Do Christian Novels Romanticize Abuse?

I’ve been tired lately. Mind-and-heart tired. So tired that yesterday, I decided the most productive thing I could do was give my brain needed a much-needed vacation. I wasn’t in the mood for a movie, so I grabbed my Nook Color and plunged face-first into what my mom would affectionately call a “ninny novel”–one of those light Christian romances publishers offer for free to hook you on their authors.

I love fiction of all stripes, but haven’t had time to read a lot of it lately. Maybe that’s why the “hero” of the story I read–the typical alpha-male “beast” who just needs the sweet, charming “beauty” to look past his gruff exterior and see his big heart–hit such a dissonant chord in my head.

I’m sorry, but the man in that story was emotionally abusive.

I’ve written about this before, but my it got me thinking–how many Christian romance novels feature abusive heroes? I know when I started penning stories, years and years ago, my heroes were the typical tortured souls, alpha-males who were just misunderstood and needed to be softened up by the beautiful, sweet, spunky girls courageous enough to self-sacrificially put themselves at the mercy of the “beast.” I was young, and it  was the blueprint of the stories I was most familiar withnever mind that I gave such men a wide berth in real life.

Now, I am horrified by these types of stories. What messages are we sending our girls??? Why are we giving supposedly intelligent, gracious, Christian heroines heart-thumping attractions to abrasive, possessive, controlling men they find intimidating? By romanticizing these types of “heroes,” and painting swoon-worthy word pictures of happily-ever-afters with men whose characteristics would make them HORRIBLE partners in real life, are we setting our daughters up for unhealthy relationships?

Not all romance novels are like this, of course. Janette Oke’s “Love Comes Softly” series springs to mind. (Don’t laugh! Okay, you can laugh if you want, but only if you share your guilty literary pleasures in the comments!) I picked up my mom’s copy of “Love Comes Softly” when I was eight, and it was the beginning of a lifelong (though seldom admitted) love affair with historical romances. Everything about the book charmed me, from the cozy domesticity (heightened by the homesickness I experienced living in Africa) to the warm, caring relationships developing between the heroine and the people in her community–including the hero, Clark Davis, who happened to be a gentle, godly, virtuous man.

Clark Davis I can deal with. If I had a daughter, I would be okay with her dating someone like him. The hero of the last novel I read, on the other hand, would be a better candidate for intensive therapy and anger management classes than marriage.

As I did my mental tally of emotionally-abusive heroes in Christian novels I have read, an even more interesting–and troubling–pattern emerged. Some Christian romance novels DO address abuse–just not well. The standard storyline goes something like this:

-Woman falls in love with, and marries, bad boy. (This usually happens in the prologue, or maybe the first chapter or two.)

-Bad boy is physically abusive to the woman. (Because we all know that REAL abuse means beating someone up, right?)

-Woman flees her physically abusive husband.

-Woman encounters nice, godly, attractive man as she flees, and they fall in love. Tension ensues, because nice guy does not know that she is married. This takes up the bulk of the novel.

-Woman has a spiritual awakening, admits to the nice guy that she is married to an abusive man, and decides to “do the right thing” by going back to be reconciled with her abusive husband.

-God kills the abusive husband. (Think I’m using hyperbole? I’m not. The abusive husband could be gored by a bull, or shot by a sheriff, or tossed by his horse, or succumb to cholera, but one way or another, the bad guy winds up six feet under.)

-Woman and nice guy get married and live happily ever after.

You can see why this is problematic. (If you can’t, I have some reading suggestions for you–and they AREN’T romance novels.) There are some really, really unhealthy patterns at play here, including (but not limited to) the astonishingly common prayer among abuse victims that God would strike the perpetrator–or them–dead. Considering the fact that there are non-fiction books insisting that Christian women should submit to their husbands no matter what, because if the dude gets too out of hand God will just strike him dead, this troubling mindset should be taken more seriously than the fictional context suggests.

Fiction plays a crucial role in shaping culture. Most teenage girls I know don’t read non-fiction outside of school, but many of them guzzle romance novels like sweet tea on a southern porch. Perceptions are shaped by pop-culture influences like books, movies, TV shows, and songs, and just because something carries the label “Christian” doesn’t mean it promotes a healthy understanding of, well, anything. To the contrary, misrepresentations of what constitutes a God-honoring relationship could make these stories especially toxic.

Stories are powerful.

Even stupid stories.

Read–and write–with discernment.

What do you think? How can we support the creation of better stories?

23 Responses to Do Christian Novels Romanticize Abuse?

  1. Adam Shields November 9, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    I am a guy and I think I read Love Comes Softly around 8 or 10 as well.

    This is not just a fiction issue. I used to work at a homeless shelter and we had to ask a few churches to stop volunteering because they were working in a women’s shelter (many women leaving violent relationships) and they kept counseling women to go back to these relationships. They were always only talking to the women and providing no corresponding counseling to the men. I think there are times when couple can be reconciled after physical abuse, but I haven’t seen it happen when only the women went through counseling.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 9, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

      SOOO true, Adam! The problem is that most people (Christians included, of course) don’t really understand the issues at play in abusive situations, or how they differ from other sorts of marital problems. I’ve certainly made my share of well-intentioned gaffes as I’ve tried to engage the issue–I can only ask for forgiveness, keep learning, and keep moving forward, adjusting accordingly.

      Telling better stories could be a great preventative measure.

  2. Lacey November 9, 2011 at 8:58 pm #

    Wow, what a disappointment! So many Christian romances go in and out of the library every day, but I’ve never read one myself (and I admit that I got bored the first time I tried reading Jeanette Oke, but I have plenty of guilty-pleasure reads that could rival that!). It’s too bad that the tropes in “secular” romances infiltrate Christian romances as well, where at least you should be able to assume that the characters have *some* sort of moral compass.

    I think that what we need are more stories about the truly misunderstood — not the people who REALLY need to work out their own issues before they even think about getting near a relationship. I’m thinking of Boo Radley, for example. The world is full of people who may look less desirable on the outside who are worth the time to get to know. Why can’t these be our beauty and the beast stories, if we need them so badly? We’d be so much better off if romances were about girls who looked past a guy’s quiet demeanor or strange habit of making art out of bottlecaps than the ones in which they look past the real red flags.

    Maybe all romances should include an insert card something along the lines of, “You may be in an unhealthy relationship if …” for the reality check!

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 9, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

      Ha! I love your idea of the insert cards! Maybe we should print the “power and control wheel” on the back of all romance novels, like the surgeon general’s warning on cigarettes. :-D

      I also love your idea about the substituting the truly misunderstood for studly alpha-boys on a power trip.

      Here’s another thing that sticks in my craw. The emotionally-abusive men in these stories, like the emotionally-abusive men in real life, have lots of brokenness to work through, and DO need compassion and support, just like everyone else. But the help they need is probably not going to come from a codependent relationship, and transformation is probably not going to come overnight. I have NO problem with characters struggling through difficult issues and messy relationships, but I think we need to be honest about the typical consequences of certain actions–like marrying jealous, abrasive, domineering men.

      • Lacey November 10, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

        Yes, the power-wheel ala the Surgeon General’s Warning is a great idea! Let’s implement it immediately!

        I also agree with what you’re saying about these men needing compassion, love, and healing. What I’d like to see is a novel in which the heroine says, “I love you, but I really can’t save you. I hope you’re able to find healing someday, but now we have to go our separate ways.” He has an epiphany, gets a good therapist, works through his pain and anger for five years, and is eventually ready to handle a healthy relationship. ;)

  3. Julie November 10, 2011 at 1:37 am #

    I liked your perspective in this article because I often read criticism of how romance novels are like porn for women, but you examined the alpha male who is abusive to the woman and really opened my eyes to this issue.

    I think that one aspect that should not be ignored is how many of our young and mature ladies are reading these stories and are sometimes understand their view of men and relationships from it. The writers of the these novels are trying to write a good story, but are sometimes neglecting the important message(s). One of the central messages should be how abuse can and does happen to some women, and how they do not deserve it. Yet, many times, it teaches that men harbor dark secrets, but eventually the women can be rid of the men through death and of course, a new love interest will be encountered at the end or a godly man is patiently waiting to have a happy ending with the abused woman.

    Thanks for writing this article and giving a new perspective to romance novels. It was very informative!

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 10, 2011 at 9:05 am #

      Thanks Julie! I’ve heard the “porn for women” complaint too. I do think some novels, romance and otherwise, cross that line. And of course some people prefer to consistently lose themselves in fantasies of all sorts, rather than deal with real life–but in that case the problem is probably NOT their reading habits. Books can be a coping mechanism, healthy and unhealthy.

      BUT, in my opinion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a good love story. Romantic relationships are one of the central themes of human life, and we tell–and listen to–stories as a part of understanding where we fit in the universe. There’s a sense of safety, belonging, and community that we find in our common human experience. Stories have been one of the primary ways we have passed information, skills, and wisdom down through the centuries, and I don’t think there’s any particular virtue to the cut-and-dry info-dump people who turn up their noses at fiction would seem to suggest. I mean, seriously–is it easier to read Genesis or Leviticus? :-D

      Anything’s easier to swallow with a story wrapped around it–which is why we need to be careful about the messages we are packaging.

  4. Tim November 10, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    Jeanette Oke? You won’t find me laughing at you, JR! We just watched Love’s Enduring Promise and thoroughly enjoyed the story. Now we’ll probably have to get hold of the rest of the series (going back to #1 and then pick up with #3, etc.) to see how the Davis family works out. We really like watching romances, rom-coms, action hero movies, and period pieces together.

    As for how to encourage better stories, I think it’s market driven. God’s sovereignty extends to market forces, so prayer is a key component to our part of this issue. Plus, I think as parents and friends of readers, as well as in our roles as leaders in the Body of Christ, that we can influence reading decisions. I know that with my own kids we read almost everything they read and then we talked about the stories, usually from a standpoint of appreciation but sometimes in order to help them think critically about the story.

    Good topic, JR, and a good discussion you got going here. Nicely done.

    Tim

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 10, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

      Oh, but the books are so much better, Tim!!! I saw the first movie and could barely stand it–although I have to say, I did like the way they changed the ending. Nice cinematic touch.

      My boys have been easy to keep literary tabs on–the youngest two are still in Frog-and-Toad-ville, and the older two have always preferred humorous books like Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. My 13 yo is just beginning to dip his toe into the wide world of Star Wars novels, though, so that could change.

      • Tim November 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

        Have they discovered Artemis Fowl yet? My daughter and I read the whole series, and I think it’s great story telling. The story arc is self-contained in each installment of the series, and also arcs more broadly over the series as a whole. The protagonist’s struggles with good and evil are particularly compelling.

        Enjoy!

        Tim

        • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 10, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

          Not yet! I remember looking at that series last year and considering it, but my oldest (who I think would be interested) was still struggling to get through long, text-based books at that point. (He’s my autism-spectrum guy.) One of my biggest goals in homeschooling him this year (all the rest go to our fabulous public school) was to get him comfortable reading longer novels, and it DOES seem to be working. Hallelujah! My just-turned-ten-year-old is a bookworm, though, so I have no doubt those books will make it onto our shelves within a couple years.

  5. Valerie White November 10, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    I have to say, that is what I love about the Hunger Games series. (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Between the two romantic interests in her life, she chooses the one that is loving, caring, and stable. The one that places her above himself in all things. That is the kind of romantic story women should read.

    On the flip side, I think this is a consequence of the Fall, and how men are steered away from their families, and women are drawn to “saving” them. My husband is a youth pastor, and I see this all the time in our youth group. There is one boy in particular that is the alpha male figure in our group. He has gone through two or three of the girls in the youth group, and basically treats them like dirt the whole time. I try to steer the girls away from him, but it’s like a moth drawn to a flame.

    I hope and pray that my four boys are absolute dorks throughout high school, so these kinds of girls stay far, far away from them! Once they become adults, a girl that is seeking the Lord will see them for who God made them to be.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 10, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

      “On the flip side, I think this is a consequence of the Fall, and how men are steered away from their families, and women are drawn to “saving” them.”

      Oh, that is SOOOO true! That whole “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” impulse has caused unmeasureable devastation. I’m so glad we’re called to live in the resurrection, not the curse!

      • Valerie White November 10, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

        I am too! I am so grateful that we get to claim the covenant that Christ made with us, and live in through the transformational work of Christ in our lives! It makes being human much more appealing to be set free from this curse! =)

    • Lacey November 10, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

      I agree! I was SO happy with the way that “love triangle” resolved itself. And if this provides hope for the future, all of the teen girls I’ve polled at work (I’m a teen services librarian) have also preferred Peeta. (My younger sister prefers Gale, but that’s a story for another time. ;))

  6. Wendy November 10, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    I have known someone who was actually praying for her husband to be killed so she wouldn’t have to file for divorce. Long story. Wow! On another, happier note, I recently read a trilogy called, “The Rose Trilogy” by Beverly Lewis. Amish setting – very nice.

    Thanks for your insights! As usual, very informative. :)

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 10, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

      It’s amazing, but it really does happen. It’s astonishingly common for very devout women, in particular, to pray that God takes the life of either their spouse or themselves, because they don’t consider divorce an option, yet they can’t stand to remain in the relationship. It’s a horrible situation for a woman (or man) to be in, and oftentimes the church doesn’t make it any easier for them. :-( Messy, messy, messy! God’s heart must break.

  7. Sarah Wooten November 11, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    Um, yes. All I can say is yes.

    I wish I had something compelling or controversial to add, but really, the discussion is kinda complete.

    Love your voice and tone and your topic of choice today. It is something I quite literally have never thought before.

    Maybe it is because I don’t read Christian fiction…I used to, but I don’t have very much available brain space or time, and the book has GOT to be good for me to sit down with it. I just realized that probably sounds snobby…oh well. It’s Friday and I’ve been so PC all week….I’m kinda done.

  8. Emily November 22, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    “Stories are powerful.

    Even stupid stories.”

    YES.

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