How should the Christian contribute to romantic art?
I feel a need to ask my readers to bear with me a bit as I set down these thoughts. Thinkpieces, or at least complaints, about the lamentable state of Christian fiction are close to a dime a dozen among my peers, and I’ve got no desire simply to come off as a crank. Be that as it may, as someone writing out of a Christian background, I am taking to my keyboard because I want to make a plea on behalf of a particular genre.
This genre is, I believe, of critical importance. For my fellow Christians, it has much to do with helping us form a healthy conception of ourselves. For those who may not share our theological convictions, it can become one of the most effective routes to understanding what makes Christianity tick. Concerns and questions central to this genre drive Christian thinking on a host of important issues, and I believe that closer attention to this creative field could open fruitful dialogue with our neighbors on many fronts. I am talking about Christians writing (and filming, and painting, and singing) about romance. If Christians have a historic claim to any one artistic inspiration, it may well be the romantic. Yet I fear that this storied and powerful domain of Christian art is suffering from our mismanagement, and that all our neighbors suffer for the weakness of Christian romance.
Let me explain.
The Romantic Heritage of Christianity
Why do Christians have a special claim to romance? First and foremost, it is because romantic love is such a pervasive theme in the Bible. Throughout Scripture, the interplay between lover and beloved, “the way of a man with a maiden” (Proverbs 30:19) culminating in marriage, is understood as a profound image of God’s dealings with His people.
Among the key themes of the book of Hosea, for example, is God’s persistent desire to woo back the people of Israel, an unfaithful bride. A great Hebrew love poem has come down to us in the canon of Scripture itself. But the Song of Songs has also birthed a centuries-long tradition of allegorical interpretation with reference to Christ and the Church. Within the New Testament, St. Paul calls explicit attention to this mystery (Ephesians 5:30–32), stating that the Church’s union with Christ is a fulfillment of the type of husband and wife. And of course, in the ultimate expression of this relationship, the consummation of the ages is the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9). In short, second only perhaps to the image of Father and children, God’s love for His people is presented in Scripture as the perfect coming-together of lover and beloved. If the Bible is not afraid to draw so heavily on romance, it seems unlikely that Christians ought to have much hesitation.
The Church, for her part, has long recognized the centrality and theological significance of such themes in her art. For Dante Alighieri, it was his love of the mortal woman Beatrice that drew his gaze toward God, up and out of the dark wood. She, and his experience of devotion toward her, served for him as an image, a guide, and a foretaste of a higher love.
In English literature, the tradition of Christian romances goes back at least as far as the Arthurian legends (which often display the ways romantic love can go awry when twisted by evil) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But Christian romance in English arguably reaches its apogee in Shakespeare. It was Christopher Hitchens, of all people, who once said that it was impossible to read Shakespeare without the Bible. This is especially true in the case of Shakespeare’s comedies, which invariably end in marriage. The Christian reader, actor, or viewer of Shakespeare ought, for example, to be especially attuned to the theme of law and mercy animating A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Merchant of Venice. The same holds for the narrative of sin, redemption, and resurrection that undergirds A Winter’s Tale or runs beneath the crackling wit of Much Ado About Nothing. Nor was Shakespeare insensitive to the ways romantic love could be warped in a fallen world. The Bard is full of joy; he is not saccharine. No one who has read Othello, with its haunting treatment of poisonous jealousy, could possibly think as much.
As we learn from Shakespeare, there are a thousand ways romantic love can typify the Christian life and teach us profound truths about it. The English language’s greatest poet was thoroughly alive to the ways the faith is imaged in and consummated by love. What’s more, his understanding of these things was all the more powerful for being encapsulated in great stories. In stories, profound Christian beliefs become accessible to nearly all people with a desire to read or a love for art. The beauty of being a Christian lover of Shakespeare is that we can deepen our non-Christian friends’ appreciation for these wonderful stories, and use them to build a bridge of understanding regarding our own most cherished beliefs and values.
Where We Went Wrong
Even in the twentieth century, believers have made rich contributions to the romantic genre. One such story that immediately leaps to mind is Tolkien’s tale of Beren and Luthien. I’m told by friends with more literary sense than I that if I want satisfying Christian romance, I should be reading Wendell Berry. Be that as it may, however, the most well-known Christian romantic fiction today struggles against problems not present in the authors I’ve just identified.
Why does so much Christian romantic fiction in the twenty-first century fall far short of the richness of Dante, Shakespeare, Tolkien, or Berry? Because so many Christian artists believe quality begins and ends with having a good message, almost no emphasis is placed on artistry.
This view has several harmful effects. In the first place, people approach Christian media expecting to be preached to. They are thoroughly on guard. This means that any good messages a book or film contains are going to get through only to those who are already receptive to a sermon.
Secondly, because these books’ and movies’ primary goal is to deliver a sermon, the stories they use as delivery vehicles are unconvincing. Please don’t misunderstand me. Formal teaching plays an important role for faithful Christians. But when was the last time the intellectual propositions of a sermon mapped exactly onto your day-to-day experience? Life is far messier, the characters within it far more shaded and complex, than any one sermon can capture. Christian writers of the past understood this, letting the practical insights of their fiction flow out of their depictions of convincing characters. Contemporary Christian fiction too often uses characters as a cover for propositions.
A direct result of this is that Christian fiction is plagued by what a friend of mine once called “a rampant theology of glory.” If the propositions of a sermon are true, the thinking goes, then obedience to them will lead to harmony with God and subsequent bliss. This thinking forgets that just as many heroes of the faith were stoned and sawed in two as conquered kingdoms (Hebrews 11:33–39). Not everything works out perfectly well this side of the end of the ages. The kind of false sentimentality that asserts otherwise is bound to turn any discerning stomach, Christian or not. The truth that all earthly comedy is colored by tragedy, and vice-versa, is something the Arthurian and Shakespearean romances grasp supremely well. By contrast, we see the results of theology of glory in contemporary Christian books and films that deal with romantic themes.
Take, for example, the two films Facing the Giants and Fireproof. In the first, a high school football coach finds himself with misplaced priorities and struggles with infertility in his marriage—that is, until he realizes football is far less important than glorifying God. He promptly wins three state championships and has two sons. In the second, an unbelieving fireman’s marriage is on the brink of collapse thanks to his addiction to pornography. A believing friend shares the Gospel, the hero overcomes his marital problems by tackling his addiction, and experiences complete restoration in his relationship with his wife.
Rather than living out a compelling story first, and letting lessons emerge naturally from that experience, these characters are following the prescriptions of a sermon. What’s more, some of them are experiencing subsequent levels of material blessing that would make Joel Osteen giddy. In the end, these films suffer from the same artistic defects as a Hallmark movie: thin, unbelievable characters and schlocky sentimentality that fails to ring true to the experiences of anyone but the already converted. Ironically, this means that the worthwhile messages many of these films and books strive to communicate fail to have substantial evangelistic or artistic effects.
Why It Matters
Christians have been slouching of late when it comes to producing compelling romantic art. It is only natural that a host of non-Christian literature has stepped in to fill the gap. There will always be hunger for the kinds of truths romantic love can reveal about people: the beauty of self-sacrifice and faithfulness; the thrill of knowing even as one is fully known; the capacity of love to redeem, change, and heal; the tragedy and loss that can attend on love in a fallen world. And, of course, love will always interest us because it forms an important part of our lives.
From a Christian perspective, though, even the best non-Christian treatments of romantic love will always lack something. If the ultimate expression of romance is found in Christ and His Church, then the best love will be characterized by a degree of purity uncomfortable to many non-Christian sources, if it is familiar at all. Consider Shakespeare’s characterization of a deeply passionate romance in A Winter’s Tale: “Their transformations were never for a piece of beauty rarer, nor in a way so chaste, since my desires run not before mine honour, nor my lusts burn hotter than my faith.” In contrast, consider the recent La La Land, which explores the costly sacrifices the pursuit of romantic love can entail. Or Chuck—nowhere near as high art as La La Land, but one of my all-time favorite television shows. What begins as a CIA femme-fatale being forced, on account of some misplaced government secrets, to take a hapless nerd under her wing, blossoms into a couple experiencing adversity and self-sacrifice together, redeeming one another from meaningless lives, and forming one another into better people than they ever could have been on their own.
These otherwise noble explorations of eros are tainted in frustrating ways by the assumptions of the culture. In both works I just mentioned, for instance, premarital sex and cohabitation are taken as a given. Marriage is viewed as something that can be put off. Sex is not. To a Christian way of thinking this is tragic. Sex is meant to be the consummation of a commitment deeper and more intimate than any that exists on earth. It is meant to be a type, though only a type, of something richer and higher than we can possibly fathom. In our eyes, the modern world gets things exactly the wrong way around by turning the most profound way a couple can give themselves to each other into something casual and severable. This is to speak of the best contemporary fiction. In the worst, intimacy can sour into something perverse and twisted. Fifty Shades of Grey springs to mind, as does our contemporary saturation with pornography.
By failing in the field of romantic art as we have, Christians have profoundly failed our friends and neighbors. It is my hope that we can provide some of the best models of healthy, flourishing romance out there. We were capable of such achievements once. Romance used to be among our most profound images of communion with God and one another.
Christians, this is our genre. We know how important it is (not least because Scripture tells us so). We have luminescent models of how to do romance right. Let us write (and film, and paint, and sing) about love again. For those of you looking on us from another vantage, you may just see something that sparks your interest. At the very least, you will see something beautiful.