Since I write Christian fiction, I also read a lot of Christian fiction. While I read few novels that are primarily romance, I like to experience a little romance in the fiction I do read. I believe a Christian novel that uses romance well can be inspiring and helpful for the Christian reader. Sadly, however, I note some very unhealthy romantic elements in many Christian romances. Perhaps this is why many Christians shy away from the romance genre.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Bible stories include healthy romances, as well as unhealthy ones we can learn from. Christian romances can be more than just “clean reads.” I believe Christian romances should be distinctively Christian, not just Hollywood without the sex scenes.
Part of the problem, I think, is that some story elements make for exciting fiction, though they are contrary to healthy Christian relationships. Thank the Lord, my dating relationship with my husband would make a boring biography. Many writers quote something close to this: “Fiction is real life with the boring parts taken out.” Face it: Commitment, faithfulness, appreciation, and stability are less exciting in fiction than jealousy, misunderstanding, fighting, and hurt feelings. To build suspense, romance authors try to keep a couple apart when they want to be together, or keep them together when they want to be apart. Conflict builds suspense. No conflict, no story.
Sometimes authors work so hard at building suspense that they fail to spot the unhealthy romance in their novels. As readers, however, we need to be discerning. We need to support Christian writers who handle romance in a healthy way.
Here are five things I look for in healthy Christian romance:
It reflects godly standards for choosing who to love and pursue in a committed relationship. (2 Corinthians 6:14)
A godly protagonist won’t date an unbeliever or a believer who is distant in his relationship to God. Many times I see a protagonist fall in love with an unbeliever or someone who is far from God. At the end of the book that person suddenly gets saved or comes back to the Lord. Then, a very short time later, they marry. That is portrayed as a perfectly acceptable model of romance.
The problem is the protagonist , who seems to be godly, set her heart on someone who doesn’t love God like she does. A godly character sets her heart on godly things.
This also sets a dangerous example. It’s easy for a believer to fall in love with an unbeliever, hoping that person may get saved. But that unbeliever may never get saved, or may not get saved for many years. Sometimes an unbeliever professes salvation just to please a believer they love.
Christians need to set a high standard for people they marry or form a relationship with. Salvation is a bare minimum. Believers need to look for other believers who are growing in their relationship to Christ.
The romantic attraction should be based on more than purely physical attraction.
Some Christian romances go on for so long about the color of a person’s eyes, his muscles, or her figure, that the romance seems more hormonal than anything else. Godly characters need to be attracted to each other because of friendship, common goals, concern for each other, and godly character traits. We’re all imperfect and need forgiveness at times. But a reader should be able to pick out positive character traits that draw the characters to each other.
It shows a healthy dating relationship or the dangers of an unhealthy one.
“Dating” is not the only way for a Christian couple to get to know each other. Some use more of a courtship model or group date or simply get to know each other by being in situations where they are together. When I talk about a “dating relationship” I use the term broadly, as whatever means a couple uses to go from point A, where they meet, to point B, where they marry.
Here are some dangerous dating practices I’ve seen in Christian fiction:
Whirlwind Romance: Add up the passage of time in a novel and sometimes the couple is ready to commit to marriage in a matter of a few weeks. They may have solved the story problem, but do they really know each other well enough to make that kind of commitment?
Moving too fast: Some characters move into kissing and commitment very early in their relationship, clouding their emotions before they have time to think clearly.
Dangerous situations: Recently I read a Christian novel about a vulnerable, hurting protagonist who spent many hours with the guy she grew to love, alone, in a motel room with a bed/living room/kitchenette. Not smart, but the author portrayed this as a normal, healthy, place to talk. So normal, in fact, that the protagonist felt no one had a right to question the situation.
Surprise kiss: How many Christian romances have the main characters suddenly thrown together and kissing without either realizing it was going to happen. This is almost always depicted as a lovely surprise with no question asked about if they should be kissing someone they don’t even know how they feel about.
Inappropriate touch: Writers always struggle to bring more action into their scenes to show what the character is feeling. In a clean Christian romance, a guy often shows restraint as well as care by stroking a girl’s face, squeezing her hand, or kissing her forehead. He uses these means to show he cares about her before he is ready to declare his feelings. But think about it. If an employer strokes the face of an employee, what do we call that? Sexual harassment. Touching a person’s face is a very personal gesture. When these gestures are used in a casual relationship, in which a couple isn’t even dating yet and are undecided if they want to, this seems inappropriate to me.
Ungodly responses: All couples experience conflict, but Christian characters should model ways to work through their problems in a godly way. They may learn by their mistakes, but ungodly responses should not be shown in a favorable light.
It leads my mind down spiritually healthy paths. (Philippians 4:8)
Recently I read a Christian romance that was really well written. In fact, she described the physical responses to the character’s feelings in so much detail that, even as a married woman, I felt the physical attraction a bit too clearly.
Other Christian writers write about immorality and homosexuality in ways that, though they stop short of the bedroom door, can lead your mind down paths that aren’t spiritually healthy. Immorality starts in the mind and even Christian books can cause us to think beyond what is stated to things that may be sinful. When dealing with immorality, Christian novels should show the consequences of sin without too much detail. Stirring the curiosity about immorality isn’t spiritually healthy.
Some content might be perfectly healthy for a married reader, but might draw a younger person or single into sinful thoughts.
A well-balanced Christian novel, on the other hand, will encourage readers to think clean thoughts and make them want to live by a high standard of behavior which pleases God.
It encourages contentment in my present relationship or season of life.
Romances should not only warm us, but also uplift us. Some singles find that reading romances makes them desire a relationship that isn’t right for them at this time. Romances may make some married women feel discontent with their own marriage that may be less romantic than what they read in books.
This is something the reader has to determine for herself, but authors can sometimes help by exercising a little extra restraint.
Is it impossible?
Finding a healthy Christian romance novel can be hard, but it’s not impossible. Sometimes it’s easier to find healthy romance in a genre that isn’t primarily romance. Light romance mixed with mystery, historical, or a general genre often places the focus more sharply on other aspects than the physical attraction. I like to put a little romance into my adult novels, and pair them with ministry. Actually, participating in Christian ministry is a good way for a committed Christian to find a marriage partner.
It’s often hard to judge a romance novel before you’ve read it, but when you find one, tell your friends or write an on-line review to help other readers find it too.
My Art Spotlight Mysteries combine light romance with light-hearted mystery that deals with relationship issues. You can buy the print version of them or buy the ebook in various formats.
Déjà Who?, the second in the series, is now available in these places: