Recently I visited an old Christian message board that I used to frequent to see if it was still active. I came across a conversation where someone asked if reading romance novels was wrong. The only respondents were men. One said he thought they weren’t wrong, but they were a silly waste of time. Another said he thought they could be wrong.
I didn’t want to take the time to find my log-in information and wasn’t inclined to get into the discussion anyway. But I thought about the question for a few days.
So, do I think it’s wrong to read a romance novel?
“Romance” covers a wide territory. Many books outside of the romance genre will contain a love interest. But in a romance, the main point of the plot is two people coming to realize and declare their love for each other.
Is there anything wrong with that as a basic plot? No. The Bible contains romances (Song of Solomon, Ruth and Boaz, Jacob and Rachel). Ephesians 5 tells us marriage is a picture of Christ and the church.
When I’m getting to know a couple, one of the first things I want to know is how they met. That usually leads into a longer story of how they knew they were right for each other. It’s always neat to see the Lord’s hand in bringing them together.
But that’s real life. Isn’t a fictional romance a waste of time?
No, a story isn’t a waste just because it’s imaginary. Jesus used fictional stories to make a point. So did OT prophets.
Fiction fleshes out truth. When I’m listening to a sermon, I might get the pastor’s point but wonder what it looks like in real life. Then he shares a sermon illustration so I see the truth in action.
Randy Alcorn said, “Some Christians view fiction as the opposite of truth. But sometimes it opens eyes to the truth more effectively than nonfiction.”
We read fiction for a number of reasons: to see life through another’s eyes, to get to know how other people think, to develop empathy, to experience other cultures, to stimulate thinking, to learn discernment, gain information, to broaden our horizons.
Can we do all that with romances? Sure.
Some of the classics are romances: Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, all of Jane Austen’s novels.
But the best romances have something going on besides falling in love. One or both characters will need to grow or overcome something. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, the two main characters need to get past their titular characteristics before they can come together. In Sense and Sensibility, one sister needs to learn the value of restraint and appreciating more about a potential husband than good looks, charm, and excitement. All of Austen’s romances involve a whole lot more than just the love story. They are commentary on the times and culture in the setting as well.
The same things can happen in a modern romance.
So how can romances be wrong?
When they produce longings that can’t be fulfilled now. If you’re struggling with being single, a romance might encourage you that God could do the same for you. Or it might discourage you because He hasn’t done so yet. If you’re in a long engagement before you can be married, you’ll have discern whether reading romances makes waiting harder for you.
When they focus too much on the physical. I avoid most modern secular fiction, especially romances, for this reason. I only pick one up after carefully researching reviews or receiving a good report from a trusted friend. But even Christian romances can go too far here. And even if a romance avoids bedroom scenes, there can be an overemphasis on her seeing his bulging muscles under his shirt, wondering what it would be like to kiss him, feeling an electric jolt when they accidentally touch. Do such things happen when people are becoming attracted to each other? Sure. But in real life or fiction, the physical shouldn’t be the main thing.
When they make you discontent with everyday life. Lisa-Jo Baker shared in The Middle Matters that a teenager quoted in the Huffington Post felt her love life would never be adequate “until someone runs through an airport to stop me from getting on a flight.” The girl probably saw that in a movie somewhere. Her romantic life is going to be difficult if she sets up a test scenario in an airport every time she thinks she’s in love. Real love is usually shown in everyday ways more than the grand gesture.
When you long for a perfect “Mr Right.” There is no perfect Mr. or Mrs. Right. The best writers write flawed, realistic characters. But sometimes a character can seem so exquisitely attractive that no one in real life could measure up. If you find yourself looking down on your husband (or potential husband, if you’re not yet married) because he falls short of a fictional hero, it might be time to lay aside the book.
I sometimes see romance writers talking about writing swoon-worthy characters, especially male characters. A character having admirable qualities is one thing. But I don’t want to swoon for anyone other than my husband.
Personally, romances aren’t my favorite genre. I read some. But I don’t want the story to stop with a wedding and a promise of happily ever after. To me, the wedding is a beginning, not an ending. I prefer women’s fiction or historical fiction, where there is more going on than an initial romance, though there may be romance in the story.
But thankfully, there are romances that are good stories, where the characters grow and learn, where we learn about the culture or setting of the book, where we can connect with human growth and experience.
“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” ― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey