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:
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:
- Michelle is absolutely right when she says it does little good to complain about Christian romance publishers. They are only fulfilling a market need.
- Let’s help change the vision of the Christian “good life,” starting with ourselves.
- 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.
- Even better, we need better stories about this — stories that can sneak past conservative Family Christians’ watchful dragons.
- 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.