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Nine Marks Of Widescreen Stories, Part 6

First, I wish at the onset of this sixth-in-the-series to address a concern many of you may have about my identity. I wish to disclaim before proceeding that though I will be attempting to write about female-intensive subject matter, I […]
| Nov 29, 2006 | No comments |

First, I wish at the onset of this sixth-in-the-series to address a concern many of you may have about my identity. I wish to disclaim before proceeding that though I will be attempting to write about female-intensive subject matter, I am, in fact, male.

But that ceases to prevent me from writing a whole column about a female-dominated genre and get away with it — for this, the sixth installment in the Nine Marks of Widescreen Fiction series.

6. Love and romance as means to greater themes

I must also admit that my readership in this fertile literary field has remained limited. Actually, come to think of it, I haven’t read a single novel that had as its focus, the element of popular Romance.

The secular books have of course been anathema to me, not only because they all look the same, with women in negligees and men in biceps cavorting in darkened rooms across various objects, but because that sort of cover pretty much denotes disgusting and decidedly not-kosher contents.

But the Christian stories also don’t appeal to me. Sure, the cavorting isn’t there; the relationships are clean and more-sanctified. But this matters little to me, mostly because, though it seems otherwise at times, Twue Wuv and Mawwiage (a little Princess Bride lingo, there) are actually rather commonplace. Head to any college campus and you’ll see “romance” in action, whether real or feigned. Thus, to repeat these procedures in the form of fiction seems to me repetitious and dull. Meanwhile, dragons and rayguns, swordplay and starships — now, there are things you don’t see too often.

Of course, most people (except the older women who keep telling me how great their favorite romance books are) do understand that romance novels are not for guys.

However, as I suggested regarding less-epic-themed novels yesterday, might I carefully submit that most romance novels, even for women, aren’t all that great either? if their focus is so limited to an element that, important though it is, is pretty much a God-given perk of life, pointing to an even greater story?

A more-dated ‘Romance’ definition

Once upon a time, Romance had a different definition. Merriam-Webster’s is still helpful in providing it to us, defining the noun primarily as:

(1): a medieval tale based on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural (2) : a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious.

Only the third definition contains the more-popular understanding: “a love story especially in the form of a novel”; “a class of such literature.” And somehow the pop-romance folks have neglected the first two definitions and opted for the third one.

Meanwhile, medieval tales about “chivalric love and adventure” with supernatural, heroic, adventurous or mysterious elements — oh, yes, I can get into that.

Such a definition fully encompasses speculative fiction, and in that respect, fairly well qualifies every Christ-following speculative fiction author as an adherent of true Romance, in the older definition.

A further etymological study could be helpful here, but I wonder if that older definition is related to a previous view of the world in more-encompassing terms — that of a Romance, an epic adventure, excitement and mystery and love all combined. Somewhere along the way the Love aspect of it sort of took over, either minimizing the other classical-romantic elements or eliminating them.

Not-so-great expectations

With that in mind, is it helpful to the growth of Christian readers to create a story in which a the theme ignores the classical definition and focuses only on the love/marriage/baby carriage one?

Another question probes to a core assumption of Western Christianity, closely related to the Westminster Confession-asked, “What is the chief end of man?” It is this: what is the chief end of a relationship? Marriage? Comfort and security? Not at all. The Christian life, at least in this world, isn’t about comfort. And marriage, like a job, as wonderful as it is, is a subplot in the greater plot of life.

Some authors and readers I know have actually concluded that the genre is counterproductive to their own Christian lives, or even their own romances, real or future. The authors of Dateable, a somewhat-secular work that nevertheless contains applications for Christian singles, come down rather hard on secular and evangelical romance stories; a female friend of mine eventually got rid of all of her romance novels — yes, Christian ones — because she felt they contributed to unrealistic expectations.

Courting the Greater Romance

Just as with a character’s conversion to Christianity, portraying a character’s discovery of Twue Wuv as the ultimate end of a novel seems similar to the propensity of some Christian authors to spend all their story time discussing, analogizing and preaching the message of salvation without going further into unexplored thematic territory.

Instead, very often what happens after both processes is far more interesting!

Both salvation and marriage should not be treated as epilogues, but opening chapters — maybe even story introductions. They’re both wonderful things, gifts from God, yet they are both merely means to the same overarching plot: the even more-wondrous union between Christ and His Church.

Thus I submit that love and romance should more often be portrayed this way: in the wider-screened context of the sovereign Creator’s plan for the world, the epic truth that finds its way into our fiction.

Ted Dekker in the Circle Trilogy — which I incidentally cited last week as well — pulled this off quite well. In the first novel Black, Thomas Hunter, granted some supernatural ability when falling asleep to transition into an alternate consciousness, in an alternate world, has encountered a race of people who believe passionately in what they call The Great Romance.

Though at first they don’t know exactly what it means, these people, at first unspoiled and living in tranquil perfection, know their expressions of human love are patterned exquisitely after the love that Elyon, the Creator, has for His created ones. This is perhaps most evident in the “game” Thomas finds he must play with his intended, Rachelle, who with her family informs him he must pretend to rescue her and win her heart, even though they are both already “marked” to unite. The game seems to make little sense to Thomas at first — until books two and three, in which a Christ-figure in that world performs the true rescue, and the imagery of the Church as a beloved bride is strengthened even more.

Humans want to be loved, and for Christians, that means we find the ultimate expression of love in Love Himself, the Creator. But human romance is a foreshadowing of the final plot, not the plot itself.

We may enjoy love stories by themselves on occasion, just as it’s not unhealthful to take in an action movie with no human relationships whatsoever and instead consist mostly of tanker-truck explosions. Yet perhaps we might consider strengthening our written portrayals of love and marriage not only by including them as part of a greater thematic context, but by remembering that Twue Wuv and Mawwiage foreshadows the Church. (That topic I hope to explore in the next installment.)

As wielders of widescreen stories, we’re in a unique position to maintain this greater perspective when crafting tales that involve romance and Mawwiage. The Princess Bride, that comical story of true love, included fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, miracles — hilarious, yes, but also a much-wider-screen romance. We can help show this: the greater perspective of Romance, in the great classical definition. Let’s hope more readers fall even further in love with that!

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor of a nonfiction book about parenting and popular culture (title TBA), to release spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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