There were a lot of really popular posts I had on this blog before I rebooted it. The Wild at Heart essays, which I posted in September and October 2009, were really big. They were my chapter-by-chapter analysis of the still-popular John Eldredge book… although I couldn’t get through more than five chapters. I hate that stupid
Why I started reading Wild at Heart again.
In 2003 I was on vacation with my family and, sitting around the cabin, I found a copy of John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart on an endtable. I figured it belonged to my brother Chad.
The book was kind of a fad at the time among certain Christian men I knew—“Have you read Wild at Heart? It’s awesome”—and no, I hadn’t read it, ’cause I don’t care to jump on the bandwagon of every Christian fad that comes down the pike.
Well, not anymore. I’ve been caught up in a few of them. I got into Promise Keepers for a while, and into watching the Toronto Blessing and Brownsville Revival happenings and getting knee-deep into revivalism. My former church, Vaca Valley Christian Life Center (now The Mission, Vacaville, Calif.), has a tendency to follow charismatic fads. Back when Jerry Hanoum was pastor, they tended to mimic whatever Glen Cole at Capitol Christian Center (Sacramento, Calif.) was doing, and currently they mimic whatever Bill Johnson at Bethel Church (Redding, Calif.) is doing. My only concern about trying to franchise the movements of the Holy Spirit in another place, is that the Spirit isn’t interested in one-size-fits-all spirituality. He created your church to do its thing, not covet some other church’s thing and try to duplicate it. Took me a while to learn this, even though I am postmodern in my thinking.
So all the men at church were buzzing about Wild at Heart, and out of curiosity I started reading the book. Eldredge began pitching his thesis right away: The heart of a man is adventurous, exploratory, and wild. Our society and culture have suppressed this tendency in order to domesticate us. It has taken tendencies which better fit the heart of a woman, demanded them of men, and have produced milquetoast men who are uninspired, and who inspire no one.
As i said, I’m postmodern: We’re skeptical of absolutes. If you claim something is universally true, you’d better prove it. If you don’t prove it—if you just make an absolute statement, but never back it up with evidence—you haven’t sold me. In fact, the more unsubstantiated absolute statements you make, the more convinced I am that you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.
Again, the Holy Spirit isn’t interested in one-size-fits-all spirituality. God has made every individual unique. Yes, men have many things in common: Each of us breathes, eats, drinks, sleeps, and excretes. Each of us is self-centered, and sins. Each of us seek a purpose in life: We find something in our individual universes, we decide that’s our reason for being, we base our self-identity on it, and we pursue it. Sometimes we pick dumb things, and sometimes we pick God. But that’s the “pursuit of happiness” each of us strives for—and sometimes succeeds, sometimes fails.
Beyond that, there’s no universal archetype of what a man is, or what a man ought to be—other than Jesus. We Christians understand Jesus to be our universal example. He doesn’t sin, he loves others, and he shared the good news that the Kingdom is here. We’re to be like him in those ways. We don’t have to be like him in any of the other ways he lived: We don’t have to become traveling rabbis, or become poor, or speak Aramaic, or get crucified. But Jesus isn’t the archetype solely for men: Women, too, can be like Jesus. Women and men alike. It’s only the gospel of Thomas that demands women become like men before they can become like Jesus—and you might recall we don’t have the gospel of Thomas in our bibles, ’cause it’s gnostic and teaches heresy.
Well anyway. Eldredge just kept making absolute statement after absolute statement, with nothing behind these statements except his own personal opinion—which doesn’t match mine. At all. So I quickly developed a problem with the book. My usual way of dealing with such problem books is to violently reject it: I throw it across the room. But this book wasn’t mine, so I couldn’t do so. All I could do was say, “Well, that was crap,” and put it down.
“What is?” said my brother-in-law Larry.
“This,” I said, holding up the offending item. I explained why it was crap, using pretty much the same reasons I just wrote about. Only briefer.
“I like it,” Larry said. “That’s my book.”
Which stands to reason. Larry is an adventurous guy. I can see how the book would resonate with him.
Regardless, Eldredge’s premise doesn’t hold water. He says this adventurous spirit in men is universal. I state, contrarily, that this adventurous spirit in men is something he esteems. Not men universally. It’s his reason for being, his happiness that he wants to pursue, and he has naïvely assumed every man wants to pursue it. Or should. And, like any Christian who wants to justify himself, he wants to prove there might actually be some form of biblical basis for his beliefs. He wants to justify himself through the scriptures.
So Wild at Heart is an apology—in the classical definition of “a defense of one’s position.” Eldredge’s book tries to prove the lifestyle of the Jungian hero is God’s preference for every man. And I call
Ordinarily I would ignore the damn book and go on with my life. But two things have conspired against this from happening. First of all there was Christmas 2007. A friend, who should know better, bought Wild at Heart for me. I immediately tried to get rid of the thing—resell it on Amazon—and found they were selling for 20 cents. Betcha she got it on sale. If not, boy did she overpay.
People buy books like Wild at Heart in order to inspire the men in their lives. That’d include men who don’t read. Consequently there are a lot of men who have a copy of Wild at Heart, and it’s gathering dust on their bookshelves, along with all the other books bought and left unread. I certainly didn’t read my copy. I had read enough on that family vacation.
The second thing was my friend Carl (not his real name) and his small group. Carl was starting a “bible study” in which they weren’t actually reading the bible—they were reading Wild at Heart. So it technically wasn’t a bible study, but he still insisted on calling it that. Which is a peeve of mine, but let that go for now.
Carl picked Wild at Heart because he himself is the adventurous exploratory wild type. So he loves the book. Loves loves loves. Makes out with it when no one’s looking. He wanted to inflict that love upon others. And since you can buy the book for 20 cents on Amazon, everyone can afford it. Carl invited me to join his “bible study.”
“What book are you going through?” I asked.
“Wild at Heart,” he said.
“When did that book join the canon?” I said.
The joke went over his head; he didn’t know what canon means.
“I’ll pass,” I told him. “I’ll just wind up being annoyed for the 12 weeks that I’m forced to read that piece of
“I’d still like your thoughts on the book,” he said. “It’d be useful. You could play devil’s advocate.”
“In other words,” I said, “I’d be the lone nutjob in the group whom you’d turn to every week and say, ‘Now, for rebuttal, Leslie.’ And then I’d go on about how wrong and inaccurate and flawed and unbiblical the book is. And then you’d have to defend the book, or disregard me. And I don’t think you’re gonna like the idea of wasting 12 weeks on this book once I get finished demolishing it every week.”
“It’s not that bad,” he said.
“No,” I said, “it really is. Its entire premise is wrong. It isn’t just a matter of ‘He took this verse out of context,’ or ‘His statement here is logically flawed.’ The whole book is flawed. It’s an attempt to say, ‘This thing which I like’—and there’s nothing wrong with it per se—‘is true of everyone.’ And if it’s really true of everyone, and I disagree, that automatically means there’s something wrong with me. If it’s God’s design for men to be the way Eldredge says God made us, then I am in rebellion against God for disagreeing with Eldredge. That’s the only logical conclusion one can come to.”
“He doesn’t say that,” Carl said.
“He doesn’t have to. It’s how fundamentalism works. We take one guy’s interpretation, say it’s fundamental, and anyone who disagrees with the ‘fundamental’ is automatically a heretic. So if you say Eldredge is right, then I am automatically wrong. If you say Eldredge is correctly understanding God, then I am not.”
In summary: I didn’t join Carl’s
bible study book club. What was inevitable was that would weekly refute the book, Carl would refute me, and 12 weeks of arguing would not be any fun for either of us. It doesn’t inspire harmony and accordance. And that’s what Christian get-togethers are supposed to be about.
So what I decided to do—for the sake of those folks who attended the book club, and knew why I wasn’t attending—was to, week by week, rebut each chapter. Not to pick a fight, nor to monkey-wrench the meeting, nor to spread ill will. It was simply to explain where Eldredge goes wrong, and why. And if people still thought I was a heretic, fine. At least I gave my rebuttal.
Unfortunately—which I suppose I didn’t think about all the way through—it meant I had to read the whole damn book.
Two weeks in, I discovered my posts were causing a kerfuffle in the book club. Carl complained to me about a number of things that he felt were undermining his group. Most of them were centered around one of the members—someone I don’t know, whom I’ll call Biff—who was using my blog to become disruptive.
I would post my comments by Wednesday afternoon. The meetings would be at 6:30 Wednesday evenings. So if people wanted, they could read Wild at Heart, then read my blog, then show up to the book club armed with Eldredge’s statement and my counter-statement. And then, if they wanted, they could argue with Carl. Biff in particular was doing this.
Biff was using my name in vain quite a lot. “Leslie said Eldredge is full of crap. Leslie said Eldredge is an idolater. Leslie said Eldredge is a nature-worshipper, not a Christian.” I said none of those things, but Biff kept bringing me up as evidence. Apparently Carl read my blog enough to say, “Wait, Leslie never said that.” This made Biff all the more convinced that Carl was trying to “censor the truth”—because Carl seemed to know my anti-Eldredge arguments, yet chose to dismiss them.
Well, reasoned discussion, not angry arguments, were my goal. I agreed with Carl that I ought to delay posting my comments until the meetings had finally started. That way people could read my rebuttals after the meeting—any beefs they had with the book would have been the product of their own critical thinking, and not mine. Carl wasn’t entirely sure whether Biff was even reading Wild at Heart—for all he knew, Biff was just reading my blog, ’cause that’s all he cared to talk about.
What had happened that previous week was Carl made a statement; Biff brought up my blog and wanted to discuss something I’d written; Carl dismissed it as irrelevant and moved on to the next thing. As is his right as group leader. But Biff didn’t want to move on. He really and truly wanted to discuss the points I’d made, and felt he wasn’t being heard. Carl asked him to put it off till the end of the meeting. Biff didn’t like that decision, so he wound up disrupting the meeting throughout with snide remarks. So, at the end, Carl asked him to please not attend future meetings if this was how he was going to behave. Biff’s attitude was that he was being repressed. Carl’s is that he was being an ass.
If Carl’s version of events is true (and likely it is) I’d have to side with him: Biff was being an ass. It was Carl’s meeting. If you don’t approve of what Carl’s meeting is about, do as I did: Don’t go. Vote with your feet. But there were guys there who wanted to go through Wild at Heart with Carl, and I say let them. Yeah, Eldredge is all kinds of wrong, but what’re you gonna do? Lots of people are wrong. You gonna go to every single Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting and correct them every single time they take the bible out of context?
Well, on to the introduction of the book.
The man’s heart. And the woman’s.
Eldredge doesn’t just describe what he feels a man’s heart consists of. He also describes what he feels a woman’s heart consists of—’cause he feels the two concepts are connected. It’s summed up on the back cover of the book, which I’ll quote below.
Every man was once a boy. And every little boy has dreams, big dreams: dreams of being the hero, of beating the bad guys, of doing daring feats and rescuing the damsel in distress. Every little girl has dreams, too: of being rescued by her prince and swept up into a great adventure, knowing that she is the beauty.
Basically, the ideal Christian man is Robin Hood, and the ideal Christian woman is Maid Marian.
This is a popular archetype we see throughout mythology, fairy tales, 19th century Romantic literature, and nowadays’ romantic comedies. It has unfortunately been extrapolated onto the biblical books of Ruth, Esther, and Song of Songs. In this book, Eldredge extrapolates it onto humanity.
It’s a popular theme partly because it appeals to human vanity. What person wouldn’t want to be cast in the role of savior, rescuer, conquering hero?—achieving, by his unique or extraordinary ability, not only the goal of coming out on top, but also making a certain feminine object of desire want him in the bargain. It achieves several self-centered goals at once.
- We want to be valuable, and valued, and desired by others.
- We want to be successful and victorious.
- We want to be the captains of our own destinies.
- We want nooky.
On the women’s side, it likewise fulfills self-centered goals:
- Being valuable and desired by a worthy person.
- Being able to bend others to one’s will. The man, after all, has to prove himself worthy of her, and in order to achieve her, he has to achieve the goals she sets out for him.
- And of course the nooky.
Contrast these goals with the things God wants for us. Our value is found only in him. Our value is not achieved through our daring exploits, but through Jesus’s self-sacrifice. Our destiny is not to come through our efforts, but his. We’re not to bend others to our will; we’re to submit our will, and encourage them to submit theirs, to his. The only thing, in all of romanticism, that actually reflects what God wants for us… is the nooky. (Seriously. “Be fruitful and multiply” was his idea.)
Eldredge maintains this is what we are. And you know what? I agree. But I don’t agree this is how God made us. The self-centeredness at the core of this archetype indicates quite clearly this is fallen humanity—it’s another form of it, idealized so as to sell novels. It appeals to us because it appeals to our carnal nature. It’s contrary to the new spiritual nature the Holy Spirit is trying to work in us.
It’s this appeal to the carnal nature that Eldredge bases his book upon.
Most messages for men ultimately fail. The reason is simple: They ignore what is deep and true to a man’s heart, his real passions, and simply try to shape him up through various forms of pressure. … They need a deeper understanding of why they long for adventures and battles and a Beauty—and why God made them just like that. And they need a deeper understanding of why women long to be fought for, to be swept up into adventure, and then be the Beauty. For that is how God made them as well. (Eldredge xi)
“The heart is more twisted than anything. It’s incurable. Who understands it?” (Jr 17.9) In this same chapter, God also curses those folks who trust themselves for success rather than him. (17.5) The stuff in our own hearts—the stuff we find in there before the Holy Spirit regenerates us—are not what we were meant to be. “What does my heart want?” is a valid question to ask ourselves, but it must always be compared with what God wants. We must never assume these two desires are the same thing. We cannot trust the heart.
The reason Wild at Heart appeals to so many men is because it tells them, “You don’t have to tame your passions, or regulate them with the scriptures. You can let them roam free. God wants you to. He put those passions in every man.” The trouble is that he didn’t. The trouble is that Eldredge’s message is to trust the heart, and God’s message is to not trust the heart. Eldredge wants us to resist being shaped by various pressures, while God the Potter is pounding our human clay with those various pressures.
The archetypes in our hearts that Eldredge pursues.
Chapter 1, “Wild at Heart,” begins with John Eldredge in the Sawatch Range of central Colorado, hunting elk, feeling close to nature (or at least close to shooting some of it), and therefore feeling close to God. It’s from this place that he brings up the biblical premise for his position.
Eve was created within the lush beauty of Eden’s garden. But Adam, if you’ll remember, was created outside the Garden, in the wilderness. In the record of our beginnings, the second chapter of Genesis makes it clear: Man was born in the outback, from the untamed part of creation. Only afterward is he brought to Eden. And ever since then boys have never been at home indoors, and men have had an insatiable longing to explore. (Eldredge 3-4)
I wish men had an insatiable longing to explore. It would get them off the TV, off the video games, off the computer. Some boys are much too much at home indoors.
Me, fr’instance. I’m largely allergic to the outdoors. Some of the reason why I love Santa Cruz is because the allergy season is a week or two instead of four months. But even while growing up, I was forced to play outdoors, I was shooed out of the house. Still, I was more interested in being indoors. I’d go into my clubhouse. Or I’d build a makeshift fort. Many men enjoy the great outdoors—and I do too, in reasonable doses. But it’s definitely not an insatiable longing. It gets sated in a few hours. I get the woods, or the beach, or the park, or the coffeehouse, out of my system. Then I go home.
Home is my favorite place to hang out. If it’s not, I either turn it into that, or find another place where I can and that becomes home. For many men, their wives turn their home, not into his favorite place to hang out, but hers—which is why the men have to create their “man caves” out of whatever parts of the home are left, like the garage or an office. I won’t speculate about Eldredge’s home life, but if you’re not longing for home, you’re likely looking for one. Maybe you instinctively expect to find it in the wilderness. But I think far more men have an insatiable longing for home than the wilderness. That’s why heaven is so appealing.
So this was my first tip there was something wrong with Wild at Heart: This blanket statement that men are one way and not another—and rather than resonating deep in my soul, my first response was, “Wait. I’m not like that.”
Perhaps you are. Good for you. I don’t deny that many are the explorer type. I like to explore too, sometimes. I’m curious about my environment. I think that’s healthy. But Eldredge goes on and on, for the next couple pages, about this wanderlust that just seems to grip certain individuals. Plus a few examples he’s found in the bible. But before I get to them, let me clear up what he’s said about Adam created outside of Eden.
Eldredge has no verse that states, “Man is made to explore the wilderness and have adventures in it.” He only has the circumstances of Adam’s creation. God created Eden. Then he put his freshly-created human into it and told him to tend it. (Ge 2.15) That, Eldredge claims, is the basis for man’s wildness.
Okay, but more important than human nature is God’s plan. I think we Christians are agreed on that. Human nature is sinful; God’s plan is for redemption. What was God’s plan for Adam? Was it for him to stay in the wild where he was created, or live in the garden? Was it for him to be savage or domesticated? Was it for him to wander the planet restlessly, or take up certain responsibilities? As I recall, being a restless wanderer was a curse God put on Cain for murder. (Ge 4.14)
I’m not a big fan of gardening either, so I’m not gonna try to make the point that God means for every man to keep a garden like Adam. Nor that God meant for every man to have a day job, nor that God meant anything for every man, except to be conformed to the image of Jesus. But whatever the wilderness outside Eden represented, it represented a place God chose to take Adam out of. God created Adam outside Eden, then put him in, so Adam would deliberately see God’s intention for him to be in Eden. God then gave him everything he could ever need—a home, food, pets, a wife, and a job.
What, from there, puts Adam back into the wilderness? Disobedience. Sin. Banishment from the Tree of Life.
Nor do I mean to say the wilderness is evil. The wilderness, throughout the scriptures, is a metaphor—and only a metaphor—for chaos and disorder, for desolation and waste, for banishment and being outside of God’s favor. The scapegoat was sent into the wilderness, (Lv 16.10) and the Spirit drove Jesus into it to be tempted by the devil, (Mk 1.12-13) because of this metaphor. Don’t read too much into this. Just recognize when the bible refers to someone going into the wilderness, it’s not the positive, adventure-affirming attitude Eldredge attaches to it. Frequently it’s with deep sorrow.
Now to the biblical stories Eldredge chose to back up his premise. Naturally they’re all about the adventure of the wild, and how some biblical personages had some great times out there, camping with God. Like Moses meeting God in the wilds of Sinai. Or Jacob getting his ass kicked by God in a wrestling match. “Where did the great prophet Elijah go to recover his strength? To the wild. As did John the Baptist, and his cousin, Jesus, who is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” (Eldredge 5, emphasis his.)
Well, let’s examine those stories, shall we? Moses was at Sinai, not adventuring, but doing something domestic: Tending sheep. Jacob was actually going through the wilderness, on his way to meet up with Esau, not to find God in the middle of it: God jumped him. Elijah didn’t go to the wild to renew his strength, but to flee Ahab, and later Jezebel. God had to provide for him miraculously, both times, because the wilderness has no provision. There’s nothing in it. It’s desolate. It requires absolute dependence upon God, which was the only way the ancient Hebrews could survive the Sinai desert, and the only way Elijah could centuries later. Apart from the miraculous, Elijah wouldn’t have renewed anything.
John was in the wilderness, of course, to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, and to evoke images of Elijah. And Jesus, like Elijah, had to be ministered to by angels, for the wilderness has no provision.
Scripturally, Eldredge has no leg to stand on. But I find he tends to quote other authors—and movies—about as much as he quotes the bible. This is probably because he has no bible to fall back on. But he has pop culture. Pop culture is handy like that. It can give you whatever you want; it can even call it normal. From this point onward, pop culture is mainly what Eldredge refers to in extrapolating his premise.
Eldredge next decries the sorry state of men—who have been domesticated, made safe and manageable, turned into “nice guys,” and as a result women are wondering where the “real men” are in our culture. Christianity is part of the domesticating effort: Men are encouraged to give up their passions and be nice guys.
What do women want? I can only tell you what women have told me. (Honestly, I have no idea how truthful they’re being with themselves, or me.) Largely what appeals to women—and men—is a man who is passionate about something. Understandably, women would prefer that something to be something she values too: If she’s not into sports, video games, crude humor, or random acts of
What makes men passionate? Eldredge feels the solution to the problem comes in the question “What drives men?” The proper question is “What should drive men?” but he doesn’t ask it. He answers his own question; he concludes that it’s something you find in every little boy, and in much of 19th century romantic literature: It is the desire to fight.
Aggression is part of the masculine design, we are hardwired for it. If we believe that man is made in the image of God, then we would do well to remember that “the LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name” (Ex 15.3).
But the point of the Exodus is that Israel was not to fight Egypt for its independence: God was to do all of the fighting for them. And that’s another theme we see throughout the scriptures: The victory belongs to God. (Pr 21.31) It doesn’t matter what we’re in a lather to do. It doesn’t matter if every little boy in the world loves to fight with toy guns, or sticks, or wrestle, or whatever. It doesn’t matter if men love war movies. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says, “for they will be called God’s children.” (Mt 5.9) Aggression is undirected, or misdirected, zeal. It is easily manipulated by sin, and we must control it before it undoes us. (Ge 4.6-7)
Eldredge believes it’s because every man wants to be the Hero—the virile, adventurous, conquering male archetype that’s been part of human literature all the way back to mythology and Homer. The Greeks liked it so much they depicted Zeus like it; they made their god in that image. It’s part of the male psyche to idealize, and idolize, this archetype. And Eldredge has plenty of pop culture justifications for it. Tom Sawyer. Braveheart. James Bond. Indiana Jones. Characters whose adventures make men want to watch movies—as opposed to going to bible study. (This isn’t my comparison; it’s Eldredge’s. Page 13.)
This passion, Eldredge believes, is meant to be directed towards a woman. He calls her the Beauty. Again, this fits into the Hero archetype, for most of the Hero stories involve a heroine to fight for. In Don Quixote, the newly self-knighted Quixote knew he needed someone to fight for—all the romance novels, which he had overread to the point of insanity, required one. So he invented himself a heroine, Dulcinea del Toboso. Eldredge, having read the same sort of fiction, does the same thing with the Beauty. “It’s not enough to be a hero; it’s that he is a hero to someone in particular, to the woman he loves.” (Eldredge 15)
The Damsel in Distress archetype has also been part of human literature since mythology. Eldredge at least chooses the interpretation of her that isn’t the passive object of affection and devotion like Dulcinea (who, even in Don Quixote, wasn’t real). From the women he knows, and the movies he likes, he concludes she doesn’t just want to be the goal of the Hero’s Adventure. She wants to share the adventure. She wants to be pursued—she wants to share her beauty with her hero—but she wants to be part of something greater than herself. If she’s nothing more than the goal, then getting her means the goal’s achieved, and adventure over. Bang goes the relationship.
I don’t presume to know how women think. I can’t tell you whether Eldredge’s depiction of what a woman wants reflects Carl Jung’s theories of either an Heroine or an Anima. Certainly women want to be appreciated, desired, and pursued. Heck, that’s true of nearly everyone. But I know quite a few women that actually don’t want to be partnered with. Complementarians teach that men and women are not equal partners in a relationship: There’s a hierarchy, with the man as benevolent dictator and the women as humbly submissive underling, who are supposed to stand back and support their husbands while they go out and achieve. I don’t find this idea at all biblical, but I have met many women from conservative Christian backgrounds who most certainly do, and even think this way. They love the idea of having a passive role in their relationships. There’s no pressure in it, no stress, for them. I think it’s unhealthy, and at its core sinful—biblical submission is not about suppressing your will, or refusing to have one, but about selflessly keeping other people in mind as you do your duties. And men and women are to submit to one another—wives to husbands, husbands to wives. (Ep 5.21)
But whether Eldredge’s depiction resonates with women—or men—isn’t the point. Obviously it does resonate with people, ’cause the book is so popular. And it’s very easy to get people to resonate with literary archetypes, because they’re so familiar. People study literary archetypes in literature, and they’ve been set up as the ideal in nearly every folk story, fairy tale, book, play, and movie. If they aren’t an innate idea, they darn well become one by the time we’re old enough to realize it. Disney, the Grimm brothers, and Mother Goose have put them into our consciousness like fluoride into drinking water. Every storyteller pulls out these archetypes as if on autopilot. The stories we don’t like, lack them.
Why, then, do people ever bother to make stories that lack them? Ah, there’s the interesting bit: Because they want to tell a real story. Because, in real life, there’s not always an easily-defined Hero, or Damsel in Distress, or Villain, Loyal Companion, Wise Old Man, Mother Figure, or Comic Relief. These archetypes aren’t real. They’re literary figures. They’re stereotypes that make a story easier to tell. Whenever someone tries to adapt a true story for the screen, the first thing they do is try to figure out which person fits which archetype—and the more the screenwriter confirms them to the archetype, the more we unconsciously realize this isn’t real. Yet at the same time, we like the story better. It fits what we’re used to.
Anyway, once you realize that’s what they are, and that’s all they are, the rest of Wild at Heart falls apart. You realize what Eldredge is advocating here is not a return to you as you really are: It is to turn you into a caricature. It’s not freeing; it’s limiting. It’s not noble; it’s sad.
Part of the sinner’s psyche is to justify anything—even good things. I love coffee. I could claim God put this love into me. It’d be a useful justification whenever someone wanted to deny me coffee, or claim my love for it was becoming obsessive. But if I claimed God put it in me, I’d take a good thing and turn it into an idol. Bean-flavored water for my divine inheritance: It’s a stupid trade. As I recall, Esau made it.
As I’ve said, Eldredge is simply taking his favorite thing (or one of them) and claiming it’s so good, so profound, so central to his character, that God must’ve put it into him. He’s not the first guy to do this either. “God wills it” has been the justification for many behaviors, including many heresies and false religions. Nature religions, sex religions, religions focused on the accumulation of power or karma or wisdom or wealth—all of them have justified their off-kilter focus by claiming God has the same focus.
Near the end of the chapter, Eldredge wrote,
What if? What if those deep desires in our hearts are telling us the truth, revealing to us the life we were meant to live? (Eldredge 18)
And as every Christian knows—or should know—the way we were meant to live isn’t found in the heart. It’s found in God. The heart is not trustworthy. God is.
The scriptures tell us the object of a man’s zeal—what a man should fight for, what a man should pursue, the object of desire—is God. “Like the deer pants for water streams, my life pants for you, my God.” (Ps 42.1) “My life yearns for you at night; my spirit longs for you in the morning.” (Is 26.9) “Love the LORD your God and serve him with all your heart and with all your life.” (Dt 11.13) King David, one of the few men in the bible who would fit the Hero archetype better than most, even wrote this:
I ask only one thing from the LORD.
I’m seeking this:
to live in the LORD’s house every day of my life,
to see the LORD’s beauty
and to seek him in his temple. (Ps 27.4)
Eldredge picked the wrong Beauty. He made a false god of woman. He would never say so—“man must hold woman second only to God” would probably be his sentiment—but it’s a really close second. But God forbids all other gods, even secondary ones.
The Beauty we’re to give up everything for is God. The woman, on the other hand, is “a helper equivalent to him,” (Ge 2.18) a partner—who often have to suffer the curse of being bossed around by domineering husbands, (Ge 3.16) whose husbands don’t understand that God’s forgiveness is meant to undo this curse.
These truths are in the scriptures, and found in God. They’re not buried in our psyches, waiting for us to discover them. Crap is buried in our psyches. The heart doesn’t know anything. That’s why God calls us to follow him with all of our heart, (Dt 11.13) not to follow our heart.
Arguing that Jesus is like Braveheart.
Chapter 2, “The Wild One Whose Image We Bear,” begins with the heartwarming story of how John Eldredge’s grandfather once took him to the dry goods store to buy ammunition. It made him feel like a Wild West hero. He compares this with his friend Craig, whose stepdad treated him like dirt, and the only way Craig got his self-esteem back was when he discovered his biological great-grandfather was a great, heroic missionary. It helps, Eldredge says, when you know you’re descended from badasses. Like Jesus. Or like William Wallace.
Eldredge then tells the story of when Wallace rallied the troops at the Battle of Stirling. One catch. We have no idea how Wallace actually did so. We do have the movie Braveheart, but as any historian will tell you, the movie is as fictional as Robin Hood. The Battle of Stirling Bridge, as the name suggests, was fought on a bridge. In the movie, it’s a plain, and Wallace gallops around on a horse in front of his troops and shouts about how “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” and everybody shouts, and… it looked nothing like this. They were on a bridge. The Scots bottlenecked the English on the bridge, 300 style, and just slaughtered them.
The troop-rousing speech and Wallace’s fight-picking, ala Braveheart, were written by screenwriter Randall Wallace. (No relation.) The present-day Mr. Wallace based his screenplay on a semi-fictional poem, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace, by 15th-century minstrel Blind Harry. Any historian can tell you it’s not historically accurate, but Randall Wallace doesn’t care. “Is Blind Harry true?” he rhetorically asked in an interview. “I don’t know. I know that it spoke to my heart and that’s what matters to me, that it spoke to my heart.” Obviously it spoke to Eldredge’s heart too.
Randall Wallace doesn’t need to care about historicity. It’s a cool story, and he’s a storyteller. He wanted to write a good movie, and in order to do so, sometimes you gotta play fast and loose with the history. It is after all only a movie. It’s not a documentary. You want historical accuracy, watch a documentary.
But Eldredge is talking about taking the main character from this movie. Not the historical William Wallace, I remind you, but fake William Wallace, movie William Wallace, Mel Gibson as William Wallace. And saying, “That’s the guy. That’s who I want to be like. I wanna be a badass like him.”
But he’s a Christian and should want to be like Jesus.
Well, no problem: It seems Jesus is really like Fake William Wallace.
In Braveheart, Fake William Wallace “picked a fight” with the English nobles. In the gospels, Eldredge wrote, Jesus “picked a fight” with the Pharisees. Whenever they hassled the people, Jesus gathered up 2,000 angry freeballing Scotsmen and cleaved the Pharisees’ heads in with axes. Then he had sex with a hot French princess.
No, not really. Jesus was a badass, according to Eldredge, in that whenever the Pharisees were wrong, Jesus called them on it. And sometimes he called them rude names. Like “hypocrite.” Which shamed them. Oooh. Badassssss.
Okay, enough sarcasm. Eldredge is correct in that Jesus is absolutely not the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” caricature we tend to see in American churches. Charles Wesley wrote that line, and it was stupid of him, but he was trying to write a hymn for children to teach them Jesus isn’t scary. It had the unfortunate result of twisting the image of Jesus into a nice friendly Mormon-like guy who would never, ever provoke his enemies to crucify him. We do need to correct that picture of Jesus. But humans are creatures of extremes, and Eldredge wants to take it to the opposite extreme, and turn Jesus into an ass-kicking he-man warrior.
Calling things what they are—calling out injustice, or stupidity, or hypocrisy, when you see it—is not the same as picking a fight. It only becomes a fight when one side, or the other, can’t handle the argument, and escalate things into personal attacks, whether verbal or physical. Is it God’s will for people to make war? Sometimes. Sometimes in defense, and sometimes in the pursuit of justice. Not all the time. It wasn’t his will for ancient Israel to fight the Babylonians in self-defense, despite what their false prophets were telling them, because he was using the Babylonians to administer justice. (Jr 21.10) Yet more often than not, God wants peace. “Peacemakers are awesome, for they’ll be called God’s children,” Jesus said. (Mt 5.9) Not fight-pickers are awesome.
Eldredge appropriately mocks the images of Jesus that are meek and mild. But he inappropriately drags in other examples of mildness—Mister Rogers and Mother Teresa—and discusses them out of context. Fred Rogers was a children’s show host, who was mild on television because he knew mildness—not the kinetic frenzy that we tend to see in children’s programming—helps them calm down and pay attention. Mother Teresa of Kolkata, India, was mild towards the dying sinners she found in the streets. But anyone who knew her would tell you she could be a lot less than mild when it came to disciplining nuns, and requesting help from the rich and the bureaucrats. The images we have of these folks is often one-dimensional. But no living person is one-dimensional… unless the devil can get ’em unthinkingly fixated on one soul-destroying thing. Both Rogers and Teresa had their mild and not-so-mild moments. As did the actual William Wallace. As did Jesus.
Fake William Wallace, on the other hand, is entirely one-dimensional. Everything in his life is passion. Passion for his wife. Passion for revenge. Passion for Scotland. Passion for freedom.
Zeal sounds like a good thing, and our culture certainly encourages it—provided we don’t go overboard with it and disrupt the status quo. Fake William Wallace’s zeal certainly did disrupt the status quo, which is why the English killed him. We take Fake William Wallace’s side because he’s the hero of the movie. Had we actually known a guy like this, he would freak us out a lot. Particularly we Christians, who recognize that there’s something wrong with this sort of unhealthy, overboard passion.
Zeal, for those folks who actually care what the scriptures say about it, is a work of the flesh. As is picking a fight. And other people like these. “I warn you of them just as I warned you before,” Paul wrote: “The doers of such things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.” (Ga 5.21) Ass-kicking isn’t a fruit of the Spirit. Peace is.
Eldredge proceeds to identify God’s empowerment of Samson as an endorsement of Samson’s manliness. God’s might and ability are also forms of God’s manliness. Jesus’s courage in the face of crucifixion is manliness. And to cap it off, he quotes Ezra Pound’s “Ballad of the Goodly Fere” as evidence that Jesus was a tough guy. Like Fake William Wallace, not Mother Teresa.
(The frequency with which Eldredge disparages Mother Teresa makes me wonder what he has against her. And also whether he understands what courage it took, in the mid-20th century, to work with lepers—considering we didn’t yet know how leprosy spreads. To say Teresa wasn’t like Jesus indicates he knows neither Teresa nor Jesus.)
Eldredge then drags us out of doors and points out how wild nature is, and how risky it is to live in it—and again, how God meant for us to live in it, and to take risks. Like David fighting Goliath, or Gideon fighting Midianites, or Jesus starting the church with his students. Again, he misunderstands the scriptures. Nature was not created full of risks. Nature, like humanity, fell. God’s original intent was for us to live forever in harmony with nature. Now, we live about a century, fighting nature and one another. As for those risks that the biblical heroes took: Those were acts of faith in God. When God commands it or empowers it, the only risk involved is whether we’re gonna actually trust God. Not whether we’re gonna achieve what God said we would. Of course we will. That’s risk-free.
Eldredge gets a little confusing in the end of the chapter: He’s trying to say men are to be zealous like God, the pursuer and lover of his people. At the same time, he’s trying to say women are to be beautiful like God, the pursued and loved by his people. Eldredge parallels men with God, then men with people; women with people, then with God. I get what he’s saying, but it’s confusing when you try to summarize it.
I mentioned last time that God, not woman, is the proper object of a man’s desire. Eldredge appears to recognize this in the last section of this chapter. He even quotes the verse I pulled out, Psalm 27.4. But he argues, from this, that God created woman to reflect this facet of his nature. Just as God’s zeal is to be reflected in men, God’s beauty is to be reflected in women.
It’s as if he wrote a rebuttal to my complaint last time. I wonder whether he wrote Wild at Heart a chapter at a time, field-tested each chapter on a small group, listened to objections or concerns, then wrote subsequent chapters to respond to the objections. I’ve seen people write books this way. So much of chapter 1 is rehashed in chapter 2—so many ideas repeated—that I think there’s something to my theory. Trouble is, it makes Wild at Heart appear unstructured, rambling, and meandering. But I suppose Eldredge would justify this by calling it “wild.”
Misunderstanding the heart by misunderstanding Adam.
On to chapter 3, “The Question that Haunts Every Man.” (Which for me would be, “Must I read on?”)
Around the time I wrote this, I reread G.K. Chesterton’s book Heretics. Chesterton was an early 20th century literary critic, writer, and journalist. Doing what I’m doing with Wild at Heart was what Chesterton did for a living: Read lousy books, get to the heart of the underlying flawed thinking, and explain just why it’s wrong. I didn’t read Heretics in order to pick up tips or anything; I read it because I wanted some light reading and I own a copy. But Heretics chapter 3, on warrior poet Rudyard Kipling, is mighty applicable to our current problem—Wild at Heart’s philosophy.
Eldredge begins his own chapter 3 with a zoo lion, and contrasts it with the wild lion. Then he compares the modern man with the zoo lion: He notes his neighbors aren’t wild and free like the lions on the savanna, but passively staring at TV sports, or overcompensating with machismo. These guys don’t impress him, because he feels their lives have no meaning. What would really give a life meaning, he feels, is if a man were given a great battle in which he can live and die.
Kipling too was a fan of “the great adventure,” so to speak. He wrote lots about militarism and war and efficiency and discipline and achieving manhood through great feats. (His poem “If,” fr’instance.) Chesterton felt Kipling’s overall literary emphasis was not so much on military as it was precision and efficiency. But Chesterton felt Kipling did so to avoid getting connected to local stuff, putting down roots… you know, becoming domesticated. And Chesterton particularly critiqued him for that: Yeah, he trotted the globe, but he only ever cared to gain a superficial knowledge of it, or conquer it for the British Empire. Chesterton wanted Kipling to become domesticated like Eldredge’s zoo lion.
It amuses me how contrary Eldredge and Chesterton are to one another. Eldredge would not approve of Chesterton’s lifestyle: It wasn’t the he-man outdoorsy sort, but that of the morbidly obese (but clever) city-dwelling journalist, author, and literary critic. Eldredge critiques contemporary men for not fitting the romantic ideal enough, whereas Chesterton critiqued his contemporaries for being idealistic beyond the bounds of reason. The romantic ideal was one of many foolish non-Christian dreams about what men should be, as opposed to what they are, and what God wants for them. Chesterton critiqued that ideal, and many others. But your average Christian man won’t read Chesterton. Nor will he want to: Chesterton kept referring to 100-year-old British pop culture, which was clever then, but near-impossible to follow today. The first time I read Heretics, I didn’t know any of those authors he griped about. Now I do, but it took a lot of reading first.
I’ve frequently said I’m reading Eldredge so you don’t have to. I also read Chesterton so you don’t have to. But it’s this lack of reading that renders many men totally unprepared to deal with bad philosophy, and worse theology. Christians should at least read the bible, but they don’t even do that. Consequently we suck at discernment. Wild at Heart sells millions of copies to men who don’t know why they’re so dissatisfied with life—but rather than recognize it’s a lack of a dependence on God, they figure they need to get back to being “manly,” as interpreted by Eldredge.
Eldredge starts every bloody chapter in his book by stating and defining the problem. That’s not how you write a book. That’s how you start a book: Chapter 1 lays out the problem, and chapters 2 and following solve the problem. It’s a basic book outline. But Eldredge does this in every chapter. Like I hypothesized, he probably wrote and field-tested each chapter at a time. Stands to reason that each chapter stands alone as a variation of the very same problem/solution essay.
Which is, of course, that men are dissatisfied. And it‘s because they’re not Jason, tracking down the Golden Fleece with Medea—and conveniently forgetting the unhappy ending. Or William Wallace—and conveniently forgetting the unhappy ending. Or Robin Hood—and conveniently forgetting the unhappy ending. Wait, has Eldredge ever finished a story?
Garrison Keillor, in The Book of Guys, bemoaned his own personal lack of manliness. He listed several things he felt a real man should be able to do, like cut down trees or shoot a gun or fight. He felt he couldn’t do these things, and felt bad for it. To some degree Keillor was kidding, but Eldredge took Keillor’s idea and ran with it. Men, Eldredge feels, need to be able to kick ass. The first human, Adam, was designed to kick ass.
Somewhere back before Eden, in the mystery of eternity past, there was a coup, a rebellion, an assassination attempt. Lucifer, the prince of angels, the captain of the guard, rebelled against the Trinity. He tried to take the throne of heaven by force, assisted by a third of the angelic army, in whom he instilled his own malice. They failed, and were hurled from the presence of the Trinity. But they were not destroyed, and the battle is not over. God now has an enemy… and so do we. Man is not born into a sitcom or a soap opera; he is born into a world at war. (Eldredge 49)
The Lucifer story, as I’ve said elsewhere, is mythology. It’s not found in the bible. It’s based on out-of-context verses of the bible. Much like Braveheart is based on Blind Harry’s poem, it doesn’t follow it all that closely. We know the angels fell; it’s in Revelation 12. We know the devil and its angels fought Michael and its angels. We don‘t know why. Nor do we know when. People assume it happened before humans fell—hence the serpent in the garden tempting Eve—but in Revelation it happened after the birth of Jesus. So it could’ve happened before Eden, or in Genesis 6, or in Luke 10. I’m guessing not before Eden—otherwise there’d be a flood of demonic hordes, freshly cast out of heaven, ready to completely overwhelm the two naïve humans. That didn’t happen. There was only the serpent.
Eldredge continues to tell his intrerpretation of the Eden story. In it Adam was tasked to defend Eve from the wiles of the serpent. God didn’t warn him temptation was coming because he actually felt Adam was up to it. After all, “this is what he’s designed to do.” (Eldredge 50) But he didn’t succeed. Or do anything. He stood there and let Eve fall into temptation, and fell into it himself.
He denied his very nature and went passive. And every man after him, every son of Adam, carries in his heart now the same failure. Every man repeats the sin of Adam, every day. We won’t risk, we won’t fight, and we won’t rescue Eve. We truly are a chip off the old block. (Eldredge 51)
This presumes, illogically, that Adam knew the serpent was evil… but Adam hadn’t eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so how would he know? It also presumes Adam, despite knowing the serpent was evil, chose to stand aside and let Eve be suckered by the serpent’s reasoning. This presumes a level of understanding Adam didn’t yet have—and an unwarranted maliciousness towards Eve.
But Adam didn’t just stand there and allow Eve to sin, then shrug and figure, “Well, since everybody’s doing it….” He didn’t defend himself. He was suckered into it, same as Eve. He didn’t defend Eve because he didn’t need to defend Eve. God had put no predators in the garden. (Well, other than the serpent.)
Adam, after sinning, realized he was naked and went to hide. Eldredge figures men nowadays still do that. Ever since Adam cast off what Eldredge figures he was meant to be, he’s been sort of a poser; a fake man. Men ever since, wrote Eldredge, are faking it just as much, hiding the frauds that we deep down know we are.
Well yeah; everyone does that. It’s called hypocrisy. We always want to appear better than we are. It’s a pride thing. And pride is a sin thing. Eldredge is probably one of the first Christians I’ve ever read who actually proposes we be the braggart that we’re only pretending to be—that there’s something noble in being able to have mad skills and show them off. The antidote to pride is humility, but to Eldredge, it’s virility. It’s being what you claim you are. Because you were meant to be this way.
He actually doesn’t get so much into the solution in this chapter. He concludes it by talking about strength gone bad: Men are usually violent or passive, and both behaviors are motivated by fear. He’s not wrong. Pretty much everything that isn’t motivated by love is motivated by fear. (Greed is the fear of being deprived; power is the fear of no control; sex is a form of love, or a form of greed and power, depending on the relationship.) Fear warps humanity, and Eldredge isn’t wrong to say so. I have a feeling, though, that he’s gonna use this truth to back up another one of his wild assertions.
Oh, yeah: What was the “question that haunts every man” in the chapter title? It’s this: “How come when men look in their hearts they don’t discover something valiant and dangerous, but instead find anger, lust, and fear?” (Eldredge 41)
This is interesting because in the previous two chapters, Eldredge has been trying to defend his ideal of the Hero archetype by saying it can be found, deep down, in every man’s heart. Yet how come, when men look in their hearts, they don’t see what Eldredge says is in there? How come only Eldredge and his favorite poets and screenwriters can see it? How come men instead see cowardice, fear, and that Eldredge is nothing but
Nah, I won’t go with the easy answer. The human heart isn’t all that complicated: We’re self-centered. We fear losing control of our environment, and will do whatever it takes to keep it together. Now, some people have (as far as they can tell) control over their environment, so they don’t have a lot of fear—they can devote their hearts towards getting what they want. Other people have (as far as they can tell) no control over their environment, so they don’t have time to get what they want—they have to fight the environment. Or their fears.
Eldredge seems to have sorted out his fears. Good for him. So when he looks into his heart, what he sees is not fear, but all the stuff he wants: Adventure. Heroism. Satisfaction in those things instead of God. And some useful scriptures that let him recast his self-interest as “biblical,” and claim it’s for everybody—and sell books to Christians who don’t know any better.
The average man is not dissatisfied with his heart because it’s not wild enough. He’s dissatisfied because the Holy Spirit is telling him, “I created you for more than this. Follow me.”
There ya go. The answer to the question, and you don’t even have to wait for Chapter 4.
Creating the dysfunctional Wild at Heart family.
I gotta admit: Wild at Heart is a really hard book to slog through. Unlike other books I’ve been forced to read, or obligated myself to read, there was something redeeming to them. You’d find some wheat mixed in among the chaff. There might not be a lot of it, but at least there’s some. In the case of Wild at Heart I really haven’t found any. I have looked. I still look. But this book is profoundly misguided. It is disconnected from reality, wrong about the scriptures, and makes up for a lack of depth by repeating the same ideas over and over and over.
Every chapter has a lot in common with every other chapter, and are all constructed around three Happy Premises. (I stole this term from Bowfinger, which I watched again recently. Loony self-help ideas tend to gravitate together in my mind, whether fictional or not.)
- Happy Premise #1. Man needs to be wild and free and undomesticated; he needs to pick fights and conquer stuff.
- Happy Premise #2. Man needs to pursue Woman, see her as his Beauty, and take her to be part of a great adventure.
- Happy Premise #3. This was God’s idea, because Jesus was like this.
- Happy Premise #4. You must never show it to the Laker Girls. (Wait; that’s Bowfinger.)
My response to premises #1-3 is “Wrong.” I’ve said why in previous posts. Read them; I don’t care to rehash these ideas every single time, even though Eldredge does. I’m just gonna refer to them from now on as Happy Premises #1 through #3, and leave them alone otherwise.
In chapter 4, “The Wound,” Eldredge for once takes his Happy Premises as given and explains why humanity doesn’t know them, despite them being buried deep in his heart (where Eldredge could find them, but somehow the people he knew couldn’t), despite them being buried deep in the scriptures (where Eldredge could find them, but once he read between the verses). Men are not proper, masculine males because their fathers never taught them to be one.
Eldredge demonstrates how a father is supposed to be through his own example: Off rock-climbing with his boys, he encourages them to climb that rock and tells them “good job” when they do a good job. “Way to go, Sam,” he tells his boy, “You’re a wild man.” (Eldredge 61) Which his son really appreciated—and of course he did. Every kid, unless there’s something warped in it, loves to get parental approval.
Eldredge notes the particular bond between fathers and sons, and points out, not just that men learn “masculinity” from our fathers, but that there comes a time in a boy’s life when the father must take him away from his mother. Not physically; he’s not talking about custody kidnapping. He’s talking about how the mother needs to stop guiding the boy’s development, and leave that to the father. “Femininity can never bestow masculinity,” he says. (Eldredge 64) Basically, women just don’t get it, and need to bite their tongues when it comes to this sort of thing.
If a mother will not allow her son to become dangerous, if she does not let the father take him away, she will emasculate him. I just read a story of a mother, divorced from her husband, who was furious that he wanted to take the boy hunting. She tried to get a restraining order to prevent him from teaching the boy about guns. That is emasculation. “My mom wouldn’t let me play with GI Joe,” a young man told me. Another said, “We lived back east, near an amusement park. It had a roller coaster—the old wooden kind. But my mom would never let me go.” That is emasculation, and the boy needs to be rescued from it by the active intervention of the father, or another man. (Eldredge 64-65)
Another man? Okay, say you’re a single mom, and you’ve forbidden your son from playing with matches, ’cause you know your little firebug will wind up in the burn ward. Is Eldredge actually suggesting that any unrelated man should be able to supply your boy with a box of matches, despite your command, because you don’t get it?
Well, let’s look at the example he chooses of how a man might intervene in the child-rearing of an emasculating woman. He picks the Clint Eastwood movie A Perfect World. In it, Kevin Costner plays an escaped convict who kidnaps an eight-year-old boy. He lets the boy ride a roller coaster that his mother wouldn’t. Later, he compliments the boy on his penis. There were other instances in this movie of bonding between the convict and the boy, but Eldredge picked those two. I’m not kidding.
Eldredge blames this emasculation for the reason why young men rebel and pull away from their clingy mothers. He also blames bad fathers who left their sons to be thus emasculated—only to later mock their sons for it, because the boys don’t live up to their fathers’ untaught standards of masculinity. He says he’s never met a man who hasn’t been wounded in this way. (Eldredge 72) As a result, he says, men either overcompensate and become driven, violent men; or they retreat and become passive.
Well, I can obviously think of exceptions. But Eldredge covers his ass by saying this:
Often it’s an odd mixture of both. Witness the twin messages sported by young college-age men especially: a goatee, which says, “I’m kind of dangerous,” and a baseball hat turned backward, which says, “But really I’m a little boy; don’t require anything of me.” Which is it? Are you strong, or are you weak? (Eldredge 73-74)
I’m in my 40s. But I still have my goatee, and by golly my hat is turned backward; how about that. However, I never attached the ideas of strength and weakness to either. And if I did, it would be opposite of Eldredge’s. My facial hair has to do with weakness: I don’t feel like shaving every day, so I passively let it grow. My hat turned backward has to do with strength: I don’t care to use the brim to shade or hide my eyes, ’cause I can handle the glare of the sun or of other people’s looks. Can Eldredge get nothing right?
But the reason he gets even these social cues wrong is because he doesn’t take his cues from reality. He takes them from movies and fiction. In literature, a beard denotes maturity and manly strength. A hat askew denotes youth and inexperience. It’s that damned archetype thing again; the idea I brought up in chapter 1 which drives Eldredge’s thinking, instead of the bible and reality.
He got it from Robert Bly. Chapter 4 quotes big huge paragraphs of Bly’s book, Iron John: A Book About Men. Eldredge doesn’t use endnotes or attribution, so I had to Google the quotes to find out where in the world he got them. He’s certainly bought into Bly’s way of thinking. I’ve found some folks actually accuse Eldredge of regurgitating Bly, and claim Wild at Heart is really a Christian knock-off of Iron John.
I never read Iron John. I remember when it became a best-seller in 1990. Its popularity awoke people to the idea of a men’s movement that—for once—wasn’t about bashing feminism, but reclaiming a lost sense of masculism. Bly is one of the leaders of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement. He takes the Jungian archetypes of classical literature, exegetes them, and tries to see what they can tell us about gender roles. Iron John takes the Grimm’s fairy tale of Iron John (or Iron Hans) and extrapolates some ideas from the archetypes of the Wise Old Man and the Young Hero.
Christian leaders, back in the ’90s, realized Iron John was a mashup of New Age and literary gobbledygook, so they ignored it. Besides, we Christians had our own men’s movement brewing in 1990: Promise Keepers, founded by Bill McCartney that very year. Masculinity, said McCartney, isn’t defined by wildness; it’s defined by whether men keep their word. As Christians there are certain things—their Seven Promises—that men should do. I attended a few PK functions myself, and agree: Manhood is defined by integrity and responsibility. So is adulthood in general. But men have been slacking off whereas women haven’t, and you don’t reclaim your manhood by going camping and joining fight clubs.
I didn’t know anything about Bly, other than that certain men were reading his book, then joining drum circles and venting about how daddy never told them he loved them. Still didn’t, until I looked him up for this post here.
I had thought Eldredge was referring to all these literary archetypes because they came up in high school and college literature courses. I had no idea this was Bly’s method of finding authoritative things to say about manhood. Problem is, Eldredge thinks he can find parallels in the bible if he exegetes its books just like Bly does with Mother Goose. But here’s where it falls apart. The bible doesn’t present archetypes. It records the acts of actual human beings. Myths fit, because they’re designed to fit, the archetypes. Reality doesn’t.
There are some conclusions Eldredge reaches that aren’t too far wrong. This idea that men are messed up by an improper upbringing, or a disconnection between them and their parents, or dysfunction: It’s all true. Absolutely true. But the source of the function, Eldredge believes, is their parents never passed down a proper understanding of gender roles. The father never taught his boys to be wild, never restrained the mother from emasculating them. So the mother never clipped the apron strings, and raised her boys with a shaky sense of self. Consequently men nowadays are a bunch of pansies.
But you’re just as likely to get messed-up men by raising them Eldredge-style. How, really, are you fulfilling Happy Premise #2—having her be part of an adventure—when you disregard and belittle her input? You have a father who disregards the concerns of his accountability partner—the wife God tells him to submit to, just as Jesus died for the church. You have him ignore the fact that wives are meant to moderate their husbands more extreme—let’s be blunt, their stupid—behavior. Remember that old saying about how women are a civilizing influence? The wife is supposed to tell her husband, “You’re going too far.” (And vice-versa, because women can go to extremes just as much as men can.) When you blow off your wife because “women don’t understand,” you clearly indicate how you don’t understand one of the primary reasons why God makes men and women into one flesh. It’s not so men can raise the boys, and women the girls. They are one. They raise well-rounded boys and girls who learn how to support one another, how to take calculated risks, and how to follow God instead of literary archetypes.
Frustration-scream break, and then I’ll finish with a bit about Carl’s book group.
As I mentioned, my friend “Carl” had a Wild at Heart book group, and one of his members, “Biff,” stopped coming ’cause he believed Carl was dismissing my anti-Eldredge arguments, and Biff was bothered by that.
And of course Carl was. His rationale for having a Wild at Heart group, despite my objections to the book, was that Eldredge isn’t the bible: He’s putting forward a theory. We can take or leave the theory. He chose to take it. I don’t.
But it’s your basic argument from apathy. It’s, “I admit my practice or philosophy has inconsistencies, problems, and booby-traps. But in the long run, who really does it hurt? And I don’t require anyone to follow it along with me. So again, who does it hurt?”
Well, this chapter exposes who it hurts: Eldredge basically tells his wife to shut her food-hole when it comes to his boys. He is the man. He’s gonna let them grow up to be dangerous and wild. Any attempts she makes to keep them safe is “emasculation.”
It hurts his wife, because she’s denied her proper role as their mom. It hurts his boys, because they’re deprived of their mother’s moderating influence. Whenever she expresses it, and they hear their father rebuke her for it, they lose respect for her. It hurts Eldredge, because his only accountability partners are therefore like-minded men—whose advice he can sort of take or leave, because he isn’t married to them; and whose advice is unbalanced, because it doesn’t include any woman’s point of view. It would hurt any daughters he might have (fortunately, he has none), because they would see this disparity between gender roles, and may reject God because of its inherent unfairness. It will definitely hurt any future spouses of the boys.
And because Eldredge will automatically reject any interpretation of the bible that tells him he needs to behave better than this, it pretty much closes off huge swaths of the scriptures to him. Any message from God that tells him, “You’re not treating your wife properly” will be disregarded as devilish temptation. Especially now that he’s got a book out. It’s a little hard to go back on the cause you’re the poster-child for. His relationship with God will suffer a severe disconnect because of the place that “masculinity,” as he defines it, now takes in his life. That’s always the trouble with idolatry.
There are plenty of places where Christians can agree to disagree. This isn’t one of them. Eldredge’s wrong ideas are creating dysfunctional relationships, and you can see it in his damn book. Apathy, therefore, is the wrong argument. He’s hurting his family, and other men will follow his example and hurt their families. He’s basing this, not on the scriptures, but on a Christianized version of Robert Bly’s philosophy—which, ultimately, is based on myths and fairy tales. Epic warrior poetry. Movies. Bly admits this. Eldredge, as a Christian, can’t; so he claims it’s bible. But it’s not, and never was.
Okay, I’ve had it with this book.
The chapters of Wild at Heart are progressively harder to get through because the advice in the book is progressively worse. It started with a loose connection to the scriptures, and a loose connection to what sort of man Jesus might be. But in this chapter, that connection gets disconnected. Chapter 5, “The Battle for a Man’s Heart,” begins with John Eldredge’s son coming home from school, his spirit deflated because he’s met a bully. Eldredge’s directions to his son are, “The next time that bully pushes you down… I want you to get up… and I want you to hit him… as hard as you possibly can.” (Eldredge 78)
I understand where he’s coming from. I wouldn’t want my kid, or any kid I am responsible for, to be picked on. Honestly, I’d want to go hunt down that bully and show him what it’s like to be picked on by someone bigger than him. I’ve been a bully; I know ways of tormenting kids that bullies nowadays lack the subtlety to try.
This is typical fatherly advice; but Christians are not supposed to be typical fathers. We’re supposed to follow Jesus. And Jesus tells his students to not resist evil people. Once someone backhands you on one cheek, give him the other. (Mt 5.39) Passive resistance is the way of the Christian. You don’t hit. You don’t fight. You don’t do what he wants—you don’t negotiate with terrorists—but you don’t add any injury to it. You call upon the authorities and let them—when they’re working properly—dispassionately handle things.
This has been the basis of the Indian independence movement and the American civil rights movement. Both of which worked. Hitting back gives a bully every justification to do more to you. My conscience instantly stopped bothering me whenever anyone fought back. They had the nerve to hit me; they were going down. This is why the Palestinians and Irish have spent decades fighting the folks who occupy their land, with only token progress—and only because the insurgents haven’t escalated things to the point that a hard-liner gets elected and tamps them down completely. Most of the time, cultures are quicker to elect the hard-liners. People hate bullies, but they’ll often vote for them.
Jesus’s directions are proven to work. But few have the guts to try them, or the patience to wait for results. More often than not, their pride gets in the way, and they hit back because “a real man wouldn’t stand for this.” Eldredge fancies himself a real man, so he tells his boy to hit back, and justifies it thus:
Yes, I know that Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. But we have really misused that verse. You cannot teach a boy to use his strength by stripping him of it. Jesus was able to retaliate, believe me. But he chose not to. And yet we suggest that a boy who is mocked, shamed before his fellows, stripped of all power and dignity should stay in that beaten place because Jesus wants him there? You will emasculate him for life. From that point on he will be passive and fearful. He will grow up never knowing how to stand his ground, never knowing if he is a man indeed. Oh yes, he will be courteous, sweet even, deferential, minding all his manners. It may look moral, it may look like turning the other cheek, but it is merely weakness. You cannot turn a cheek you do not have. Our churches are full of such men. (Eldredge 79)
“Cannot turn a cheek you do not have”? That makes no damn sense. In what way can you re-interpret “turn the other cheek” to say, “Turn the other cheek—except in cases where a boy isn’t sure whether he has the internal fortitude to stand up to you. First he first has to figure out whether or not he’s a man. If he is—if he knows he can stand up to his oppressor—then he can turn the other cheek”? That makes no damn sense either.
What pissed Jesus off more than anything about the Pharisees’ interpretation of the bible? Their loopholes. Their ways of weaseling out of God’s clear directions so they could hold on to their money, their power, or their pride. And pride is the very issue that Eldredge is trying to avoid saying. The boy is “mocked, shamed before his fellows, stripped of all power and dignity.” Power? Dignity? Honor? Pride. Yet, according to Eldredge, Jesus never intended the boy to suffer dishonor. Even though Jesus seemed perfectly willing to undergo it himself on the cross, and warned his students how plenty of suffering was coming for us too.
If our pride—if our fear of emasculation—means we’re not going to follow Jesus anymore, okay. I’m glad Eldredge put this at the front of his chapter. Clears things right up, right away. Jesus isn’t his Lord. His honor is.
This is the point of the book where I close it and throw it across the room with great force, because I am done with the God-damned thing.
Eldredge lost me in the first chapter. Now that he’s advocated ignoring Jesus for the sake of pride, even though it is his son he’s trying to defend, he’s not getting me back.
So, a short post. I may get to the rest of the chapter later, but for right now I am done.
There are better books to read.
Nah, I didn’t get to the rest of the chapter.
I eventually got some comments from people who wanted to know about the rest of chapter 5, or the subsequent chapters—they felt I was really “getting behind” on my posting. I wasn’t behind. I was done. I didn’t want to read it anymore. It was like punishment. It was like a civics class taught by a poor teacher, who thinks blogging is more important than voting, who thinks Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be reflects the Founders more so than The Federalist. It’s like algebra as taught by someone who believes the secret to math is to guesstimate the answers, then manipulate the formulae till they fit. And other people buy into this thinking because they like it better than the alternatives. Well, I didn’t care to unnecessarily aggravate myself.
I didn’t demonstrate in every chapter how the book is flawed. But the old editor’s quote (usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw, though I can’t confirm it) is applicable here: “You don’t have to eat a whole egg to know it’s rotten.” Suffice to say that the last chapters will not make up for the wrongness of the first chapters. If you want enough criticism to be able to dismiss the book, I think I’ve produced plenty.
If you want criticism of a bad idea that comes up later in the book, please produce it yourself. It’s not hard to do. Every time he quotes the bible, he’ll probably quote it out of context. Just look it up. And if you feel you really can’t tackle it without a basic knowledge of Jungian archetypes, go read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, or even Mythology for Dummies. It’ll make you somewhat familiar with the themes.
In the meanwhile I switched to other, better books. The end.