Love them or not, romance novels are unquestionably popular. Accounting for about a third of mass-market fiction sales and more than a billion dollars annually, they attract a hugely loyal fan base — including many Christian readers.
And for those who enjoy a good relationship story, what’s not to love? Steamy books aside, classic romance novels often promote many of the traditional family values that comprise ideal married households: one man, one woman, each setting aside past transgressions or weaknesses to devote themselves to their relationship.
Indeed, a host of Christian publishers sell what’s referred to as “clean romance” books, where purity is uplifted, and Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior plays a key role in either the growth of the relationship or their individual character.
This begs the question: Are romance novels okay for a person of faith to read? How should Christians respond to romance novels?
The answer depends on the kind of book it is and how we allow the fantasy within the pages to impact our lives and expectations.
Romance as a noun almost always refers to a feeling — one of heady excitement, attraction, desire, or mystery — especially when it comes to a love relationship. Often, romantic love is considered that whirlwind period of initial attraction and sometimes infatuation between two people whose hearts seek to become one and is a precursor to the deeper, lasting covenantal bond that is married love.
What Are Romance Novels?
Romance novels are fictional books whose theme centers on the relationship and romantic love between two individuals. Dating to ancient Greece and rising to popularity with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma in the 19th century, they typically have a happy ending, celebrate unconditional love, and thrum with optimism and hope.
Subgenres include historical romance and romantic suspense, among many others. Many books have similar tropes, or plot devices and character attributes, such as “enemies to lovers,” “the love triangle,” “forbidden love” (think Romeo and Juliet), or “the second chance.”
Perhaps a man and woman are strikingly different and despise each other, but by being forced to work together on a project, they learn they are actually quite similar — and compatible as potential mates. Sometimes there is a pursuit, where one partner must “chase down” and win the heart of the other.
But not all romance novels are the same. Some contain scenes of physical intimacy not in line with what God intends outside of a marriage covenant. Others honor God throughout their pages.
What Does God Think about Romance?
The Bible is often called God’s love letter to humanity, for we see throughout Scripture that God has been chasing down our hearts since the Garden of Eden. Always, God is our perfect partner, and always God pursues us, granting us chance after chance to be in relationship with Him.
He always wants us, always loves us, always opens His vast heart to us. Some say that given all this, God is the ultimate romantic.
While there are not many explicit descriptions of romantic love relationships between two people in the Bible, one book thought to have been written by King Solomon, Song of Songs, is filled with romantic language.
Brimming with numerous examples of romantic love and detailing the mutual longing of a man and woman for one another, its lyrical poetry is meant to lift up the beauty of a loving relationship between a man and a woman. Some say it is an allegory of God’s passionate love for his children, the Israelites.
Reading Song of Songs along with Jesus’ references to himself as the bridegroom (John 3:29; Matthew 9:15; Luke 5:35), as well as Paul’s directives about the sacrificial and selfless love between a husband and wife, we see time and again throughout Scripture how God seeks our hearts and seeks to love us just as passionately as any romance novel character.
Clearly, God doesn’t just want us to do His bidding. He wants our hearts. He desires a relationship with us. He wants our feelings and emotions as much as he wants our logical, methodical minds.
That’s what the Apostle Paul was referring to when he painted the picture of an ideal Christian household in Ephesians 5:21-33 — each partner must love the other in a way that points to God.
That is, they must love each other fully and generously, respecting each other, cherishing each other, protecting, and serving each other, and together they bolster their home to be in full service to the Lord.
When a husband and wife love each other well, the relationship works, just as when the church is in full communion with Jesus Christ, doing His will and living His ways in the world. That’s a healthy church and a healthy relationship.
So, in all the genuine ways of romance — cherished care, passionate hearts, devoted lives — we see God at work. God, in valuing, seeking, and prioritizing our feelings and emotions, can most definitely be considered an advocate of romance in the best sense of the word.
What Are the Dangers of Romance Novels?
But there are also dangers in romance novels. First, we need to guard our hearts and minds. in Philippians 4:8, the Apostle Paul urges us to set our minds upon “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.” So be sure what you are reading helps your brain follow that path.
Second, we need to remember that there is love, and there is romantic love, and they are not always the same. Nor does romantic love have to take a priority when it comes to marriage.
Marriage is unique in that it encompasses romantic (also known as eros) love as well as all the other kinds of love, including agape (unconditional and sacrificial), storge (family devotion), and philia (general, compassionate) love. We need to be careful that we are not prioritizing one type of love as “better.”
Many relationships cycle through all of these love types, and they are no less valid. Even romance novels that are chaste and uphold values of purity carry dangers in that they can idealize romance over the other types of love.
Third, romance novels can inflate the importance of our romantic partner over God. Christian marriage isn’t simply between a man and a woman but between them with God. In Genesis 2:24, we’re told “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
But this uniting is always supposed to include a partnership with the Lord. God created man and breathed His own breath into him. Then he created woman, and the two become one flesh in relationship with Him.
As Jesus says in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
If a couple leaves God out of the equation, then the relationship is essentially nothing — an empty, pointless exercise in futility. But together, rooted in God, they blossom and bear fruit.
But as with anything, too much focus on one thing can create an imbalance. A woman might view her man as her “savior,” such as if he’s physically rescuing her from something dangerous. A man might view his woman as his “muse” or his “light,” for she comes to represent the good, kind, compassionate in the world for him.
This has the added effect of turning the other person into an idol, someone they admire or care for so much that they take priority — even over God.
Fourth, romance novels can skew our perception of what real, God-centered marriage should be like. Sometimes when we watch TV or read books where romance is idealized, we begin to believe fictional portrayals are what real life is “supposed to” be.
We might become disillusioned and think a relationship must parallel what we read about or watch in order to be valid and true. We forget fiction isn’t real life.
What Does This Mean?
Bottom line: If you enjoy romance novels, feel free to read them as long as the novel is in line with Christian values. Relationships are important, and God gave us feelings — including romantic feelings — for a reason.
But take what you read with a healthy dose of skepticism, reminding yourself it is indeed just a fictional story and in no way represents what a real-world romance “should” look like.
For further reading:
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.
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