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The Emotional Pornography of Nicholas Sparks

Francesco_Hayez_008eWhen the church talks about pornography (which they do often), they talk about how:

  • It normalizes the abnormal
  • It stunts instead of liberating natural desires
  • It promotes unattainable standards
  • It rewires the brain
  • It’s addictive

These things may be true, but they’re also true of an area that the church all but ignores.

Questioning the romance industry

Whether it’s romance novels, rom-coms, Disney princesses, or The Bachelor, we unquestioningly steep ourselves in a fantasy that relationships can somehow be different than they are.

As Christians, you’d think that we’d value the gritty truth over the glittering nonsense, but we don’t. In place of Harlequin novels, we offer the passionate Quaker romance combined with just enough Jesus to give it a gospel tract flavor.

From these offerings we get idealized images of manly and rough men who are also appropriately vulnerable and sensitive. We get stunning women who roll out of bed with perfect hair and have never destroyed a bathroom. And we get the endorphin rush of perfect, never-failing love.

This illusion seeps back into the church via sermons, relationship books, and blog posts that promise that these model relationships are just a marriage conference and date night away.

Romance and the Bible

If we use Nicholas Sparks novels as a standard by which we judge our relationships, we’re going to hate our weaknesses and resent the failures of our loved ones. We’re going to be slogging through the daily grinds of our relationships thinking that that someone else out there is having the love life we’ve been promised.

The truth is sometimes love is rapture and sometimes it’s just routine. Sometimes there’s no place you’d rather be than by their side and other times the best you can hope for is a case of Stockholm syndrome. Love is just as full of little betrayals as it is roses and heart-shaped candies. We’re a mess, life’s a mess, and relationships are a mess.

One thing I love about Scripture is that there isn’t any of these idealized, perfect, Disney couplings. The people are honest and more of a mess than we allow ourselves to be—and so are their relationships.

The more you know about the stories of lovers in the Bible, the more you see relationships you would never want to emulate. Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, and Adam and Eve: every one of these relationship includes failures and disappointments—some of them excessive.

Even the Song of Solomon, the Bible’s erotic poem of love was most likely written for one of, if not from an amalgamation of, the author’s multiple wives.

When Scripture is so transparent in its honesty about what life and love is like, why do we force ourselves to strain and push for an idealized fantasy? I don’t think we need to dump romantic novels and films, but maybe it’s time we accepted the fact that they’re emotional pornography.

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jessica #

    This article completely speaks to me. All my life I have used romance fiction to escape into mentally because I wanted to escape my real life, which I hated. I did not feel loved, so not only would I read this sort of stuff, but I would write it also. I loved writing, but I used that gift to write horribly explicit stuff, and for years too. I would post to these underground sites where a lot of other teens that were my age posted, and they posted the SAME sort of literary, emotional, and physical pornography. I died to my real world, and with my very vivid imagination, began to live in my fantasy, literary worlds. It was completely addicting, like a drug almost. Just this past year God rescued me from that, from escaping through writing, which I do when I am having a tough day. When I am stressed, I automatically crave to type, and if I don’t, I literally go through withdrawal, crying and trembling, feeling I can not live one second longer in this life, that I NEED to go to my fantasy world, right this minute or Ill die. That is what five or six years or intense addiction to escaping through this type of stuff can do. I would literally, when in highschool, just come home, lock myself in my room, and type. I would lay there and type, fantasizing, and i would even fall asleep, and upon waking up, I would continue typing, not skipping a beat. I couldnt even eat or shower at one point, I needed to continue to type to breathe, to live. The fantasy world of romance was my real world, because there I felt love. Never felt love until I went to my fake worlds. There are plenty of poor young teens writing this stuff on websites, and it can be very explicit, and they could be very obsessed about it, and have many fans reading it. I did. I hope God rescues them like He did me. Anyway, this year He saved me from it, but it was hard. The first day I realized God did not want me to escape my life and live a fake one, I cried for hours. I was laying on my bed, stressed the heck out, and I was ready to type, to live again, and suddenly I felt God tell me I can not escape into this falsity anymore through typing. It was like He telling me to not breathe anymore. I layed on my bed crying my eyes out, and when I tried to type, nothing came out, He gave me divine writers block. I told God I needed this, but He wanted me to live a real life again, and to come to Him with my problems and feel loved by Him. So yeah, after crying for hours, and falling alseep near an empty Word program file on my computer, I awoke, and felt at peace, and felt that maybe, just maybe I can live in this real world, and that God’s love can be enough for me. 🙂

    February 13, 2014
  2. All good points. I look at the whole notion of God’s Love and think it’s not as idealized as we’d like to tell ourselves. Even if God is perfect, human beings are anything but. Yet God still loves us. We’re messy, disorganized, disbelieving, bitter, manipulative, and self-destructive… and yet He loves us.
    Nothing you’d base a romance novel on, but at least it’s honest.

    February 13, 2014
  3. Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you. I remember being 15 years old in a youth group for a ‘boys/girls’ themed night where the genders separated and had discussions about particular issues that affected their gender. Boys got masturbation and pornography and girls got gossip and friendships. Even at 15, I was frustrated by the failure to recognise that the same desires that underpin what are often considered ‘gendered’ behaviours by Christians are experienced by men AND women. The endless rom-coms my Christian girlfriends watched have had a significant impact upon them and led to them having unrealistic expectations of men and relationships.

    February 14, 2014
  4. I don’t take issue with much of what you wrote here :)… however, I don’t agree with your conclusion. Only because I feel it lacks consistency. So you conclude by saying, “I don’t think we need to dump romantic novels and films, but maybe it’s time we accepted the fact that they’re emotional pornography.” My issue is this, if you replaced “emotional” with “visual” in this sentence, would you conclude the same? “I don’t think we need to dump Playboy etc, but maybe it’s time we accepted the fact that they’re visual pornography.” Using a loaded term like “porn,” in my perspective, would mean we are then attaching the same moral standards/reactions as we would with any other kind of porn. I don’t think that we can use the word porn in the same sentence that also says, I’m not saying don’t stop doing it, just as long as you know what you are doing. Does that make sense? If graphic nudity/watching sex best fits the word “porn,” and Nicholas Sparks’ romantic fluff is is the word “porn” – than shouldn’t the conclusion be the same? If we are saying, one would be best NOT to be engaging a playboy, than we should say one would be best if they were NOT engaging Harlequin – IF we were using the same descriptive word. But your conclusion states otherwise. Does that make sense? I guess I’m pushing back to you – do you think that it WOULD in fact be best to treat Harelquin and Playboy with the same moral guidelines? If not, should we find another word that best fits the description for Sparks? Just thinking aloud…Like the response above, would we say to the youth-girls group, “Reading this stuff is porn, I’m not saying don’t do it, but this is what it is,” and then to the boys youth group, “Watching this stuff is porn, I’m saying don’t do it…” Wouldn’t that be confusing once the two groups got together and discussed what they were told? I know that words can have a range of meaning, I’m picking on the word pornography though because it comes already charged with so much attached cultural and historical meaning… Your thoughts?
    I don’t read Sparks because it is NOT as good as the Prince of Tides or Tolstoy!

    February 14, 2014
    • Becca,
      I get your point. Of course, I am being intentionally provocative by using the word pornography. I think someone can read Karen Kingsbury novels without carrying the baggage into their relationships, but I think other people can’t.
      In the end, people need to be paying attention to how entertainment changes what we think about life.

      Don’t get too caught up on the word pornography.

      February 14, 2014
      • Becca Worl #

        I gotchya about your intention, totally. I guess I’m just wanting to be careful about not carrying double standards between gender “issues” – which, actually, is exactly what you are addressing too…. And you’re right… After I read Twilight, I wished for months that Rob would turn into a vampire!!! 🙂

        February 14, 2014
        • I didn’t want to give the impression that this was a male/female thing. I am just as susceptible to the cultural fantasy as anyone else.

          February 14, 2014
  5. froginparis #

    Great point. Once I walked away from this image of romance, my marriage improved. My husband fits none of those models.

    February 14, 2014
  6. Note to self: when writing a book, include a woman who “destroys the bathroom.” In those exact words. Ha, thanks for the realism.

    February 15, 2014
  7. kmburm #

    This makes me think of all the “Amish Romance Novels”. I could never wrap my mind around why those appeal to some women. I would rather read a story full of messed up people. (It makes me feel better about being such a messed up person.)
    I’m glad you wrote this. I think romance novels can be damaging to relationships. It seems to give readers a sense of entitlement. “I’m a princess and I deserve nothing less than a prince.” Well, good luck with that. I’m certainly no princess so what right do I have to demand more from my husband than what I bring to the relationship?

    February 16, 2014

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