Romance, sensuality, how much is too much, and Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8:9-13. All these things should be considered by Christian writers, whether they write secular or Christian fantasy, when it comes to writing romantic scenes. This is a topic that might step on some people’s toes but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and it’s been weighing heavily on my heart. My goal is not to attack anyone for what they write or read. My goal is just provoke thought and consideration of the obligation that authors have to their readers.
A trend among secular fantasies is to randomly toss in sex scenes because ‘that’s what sells’ even if it’s out of character and doesn’t contribute anything to the story itself except for adding to the page count. Over the years, I’ve noticed that Christian authors are starting to really push the envelope on sensuality. There are more detailed descriptions of women’s figures and the male characters lusting after them and barely closing the bedroom door in time, etc. and so forth. I have been thinking about this recently because I do write about married couples and I don’t mind premarital kissing and hugging but I always try to keep in mind what Paul wrote in Romans and 1 Corinthians about not being a stumbling block to believers who are weaker in their faith. The most intense encounter between a husband and wife I’ve written was from the wife’s POV and she talked about her husband’s kisses setting off her own personal fireworks right before I firmly closed the door on that scene. But I know other Christian authors might have gone a bit further if they’d been writing that scene and I ask myself about possible reasons for them taking the sensual aspects of the romance in their stories to a level that can seem racy to some of their readers.
My speculations have led to a few possibilities:
- They’re used to writing for a secular publisher and didn’t tone the scenes down because they were tame compared to what other secular writers were doing.
- They’re going for “realism” including in how men and women react to each other on a physical and romantic level.
- They’re married and reading about scenes with the same level of sensuality in books does not bother them and simply strikes them as passionate as opposed to borderline racy so they write what they like to read.
- These situations can often be combined, by the way. In all three scenarios, the writers don’t really consider how their writing might affect the readers who are more sensitive to sensuality in the romantic portions of their book. I don’t believe this is malicious or even intentional (well, some authors can be rather defiant about it when they receive negative feedback on it but they weren’t being malicious), it’s simply how things worked out.
I have seen the debates between Christian authors about vulgarity in books, which I consider a whole ‘nother can of worms although the basic principle underscoring my personal view on the matter draws from the same verses. However, when it comes to sensuality, that’s a tricky line to walk because every Christian has a different yardstick for measuring these things and it is true that you can’t please everyone. Something will always be too much or too little for someone. For example, some Christians object to any kissing or hugging between the characters before marriage. I understand and respect their objections even though as I said before it doesn’t bother me so long as the actions are chaste.
Let’s focus on the romances in fantasy where there are physical displays of affection before and after marriage. How much sensuality is too much? How do we, as Christian authors, measure what should and shouldn’t be included?
The secular world is saturated with sensuality to the point that television, movies, and books are preaching that closing the bedroom door is only for prudes. And it does influence Christian authors as well. Christian authors have the challenge of writing a story that feels true but they don’t want to be called preachy or prudish when it comes to the romances of their books. It doesn’t help that we can check the top selling fantasy books and there’s a series where the graphic sensuality is so woven into the plot that you can’t skip over it, which is my personal solution to secular books when they cross the line. Now, I personally had to stop reading the first book of that series because it bothered me but I know Christians who have no difficulty with the same series. I’ve also stopped reading a handful of Christian authors because they included too much sensuality for my personal tastes.
I believe that Christians should write books that are inherently different than those written by secular authors. There is such a thing as too much realism and too gritty. I believe that Christians who write secular fantasy still have a responsibility to decide whether they will reflect the darkness of the world or the pure hope of Christ’s redeemed world. From Christian authors writing Christian fantasy, I want to read books that provide relief from the darkness of the world. I want books that are a refuge from the ones that spend entirely too much time on the sensual.
In the past, I have felt tricked and even betrayed by fantasy books I picked up for the intriguing premise but the romances quickly turned into too much sensuality because the characters were either focused on bedding a love interest or kept staring at their undressed or partially undressed love interest, particularly when the man is staring at the woman. With secular books, I know it’s highly likely that I’ll have to skip pages. And sometimes a secular book will be a lost cause for me due to content. Nevertheless, for Christian books or clean reads written by Christian authors, I don’t want to run into that sort of scene. I am not married and I am trying not to dwell on the sensual side of romance so I try to avoid the books that take the focus off the adventure and intrigue of the fantasy world and focus on the romance to the extent that pushes the envelope on how much is too much. But, I don’t always succeed and it is incredibly frustrating when this happens with a Christian book when I had no idea it was a possibility.
But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idiols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
~ 1 Corinthians 8:9-13
Paul addressed the specific matter of Christians who were eating the meat that had been sacrificed to idols, which was causing the Gentile Christians to stumble because witnessing believers who were not avoiding all things associated with the idols would wound their conscience and possibly draw them back into their old life of idolatry. Christians are meant to set examples not only for the world but also for newer believers and believers who are struggling with temptations. The apostle Paul’s writings aren’t limited to dietary habits, but are a call for Christians to take into consideration how all their actions, including their writing, will be viewed. Christians are not and shall never be perfect in this life; we are only redeemed sinners who are yet on a journey to being perfected in Christ. We will all stumble in our walks with God, we will all mess up in our witness at least once if not more often, but the point is that we make the effort to mend our ways and to be more like Christ than the world even if we don’t always get it right. That’s not being a hypocrite, it’s called being human. I am thankful that our God is merciful and just that He will forgive me when I stumble in my own walk and confess my sin to Him. This Scripture passage also reminds me of the need to consider what I write and how I present it. Am I presenting it according to the world’s standards or according to Christ’s standards?
Now, there is nothing wrong with portraying a healthy romance, especially between a husband and wife. In fact, I think there should be more of those portrayals in Christian fiction, including fantasy, instead of ending the romance at the altar. I want to portray healthy and realistic romantic relationships whether the romance is a primary or secondary plot. I want to show that romance doesn’t end with marriage. But I always ask myself will this be uplifting or a stumbling block when I am writing romantic scenes for my fantasies. This is an important question and I believe it should be important to all Christian writers because we have an obligation to our readers.
Allow me to clarify what I mean by obligation. I am not saying that readers get to dictate what authors write. That would be impractical, stifling, and downright frustrating because authors will never be able to please every reader. I am saying that we are responsible for every word we write and every book we release. We are responsible for what we put out.
One argument I’ve heard in the debate over wholesomeness and how much is too much for sensuality is that “if you don’t like it, then you shouldn’t be reading X book or X author.” I disagree with this argument for a couple reasons. First, it implies that the author can write whatever and include whatever but should never be held accountable for what they write. Second, Christian authors who choose to include heavy sensuality often don’t give any warnings and more often than not the reviews don’t mention it either. I think it’s unfair to treat readers like they’re in the wrong when it comes to protesting heavy sensuality in a Christian book or stating that they found the level of sensuality uncomfortable because they went into the book with a certain set of expectations for content. Third, the reader is not forcing the author to write something they disagree with or that acts as a stumbling block to them. The author is the one who chooses the words, the descriptions and their level of detail, and the sensations conveyed by the scenes. As I said before, authors do bear responsibility for their choices.
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. ~ Romans 14:13
I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. ~ Romans 14:14-18
Just because something is not a stumbling block for us, it does not mean that we are absolved of all responsibility for our choices and how those choices affect others. Passionate? Racy? I tend to err on the side of caution in that debate. If I think a relatively harmless scene from my perspective seems too close to crossing a boundary and provoking overly sensual and lustful thoughts in my readers, then I will rewrite it. Sex and the romantic relationship between husband and wife is a wonderful thing and the Bible makes it clear that this is not a sin within the confines of marriage. However, the Bible and just honest evaluation also shows that the intimacy involved in a sensual relationship can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Christians. Consider how often the Bible addresses the need for sexual purity outside of marriage and the examples of David, the man after God’s own heart, and the Corinthian church who prompted Paul’s teachings on love, marriage, and singlehood. Detailed descriptions of a romantic interlude can push the envelope and create a major stumbling block for readers.
I am not saying that Christian authors need to axe every single hint of sensuality in their romantic plots, even in fantasies. What I am asking is that authors take into consideration how much detail is being used and how it would have made them feel if they were struggling with the temptation to dwell on the sensual more than they should. Take into consideration the message being sent by your word choices and your description choices. You don’t have to show everything to be realistic. Actually, the more sensual side of romance is when it’s a good time to tell instead of show. I ask Christian authors to consider whether they want to reach readers by blending in with the world’s overly sensualized portrayals or by standing apart, by being different. I also ask Christian authors who feel that the level of sensuality included in their books is perfectly fine, even though they’ve received feedback that it might be too much for other Christians, to consider making a habit of posting notices in their book summaries that there is content best suited to a mature believer or something along those lines.
Most importantly, I call on Christian authors to carefully consider the apostle Paul’s words on the Christian obligation to weaker believers and how that should affect their choices in regards to romance and sensuality. Don’t just call the readers who take issue with the level of sensuality in a book “naïve” or “prudes” or say they’re in denial about reality. Some feedback will need to be taken with more salt than others but if there are legitimate and well-articulated concerns, then authors need to step back from the defensive and carefully consider whether the choices regarding the sensuality of the romance are celebrating marriage and love or are creating a stumbling block. It’s a hard thing to do but I believe this is something that Christian authors should do to set themselves apart from non-Christian authors, whether in Christian or secular fantasy. We will never be able to please everyone but we can decide how we portray ourselves, our books, and what goes into those books.
Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. ~ Romans 14:19-21
If you include a romantic plot in your fantasy, you will have to make choices on how to handle it. As Christian authors, we need to not only be able to stand before God unashamed of our work but we need to be conscientious of our target audience. Sensuality sells. But, how much sensuality can be included before it damages the testimony of a Christian? A wholesome and sweet romance sells too. Once you find your audience and you make a reputation for your writing style, there will always be an audience for the product. The first question is which audience are you writing for and is Christ in the audience? The second question is will you be mindful of your weaker brothers and sisters in Christ or will you throw up potential stumbling blocks and shrug off your obligations as an author and a Christian?
*All Scripture is in the NKJV.