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Romantic Fiction Rules Because Of ‘Family Christian’ Faith

Christians ignore fantastical fiction because they assume that marriage and family values matter more.
| Jul 3, 2014 | 29 comments |


If you wonder why most Christian readers love romantic fiction over fantastical fiction, the reasons are many but should start with this: it’s the fault of “Family Christianity” faith.1

R. L. Copple on Tuesday explored one possible reason for the romance genre’s dominance:

In romance, external conflicts don’t exist or are only to enable the inner and relational conflicts, which take center stage. Those kinds of conflicts don’t violate God’s involvement in our lives since God doesn’t force someone to love God and their neighbor. It is usually up to the characters to resolve those issues.

Which may explain why romance dominates Christian fiction. Speculative fiction, which tends to be as dependent upon external conflict as it is upon internal/relational conflict, if not more so, runs aground on the conflicting expectations between the Gospel and an engaging story.

But I’m convinced this is a fruit and not the root of the real reason.

Let me explain, starting with my simplistic reasons why Christian readers love romance:

  1. Safe
  2. Female
  3. Escapism.

After some more discussion, R.L. rightfully challenged me further:

[Y]ou’re not really answering the “why” question concerning the disparity between romance and spec fic compared between the general and Christian markets, and in this case, you’re addressing the motivation for romance’s dominance among readers. But I don’t think it tells us much about why romance succeeded and spec fic didn’t [among Christian readers].

I believe I started to answer that very question here:

The only reason I cite the possibility of escapism playing into the popularity of romance novels (or period-drama TV shows, etc.) among Christians is that many Christians wrongly conclude that a certain genre is perfectly safe. Some believe it is “safe” not because romance is free of temptation — it’s not — but because it is closer to what many American Christians do: venerate marriage and especially Family. But these good desires can also be corrupted. They’re not “safe.”

Now I’ll flesh out what I mean.

Why do most Christians love romance over fantastical fiction when both can be escapist?

The answer is found in the default belief of American evangelicals about their “chief end.”

Is the Gospel about a Good Life today based on healthy marriages and family values?

Or is the Gospel about an epic story of a Hero Who saves people from evil for His Kingdom?

How you answer will determine your favorite fiction.

Christians agree on the basics of faith: that Jesus Christ, Who is both God and man, died to save sinners.2 But many Christians disagree on what comes next: how do we live in light of that Gospel?

Choice 1: ‘Family Christianity’

A particularly American flavor of evangelical faith makes the Christian’s mission quite limited. It is based on pragmatic contemporary needs. A good Christian must make it his/her goal to build a healthy marriage, raise a nice family, avoid interference by powerful government leaders, and learn the true meaning of life: that home is where the heart is. It emphasizes moral values and the success or decline of the nation, not necessarily for the common-grace good of everyone in society but for personal family safety. And it rarely gets to discussing eternity because it keeps running up against that dreaded great barrier of End Times Speculation (which is the most “speculative faith” this version of faith usually offers).

Call this Family Christianity. It seeks to put family first and all other concerns second, such as the invisible Church and local church, Biblical social justice, and Christ-imaging art.

Choice 2: Kingdom Christianity

Historic Christian faith in all Biblical denominations does not discount marriage, family, or even political advocacy in perspective. But it does rank them as means to a greater end. The greater end is the Story found in the Bible, the story of Jesus Christ’s hero journey first as suffering servant then as King, to save humans and then the cosmos from evil. This view emphasizes life in eternity when Christ will rule and fill the world with His love and glory.

Call this Kingdom Christianity. It usually seeks to put Christ’s Gospel and Kingdom first and other concerns second — love and marriage, family, home, education, political action.

Whatever Gospel application you truly believe will affect your favorite fiction genre.

Family Christianity —> romantic fiction

If you quietly accept Family Christianity — which is often based on genuine saving faith but does limit the Gospel’s joyful applications — what stories will you most find acceptable?

You will presume that “clean” evangelical romantic fiction, with its emphasis on love and marriage (and family, in the story or assumed to follow), is the “safest” or most spiritual genre. This is joined by a default posture of belief that “it’s just entertainment” or “it’s just a story,” which often — not always — is used to excuse a personal failure to discern.

You will care little for fantastical stories (beyond Disney movies for children), not based on objections to fantasy magic, but simply because they’re not even on your radar screen.

If life’s chief end is marriage and family, why bother with stories based on other themes?

Kingdom Christianity —> fantastical fiction

But if you quietly accept Kingdom Christianity — a larger view of the bigger Biblical picture of what Christ the King is doing to bring in His Kingdom — what stories will you prefer?

You will likely veer toward fantastical stories whose creators (knowingly or not) honor the original Christian emphasis on epic struggles, mythic hero journeys, and the inheritance of fantasy tales from medieval history — all of which are blessed with a Christian foundation.

After all, even great “secular” fantastical fiction has withstood erosion by Christo-American pragmatism. With few exceptions, even these stories’ secular notions are only veneer; their structure is based on historic Christian themes of good versus evil, heroes who reflect the original Chosen One Hero of Christ, a Church of the Chosen One’s friends who announce the true Kingdom, and fantastic worlds where abstract spiritual concepts are personified and Biblical history is reflected by imagined supernatural activity and monsters and villains.


That’s my explanation.

I leave you to discuss possible applications. But I suggest they should start with this:

  1. Michelle is absolutely right when she says it does little good to complain about Christian romance publishers. They are only fulfilling a market need.
  2. Let’s help change the vision of the Christian “good life,” starting with ourselves.
  3. How to do this? Start with conversations, sermons, and books about how Kingdom Christianity is based on Christ’s epic Story, which changes the world for eternity and expands our joy.
  4. Even better, we need better stories about this — stories that can sneak past conservative Family Christians’ watchful dragons.
  5. In fact, I’ll close with a direct challenge for wise and shrewd Christian romantic fiction writers: go undercover. Create an enjoyable and conservative-Christian-friendly romance novel that will quietly, subversively challenge the very Family Christianity on which most of the Christian romance fandom is based. Take down Family Christian assumptions about “safe” fiction from the inside.
  1. Yes, I’m about to critique “American” things on Independence Day weekend. Coincidence.
  2. And that is good; I will not judge this. All who believe this are spiritual family.
E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in 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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Randy Ingermanson

So why does romance fiction also dominate in the general market, and yet science fiction and fantasy do pretty well there?

Doesn’t this tell us that the target audience for romance fiction is very large and the target audience for sf/f is quite a bit smaller, yet still large enough to support a fair number of writers?

Doesn’t this imply that in the Christian fiction world, romance writers/publishers are connecting well with their target audience, and speculative writers/publishers aren’t?

Doesn’t this imply that the way for Christian speculative fiction to succeed is to find a way to connect with the target audience that already exists?

Michelle R. Wood

Stephen, I appreciate and admire your zeal. You’ve provided a lot of good teaching for us here at Spec Faith.

But I have to strongly disagree with the tone of this discussion. Why are we setting up a false dichotomy, as if we have “win” a war that doesn’t need to be fault or “solve” a problem that doesn’t exist? There’s room for everyone, including romance readers, who are not spiritually immature or less joyful or more needy simply because they like to read a different kind of book than we do.

The ACFW used to be the American Christian Romance Writers, founded in 2000 by some writers who had very specific goals. They eventually expanded their membership to include others who didn’t write the same genre and even changed their names to be more inclusive. Now we (the in-grafted branches, as it were) are calling them out? For being what, exactly? More financially successful?

I truly do not wish to believe the worst in our community. But continuing to focus on “them” versus “us” is counterproductive and depressing. I’m all for championing our cause, but not in a way that provokes division or stigmatizes another group.

D. M. Dutcher

Good description of family Christianity. It has a lot more impact than fiction though; it really defines the shape and tone of Christian culture these days.

Leah Burchfiel

I know, right? It doesn’t help that there are some old farts who explicitly define adulthood as “married with kids.” The particular article that I read was whining about how young men play video games and don’t get hitched and don’t start popping out kids, and this is bad because it damages the Church because no leadership and responsibility, somehow. I plan to never darken the door of any church that advocates that.


Julie D

I like that term–“family Christianity.”  For one, it shows a perspective that is not based on wrong things, but on over-emphasizing a ‘good thing.’   It also explains some of the artistic/liberal arts perspectives on culture.  If the highest good of Christianity is the family, then why  bother with aesthetically pleasing buildings  or stimulating fiction or the environment?

Laura A
Laura A

I agree about the need to get rid of the “us vs. them” mentality.  I have been getting into Mere Christianity once again, by CS Lewis and (I believe) our writing should be out there to reach all, not but in a box of any specific genre.  We have all been saved only by faith and who knows how each of books will be taken, how someone may come to Christ upon reading or be led closer to Him.

R. L. Copple

Interesting break down. Here are some potential issues I see that need addressing.


Family Christianity


I know what you’re trying to say, but that needs defining. From my experience, few are the Christians that would say the end goal of Christianity is family and marriage. It is an important part of the end goal, but not the end goal. But if you don’t love your brother who you do see, how can you love God who you do not see, a wise apostle once said.


So, does the fact I wrote a non-fiction book on marriage called Healing Infidelity put me in that group? Yet, I can count on one hand the number of romance books I’ve read in my 54 years of life.


Also, while deductively those in that group, however big they may be, would gravitate to romance, that would be one sub-group in a larger over all group of romance readers. Which if true, means it doesn’t account for the wider market of Christian romance readers, only a smaller segment.


Or if your intent was to imply the converse to be true–most romance readers are Family Christians–then you’ve ascribed a belief to romance readers in general, with no supporting evidence, that many of them would no doubt dispute. Some might even consider you are relegating romance readers to a sub-par version of Christianity. I don’t think that is your intent, but you’d probably need to clarify it.


Kingdom Christianity


True that Jesus follows the hero’s journey in many ways. The central focus of the atonement is in Jesus defeating death, Hell, and the grave by His death and resurrection.


The problem comes in, based on my post that you quoted, in that Christ did that for us. Our hero journey is to let the Lord fight our fights. To glory in our weaknesses so that God’s power can be glorified. That goes against us having such a hero journey.


I don’t believe we can’t have a Christian version of the hero journey, but it may not be as emotionally satisfying to readers of spec fic who expect the hero to be the hero, not God.




Paul Lee

The problem comes in, based on my post that you quoted, in that Christ did that for us. Our hero journey is to let the Lord fight our fights. To glory in our weaknesses so that God’s power can be glorified. That goes against us having such a hero journey.

I’m no theologian, but I disagree with this emphasis. Part of what makes evangelical faith seem so boring and sappy to children who grow up in it is that it never validates our experience — it never gives us permission to be real people who are doing real things, because God has done everything for us.

I believe in substitutionary atonement, but I don’t think it explains everything. We’re supposed to be little Christ-figures; we’re supposed to suffer our own death to self; we’re to follow Christ’s footsteps in His mission. As the hymn put it, “Ours the Cross, the Grave, the Skies.”

Michelle R. Wood

Part of what makes evangelical faith seem so boring and sappy to children who grow up in it is that it never validates our experience…

Um, am I allowed to not be bored?

Seriously, bainespal, I appreciate whatever trials you’ve faced. I recognize there are a lot of people (some with very good, compelling reasons) who are disenchanted with the churches they grew up in. I just don’t happen to fall in that group.

I’m also confused by the idea that the church doesn’t give us permission to do “real” things. Most of the complaints I see from people are that churches always want you to work. Could you elaborate further on what you mean? I truly wish to understand, since it’s not something I’ve encountered.

Paul Lee

Sorry for generalizing. I guess I’m doing what I’m complaining about.

Could you elaborate further on what you mean?

Well, my biggest complaint is that I took Bible reading so seriously that I freaked out and convinced myself that I had committed the unpardonable sin. I was 17, so I should have been too old for that mindset. I believed that my feelings about the Bible as I read it was genuine interaction with the Holy Spirit. But that’s not directly relevant here.

Copple’s comment annoyed me because it appears to reject deeper significance in my suffering — in our suffering as first-world Christians who aren’t being persecuted for our faith. I’m talking about suffering in a general, universal way. I’ve never been abused. I don’t have a sob story. But I want my story to mean something. I know that I’m supposed to be a harmless sheep, but I hope that I can also a pilgrim.

The people at my church have never understood my pessimistic personality. They say that the empty cross is better than the crucifix, because Jesus is alive. I believe that Jesus is alive, and that is the source of all hope. However, I believe that the human experience is Jesus being crucified. We haven’t been resurrected yet. We haven’t even totally died yet. And we are supposed to suffer and die with Jesus, so that we can also be raised with Him.

He did not suffer so that we would not have to suffer. He suffered so that we could experience the suffering of being awake instead of lulled to sleep by the world. He did not die so that we would not have to die. He died so that we could share His death, and also share His resurrected life.

Leah Burchfiel

I dunno if that’s the healthiest theology, bainespal. But I’m with you in not liking the kind of theology that minimizes human action, making us like dolls or chess pieces for Satan and/or God to shove around at their whim. Though I’m talking about action and not suffering. I’m also pessimistic in that I see at least some amount of suffering as pretty well unavoidable, so I think the important part is how we handle it.

Leah Burchfiel

Well, I can tell you why I, for one, am disenchanted with my parents’ church, though disenchanted doesn’t seem like the right word. Frankly, I was bored. Sermons that retread the same old messages and themes, not to mention the dearth of people my age. And I dunno that it’s gotten much better, because I’m getting pretty bored with the Methodist church I go to most frequently since the sermons are nearly as stale as homechurch’s and I still don’t have bros there. I might switch over permanently to the Presbyterians across the street, since the pastor is under forty and speaks my language. Though my most dynamic church experience is with the Baptist singles’ small-group I go to Sunday nights, because it’s more interactive and less people-talking-at-us. I have bros there. And I can do something to minimize the Baptistiness because of the interactivity.

So it’s the societal factor that’s strongest for me, which can sound pretty shallow, but church does fulfill a social function and not just a theological one.

D. M. Dutcher

Yeah, the problem is that again we’re isolating one aspect of the spiritual walk as some people experience it and making it an ideal when it shouldn’t be. For passive people, the idea that we can’t do anything and that Christian sanctification is something that just washes over us is one of the most harmful beliefs you can have. For us, we need to be told to go on the hero’s journey, because our personality and our struggles with sin are different. Some people need to be told to let go and let God, but some of us really need to be told to step up and act and God will then act with us.

R. L. Copple

No worries, bainespal. That focus doesn’t negate suffering and its meaning at all. If God is glorified in our weakness, that includes suffering on our part that has its meaning inherent in God’s glory. The great faith chapter of Hebrews 11 is a good example. While some of the examples seem “successful,” others would be said to have no faith by some folks, because by outward appearance, they seemed to have lost: sawed in two. stoned, scourgings, imprisonment, etc. (Heb 11:36-38)


By the world’s standards, their “hero journey” was an utter failure, and not too many people would feel a spec fic story where the protagonist ends up dying a horrible death and evil appearing to win as a good story. Only in the context of the resurrection and God’s bigger plan is it a victory. Not because the person suffering (or succeeding as the case may be) had the ability and skill to ultimately save themselves, but based on what God did for them. God defeated death.


” I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Phil. 4:13)


I’m merely pointing out that our hero journey will not look like Christ’s, and very likely not like the hero journeys in much of general market spec fic. That goes back to the inner dissonance I was noting in my post.


That said, where Steve may have a point is our appreciation of Jesus’ hero journey draws us to stories of other hero journey’s, even if they are not Christ nor perfectly reflect a Christian depiction of our hero journeys.


But just because the Christian is dependent upon Christ to “win” doesn’t negate any meaning of suffering. Winning in God’s eyes isn’t the same as it would be in a spec fic story. Many of us live it, me included, being I struggle with progressive Parkinson’s disease that has already slowed my typing speed to around 300 words an hour. If God can use my suffering to win, I win. Ultimately our hero journey is to trust God, which is what I tried to depict in my Reality Chronicles series. But that is hard without running into the problems I’ve been talking about.


At any rate, I hope that clears it up.