Back in the mists of time, when I was in high school, I attended my church's summer camp in Colorado.
Speaking at the youth rallies during that week was a famous evangelical personality whose name, were I to mention it, would almost certainly be familiar to you.
For whatever reason, I distinctly remember him telling us early in the week that his wife was addicted to romance novels. This well-known evangelical expressed a mix of amusement and consternation at the fact that here he was, traveling the world to preach the Gospel, and his wife was back home, plowing through as many vapid Harlequin paperbacks as she could.
And I distinctly remember drawing - with no prodding from anybody - the correlation between his extensive ministry schedule, the physical loneliness his wife must be feeling, and the obvious frustrations she hoped to quench at least partially, vicariously, through romance novels. For the rest of the week, I sat there in those meetings thinking to myself (yes, I was a cynic, even then) about how credible his evangelistic ministry could be if he didn't even value his ministry as husband and father. After all, wasn't being a husband and father more important than his career, even if that career was being a professional Christian?
Fast forward to a couple of months ago, when my editor at Crosswalk asked me if I'd be willing to review Christian romance novels for the website.
At first, I didn't think I'd heard her correctly: who'd care about the opinions of a guy when it comes to a decidedly feminine literary genre? And I use the term "literary" here loosely.
My editor had already considered that aspect, and shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe having a guy reviewing romance novels could bring a fresh perspective," she mused, "and since you're single, it wouldn't be as weird as if a married guy was reviewing them."
So... it might still be weird, but since I'm single, not so much? Still, I needed the work, and I thought, "how bad can Christian romance novels be?"
Like many of the women who read them, I was naive.
Would St. Valentine Approve?
Technically, apparently, they're not called "Christian romance" novels, but "inspirational romance" novels. I'm not sure the genre even existed back when our Christian celebrity confessed his wife's addiction to their secular cousins back in the 1980's. But they've become a powerful financial force in today's Christian publishing world. It seems that as life gets more stressful, it's getting easier for women of faith to get themselves lost in stories that never have unhappy endings.
And if the story of the inspirational romance was that simple, then it probably wouldn't be much worse a waste of time than a bad movie, a soap opera, or really vacuous pop music.
But the thing I discovered with my very first inspirational novel - having just finished it last night - is that as page after page goes by, the unrealistic scenarios depicted in prose can disarmingly prejudice the reader against everyday life and warp their perspective towards reality.
Some readers might consider such a book a success. But does God?
In the book I just completed, which I suspect is typical of the genre - since it's published by a major Christian publisher as part of a series - the protagonists are gorgeous and sexy by almost anybody's standards. But in the real world, how many of us are? And it's not just that the author threw in a perfunctory sentence describing her main characters as being physically attractive; rather, she spends much of her novel describing how they ache for the physical pleasures of the other, by benefit of the other's gorgeous body. I don't know; maybe I'm just jealous. After the first few pages, however, it becomes obvious to any reader with any sense: this attraction isn't about love!
It's about lust!
I'm not going to lower myself to quoting the immature desires this author describes between her main characters. Granted, the author doesn't get explicit in a lewd or lurid way - in fact, she does a great job of wordsmithing her protagonists' affections without coming close to crossing any moral lines - but it's all based on the same unreliable, stilted, and physical drives with which any teenager struggles.
Let's face it: lead characters in any pop-culture romance are never overweight, are they? Heroines are never frumpy or really short, and heroes are never scrawny or bald. They may be poor, unpopular, depressed, underemployed, or criminals, but they're never ordinary-looking. Or ugly. That's the whole point of a romance novel: not that two unexceptionally-featured people can love each other, but that two gorgeous people can lick a few fictitious problems to live happily ever after in a model American kind of way.
By their very nature, then, such "Christian" romance novels affirm the populist notion that love is more valuable when it's lathered in physical beauty. Not attraction for attraction's sake; after all, plenty of non-gorgeous people fall in love with other people who are not gorgeous, yet there's usually some sort of attraction. Being attracted to somebody is not a sin. But should Christian romance be so dependant on prized physical attributes? As a man, I felt quite inferior reading this novel. The lead female character wouldn't have ever given me the time of day, and I already know plenty of women like that!
Put It In Writing
So, how is any of this different than romance at the movies, you might ask? Well, for one thing, how can any romance portrayed in an unBiblical light be edifying for a child of God? And isn't romance which emphasizes physical over spiritual unBiblical? Sure, we look at outward appearances in all sorts of situations, but God doesn't say that as a compliment.
Secondly, in a novel, you'll likely get a more vivid narrative of the protagonist's thoughts and feelings that may or may not translate well to their screen adaptation. If you have a woman admiring her man's thick legs and yearning to feel his masculine hands, a visual representation may look merely sexual, but having the imagery reinforced by words on a page leaves no doubt as to the woman's less substantial justifications for loving somebody - physical attributes - than their personality or character. With books, authors have the unique opportunity to more effectively explore the intangible reasons for why people love each other, and even when authors don't take that opportunity, doesn't that speak volumes about the true nature of the attraction?
More importantly, however, is the subtle claim by both authors and publishers of Christian romance novels that they're a purer form of romance, since they incorporate churchy themes. Meanwhile, however, the very traits God expects lovers to look for in each other get left at the altar. Romance advocates point to the Song of Solomon as justification for their genre, but if you'll read the Song of Solomon carefully, you'll note that the writer doesn't evaluate relative physical features as much as he admires basic anatomy. In other words, Solomon doesn't specify or compare the waist size, bosom size, or other proportions of the body as much as he exalts body parts for their own sake. He leaves it up to his readers' imaginations about how the things he writes apply to their lover. That way, every man can see his wife, and every woman can see her husband... and nobody else!
That's part of what makes the Song of Solomon so powerful.
In the traits of a Godly woman listed in Proverbs 31, we find a host of benchmarks which define the prototypical Christian woman, such as being noble in character, industrious, diligent, gracious, hospitable, wise, and prudent. Nothing about looks or sexuality, although it's said that "beauty is fleeting."
Physical beauty, anyway.
As for Christ, after Whom males would do well to model their lives, He was no Adonis. People didn't follow Him because He was handsome and charming; they followed Him because the Holy Spirit compelled them to.
Not that there's anything wrong with being attractive and well-built. It's not a sin to be beautiful. But beauty is more often than not in the eyes of the beholder, isn't it - especially the inner beauty that should count more than the external kind? So why should Christians - particularly Christian women, since they're the target audience for inspirational romance - beware of what our ostensibly righteous Christian publishers are selling them?
Because Christian romance portrays a false world. This false world, particularly in the minds of vulnerable women who are desperate for male companionship, can plant false expectations and nurture false hopes. It wouldn't matter so much if you were talking about a beautiful horse or a productive garden or anything else that people prize, yet manage to maintain a realistic appraisal of their chances of owning. But a marriage relationship, at least as I've been told, is hard enough without false expectations and false hopes tossed into the mix. How fair is it for men when their wives read books laden with standards they physically can't match? And wives, how many of you fit the standards set by our world's definition of a beautiful woman anyway? That's not intended to be a low blow as much as a challenge to relinquish any double-standards.
Christ's church across our world is under attack from Nigeria to Indonesia. And I mean literal attack, in the form of believers being beaten and imprisoned for their faith, and houses of worship being burned to the ground. And we've got women in North America, apparently bereft of opportunities to study God's Word or minister His Gospel to others, who manage to find time to wallow in trivial, unfulfilling, and potentially destructive Christian romance novels?
(How can anyone consider Christian romance novels fulfilling? Why else do you think many of them are published in a series?)
The evangelical leader whose wife devoured Harlequins almost certainly did so because her husband wasn't home enough to move romance from theory to practice. And guess what - that was his fault! To the extent that men don't fulfill their end of the marriage bargain, then maybe the proliferation of Christian romance novels serves as a wake-up call to spousal relationships on the rocks across North America. After all, sex is a God-given desire and need, and chances are, at this stage, your spouse isn't really as particular about what you look like as much as they are interested in a level of intimacy which transcends physical attraction.
And if single women get hooked on Christian romance novels, might that be the kiss of death to their marriage prospects? What kind of maturity level do you expect to find in a man who is attracted to somebody who pines for such a severe level of fantasy?
Most of us would love to find the perfect relationship to the perfect soul-mate. But hey - Christ, as the church's bridegroom, ain't gettin' no perfect mate here on Earth, so what makes you think you will?
Since I'm single, I know I'm not the most qualified person to offer this advice. But judging from my saved, married friends who've enjoyed success in their marriages, it's true that the lust of the flesh only goes so far.
After that, you need good old-fashioned, short, big-nosed, pudgy, balding, thin-necked love.
Happy Valentines' Day, y'all!