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Confessions of a (Former) Romance Novel Addict

In my humble opinion, there is no industry that understands and exploits the curse of Genesis 3:16 quite like the romance novel industry.  I am a veteran.  I stumbled across Harlequin romance novels as a young teen and got sucked in immediately.  Seasons came and went.  At times I was distracted from my addiction for months or even years.  But it would come back with a vengeance again and again.  I remember missing a very important appointment once because I got sucked into a romance novel after breakfast and read right through an afternoon obligation.  Another time, I lay in bed all day after finishing a Christian romance novel to the point that my roommate expressed genuine concern for me.  Believe me, I wasn’t meditating on the Christian message but obsessing over the forbidden romance.  

The romance novel industry is a case study in both the curse of Genesis 3:16 and our coping mechanisms for dealing with the curse.  The vast majority of romance novels written before the 1990’s have the classic love/hate relationship between the hero and heroine.  He usually starts as a villain (“he will rule over you”, Gen. 3:16).  Maybe he’s a pirate who takes over her ship.  Or he kidnaps her for some reason.  Or he’s English nobility and she the servant’s daughter.  But the “best” romance novels have a hero who rules over the heroine and often outright oppresses her.  Older romance novelists didn’t even attempt to mask it.  Instead they exploited it.  Women flock to stories of the bad guy who oppresses the girl but who finally rescues her and professes his love for her because she won him over with her beauty and charm.  It. Is. The. Curse.   It doesn’t matter that he oppresses her.  It doesn’t matter that she has to bear the pain and shame if he gets her pregnant.  She still wants him (and we still want him enough to read along and envision it for ourselves).  And when you are caught up in it, it feels too natural for you to see it for the ugly and pathetic thing it is.  It seems natural, not a curse.  But the curse is natural.  It is our nature apart from Christ. 

Then came the feminists.  Women still wanted their romance novels but they were embarrassed and offended by the misogyny the older ones propagated.  So after the mid 90’s, romance novels cleaned up their act.  Now if it’s a pirate, he’s pretty nice to the girl from the get go.  At least there is no outright pillage and rape.  The women seem stronger, the men a little more accommodating.  But the industry lost their sycophantic following after this change.  Women still love the older romance novels, and there remains quite a market for the older stories without the feminist clean up.  From the sidelines (because thankfully I am no longer caught up in it personally), I marvel at the blatant demonstration of the curse in the older ones and the coping mechanisms modern women have adopted demonstrated in the newer ones.  

The vampire genre of romance novels has long been a staple in the industry.  Stephanie Meyer’s has brought it to the forefront, but it has LONG existed (and flourished) in romance novel land.  The handsome vampire is the ultimate powerful bad guy.  Yet apart from Christ my tendency is to naively believe the heroine can change him, can appeal to his decent side, and that he will value the heroine so that he will stamp down his inherent urge to suck her blood to death.  Why do we buy that story line?  Because in the head of the woman stuck in the curse, it seems plausible.  It only takes a few degrees of separation for us to come to our senses and recognize that the only thing the vampire will do is kill the girl and convert her into the damned.  Because that’s the nature of vampires!  But, NO, we women want to believe she can reform him to meet her needs.  It’s the curse.  And apart from Christ, it’s our nature. 

I spent a long time as a mature, well educated, happily married woman still trapped in the world of romance novels that fed something in my flesh I didn’t even recognize.  It wasn’t until I studied Genesis 3:16 this last year that I finally understood the dynamics that characterized that addiction. 

I tried to end my relationship with romance novels many, many times over the years.  In a sense, I never did personally end it.  I can’t find the quote now, but either John Piper or Calvin Miller said something along the lines of seeing Jesus so clearly and getting a taste for His goodness that puts us out of taste for sin.  Something like that happened for me.  Gradually, I came to understand the character of God better.  I meditated on the gospel, and as it became clearer to me, it became more interesting to me than romance novels.  I didn’t have to discipline romance novels out of my life.  I just lost interest in them because something about God and the gospel started interesting me more.  It sounds … odd.  But God distracted me from romance novels with Himself and His gospel.  And one day, years later, I walked by my closet and saw that old bag of books and thought, I have NO desire to ever read those again, and I threw out the bag.

Romance novels aren’t really the issue.  But they can reveal the issue.  The issue is the curse. We by nature have a craving/longing/desire for something from a man that everyone else around us knows they can’t give.  And apart from Christ, the stories we write for ourselves are filled with our pathetic, deceived visions for what we want from men and how they are going to come through for us.  The answer isn’t to burn our bag of romance novels.  It’s to get a vision for Christ and all He has accomplished for us through the cross.  If you are encumbered with the soft porn of romance novels, I hope you’ll stand back for a moment and recognize what it reveals about your misplaced desires.  Then preach the gospel to yourself.  Again, and again, and again.  Preach it from different angles – God’s grace, God’s love, God’s glory.  But preach it.  Love it.  Adore it.  And over time you’ll be so distracted by His beauty you’ll forget what this post is even about. 

14 Responses to Confessions of a (Former) Romance Novel Addict

  1. Liz July 13, 2010 at 1:38 pm #

    Preach it, Wendy!

  2. Anonymous July 13, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    Reminds me of “Turn your eyes upon Jesus: look full in His wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

  3. strengthfortoday July 13, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    Amen Wendy. I got in a tangle on this topic when I blogged about it a year or two ago…but the truth for a believer is unavoidable. Good words.


  4. Chris Anderson July 13, 2010 at 5:25 pm #

    Wendy, here's the Piper quote you're looking for, and a few like it:

    Sorry for the self-links. It's a life-changing concept, though. Thanks for the post.

  5. Wendy July 13, 2010 at 5:30 pm #

    Thanks, Chris. Self links are fine around here. 🙂 And here is the quote from Calvin Miller.

    “The best way to deal with sin is not to attempt to reform but to adore the Savior. Winning over our lower nature is made possible by adoration…Rules, instead of limiting our sin, define sin, rivet our attention to it, lead us to desire it. Worship avoids all interest in sin, pointing our hearts and minds in a totally different direction.”

  6. Anonymous July 13, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    What a timely post for my heart! It's not the romance novels that charm me but the romantic comedies. I still want my life to be a fairy tale and have my husband “be” my hero.
    It's the worship and delighting in Jesus Christ that I need to focus on.
    Thank you.

  7. Wenatchee the Hatchet July 14, 2010 at 1:09 am #

    People have never actually dated can see the sexual bond as redemption narrative pretty easily. It seems more pernicious in Christian subcultures because it is better disguised as “God given design for your life”. It is better rationalized as something all Christians should pursue as God's will for their life on statistical grounds … unless they are smuggling Bibles into China or participating in some other life-threatening ministry. Perhaps most pernicious of all it is made the measure not merely higher Christianity but true adulthood. The frustration I've felt considering all this stuff was never enough to make me want to bail on the faith but I can't help agreeing with a Lutheran blogger who opined that there are probably more young people who leave the faith because they want to get drunk and fornicate than those who leave the faith because of debates about evolution and creationism. I've met that second category of unbelievers but they are a comparatively rare breed set next to those who renounce the faith for more immediately and literally tangible concerns.

  8. Anonymous July 14, 2010 at 1:08 pm #

    can it be said being a daughter of Eve has an ongoing desire to stomp the serpents head as well as for her husband?
    For me it goes back to that old story of the two wolves, you strengthen the one you feed.
    Great post, enjoyed it
    Diane L.

  9. Anonymous July 15, 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    Just found your blog today – and so happy that I did. I've been looking for more thoughtful theological discourse among women on the web and found your blog! I admittedly am an ex-romance junkie myself – and very much understand how only an overwhelming affection for and deep sense of Christ on your heart can overcome and expel such addictions.

    I am wondering what you think of Jane Austen's novels. Of course I understand the deeper literary value of her work (obviously not in the same category as your two buck romance novels) – but sometimes I can't help but feel her general plot lines run akin to modern romantic comedy films. Or perhaps it's the other way around – romantic comedies are mimicking Austen. Your romantic vampire description particularly struck me – because as an Austen fan I have ventured into the land of Austen sequels written by contemporary writers and I just happened to finish one titled “Mr. Dary, Vampyre”. Obviously from the title you know where the writer is leading and I have to say it fit totally with your description of the tension between hero and heroine in vampire romances and concluded with a neat and tidy resolution – saving Elizabeth and Darcy from eternal damnation. Anyway – it's interesting to see how far modernist employ the storyline of the curse – even to the extent of rewriting great classics.


  10. Ozjane July 17, 2010 at 1:22 am #

    I think there is another point to be made, in that these type of books can be used to take our focus off God's working in our own lives and relationships and escaping into another world where we do not have to face our own.
    I have been reading the Beverley Lewis, Amish series, and it has taken a long time, as I have not been obsessed with finishing them but have found them a useful tool in understanding a culture I did not understand.
    However I agree with your points whether it be books or TV and both have drastically changed their place and priority in my life over many years. It is the point of where my focus is and how keen is my ear to hear the prompt of the Holy Spirit.
    It does open a can of worms for relaxation topics for the Christian. I am personally offended by the time spent on sport by many of my keen Christian friends…..but is that worse than gardening, bush walking, reading. What does relaxation look like for the Christian?
    I took up quilting to move out of a Christian enclave and be with those for whom Christ died. However …could I go back, I would see how there was imbalance as my love of fabrics lead me to excess in collecting same. It is a constant asking of the Master…..what would You have me to do………and then …Listening…and then……Obeying.

  11. Keri July 17, 2010 at 2:06 pm #

    Love this post Wendy. Romance novels…ugh! Loved these as a teenager. I read every “Christian” romance novel on the market I think.

    One of the other problems I see with them is that it makes young girls think love and marriage will be like these books. Instead of helping women realize the reality of human relationships they merely feed the dreams of young girls.

    Marriage comes and it is real. We do not marry characters made up in the mind of an author. We are married to real people with real struggles. Sometimes I think the reason women have a hard time in marriage is that they are constantly comparing their life to the fantasy they have created. Romance novels feed those desires.

  12. Wendy July 17, 2010 at 4:43 pm #

    I think these last points are a little different than the point I was making. But Romanticism is an issue too. And it plays into the curse as well. I might do a post on that as well — our notions of even gentle, moral romance still tend to be infused with affects of the curse. In particular, we think that a really good, gentle, heroic guy can meet the kind of needs in our heart that are so infinitely deep only God can meet them. And those notions set us up for failure in marriage again and again.

  13. Suz July 19, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    Recently, I wrote about the same thing in my blog because I review so many books. Your last paragraph said it very well.
    Here's the two posts I wrote: My concerns were a little different than yours, yet very similar. I'm glad to know I'm not alone in being concerned about this.

  14. Rachel Nichols April 25, 2012 at 9:54 pm #

    Why are almost all Christian novels romances? We'll all be in Heaven soon enough where there is only the marriage of the Lamb and everyone else's marriages good or bad will be null and void. That's what I tell myself when I feel bad about my single status. To read some of the “Christian” romances you'd think marriages were salvation itself. Jesus never married! I met a woman the other day who said she never read her Bible, she spent her free time watching TV and reading Karen Kingsbury. Not the same thing.