Post Author: Pastor Courtney R. Young
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.-
While listening to the pilot episode of the podcast “Hot and Bothered,” I was surprised to learn that romance is the best selling and most profitable of all literary fiction genres, and by large margins. Even given its established, if disparaged, dominance, romance is currently the fastest growing genre of fiction. Sales of romance novels have been increasing significantly throughout the pandemic and into 2023. Given the success of the Bridgerton series on Netflix, the arrival of all sorts of rom-coms the likes of which popular culture has not seen since the early 2000s, such as The Lost City or the upcoming Love Again, I think we should all prepare for romance to enter into our lives in a big way, no matter our relationship status.
As the “Hot and Bothered” episode goes on, having established the massive place that romance occupies in the imagination of popular culture, they assert that the genre and form of romance must have something valuable to teach people: that readers of romance are not trying to escape their lives, but learn how to live their lives more fully. (Readers of sci-fi/fantasy should recognize the tension here as they have also frequently been criticized for “escaping reality.”) At the climax of the episode, the host Vanessa Zoltan tells her listeners that this show will be committed to exploring romance writing as a spiritual practice.
Thoughtful readers of fiction, non-fiction, and Scripture understand that each literary genre helps people to explore different aspects of life. Mystery stories explore the tension between order and chaos. Fantasy stories explore the proper use of power in its many forms. Science fiction stories help people explore hope. Apocalyptic literature explores God’s presence in the world and in history. Romance helps people dream. It prompts readers to wrestle with the questions: What is worth living for? What is worth sacrifice? What are the bounds of our own agency? What do we do with the unexpected, uncontrollable, or irrational aspects of our life?
It might be tempting to look at the prominence of romance in the popular imagination and think that people are using stories of love and desire to escape the grief of the pandemic. My hunch is that some very serious play is going on here. If stories of romantic love help people to dream for themselves, to wonder what their happy ending looks like, and to connect with their desires, it seems like a rather opportune time to be curling up with a sweeping romance. How do you respond when some uncontrollable force bursts onto the scene and turns your life upside down? That is pertinent question after a pandemic. Just as we are seeing an explosion of creativity within the subgenre of afro-futurism, a place where black people (and POC more broadly) can imagine what the future might hold for them with a good measure of ferocious hope, I think that people are using the form of romance to reorient themselves to the world with creativity and levity. They are reminding themselves that goodness, not only tragedy, can catch you off guard. Notably, more of these stories than I would have expected are exploring not the exhilaration of first (real) love but rather love after loss.
Christian Scriptures themselves contain many genres, because we as God’s children need to encounter many different aspects of life. We as children of God need to encounter power and hope and dreams and chaos so that we can receive the fullness of God’s love and hope for us. I wonder what it would look like for church communities to show up in this ungainly and tender post-pandemic period with some joviality. Maybe we don’t have to be so somber in the midst of all the tragedy that we’ve witnessed. Maybe what we need right now is some romance. We need romance not to escape but to remember how to live, how to dream, how to be surprised by joy, and how to not be in control of life but delight in it anyway.
Here are a few ideas about how to incorporate romance into the life of your ministry:
- Do a Bible study on the Song of Solomon and try not to allegorize the whole thing. I’ve found Robert Alter’s translation and footnotes to be illuminating. Additionally, it could be fun to track the themes of desire and romance through all of the Wisdom books. Desire is portrayed in a number of different ways throughout Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Job could be read as a love after loss type of romance since he does make it to a very happy ending.
- Happy endings are a key component of the romance genre. Do a Bible study on happy endings by digging into Ruth, Esther, Job, or Revelation. What do happy endings have to do with our faith lives?
- Next year, put together an educational event to learn about the origins of Saint Valentine’s Day. His saint day could be an interesting place to notice the tension between desire, empire, love, and marriage.
- Incorporate themes of desire or attraction into your preaching where applicable.
- Host an open mic reading event where people can share writings that they love, whether they wrote it or someone else.
- Host an event where people can share about the hobbies, interests, people, or art that they love. Then others have the opportunity to learn about it and ask questions. It could be called something like “Love Fair.” This idea could be fun to do as a pair of intergenerational events where the elders share with the younger generations first, and then they swap and the younger generations share with the elders.
- Write love poetry as a spiritual practice. What are our desires trying to teach us about ourselves and our relationships with each other and with God?
To conclude, let’s sit for a moment with the warmth of these words:
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
-Song of Solomon 8:6
Courtney Young is a bi-vocational Lutheran pastor/stay-at-home mom from Minnesota. She was honored to spend the first part of her career in campus ministry. Currently, she is writing a book and staying open to possibilities. Connect with her at www.courtneyryoung.com.
Image by: Courtney Young
Used with permission