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By Rebecca Koerselman
In an effort to focus on something other than current events and politics, I recently watched the documentary, Love Between the Covers. It explores the billion-dollar industry of romance novels, their writers, and the people who voraciously consume romance novels. The writers, only half-jokingly, remarked that they keep the lights on in the publishing industry.
According to Nielsen ratings, most readers of romance novels are women, young thru middle aged, living primarily in the south and Midwest. The documentary demonstrates the ways that writers and readers alike form communities among women where they share, network, and encourage each other in both writing and reading of romance novels. Writers and publishers featured in the documentary remarked that the romance industry is viewed as derivative and not “literature.” They said this second-class status in publishing occurred primarily because it was an industry full of women: driven by women, written by women, and largely consumed by women. In addition, those featured in “Love Between the Covers” asserted that romance novels empowered women to follow their dreams, be inspired, and to have courage and character in the midst of conflict and strife. All interesting claims.
At one point, the documentary discussed the various genres within romance novels: sci-fi, historical, paranormal, fantasy, time-travel, and inspirational. A successful romance author was giving some advice to an aspiring writer in the inspirational category of romance and reminded her that the difference between Christian romance and other romance categories is “no sex.” I couldn’t help but wonder – is that the only real difference between Christian romance and other kinds of romance?
In one of our churches, we participated in a small group where we gathered regularly and studied a book of the Bible. Whenever we finished a book, we would all make suggestions about what book to read next. Jokingly, I would suggest Song of Solomon. Everyone would laugh, and then we would choose a different book. The Song of Songs or Song of Solomon seems to be regularly overlooked or ignored from embarrassment by many Christians. Or dismissed as “poetry” and thus not theologically sound or important. I’ve always been particularly interested in those Christians who love certain passages of scripture and use them regularly to browbeat others, but who ignore the other parts they don’t like or don’t know how to understand and interpret. While I cannot imagine the book of Solomon with a romance cover of a well-oiled and bare chested King Solomon, surrounded by (many?) women with ripped bodices and half-draped dresses, it does seem to fit into the romance novel genre better than the biblical genre.
In a larger American culture that accepts romance and sex as typical behavior, regardless of marital status, Christians seem to struggle to deal with romance. So how should Christians make sense of romance? The standard response seems to be to ignore it, set clear boundaries around it, and point towards marriage. But is that working? And do most Christians even follow their own rules?
The extreme success of the romance novel industry among women, including Christian women, seems to indicate that many women would rather write or secretly read their own forms of romance than to follow anyone else’s rules.