Saturday, February 16, 2013

Is There Such a Thing as a "Christian" Romance Novel?

Is there such a thing as a “Christian” Romance Novel? Should I, as a faithful Catholic woman, read Christian Romance Novels? After several years of putting it off, I finally took the plunge and read a popular, Catholic Romance— one that several people had recommended to me. 

I had tried to read it once before, but knowing the overall plot, I was frustrated with the storyline: Promiscuous, but absolutely, drop-dead-gorgeous-hunk-of-a-guy pursues and captures a good, faithful, Catholic young woman. Of course, she is also stunningly beautiful and has a promising career. The theme of the whole book is that young people should court not date. 

Why did I stop reading the book the first time? I know far too many people who married someone who promised to practice the faith once they got married only to end up in a difficult marriage or divorce. Now, in all fairness, I also know several faithfully committed Catholic couples whose spouses converted after they married. 

There are many good points about this book. Saving oneself sexually for one’s marriage partner until marriage being the most important. I don’t think most people who don’t save themselves until marriage realize how much they will regret it until they find the person of their dreams. The purpose of the book is a noble one: To show the value of courtship over dating. In doing so, the author presents all the wonderful and fun alternatives young people have compared to the typical hedonistic activities they think they need to do to have fun. There is more to life than parties, drinking, and sex. 

The author is a gifted and talented writer. With the exception of a few spots, she keeps the reader’s attention until the end. Through the development of her characters, she shows an understanding of the human person. Her command of the English language displays a appealing literary style and an expressive vocabulary base.

The young woman in the story comes from a loving and large family. Clearly, the parents are striving to follow the teachings of the Church. The book has many redeeming qualities. It was inspiring to see the young man honor the young woman in a number of ways. In reading the commentaries at the end of the book many people were touched by it. For some people, they are more likely to read a novel than a theology book and the author used plenty of opportunities to instruct the reader in the faith. Definitely, there are many reasons to praise the book, but at the end of the day, there are some questions that arise.

Naturally, as a reader, I “identify” myself with the protagonist. That is just the process of the imagination in reading a book. I put myself in the head of the hero or heroine. The young woman in this case is flawlessly beautiful and has more talent and energy than is humanly possible. A person simply cannot physically do all the things the author has the character doing, and perfectly on top of it. Ditto, for the male character.

In comparing myself to her, am I going to accept myself for who God created me to be? Sure, the author makes a point to show that she is more than physically attractive, that she possesses an inner beauty that sparkles and shines through, drawing others to her. At the same time, however, the guy’s initial attraction to her is because of her outward beauty, her legs. Throughout the story, we are constantly reading about how one or the other is so stunningly handsome or beautiful. So, as a reader, am I going to start fantasizing about how I wish I could be strikingly beautiful like her, especially so I could attract the attention of a handsome looker like him?

Then there is the male hero. He comes from a womanizing past. The author does a good job of showing how his childhood led him to treat women as one-night-stands. But the questions remains for the reader, “Am I going to fantasize that my boyfriend, fiancé, or husband would look like him, act like him?” Over and over again we are told how handsome he is and how she has a hard time not succumbing to her passions for him. Showing that she is struggling with her feelings of chastity is human and real, but the reader may be wishing—subconsciously—that the female character would get into more and more compromising situations, because of the natural desire to be held and caressed by this physically attractive man. Even if it is in the reader’s imagination and the guy is not real, he is not her boyfriend or husband. This is besides the fact that the reader is now comparing how her boyfriend or husband looks, acts or treats her. Gosh! Put down the book and hug the real thing!

After the male hero has a conversion experience, the book does a wonderful job of showing the ideal of how a man should treat a woman. But even the best of men are totally clueless about romance. Is the reader going to futility wish her boyfriend or spouse would treat her a certain way instead of accepting him for who he is? Now, I’m not talking about a woman passively accepting abuse or a man treating her poorly. The handsome hero sure likes to kiss her hand!

Then there is the other aspect of courtship which is almost completely overlooked. The story puts forth the idea that a healthy relationship is a guy spending all of his time on the woman (female fantasy?), doting on her every wish, treating her like a queen (Who wouldn’t want to be treated as a queen—or king?). There are some men who like to hunt, fish, watch football and do a great number of things that women don’t care for. Some men have jobs that require them to spend long hours at work or travel. Women too have their pursuits that men are not interested in. In other words, men and women may desire to spend time together, but they aren’t always able to. Not to mention, not once in the story do we hear of one of the other of them having to stay late for a deadline or extra work. Does anyone get tired and crabby?

At some point, the book becomes more fairytale that fiction. The reader can no longer suspend her belief at what is possible. For example, the author presents the case that many modern day problems are found in families that are not Christian, as exemplified in the guy's family. I know very few families--Christian, Catholic, or otherwise--that do not have someone in the family who has fallen away from the Faith, living in sin, abusing drugs, alcohol or worse. Even the best of us have annoying faults. Sin has entered the world. We are all weak and at time succumb to our faults. The problems of the world are everywhere. Finally, after 400 pages, the girl’s Christian parents have a spat. Honestly, I don't expect them to have an argument "all" the time and the author does a wonderful job of resolving the issue, but Christians struggle with their faults as much as non Christians. 

Along with this, there is the mistaken notion that just because someone homeschools or teaches their kids the faith in a certain way, their kids will follow them in the faith, such as the young woman’s family. Of course that is the ideal, what we all hope for, but that is simply not always true. Children when they become adults, not to mention when they are born, have a free will. They don’t always want to follow their parent’s faith. Sure that happens sometimes, but not always. Don’t ever assume anything! The world, the flesh, and the devil are powerful allurements, which attract Catholics as much as anyone else.

Then there is the subject of courtship. I do think it is a great idea to re-evaluate the notion of dating, but the idea of courtship presented in the book is not realistic. First of all, before a young man and woman can court, they need to meet one another and decide whether or not the other is someone he or she would consider marrying. Ironically, when the characters are being “sassy” they are more realistic than when they are offering advice. The male "hero" comes off as a total wimp every time he talks to the young woman’s dad. Goodness! He is an adult. I don’t think their conversations are realistic; the conversations may be intended to be noble, but they are not real. In my opinion, the dad speaks condescendingly to him. I don’t believe in casual dating, but the fact of the matter is a person can’t court a stranger. Also, a young man or woman in his or her twenties is not going to necessarily want to have an intimate conversation with his or her parents or girl friend's or boy friend's parents, accountable or not, the young man or woman may not be living at home, let alone in the same state (Province) or country. 

Definitely the goal for dating after a certain age (should they even consider dating if they are not old enough or in a position to marry?) is to look at each person as a prospective husband or wife—if that is your vocation. At the same time, that future spouse needs to be a best friend, the best friend. Ideally, for young adults and teens, they need healthy opportunities to meet. In the book there could also be a greater emphasis on teens and young adults doing more group activities so that they have the chance to meet other young people in a safe setting.

As far as the conversion of the male hero, I have mixed feelings about it. I think it is totally possible to have a radical conversion. I think it is inspiring to show the evolution of a person growing deeper in the faith. Converts can be an inspiration to cradle Catholics who may take their faith for granted. I think it is great to show that no matter how terrible our sins are in the past, once we have sought God’s forgiveness, God has forgiven us. We are washed clean. It would be nice, however, if this was more connected to reconciliation and if we saw a physical manifestation of it, like him throwing out porn and disconnecting the TV cable stations. Yes, we do see him praying the rosary and praying after mass. 

But, the author makes it look too easy. We all struggle against our human nature. In the book we don’t see the struggle. On top of that, everyone who comes into contact with the female heroine almost instantly converts. Wow! What an amazing woman! I don’t think Padre Pio or the Cure of Ars could even do that! Don’t we wish that was the way it was done in real life? How many of us have prayed for someone for 10, 20, 30 or more years?

In reality, some people make our lives hell once they find out we are Christians. It takes incredible fortitude to pray for the person persecuting us. Sometimes, that person ironically is a Christian or Catholic. They don’t like us for whatever reason. We looked at them the wrong way. We are too thin or too fat. We have irritating habits. They don’t like the way we dress, etc. Everybody “loves” the young woman in the novel. She is a nice person. She is hard not to like. 

So at the end of the day, I ask again, “Is there such a thing as a “Christian” Romance Novel? Should I, as a faithful Catholic read Christian Romance Novels?” Am I a better person for having read this book? Do I strive to fulfill my vocation as God intended me to live it even more after having read this book? Do I accept myself for who God created me to be, seeking to fulfill my Personal Ideal, my personal mission that God has created me for? If I am in a relationship, do I accept my spouse or boyfriend for the person God created him to be? Do I have a greater respect for myself because I desire for my boyfriend or spouse to treat me as a child of my Heavenly Father, as created in the image and likeness of God? Do I respect my husband or spouse as the person God created him to be? It’s always easy to be kind to someone who is kind to us, but what about those other times when the other person's temper flares or he/she is irritable? 

Only the reader can truthfully answer these questions. Naturally, they apply to all the books we read and the movies we watch. I don’t want to pick on this particular book because the questions remain the same with any Romance Novel or modern novel, especially those in which men and women treat each other as objects to be used and the author’s intent is to sexually arouse the reader. Yes, compared to what is out there in the world today, this book appears quite tame, but there are quite a few steamy passages that lead the reader’s imagination? Am I a better person for having read this book? Have I grown in my faith? Was this the best use of my time? Only your conscience can answer these questions.

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