely can choose our company. If romance novels prove to be bad company for you then bid them “farewell.”