Christian romance. Christian fantasy fans might speak this term in the same nervous tone as we say “big oil.” Or “the [opposite political side] media.” Or “the dark lord Sauron.”
Of course, in the world of non-Christian fiction, fantasy1 rules, and can get along as friendly royalty with the pink-and-purple-jacketed neighbors in the shelves next door. But that’s not so in the Christian fiction planet, where apparently people read far more books than average Americans, but mostly romance:
The top Christian fiction genres reported by surveyed readers were historical fiction (66 percent), romance (52 percent), contemporary (51 percent), romantic suspense (50 percent), suspense/thriller/legal thriller (47 percent) and mystery/espionage (45 percent), which also reveals that many Christian fiction readers read more than one genre.2
Alas, Christian fantasy/sci-fi aren’t even on that list. I could not find any newer surveys to indicate whether Christian readers’ preferences had changed since the first half of 2015. Meanwhile, an earlier Romance Writers of America suggested Christian romance alone makes almost one-fifth of the total romance fiction market:
Print: romantic suspense (53%); contemporary romance (41%); historical romance (34%); erotic romance (33%); New Adult (26%); paranormal romance (19%); Young Adult romance (18%); and Christian romance (17%).
And if you’ve recently visited a Christian bookstore, or the “inspirational” section of a regular bookstore, you can verify this anecdotally. Romance/historical fiction absolutely dominates (among them Amish fiction, for some of us akin to the Mouth of Sauron).
At this point, some Christians-who-are-fantasy fans are ready to jump ship. Well, forget the “Christian market,” with all its limits on content. I’ll find fantastical stories in the wider world.
This solution makes a lot of sense. However, as I’ve suggested here and here, this response ignores the facts that 1) Christians still need their own subcultures, and 2) general markets will have their own limits on content. For example, they will increasingly restrict any stories that challenge favored religious notions within progressivism and sexualityism.
Whether or not we jump ship on “Christian fiction,” here I prefer to ask: why does Christian romance keep easily defeating Christian fantasy, sci-fi, and other speculative stories?
Here’s my early take at an answer.
1. A reader’s ideal of Paradise influences his or her story preferences.
The deepest longings of a person’s heart—this person’s dreams of a literally perfect world in which sin is gone and all is now well—will motivate his or her favorite kinds of stories.
For example, if you respect physical strength and honor as a means to justice, you may more likely enjoy thoughtful yet action-packed superhero movies. But if you have had negative experiences with these things, you may identify more with slower, nuanced, art-house kinds of movies in which lack of resolution, or the art itself, are the prime strength.
From what I’ve seen, this ideal of “paradise” also affects a person’s choice of nonfiction.
If your ideal of paradise is more like a cozy home, you may enjoy those kinds of devotionals. But if your ideal of paradise is more like a pulpit, maybe with you behind it, you may enjoy thicker works about biblical doctrines. (I want my vision of paradise to have both cozy homes and cool preaching pulpits, so here’s hoping my nonfiction tastes will match.)
2. If your ideal Paradise is love and family, you’ll likely prefer romance.
What are the other nicknames for “Christian fiction”? That is, besides “inspirational”?
You may think of the phrase “family friendly.” Somehow this has become synonymous with an entire faith that has been held not only by families but by single people for centuries.
American churches, ministries, evangelical industries thrive on the family, which is formed outward from the heart of romance: the God-ordained institution of a man and woman who join together to reflect the union of Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5).
Which means there’s a biblical truth here. Romance is at the heart of God’s promised paradise, which comes at the uniting of New Heaven with New Earth (Revelation 21).
And yet, what happens if a person idealizes human romance itself as a kind of paradise? What happens when such a reader quietly and subtly suspects that the perfect story, with the near-perfect romantic partner, leading to a near-perfect family—not void of struggle but with just the right amount of drama and tension—would bring absolute happiness?
Naturally, such a Christian reader will seek reflections of this ideal paradise in her reading choices. Naturally, she’ll prefer Christian romantic fiction over other stories.
3. If your ideal Paradise is a fantastical world, you’ll likely prefer fantasy.
However, what if you picture your ideal paradise not only as a perfect relationship but a fantastic world—again, not void of struggles but with appropriate conflict and dramatic tension? More likely, then, you will prefer fantastical fiction, either a traditional fantasy with magic and all, or a science-fiction universe, or a paranormal thriller or horror story.
In any case, you aren’t necessarily opposed to romantic relationships. That would be silly. Especially when some of the best fantastical-world stories also portray such relationships.
But you also don’t consider that such a relationship itself is the sum total of the paradise.
Christian fantasy > Christian romance?
One wouldn’t end here with anything like a condemnation of Christian romance or its fans. That would be sick legalism. Again, romance is God’s creation! It points back to the union of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2),and forward to the union of Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5).
However, Christians believe romantic relationships will not always continue as they are now. Some believe this means a total abolition of even good human marriages, based on Jesus’s words in Matthew 22:23-33. Even if this isn’t what He meant, we can be confident that Jesus refers to some adjustment to human marriage, which may be fulfilled in eternity.
In either case, romantic relationships are a subset, not the sum total, of that future world.
Whereas the Bible’s literal and ideal image of paradise—a made-new world of wonder, of good conquering evil, and miracles—is closer to the themes explored in fantastical stories.
Why, then, don’t more Christians at least enjoy romance fiction and fantasy fiction equally?
Maybe it’s because most readers haven’t yet enjoyed this more biblical picture of paradise.
- And science fiction, paranormal, et. al. ↩
- Study: Christian fiction readers buy, read more books, July 2, 2015, ChristianRetailing.com. ↩