Why Does Christian Romance Outsell Christian Fantasy?

Mainstream readers like both fantasy and romance. So why do Christians favor only romance?
on Feb 9, 2017 · 40 comments

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.

  1. And science fiction, paranormal, et. al.
  2. Study: Christian fiction readers buy, read more books, July 2, 2015, ChristianRetailing.com.
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of Lorehaven.com and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. The idea that a reader’s conception of paradise influences their choice of reading is a fascinating one, and worth thinking about. But I think there are also a couple of factors missing here:

    1. In many conservative Christian readers’ minds, fantasy is associated with the occult and SF with atheism. I’ve heard some Christians say that they could never read or allow their children to read a book with good magic users in it, for instance, because they fear it would undermine the Bible’s teaching that magic is evil (even if the made-up magic in the book is nothing like the spiritism condemned in Scripture). Readers who choose mostly or exclusively Christian fiction are concerned about being corrupted by worldly influences, and fantasy and SF are just too speculative to feel safe to them.

    2. Because the Christian romance genre HAS been so successful, and gradually come to be regarded as “safe” and “wholesome” reading (especially if it’s historical romance, because as we all know people had Proper Morals in those days instead of this godless permissiveness we have now, etc.*), a lot of authors are writing it, and publishers can afford to be more selective. I may be talking out of my hat here, but is it possible that the Christian romances which get published tend to be better written overall than other genres of Christian fiction, simply because there’s more competition?

    * And if there was also rampant hypocrisy and overlooking of things like mistresses and prostitutes and taking advantage of the servants “back then”, at least we think we can get away without mentioning it. Whereas in a modern context it’s a lot harder to deny that Stuff Happens.

    • To be sure, those incorrect concepts about “discernment” abound, especially regarding stories that are considered children’s fare. Whereas I don’t see as much ideas of discernment (legalistic versions of it or otherwise) about the kinds of novels and books enjoyed by grown-ups. The idea seems to be that discernment comes naturally and automatically once you’re grown up.

      Challenging these myths about fantasy will go a long way toward helping Christian readers confidently enjoy these genres without feeling like they’re sinning.

    • Raquel says:

      Wow…I think that was spot on.

    • Christopher Schmitz says:

      indeed! in regards to #1, I’m in the early phase of my next nonfiction book where I will talk about exactly just that: the hypocrisy in rejecting imagination (our abandoning of the Fantasy genre) because of the 1-woman crusade against D&D (Pat Pulling, mother of a boy who committed suicide went on to publish Devil’s Web and alienate a whole class of people and get conservatives to begin a kind of anti-fantasy Macarthyism)

  2. ionaofavalon says:

    I think a lot of women would enjoy fantasy if romance was a major subplot. All romance literature is, in fact, fantasy, it just may not include magic, wizards, and dragons. The most powerful Christian romance I ever read was in fact in the fantasy section (Bride of Stone by Thomas Williams), the others were given to me by my grandma, and I was never all that impressed. I kept the one of them because it was autographed. But anyway, I also think that these numbers don’t reflect the sales of Christian fantasy not published by one of the big houses. My favorites, (Narnia, LOTR, A Wrinkle in Time, Redwall) were not published by Christian houses, so they don’t get considered. I think that sales of Christian fantasy would be boosted considerably if we counted Narnia alone!

    • Julie D says:

      It’d be interesting to see what female sci-fi readers think of romance in scifi. Like, I can think of scifi couples I love (Doctor and River Song), but what I’m seeing among my peers is a great liking for ‘found families’, teams that are family in every way but blood. It’s not outstripping romantic shipping by any means, but there does seem to be a great increase in ‘these people care about each other and back each other up’ as a positive factor in spec fic.

      • ionaofavalon says:

        Sci-fi romance is a very different thing from most other types, as it may involve biracial couples. I happen to find this aspect utterly fascinating, but it might freak some people out, especially when it comes to some types of aliens, like in the case of Kira Nerys and Odo from DS9. I love them as a couple but the fact that Odo’s real form is a puddle of amorphous goo is a little off-putting. I’d be interested to know what other ladies think about sci-fi couples. Can you hear me, SpecFaith? Let’s talk, girls!

        • I was confused for a minute by “biracial” and thought, “Like Kirk and Uhura kissing? How is that controversial?” before I realized you really meant “inter-species”. 🙂

          Anyway, I shipped Kira/Odo as well back in the day, not to mention Catherine and Vincent on the 80’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. I don’t think that in a purely speculative universe that includes humanoid aliens or fabulous creatures capable of taking human form, a romance between the Princess Alystraea and Trogdor the Dragon-Man* is anything to panic about. We’re still talking about sentient beings, not animals or otherwise incompatible species, and the Bible doesn’t say anything about aliens or shapeshifters one way or the other.

          But if somebody finds the idea of speculative romance involving a non-human to be questionable, even if the character looks and acts pretty much like a human in every way, I’m not going to argue with them. That’s for their conscience to decide.

          * That’s right, you get TWO obscure geeky pop-culture references for the price of one. I’m generous that way.

          • ionaofavalon says:

            I just watched BATB and I loved it! I never saw Vincent as an issue, I saw him as like an X-Men mutant. No one would deny they are human. (And you know, that’s not a bad idea…. X-Men/1987 BATB crossover) And that’s quite true, they are sentient beings, but if people have an issue with it, that is totally up to their consciences.

        • Audie says:

          I’m a guy, not a lady, but for what it’s worth, here’s my thoughts, though with some fantasy along with sci-fi…

          One of my favorite parts of Tolkien’s whole Middle-Earth stories is the story of Beren and Luthien, a human man who falls in love with an elven woman and has to complete an impossible task to win her father’s approval.

          Star Trek had a few cross-racial things in it. Heck, Spock was half-human/half-vulcan, so it’s already assuming such things were possible and fruitful right off the bat. Worf and Dax also come to mind.

          A lot of the bigger fantasy/sci-fi universes, things like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, have characters who are either half-this/half-that, or romantic elements involving characters of different races. Drizzt and Catti-Brie, from Salvatore’s stories, comes to mind. On the other hand, most Warhammer 40K stories that I’ve read have little romance in them, let alone cross-racial romances, and they still have a good level of popularity.

      • Jo M says:

        I’d say I definitely prefer the “found family” genre, quite honestly, because I’m single, and that’s the kind of family I can “establish” at this point in my life. Stories with those sorts of relationships feel more like a challenge to go deeper and invest relationally with the people around me, rather than an unhealthy escape into fantasy about a man who could come in and sweep me off my feet and who I’d live happily ever after with. If I let myself, I can very much enjoy romance heavy stories, but I know they aren’t in any way healthy for me, so I intentionally avoid them. Especially in movies. 😛

        • ionaofavalon says:

          Yeah, I can only take romance at small doses too. I have an obsessive personality. And I love the found family thing as well as the romance thing!

    • Witness the popularity of Young Adult fantasy and SF even among older women readers for that very reason — because a lot of the biggest YA fantasy novels DO have romance as a major subplot. (Sometimes even to the extent that jaded reviewers sigh and roll their eyes at Yet Another Tortured YA Love Triangle, or what-have-you. But I’d argue that’s the result of poor execution and not giving enough care to developing the romantic subplot before dropping it on the reader, not because romantic subplots are a bad idea as such.)

    • Brie Donning says:

      About having romance in fantasy, i like a little. If it’s really strong, I can get annoyed, but I’m not a romance reader. I’ll read some with no romance, but a little picture of a real relationship or true love makes me happy. Bring on the gentle romantic subplots.
      I remember hearing or reading somewhere that a love interest is an essential part of epic fantasy. I wish I could remember where.

  3. Steve says:

    With all due respect I think you’re way off.

    Women drive the romance market, and the reasons they do- according to my observations and what I’ve read here and there- is that A) women are more emotional and so desire emotionally driven stories, and B) many, many women are in loveless or less than satisfactory relationships and run to these romantic stories as means of filling their romantic longings.

    The fact is that wwaaayyyyy too many Christian marriages are sick in one way or another. I mean, marriage overall is in general is in a sad state today, generally speaking, but marriage in the church is very much the same.

    People read what they do because they like it, yes, but also as a means of giving them what they don’t currently have. …I just finished of all of Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter” novels not because my “ideal paradise” is world filled with zombies and werewolves, but because I desire to put my life on the line fighting evil. …And I’m currently not.

    • I would agree with that. Yet I have known of women in great marriages who still love romance novels. In either case, does this not still go back to how someone (whether in a good relationship or bad ones) perceives an ideal paradise?

      • So Steve’s ideal paradise would be a world in which evil can be fought and good can make a difference — i.e., epic fantasy. Likewise, the Christian romance reader’s ideal paradise would be a world in which love* triumphs over sin, folly and opposition.

        Some readers enjoy books that reflect and reaffirm the kind of goodness they’re already fighting for, or the loving relationship that means so much to them; others seek out the same kinds of books because they long to fight those battles or find that kind of enduring love. Is that what you mean, E. Steve?

        Anyway, I think what we’re seeing most of all is that the market for Christian fiction is dominated by female readers. And while women who read Christian thrillers, historical fiction, and spec-fic often enjoy Christian romances as well, women who read mainly or exclusively for romance may not feel any need or interest to seek out other genres at all. So Romance is pulling in a lot of crossover readers, while the other genres are not.

        * And hopefully, since we’re talking Christian romance, it’s a Biblical kind of love and not a mere scintillation of hormones.

        • Julie D says:

          –So Romance is pulling in a lot of crossover readers, while the other genres are not.

        • Steve says:

          “…Steve’s ideal paradise would be a world in which evil can be fought and good can make a difference — i.e., epic fantasy. Likewise, the Christian romance reader’s ideal paradise would be a world in which love* triumphs over sin, folly and opposition.”

          The point is that these are not ideal paradises yet to be realized, this IS now. Evil CAN be fought and good CAN make a difference now. Love CAN triumph over sin, folly and opposition now.

          I think many are drawn to literary genres not as a longing for a universe that is not yet, but because the universe is that way NOW and we are lacking that reality in our lives.

          Many woman immersed in romance novels do so, I believe, because their lives lack the intimacy of a healthy, loving romantic relationship. Much like a boy reading tales of piracy on the high seas or alien filled galactic battles longs for the thrill of adventures and life-threatening daring when his life consists of chores and homework.

          We look to escape to those worlds that offer what we desire. What we so often lack.

          It speaks to our souls as God’s image-bearers. The longing in our core for a robust, full and wild life is beating against the obligation filled, duty bound and often dull lives we lead in this modern age. Risk is gone. Daring is gone. Passion is gone. Discovery is gone. …And so we live those things through books rather than mold our lives to rediscover those things.

          And I’m speaking of myself here as much as anything else.

    • notleia says:

      To counter your A) on a nature-vs-nuture scale, girls are socialized to find romance more acceptable or interesting than shooty-boom fic. Conversely, boys are socialized to find shooty-boom fic more acceptable or interesting than fic that explores the emotional spectrum beyond anger.
      But I really don’t think most women read romances as a sort of compensation for relational whatever, because there are likely too many women who have perfectly good relationships and still read romance novels. I don’t think the statistics would be on your side.

      • Steve says:

        I disagree.

        Women aren’t socialized to be more emotionally oriented and men aren’t socialized to be more action oriented. This simple IS what we are.

        In every culture in every corner of the world in every age men and women have been oriented in this way. Men hunt, fight and build. Women nurture and heal. Men are external. Women are internal. That is not socialization. That is human nature, again, to be found in every culture in every corner of the world in every age.

        And I think you will find that people are drawn to those things that they lack. Not all women who read romance novels are in bad relationships, but from what I’ve read (and from what I’ve seen) there is certainly a substantial percentage of women that ARE in bad relationships that run to romance films and books as an escape.

        • Paul Lee says:

          There are universal truths that are fundamental to our humanity and to our ability to experience meaning at all. These truths are far too important and serious to try to express in generalizations or to systemize into authoritative definitions.

          I think there are essential masculine and feminine natures. (Not “roles” — the biblical roles of husband and wife are not essential in this sense, because they have to be set down in writing as somewhat non-natural rules to follow, they’re not part of the basic and fundamental natures.) I think trying to describe masculinity or femininity is like trying to describe the color of music or the nature of God. (In a sense, maybe it is trying to describe the nature of God, since humanity is made in God’s image.) These things can and should be described using metaphors that can be very helpful, and not all descriptions are equally right. But they can’t really be defined or limited.

      • notleia says:

        For those of you in the commentariat who are curious about current topics in gender study (obvs not Steve), I present a linky on unpaid emotional labor, which women are supposedly “natural” at but takes a great deal of practice and effort: http://the-toast.net/2015/07/13/emotional-labor/.

        • Steve says:

          So, we can jettison the entirety of human experience throughout the ages in regards to the nature of the sexes- let’s just dump all we’ve ever known about human sexuality and gender from every corner and culture of the world. Why? Because you posted an article.

          Also, I noticed how you didn’t even try to respond to my argument, as simple and humble as they were. No. You didn’t even bother to respond to me directly at all. And why should you. After all, you posted an article.

          Thanks for your time. I enjoyed the honest back and forth.. I know I’ve learned something.


          • Notleia says:

            In my experience, dudes on the Internet who like gender essentialism aren’t interested in actual conversation, just in mansplaining at me.

            • Paul Lee says:

              I think it would be accurate to say that I believe in subjective gender essentialism. The subjectivity is very important, and I do believe that the subjectivity is the only thing that gives the romantic gender ideals any claim to external truth or historic universality.

              • Paul Lee says:

                …..I meant to surround that comment with fake HTML “mansplanation” and “/mansplanation” tags, but the comment system ate them. No fun. 🙁

              • notleia says:

                But what is the essence of gender?

                X and/or Y chromosomes.

              • notleia says:

                Shoot, it ate my “anti joke chicken” tags.

              • Paul Lee says:

                No, the essence of gender is more like the existential reality arising from the brute biological fact created by those X and Y chromosomes. Every human generation has had to deal with that fact, to decide what it means to be a sentient species biologically divided by sex.

            • Steve says:

              Thank you. The fact that you use the word “mansplaining” in a serious way speaks volumes as to where you’re coming from. Volumes.

              And knowing a bit more about you I would also say that using the word “dudes” is sexist, triggering and oppressive as you are assuming I identify with a specific gender. I need to find my pink knit hat and sit in my safe space for a day or two to recover from your gender violence.



              • notleia says:

                It’s certainly a handy way of identifying a specific version of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

                And I hope that pink hat was hand-knit. We do liberal shrilling, not corporate shilling.

              • Steve says:

                Hand-knit from straight up local, organic alpaca.

          • Paul Lee says:

            There’s an alternative to jettisoning the entirety of human experience or affirming reductive generalizations.

            G.K. Chesterton, who certainly loved tradition in a very deep and moving way that didn’t prevent him from harshly criticizing many of the common-sense assumptions of his society, expressed this alternative in Orthodoxy:

            My ideal at least is fixed; for it was fixed before the foundations of the world. My vision of perfection assuredly cannot be altered; for it is called Eden. You may alter the place to which you are going; but you cannot alter the place from which you have come. To the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution; for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan. In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good anything but good. Man may have had concubines as long as cows have had horns: still they are not a part of him if they are sinful. Men may have been under oppression ever since fish were under water; still they ought not to be, if oppression is sinful. The chain may seem as natural to the slave, or the paint to the harlot, as does the plume to the bird or the burrow to the fox; still they are not, if they are sinful. I lift my prehistoric legend to defy all your history.

            (Source: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16769/16769-h/16769-h.htm)

            Let’s not fight over stupid words like “patriarchy,” but I don’t believe that stereotypical behaviors or gender roles have ever been part of the true calling and vision for humanity. Eden seems to portray equality, and many of the best stories show the innocence and pure fellowship of boys and girls adventuring together without regard to gender, because they have not yet been touched by warped adult things like economics, sex, and social politics.

        • Paul Lee says:

          She could definitely try it. Start a YouTube channel with free advice, and advertise paid Skype sessions with it. Or, start a Patreon to fund the YouTube videos, and have chat hangouts with the patrons. (I know, patrons, ironic.) People are doing similar things. It’s not as weird as she seems to think.

          • notleia says:

            The context I got for the kind of dude-interactions she talks about are dudes who are friends/acquaintances or coworkers (or now-ex-husbands) who don’t reciprocate for the emotional labor in some way. Or at least that’s largely the kind of examples I remember from the comments section. There might be a few stranger-danger-dude stories in there, too (The Toast is actually a good comments section to read. Yay for moderators.)

  4. For many Christians, fantasy smacks too much of New Age and dangerous, demonic concepts they have been taught to avoid. One of my fantasy writer friends thought her books would have a great appeal to Christians but she had dragons as good guys and was told pointedly by some Christian school libraries that they wouldn’t stock it if it had dragons in it at all, much less if they were painted as good creatures!

  5. Paul Lee says:

    I always thought the paradise of romance is fellowship, and without that I would never want a romance in real life, and without it relationship stories are not worth my time.

  6. CRYSTAL says:

    With all due respect, referring to Christian romance novels as something that gives escapism by showing perfect relationships is as if a person who does not read fantasy (because I have not seen any comments indicating that someone here is a reader of the romantic genre) said that Christian fantasy It is full of idealized worlds that serve to escape from reality and nothing more.
    Many Christian romance writers have good marriages, they write using their experiences, many Christian romance novels are not just hormones, they are not idealized and have a flawed but godly hero. I don’t read Christian romance because I think it’s paradise but because it’s nice and hopeful to see two people find love with Christ at the center vs. what the world is shown to be love.
    So it’s not enough to say that Christian romance isn’t being denigrated…if you still refer to it as “less important” (the feeling of note)
    I for one would like more fantasy romance books with a strong romantic plot and a great story.

What do you think?