Wednesday, 20 November 2013

On Christian Romance

By Iola Goulton


A recent article in Eternity newspaper titled Why do we read Christian romance? caused consternation in Australasian Christian writing circles. The article was well-balanced (if ill-informed), giving equal space to the arguments for and against Christian romance novels. The blog posts the article was based on were not so balanced. The author wrote one post praising the virtues of Christian romance novels, but negated these with four posts pointing out what she saw as faults in the genre and criticisms of the people who write them.

The blog posts said she read five popular Christian romances. She doesn’t reveal the titles, but said at least one was Amish romance (the others appear to be historical westerns, a popular sub-genre). Saying romance novels offer unrealistic ideals based on a mere five books is like saying modern children’s fiction is puerile on the basis of reading nothing but Captain Underpants. Her points were:

Christian romances explicitly teach that God has a special someone lined up for each of us

Of the hundreds of Christian novels I’ve read, the only novel I can recall making this point was Angelguard by Gene Edwards (a pastor), and the novel was speculative fiction, not romance.

Christian romance novels follow general market trends by featuring the one man-one woman idea. The ‘other woman’ and love triangle plots are no longer in vogue (except in specific erotica subgenres). Modern romance readers want to identify the hero and heroine in the first chapter (ideally on the first page), then follow that story through to a logical conclusion.

Christian romances feature Mr Perfect

A recent article in Relevant, an online magazine aimed at Christian young people (and just typing that makes me feel old) outlines the "perfect man" from a Christian perspective. He should be a man of honesty, purity, strength, compassion and humility. And a man of strong Christian faith. It also pretty much describes all my favourite romance heroes ... and my husband. Young women need to be encouraged to hold out for heroes like these, not told their expectations are "unrealistic".
"Women, it’s time to expect more from men, and then, to wait patiently until you see these qualities at work in his life. Don’t you dare settle for less."
If reading a romance novel encourages one woman to hold out for her hero instead of marrying a man who is more concerned with his sexual prowess and ability to drink kegs of beer, or one who likes to prove his strength and manliness by abusing his family, then that, to me, is a good thing. Statistics show the majority of marriages will fail, and many will be negatively affected by drugs, alcohol, pornography and violence.

I don’t care that these things are now the norm for much of society rather than the exception. I don’t want them for myself, and I certainly don’t want them for my daughter.

I want my daughter to settle for nothing less than the biblical ideal. She shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for having high expectations. If reading romance novels encourages those expectations, then that’s all well and good (better than most Young Adult and New Adult literature or the books she’s going to be forced to read for high school English, many of which encourage promiscuity and alternative lifestyles, and display a distinct lack of hope).

Christian romances are too ambitious in what they set out to do

All fiction has an underlying theme. Sometimes that theme is overt (as with preachy Christian fiction or general market Young Adult novels that attempt to normalise and justify homosexuality). But the theme in good fiction will be barely present, and the reader may not even pick up on it consciously. I suspect the titles she read were too overt in their themes, and didn't succeed. That's a valid criticism of individual books and authors, but not of Christian fiction in general.

Christian fiction often deals with themes of hope, forgiveness—and love. Some fiction deals with it badly (just because something is ‘popular’ doesn’t mean it’s good—Twilight, The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey were all wildly popular. But that doesn’t make them good fiction).

Some Christian fiction is too preachy, too much focused on the theme and not enough on the plot and characters. Some is purely entertainment, for people who don’t want to watch another rape-and-murder show on TV (or who want something to read while husband watches football replays).

Christian Romances are set in an imaginary world

Yes. They are novels, and that's the definition of a novel—it's an imaginary story. But good fiction is a story that hides a deeper truth:
"Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” On Writing by Stephen King
Jesus told stories. He knew that people related to stories, and often remember the story more than the sermon. Sometimes His stories were based on fact, on real people and events. But often they were fiction (the Bible calls them parables). Preachers do the same thing today, only instead of calling them ‘stories’, they call them ‘sermon illustrations’. Because people remember the message better if they can relate it to a story.


Am I offended by views such as these? No. I’ve heard enough sermons to know offense is the bait of satan (thank you, John Bevere).

As Christians, we are called to encourage each other to pursue and be obedient to our God-given callings, not to pull one another down or make people feel guilty or ashamed of their calling. So I am disappointed in this series of blog posts, as I would be disappointed in anyone who uses a position of influence to belittle those following their God-ordained calling. Some people are called to be missionaries or preachers. Some are called to minister in prayer, hospitality or cleaning. And some are called to contribute to the body of Christ by writing romantic fiction from a Christian world view.

I’ve recently read Truth Stained Lies, a Christian thriller by Terri Blackstock. At the end, the author shared a little of her personal history and a prayer that:
"when the last pages of our lives are written, we’ll each embrace the happily-ever–after that Christ was dying to write into our lives.”
Because that is the crux of life. We are the Bride of Christ, and He wants to spend eternity loving us. That’s what Christian romance is all about. It’s a human reflection of the greatest love story of all time: God’s everlasting and all-encompassing love for me. And you.

Isn't that the important thing?

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog.

18 comments:

  1. Great post Iola. You are right about what we want or I want in a Husband. I was once told my standards were to high and was taken aback at that time till I got to thinking if wanting a Godly man was to high so be it I was not settling for the first drunk who asked me to marry them. I am glad my standards are high.

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    1. I agree, Jenny. Better off single than married to a man who is less than God's best.

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  2. Iola, excellent post! The Christian romance genre is very broad in scope. As a result, it's hard to make credible generalisations about the genre as a whole. For example, it would be difficult to compare a sweet Amish book with one or Rose Dee or Andrea Griggs' Aussie contemporary romance books. These books all share a Biblical foundation and themes but are likely to appeal to different readers for different reasons. I love the variety in the Christian romance genre and I hope that Christian romance readers will find the types of books they like to read.

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    1. Thank you, Narelle. You are absolutely right in saying there is a huge variety within romance (and even I don't read or enjoy them all). It would be hard enough to make generalisations about a strict subgenre (like Amish) having read only five books, let alone across the romance genre as a whole.

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  3. Great post Iola. Incredible that a whole, diverse genre was judged on five books!

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  4. I've never been a reader of Christian romance novels. My favourite genres have always been SF, Mystery and Crime novels. That is until I read Mary Hawkins Baragula series - while not strictly what i would call romance romance (if that make sense?) I thoroughly enjoyed them.

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    1. I think a lot of people have a misconception about romance novels. The Baragula trilogy are definitely romance - the relationship is the core of the plot, and there is a happy-ever-after ending. They also have a strong suspense element, and that's my favourite kind of novel, one that combines romance and something else. I read mysteries and thrillers as well, and the ones I like best always have a strong romantic relationship thread.

      Thanks for visiting.

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  5. Debbie, Lynne and Jeanette - thanks for visiting, and thanks for commenting.

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  6. Well said, Iola. Far better for young adult women to read Christian romance than the murky stuff so readily available, as you mentioned.

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  7. Excellent post, Iola. You have covered the points we romance writers were concerned about in that article very well. I strongly believe the basic "rule of thumb" for all writers should be they write what they enjoy reading the MOST themselves. Thus while the relationship between the hero and heroine in all my books is always of prime importance, many of my own romance novels do include certain levels of suspense. I have discovered It does depend on the length of the book just how much can be adequately included. Thank you so much for the very encouraging comments about my Baragula books. These are my first longer novels and were a real challenge to write. - as is my current manuscript.

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    1. I agree writers should write what they most enjoy reading - after all, that's the genre or subject they know the most about.

      I hope the new novel is going well - I'll look forward to reading it.

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  8. "As Christians, we are called to encourage each other to pursue and be obedient to our God-given callings, not to pull one another down or make people feel guilty or ashamed of their calling."

    Brilliant post, Iola. Bless you for encouraging those of us who long to share stories of triumph and God's love.

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    1. Thank you, Dotti. I think this was what annoyed me the most. We are allowed to have opinions on things that differ from the opinions of others (we're even allowed to have opinions on subjects we know nothing about). But implying that someone isn't a 'good' Christian or to criticise their calling? Not our place to judge.

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  9. Well spoken, Iola! I love to see heroes with those attributes from the Relevant mag article in the pages of fiction. And just as romance authors don't belittle those of other genres (I'm assuming), your point here is well made.

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  10. All the novelists I interview are asked the question: "What do you think is significant about Christian fiction?"

    A few weeks ago I was privileged to host award-winning author Dan Walsh, who replied to the question with this: "In a word―Hope. The Christian fiction writers I know all work very hard to provide great stories with characters readers care about, lots of suspense and drama, and relevant themes that speak to the issues and challenges we face every day. But throughout our stories you’ll find a significant thread of hope and, while our endings may not be all rainbows and unicorns, you’ll typically find something redemptive and encouraging. That often seems in stark contrast to our secular counterparts. I find many of the stories in our culture, while exciting and often well told, are far too dark and leave readers wondering what’s the point."

    You can read the full interview here: http://www.christianfictionsite.com/1/post/2013/10/featured-author-interview-dan-walsh.html

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