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God, Erotica, and the Hunger for Heaven

It’s been suggested that people go to church to find out how to get to heaven, and people have sex to find out what heaven feels like. In both cases, humans are instinctively craving heaven. We just look for it through different means. Or as  G. K. Chesterton put it,

“Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”

Both the devout church-goer and the john are, in the end, seeking the same thing. This doesn’t mean either of them will find what they’re looking for, in the church or the brothel. Both, however, are seeking something transcendent, something that rises above the actual method of their quest, something that lingers long after the fix.

So are readers of erotica actually looking for God?

That was the question I asked myself after reading the following article. Mir left the link in her comments on my last post. Religion, Like Sex, Sells on E-Books notes the explosion of e-book sales. The two genres that have, far and away, surged in e-book sales are religion and erotica. The author speculates why:

Indeed, writers say it makes sense that erotica bestsellers like “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James and religious ones like “Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo are achieving similar success in the e-book market. Besides death, there are two experiences universal in the human condition: sex and faith, says Patchen Barrs, author of The Erotic Engine. In fact, he says the two genres have long been strange bedfellows. As far back as the 14th Century households had to be wealthy to afford a single book, he says: “Often that manuscript was a prayer book with erotic pictures in the margins. They served both body and soul.” (emphasis mine)

No, the author doesn’t speculate as to WHY “sex and faith” are intrinsic to us humans. What I find fascinating however is that, on the surface, those two genres seem so antithetical.

  • Readers of erotic fiction do not want religion in their stories (unless it’s a wayward hunky priest)
  • Readers of religious fiction do not want erotica in their stories (or anything close to actual sex, much less sex between the unmarried).

However, if the above thesis is true — that sex and faith are intimately intertwined — then couldn’t it mean that both readers of erotica and readers of religious fiction are seeking the same thing? One is looking for it in the church, the other in the brothel.

(There’s another possibility, extraneous to this point, that I’ll throw out there free of charge. If readers of erotica are actually looking for God, it could also be that some readers of religious fiction, specifically religious romance, are really looking for sex. Relationship might be a better word. But we know how most of these “relationships” consummate. Which is why Christian romances have been called “soft-core porn.” But I digress.)

Anyway, it leads me to this conclusion: The continued popularity of erotica may be evidence of a deep spiritual craving. Of course, it could also mean we’re selfish pleasure-seeking horndogs. But even that drive may be rooted in something deeply spiritual.

As Oswald Chambers said, “There is only One Being who can satisfy the last aching abyss of the human heart, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ.” And if I’m not mistaken, readers of both these genres have an “aching abyss.” Whether or not their “fix” will ever fill that abyss is another story.

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{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Todd Michael Greene July 30, 2012, 9:19 AM

    As always, a great article. Mike. I believe that we were made by God, for God. And everything we do, “right” or “wrong” is – knowingly or not, in pursuit of that which we lost in Eden. An intimate relationship with our Creator.

  • Mirtika July 30, 2012, 11:52 AM

    I don’t see how Christian romance can be soft core porn. One of my issues with CR is that there’s not enough of the actual tension/sexual attraction that characterizes REAL relationships. While I don’t want porny CR, I don’t know anyone who fell madly in love without the other L…the hormonal aspect. That would be one really asexual marriage if there were not lust, too, with the love. I can’t give credibility to calling CR’s soft core porn. You’d have to at least have boobies and butts and bedroom scenes discreetly blurred or somesuch for that term to apply. ; )

    Emotional need for romantic love is universal, not limited to women. Even Frank Herbert in my fave Sci-Fi novel of all time gave us a real, true, devoted romance. I find novels without romance lacking in some way. I find it essential. Sex, I don’t need. But romance…

    In the 80s and 90s, when I read oodles of secular romance (even Francine Rivers’ secular ones, which is where I came to know her name), I hated the covers. Hated the Fabios and bosoms. I’d use covers sometimes if I read in public. For some, taking a porny book or a really religious title to the counter MIGHT be embarrassing (I don’t know why a CR would be, it’s not like heaving bosoms are on display), and if so, then the ebooks have great allure. People who in years past would not go into a store to buy outright porn would easily do so now online. The internet makes access immediate and simple. No watchful eyes other than the Lord’s (and the spirit beings about us).

    I don’t even understand why, other than to support a local business a Christian would go to a local Christian bookstore for books It’s only out of impulse when I’m out on a drive that I go to Family Bookstores for booksthese days, a big change from my weekly visits back in the 90s, say. If I need a book as a gift right away and am near one, I’ll pop in and see if anything suitable for, say, a teen is available. But the choice is so limited, it’s a frustrating thing. And I imagine lovers of the non-romance genres have little cause to visit at all. It’s easier to go online to Amazon or B&N or download to Kindle or Nook. Endless variety, no censors, instant (or near, if one has quickie shipment like Amazon Prime) access.

    I hope the scattered presses doing CSF–MLP, Risen Books, PYP, etc–have a way to interconnect to make it a vivid independent press cooperative for readers who want what’s not provided readily by bigger publishers. And I hope bigger publishers find a way to tap into the e-book thirst and give a wider variety. It may be they won’t put the “niche” in regular print, but offer decent-if-modest advance and generous e-book royalties for those niche e-books with POD a la MLP. If they do, it might surprise them what thirst they find out there for non-romance.

    Well, I do hold on to hope.

    I think there may be something to the “no embarrassment” theory, btw. I go with that for the porn popularity in e. I’m still mulling over the religion one. It may well be that folks don’t want to take a clearly Christian book to the counter and get a look. Perhaps. The more we’re seen as the weirdos and backward folks in culture, it may be easier to just dowload and skip the assessment of our reading material.

    Mir

    • Mike Duran July 30, 2012, 12:32 PM

      Mir, I should have used the term “emotional porn” rather than “soft-core.” See, for instance, Russell Moore’s controversial post, Can Romance Novels Hurt Your Heart.

      • Iola July 30, 2012, 2:04 PM

        My mother was really against romance novels such as Mills & Boon or Harlequin, claiming that they set women up for having unreaslistic expectations in marriage (hmm – are expectations of everlasting love and fidelity unrealistic in a Christian marriage?). Like many women, she has a big downer on the romance genre.

        Yet she read all the big 1980’s bonkbusters – Shirley Conran, Jackie Collins etc. – which were far more explicit than the Mills & Boon of the era.

        I suspect the same is happening with 50SOG. Women who look down on genre romance are reading 50SOG because they somehow figure it’s not romance, so it’s ok. I think they’d be better off with a romance novel.

      • Mirtika July 30, 2012, 3:19 PM

        I think Mr. Moore is off base. I’ve spent a lot of time around romance readers–both secular and Christian–and I’ve seen more women in HAPPY marriages among readers than non-readers of this genre. I count myself as one. I’ve read, literally, hundreds of romance novels and have been married 29 years, happily, without wanting the greener grass. In fact, one thing I often thought when reading romance novels is how much kinder and sweeter and more patient my hubby is than a lot of romance heroes, especially those abrupt alpha types prone to misunderstand or accuse the heroine of stuff she wouldn’t and didn’t do.

        Fiction as a way to get to some strong feelings–whether it’s the bliss of romance, the scare of a horror, the mental tickle of sci-fi, the wonder of fantasy, the wild ride of a thriller–that’s not new. We each seek something different in our genre fiction. Sometimes, just to understand the human condition, we hit the great oens, the classics or LITCHUR. But romance gives women that glow that sometimes can be forgotten after decades of marriage. We love hubby. Adore hubby. And that may be why we BELieVE in happy-ever-after. The ladies in my close circle who love romance believe in true love, and most are still married to their original hubbies and sweethearts. Romances AFFIRM what we believe: that love can be true and faithful and last. Or that it can be true and last despite hardships. Both.

        We girls who grew up on Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, etc, love to see the grown-up retellings of these romances. Cinderella–the poor but good girl and the rich and powerful but lonely prince. Beauty and the Beast: the troubled and isolated or disfigured or otherwise outsider male of property and intelligence who finds joy with the good-hearted heroine willing to self-sacrifice (unlike the selfish sisters). Sleeping Beauty: the girl with the constricted life or self-image or dormant in some way or cursed in some way who awakens to life and is freed by the love of the valiant cutiepie.

        I don’t think reading romances leads to dissatisfaction with one’s mate. It might be a way to affirm that one’s love relationship is important–worthy of its story, even if there’s suffering (which in romance novels is de rigeur. No conflict, no story. Love conquers all, after all.)

        I do believe there was a survey done some years ago that showed romance readers tended to be very happy in their relationships. In this case, it may be chicken/egg: someone who has love like to read stories that affirm love.

        So, no, I don’t think Christian Romance is emotional porn. At least, not from my observations.

  • Kerstin July 30, 2012, 12:12 PM

    When it comes to erotica like 50 Shades of Grey or even something along the lines of Twilight I find I have yet to meet a man who has read these. These books are clearly aimed at women. I haven’t read the Grey series but I have read the Twilight series and I’ve spoken to several women who have read or are reading the Grey series and what I see is the writers very cleverly write scenes or male characters that are most appealing to women.

    Clearly women are lacking that deeper connection and want to be desired, pretty, special and protected, a lot of qualities lost in the everyday mundane soccer mom life and certainly can be attributed to it’s roots in spirituality.

    • Mirtika July 30, 2012, 12:21 PM

      I did not read 50 SHADES…but many of the gals on my FB list have and were rabid about it. When I read ABOUT 50 SHADES, I realize that it had that Beauty/Beast vibe that I loved so much in romance. The messed up guy who is saved–rescued emotionally or mentally or spiritually–by the endurance/patience/understanding/bearing-up-under-his-cruelty by a woman. There is the idea of “we love you and we’ll save you from yourself”, and yes, it appeals. The alpha male. The tycoon. The man who has wounds. we’ll HEAL THE WOUNDS! It’s powerful stuff.

      Adding the sex stuff I’ve heard about adds to the addictive quality (the brain responds, the body) of the already potent story archetype. Having the story and redemption makes it seem like, “Well, it’s not porn. It’s a story of redemption. It has meaning and value.” So, women, even Christian women, get past the sexy stuff, excuse it, because the man is brought out of darkness by a woman’s enduring love. It’s a potent combo–the sex hook, the archetype hook.

      If it weren’t that it was clearly an S&M story, if it were just the Beauty/Beast story, I might have been a customer.

      • Dean December 17, 2012, 1:58 PM

        Why is it the alpha male they want to save?–the murderer, the killer, the cheat, the devil?
        I’ve seen–from a great distance, by the way, it’s my intuitive sense as a teacher–that a lot of girls who go into prostitution today, where I work as a teacher, seek the proud brute who abuses them. And they despise the males who are not alpha males but are not murderers, cheats, and devils.
        It’s because human hearts are wicked, including the girls.

  • sally apokedak July 30, 2012, 2:12 PM

    I think we are looking for God when we look for sex, or power, or money, or security, or a spouse, or any other thing to fill the need we have–to give us joy and satisfaction and a sense of significance.

    I don’t see how women reading Christian romance can be looking for sex. There is no sex in Christian romance. I would guess women reading Christian romance would be looking for God, like everyone else.

    Men at the brothel, however, would be looking for sex. Looking for God, sure, without knowing it. Looking for sex on the surface.

    • Mike Duran July 30, 2012, 3:08 PM

      “I don’t see how women reading Christian romance can be looking for sex. There is no sex in Christian romance.”

      No. But they ARE looking for relationships. Which can lead to sex. Which is the irony.

      • Mirtika July 30, 2012, 3:23 PM

        Not if they’re married. And lots of the readers are just that.

        I will say that looking for a spouse or sex doesn’t even have to be about looking for God. God is the one who gave us a sex drive. God is the one who decided Adam needed a helpmeet. The very God who walked with Adam in the cool of the day in the Garden….he realized Adam needed the Other who was of him and rightfully for him.

        If we desire sex and relationships, God put that desire in us, not just for us to search for Him, which is, granted, the central issue with humans, but to be with each other. If Adam was fine with just himself and God, we wouldn’t have needed Eve.

        • sally apokedak July 30, 2012, 3:47 PM

          I should have spoken more carefully. I think love and marriage and sex are good. I meant only that when we look to those things to fulfill us, or finding our ultimate satisfaction in them, we are really looking for God.

  • Becky Doughty July 31, 2012, 9:16 AM

    Mike,

    And all the romance writers say “What? What?”

    You’re spot on in so many ways – but I think your controversy crack might have been rather freely pandered today. What’s that line from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves? ‘Looks like you’ve stirred up a bloody hornet’s nest.”

    In the 40-something years of my love affair with fiction, I’ve heard some of the most remarkable reasons for reading everything from porn to personal accounts of heaven – some have been from my own lips! Justifying any of it (or making excuses) is simply our way of trying to understand the desire to read and know about other lives out there. But why? I wouldn’t call it a longing for heaven. In fact, I tend to believe that too often it’s a way to AVOID our longing for heaven… by filling it with everything BUT the Word of God. Does that mean I don’t condone fiction? Ye gads, no! I LOVE fiction. I read and write fiction almost exclusively. If I had stock for all the fiction I’ve purchased in my life-time, I’d own at least one B&N franchise or an AMAZON fulfillment center.

    I guess it boils down, in my book (nice play on words, ay?), to understanding that there IS a longing for heaven in each one of us and that to try to fill it with anything but God is human nature… but futile. But if we’re looking for God in all the right places (ahem…if you’re seriously looking for sex, you’re pretty much guaranteed it at a brothel…but not much of God, and if you’re seriously looking for God, you’re pretty much guaranteed God in church but not much of sex), and your heart is longing for glimpses of Him in the lives of others, then fiction is a great place to find nurture that hunger. But ALWAYS remember… IT’S JUST FICTION. NOT REAL. Edward Cullen isn’t real. Neither is Christian Grey. Neither is the swash-buckling pirate longing for a real woman to satiate his reckless pursuit of adventure. Not. Real. Don’t loose sleep over them. Don’t loose friends over them.

    And don’t lose sight of God, the Author of all mankind, over them.

    That’s my book (albeit a little longer than I’d intended…) and I’m sticking to it.

    Blessings,
    Becky

  • Linda July 31, 2012, 9:35 AM

    Hi to all; I’m new to this blog. Such a fascinating article with a fresh perspective, Mike! My own thought is that women who read lots of Christian fiction are perhaps searching foremost for a rekindling of what it feels like to be cherished and wanted. An old Ann Landers survey of her lay readers from way back revealed that the majority of female respondees would skip the sex if they could just snuggle and be held. I personally don’t read a lot of Christian contemorary romance, and I find one of the biggest authors in that genre to be very bland, no matter how popular she is.
    As for your comment that readers of erotic fiction don’t want religion in their stories: not always. I would like to transfer this concept to storytelling on film. A few nights ago I watched the highly erotic movie, “The American,” with George Clooney. Not what one might expect a “good Christian woman” like me to be watching. The script was mostly dull and the point of the movie seemed to be showcasing tons of male and female nudity. However–for me the best part was a very realistic scene between an Italian priest and Clooney, who portrayed a lonely assassin who searches for sex among prostitutes. The priest gives Clooney some very non-preachy, realistic perspectives about how we are all sinners, and his own sin is revealed. It was a very unexpected and meaningful scene in the midst of the endless erotica.

    • C.L. Dyck July 31, 2012, 12:38 PM

      “the majority of female respondees would skip the sex if they could just snuggle and be held.”

      Then they’re doin’ it wrong…

      I think you’re right on the cause, though. “Cherished and wanted” instead of “used and taken for granted” is a common, lifetime marital issue. That’s probably the nexus between sex and spirituality: people need to be cherished as God cherishes us, and when they fail to do that for each other, it creates problems in sexual relations and unfulfilled emotional desires.

    • Jill August 1, 2012, 12:11 PM

      Seriously? Women just want to snuggle and be held? Women aren’t children. I hate it when people paint them as such (in this case, Ann Landers).

      • Katherine Coble August 2, 2012, 8:53 AM

        Keeping in mind, though, that it was a non-scientific polling of an already self-selected group. Women who read Ann Landers. At the time those were overwhelmingly women of middle age and a certain socioeconomic status and background. Not inconceivable that–given their hormonal status, probable background and era of raising–that they did not find sex entirely pleasurable.

  • Katherine Coble July 31, 2012, 10:16 AM

    I read across genres with impunity. In fact just today I am reading a romance novel, a sci fi novel, a horror novel and a non-fiction account of the underground butterfly trade. (Really. It’s a thing…who knew?)

    I have to admit that it bothers me when people who don’t read in a genre try to decide or determine lofty reasons that others partake therein. Even though it’s meant as intellectual curiousity to say something like “romance novels are emotional porn” is kind of dismissive of both the genre and the genre’s readership. It’s semi-hurtful in the same way that it would be when someone who never reads horror would say “horror is just an outlet for pscyhotics to enjoy the experience of killing vicariously.” It’s an oversimplification that is unfair to the complexities of both the work and the reader.

    Everything we read, all the stories demonstrably true and poignantly allegorical, meet several needs. The need for God, the need for intimacy. The need for love, for understanding, for adventure and escape.

  • Jill August 1, 2012, 12:19 PM

    I don’t believe erotic desires equate easily to a need for God. It may be the case–there is a reason why God chose to use the example of a bride and bridegroom for himself and his church. But at a very base level it’s just about biology. We’re biological creatures who respond to our drives to produce offspring, sometimes in really bizarre ways. I wonder why God chose to create, though. Maybe the need to create does have a deeper, spiritual meaning.

  • Dean December 17, 2012, 2:04 PM

    It seems to me that Chesterton has bad theology. A lot of people who go to brothels are just depraved, seeking after their own lusts. Those who actually read the scriptures know that no one seeketh after God, no not one. They’re all alike gone astray. So Chesterton thought every man and woman who want to do it are seeking God above all else?
    The way that pimps and prostitutes work today anyone who knocks on the door of a brothel is seeking trouble.
    Wise up people.

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