Some of the best-selling books on the market are romance novels. Year after year this genre continues to be successful. As with anything, there is a spectrum. Some of the “love” stories aim at middle and high school students who are experimenting with romance for the first time. Other stories target a more adult audience and keep both men and women coming back for more.
There is also a spectrum as it relates to sexual content and delivery. The range is vast with Emma on one end of the continuum and Fifty Shades of Grey on the other. Some romance novels are pure, reserved, and lovely while others are impure, erotic, and sinful.
This is not only true for the secular world, but it is also true for the Christian world. There is a market for “Christian romance novels” and the spectrum of sexual content is similar.
I know this firsthand. Having grown up in the church my entire life, I have received hundreds of book recommendations in my Christian life.
While in youth group, I was introduced to historical Christian fiction and was personally interested in it. I dove in and became captivated by the writing that could “fill in” the details that the Bible does not have and give me a more tangible picture (so I thought) of the Scripture.
But as I read more and more, the content of many recommended books became darker and darker.
I eventually tried to justify what I was reading with the knowledge that the people who were recommending the books to me were solid believers. I tried to justify what I was consuming because I was told (and believed) the goal was redemptive.
But I was led astray. I had to learn the hard lesson that a book does not get a pass from God just because it has won a “Christian award.”
The world of Christian romance novels is a seductive one. It draws you in with incredible storytelling and powerful scenes that can be impressed into your mind for a lifetime. And it keeps you coming back for more and more.
I was led astray because the scenes I was reading had more in common with the shameful dark deeds of Ephesians 5:12 than the beautiful light of Christ.
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true) and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
I found myself being told about how God can redeem a rape… and yet the rape was now fixed in my mind more than the truth about how God could redeem it. I found myself longing to know about the next sexual encounter, and what details would be shared, more than I was longing to know about God and how he could save me from my sexual sin.
I was told by my Christian friends and mentors that it was okay to keep reading about the shameful acts that take place in the darkness. All the while God was telling me that I should discern what is pleasing to the Lord and take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, let alone relish in the details of them.
As I expressed concerns to my fellow Christians, things began to get uncomfortable. The responses were defensive and awkward. The question eventually came, “Why is the Bible okay to read but Christian romance novels are not?”
Christian romance novels would be wonderful to read if they were written like the Bible.
The Bible is full of stories about sexual issues and sexual encounters. But every time the Bible describes a sexual encounter it is holy, pure, and good for you to read. Even the most graphic sexual content (such as texts found in Genesis, Judges, Ezekiel, and Song of Solomon) is written in a way that does not seduce the reader into sin.
It is a glorious and constructive gift to be able to read the book of Hosea.
It is a dishonoring and destructive experience to bring someone into Gomer’s steamy bedsheets and describe the ways men ravished her.
These Christian romance novels let you experience the arousal of others through words and live out their experiences vicariously.
It is different than Song of Solomon. Song of Solomon leaves you with thanksgiving and dwelling on what is pure, lovely, excellent, and worthy of praise.
The Bible does not arouse you to sin. It stirs you up to love and good deeds.
What if the point of the novel is to demonstrate redemption, forgiveness, and the gospel in a powerful way?
This is a serious argument that needs consideration. The stated goal of many Christian romance novels is to teach redemption through a memorable and powerful medium.
I am not discounting that God cannot use Christian Romance novels for his glory. God certainly has done this! I praise the Lord for any good work of redemption he has done through any novel. Perhaps many of you reading this have been brought closer to the Lord through reading a novel that would fall into the category I’m describing, and it awakened your relationship with God afresh. I am not trying to take away anything good that God has done in anyone’s life.
However, that does not mean it is good, right, best, or holy. God can use seductive novels despite of themselves, not because of themselves. God used the evil prophet Balaam to proclaim his excellencies and have people worship the true God. God has used false preachers who should never have been pastors who preach the gospel and save many lives. God has used countless wicked and sinful things for his glory, and he will continue to do this until he returns.
But the end never justifies the means. Because something good can emerge from something sinful doesn’t make the sinful less wicked.
Salacious sexual encounters are not meant to be described no matter how redeeming the message turns out to be at the end of the novel.
What if I told you there was a better way to experience the power of God’s love?
The good news is there is. There is a way to draw close to God that exposes the darkness rather than delighting in it. You can draw near to God in his word, and he will draw near to you. You can ask him to cleanse your hands and purify your heart and he will do it (James 4:8).
You can experience the river of his delights without having to slog through a river of filth. Jesus already took all our filth upon himself. God has given us his only Son so that we might be forgiven of all our sins and be made right with him.
And finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, read these things (Philippians 4:8–9).
This is part 3 of a blog series on Recovering Purity Culture.
Sean Perron is the Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida. He is the co-author of Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement and Letters to a Romantic: The First Years of Marriage.