A Critique by Jim Harmon
If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free — Jesus Christ (John 8:31, 32).
Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus — Apostle Paul (Phil. 3:13, 14) .
Even after God’s dramatic rescue of me at the age of nineteen, when I became a Christian, the wound remained. As my dear friend Brent said, “Becoming a Christian doesn’t necessarily fix things. My arrows were still lodged deep and refused to allow some angry wounds inside to heal” — John Eldredge, Wild at Heart.
Simply put, the psychologizing of faith is destroying the Christian mind. It is destroying Christian habits of thought because it is destroying the capacity to think about life in a Christian fashion — David F. Wells, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?
It is poetic and enticing. It reads like a movie marquee: “A battle to fight, a beauty to rescue, and an adventure to live.” That’s an underlying theme of Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul by John Eldredge. On its Web site, Barnes & Noble introduces the book this way:
God designed men to be dangerous, says John Eldredge. Simply look at the dreams and desires written in the heart of every boy: To be a hero, to be a warrior, to live a life of adventure and risk. Sadly, most men abandon those dreams and desires—aided by a Christianity that feels like nothing more than pressure to be a “nice guy.” It’s no wonder that many men avoid church, and those who go are often passive and bored to death. In this provocative book, Eldredge gives women a look inside the true heart of a man and gives men permission to be what God designed them to be—dangerous, passionate, alive, and free.
It is instructive that at the time of this writing 19 of the 23 readers who submitted comments gave the book the highest rating (five stars). Four gave the book the lowest (one star). There were no in-between ratings. Overall, the vote in favor of the book was a landslide.
Popularity aside, Wild at Heart is a notable example of the integration of secular ideas, theories, and practices with Scripture. As a result, clear Biblical teaching regarding the nature of man, how he should live, and how he changes is compromised, undermined, and obscured. This is not a reliable way of “Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul.” At best, it’s like weaving through a minefield. Fortunately, the mines are on the surface. Unfortunately, many readers will not recognize them for what they are. We give it no stars.
The Wisdom of the World and the Wisdom of God Collide
The question “What is a Christian man?” comes early in the book and naturally raises expectations for some clear and reliable answers. Eldredge, however, submerges the issue in a sea of psychological, philosophical, and personal drama that only labors and encumbers the anticipated outcome. Our complaint is not with everything the author says about what makes or breaks a man; people sin and are sinned against, often in painful and grievous ways. Christians need not be surprised or perplexed by the effects and consequences of sin. Rather, in particular, it’s with his unrestrained application of secular and psychological counseling theories and assumptions that serve to obscure essential doctrines and teachings of Scripture, thereby robbing the issue of pure, God-breathed wisdom and the power therein (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Heb. 4:12). Masked in all of this, God is not presented as the sovereign, holy, all-powerful, all-knowing One that rules providentially in the affairs of men and nature, working righteously in the life of every believer, and assuring that the “good work” He has begun in each one will be completed.
The basic problem with Christians accepting these secular ideas, though popular throughout society, is that these ideas fundamentally do not illuminate or harmonize with Scripture. Rather, they tend to intrude upon it and meddle with it, usurping that which belongs to God. The authors of such ideas were unbelievers, men who had no regard for God or the Bible. Their work has spawned a multitude of differing theories and techniques. Theirs is a man-centered perspective that typically is based on what man thinks and says about himself. In addition, psychological counseling theory, like evolutionary theory, remains in flux; new ideas and theories continually emerge. Biblical truth is God-centered and confronts man with specific, unchanging facts of life (Matt. 4:4; John 17:17).
The “Wound” Takes Center Stage
“You don’t need a course in psychology to understand men,” Eldredge claims. Even so, from the outset he paints the Christian man with a distinctly psychological brush—a victim, one who has been “wounded,” most likely by his father, but also by the church, his wife, and others as well. All that follows is an eclectic mix of ideas and assumptions embroidered with Scripture. This mixture (known today as integration) can give the impression that the commentary is Bible-based and therefore misleads all but those discerning readers who insist upon Biblical integrity.
A positive note: The Bible is clear about the responsibilities of fathers in the lives of their children, not only to love their mothers, but also to be involved with the children in constructive ways, not the least of which is bringing them up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Eldredge, in a manner of speaking, reminds us of that, though he promotes an adventure-oriented relationship.
Conspicuously missing in Wild at Heart is a clear message pertaining to the centrality, necessity, and urgency of the Gospel (John 3:3). It’s not that an unbelieving man is a sinner in need of the Savior, or that a Christian man is a sinner-saint who continually needs to grow in Christian virtue. It’s that he (“every man”) is a victim (“wounded”) in search of “authentic masculinity” and in desperate need of getting “his heart back.” Eldredge deliberately sidesteps or downplays directives from Scripture that speak of obedience and duty, the “shoulds” and the “ought tos,” as well as the classic Biblical concepts of sin, salvation, justification, sanctification, and hell. He minimizes the Christian virtues of being “responsible, sensitive, disciplined, faithful, diligent, dutiful, etc.” While “Many of these are good qualities,” Eldredge says, they are the very things that turn a man into a “nice guy,” stripping him of his true masculine nature—”To be a hero, to be a warrior, to live a life of adventure and risk.”
“A man must have a battle to fight, a great mission to his life that involves and yet transcends even home and family,” Eldredge claims. “He must have a cause to which he is devoted even unto death for this is written into the fabric of his being. Listen carefully now: You do. That is why God created you—to be his intimate ally, to join him in the Great Battle.”
Along with that, “God has a battle to fight and the battle is for our freedom,” Eldredge asserts. In this context, the wounded man is characterized as living life as a “false self.” He must regain his true self, his “masculine heart,” and discover his “real name” in order to be a “real man.” “If we can reawaken that fierce quality in a man, hook it up to a higher purpose, release the warrior within, then the boy can grow up and become truly masculine.”
God Wants to be Loved?
While God serves to help men in their battle to recover their true natures, Eldredge also sees God as desperately needing human love and companionship:
And after years of hearing the heart-cry of women, I am convinced beyond a doubt of this: God wants to be loved. He wants to be a priority to someone….the cry of God’s heart is, “Why won’t you choose Me?” It is amazing to me how humble, how vulnerable God is on this point….In other words, “Look for me, pursue me—I want you to pursue me.”
Do you know why he (God) often doesn’t answer our prayers right away? Because he wants to talk to us, and sometimes that’s the only way to get us to stay and talk to him. His heart is for relationship, for shared adventure to the core.
We reflect on these statements in disbelief. Eldredge describes a needy God, a God with fragile hopes and desires, a God who comes in search of attention and affection. Can this be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Can this be the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable “living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9), who alone is the magnificent Creator and Ruler of the universe and man? Can this be the Father of Jesus, God, “which worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13)? Even unrighteous King Nebuchadnezzar understood that God is self-sufficient—in need of nothing, yet providing everything. His declaration is echoed in many ways throughout Scripture (see Dan. 4:35).
Men and Movies
Eldredge is obviously a man with an imagination. His explanations and descriptions often read more like fiction or fantasy than fact. He quotes from a plethora of sources, ranging from Henry V to the Dixie Chicks, individuals from many walks of life, some well known, some not. For the most part, they represent an assortment of secular points of view. For example, Eldredge extensively quotes Robert Bly, controversial founder of the “expressive men’s movement.” He also enthusiastically points to certain conversations, relationships, and events in popular, hero-oriented motion pictures to expand his case: movies such as Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, The Last Day, Gladiator, A Perfect World, Legends of the Fall, Top Gun, and Die Hard.
“Compare your experience watching the latest James Bond or Indiana Jones thriller with, say, going to a Bible study,” Eldredge insists. “The guaranteed success of each new release makes it clear—adventure is written into the heart of man.” Statements like this are startling. They represent such a questionable line of reasoning. By what legitimate measure can an action thriller, even with its cardiac moments, be compared with the encompassing rest and satisfaction that comes from being bathed in God’s Word? It’s like trying to compare the lasting quality and value of wood, hay, and straw with gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor. 3:12). Eldredge rightly makes the point, “We are made to depend on God; we are made for union with him and nothing about us works right without it,” yet without the force and clarity it deserves, including the necessity of true, personal understanding of Scripture.
Sorting Through the Debris
“I have a gift and calling to speak into the hearts of men and women,” Eldredge writes. Yet his commentary on becoming a man is undermined by his descriptions of his own attitudes and difficulties in various situations. For example, he refers to being in a “difficult place” with his wife—a “campfire” that Satan “turned…into a bonfire.” “By the time we got to the [wedding] reception,” Eldredge confides, “I didn’t want to dance with her. I didn’t even want to be in the same room. All the hurt and disappointment of the years—hers and mine—seemed to be the only thing that was ever true about our marriage….Truth be told, when I left the reception I had no intention of going back.” Eldredge ended up doing the right thing, but he says nothing about repenting and asking his wife for forgiveness. Rather, he reports that he asked Jesus to “come and rescue me”; Jesus answered with instructions to “go back in there and ask your wife to dance.” Eldredge sums it up with a classic side step: “We nearly lost to the Evil One.” What he neglects to say is that his behavior was a sin against God and his wife, and that his attitude, according to the Bible, is what gave the devil an opportunity in the first place (Eph. 4:26-27).
Eldredge writes vividly and somewhat casually of conversations with God, as if he were on the phone with his therapist. These dialogues have more the flavor of a movie script than an arresting encounter with the Divine. He rightly warns of Satan, the “world” and the “flesh,” but distorts the idea of spiritual warfare. (“Yet this is where we live now—on the front lines of a fierce spiritual war.”) While he focuses dominantly on the battle, Eldredge does give assurance that God “will fight for us, with us, just as he has fought for his people all through the ages.” That said, one wonders why he has more to say about heroic characters like Maximus (Gladiator) and William Wallace (Braveheart) than about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Muted in this drama is the Biblical fact that our battle is really the Lord’s (John 17:13-15), and the primary challenge for all believers is to grow in loving God and others, just as He has commanded (Matt. 22:37-40; John 14:15). Also obscured are some of the specifics of God’s protecting provisions, such as “the whole armour of God” (Eph. 6:10-17), Peter’s declaration that believers are “kept by the power of God” (1 Pet. 1:5), and that Jesus, seated on His throne as Priest, is continually interceding for the saints (Rom. 8:34-39; Heb. 7:25).
“When the Bible tells us that Christ came to ‘redeem mankind’ it offers a whole lot more than forgiveness,” Eldredge explains. “The Messiah will come, he says, to bind up and heal, to release and set free. What? Your heart. Christ comes to restore and release you, your soul, your true you.” We agree that the Bible shows clearly that redemption is, by the grace of God, “a whole lot more than forgiveness.” But nothing in Scripture even suggests that Jesus’ death and resurrection was intended to “restore and release” us to be our true selves. Our true selves will follow our heart, which is not “good” as Eldredge claims, but is “deceitful…and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). This kind of thinking is an undisguised affront to the Creator, the Author and Sustainer of life, the One we know as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). Simply stated, Jesus suffered and died to save us from our sin and from death, and to change us into a “royal priesthood,” a people fit for the kingdom of God who live to do the good works He has prepared—all to His glory (1 Pet. 2:9).
The apostle Paul explained that he spoke in words taught by the Spirit, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” words that the “natural man” does not accept (1 Cor. 2:13-14). Eldredge speaks dominantly in psychological terms that are foreign to Scripture. In addition, in many cases, where the author quotes or alludes to Scripture, his references are not thoughtfully studied or theologically reliable. He often draws questionable conclusions from the Biblical narratives, e.g., the failure of Adam and Eve (pp. 48-57, 115-116), the relationship of Boaz and Ruth (pp. 190-192), the meaning of “a heart of flesh” from Jeremiah (pp. 133-135), and the purpose for which Christ came (pp. 128-29).
Called to Maturity
One of the great Biblical themes is the need for believers to “press on to maturity” (Eph. 4:11-16; Heb. 6:1). When a man is persuaded that God’s answers as revealed in Scripture are not sufficient, he will look for solutions to life’s difficulties outside of Scripture. The typical consequences are that he will draw closer to self than to God—draw inward rather than upward—draw closer to self-love than to loving God and others. In that regard, the apostle Paul warned:
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ (Col. 2:8).
How do we distinguish between the “rudiments [elementary principles] of the world” and that which is according to Christ? Proper interpretation of Bible verses demands a careful and humble comparing of verses and passages with other verses and passages regarding the whole of Scripture (known in theology as “exegesis”). To compare or align Scripture with psychological or philosophical ideas results not in exegesis, but “eisegesis” (the process of reading into Scripture something from outside of Scripture). Authentic research can certainly contribute to our understanding of certain things related to Biblical teachings (i.e., confirming the fallacies of today’s popular self-esteem teachings). In the end, our understanding of the nature of man, how he is to live, and how he changes must be shaped by “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). According to this standard, Eldredge doesn’t make a convincing case for his view of manhood.
Near the end of his book, Eldredge reiterates his complaint about the church: how it views God, how it conducts itself, and how it has drained men of their creativity and drive.
There are no formulas with God. Period. So there are no formulas for the man who follows him. God is a Person, not a doctrine. He operates not like a system—not even a theological system—but with all the originality of a truly free and alive person.
He then quotes an Archbishop Bloom: “The realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not just seek information about it.” Eldredge continues:
The problem with modern Christianity’s obsession with principles is that it removes any real conversation with God. Find a principle, apply the principle—what do we need God for?….God is an immensely creative Person and he wants his sons to live that way.
One wonders how Eldredge arrives at these distorted and rebellious conclusions about God, the teaching of Jesus Christ, and how we are to relate to them. Certainly not from Scripture! These are simply the views of men, ideas that tend to bring God down and raise men up. Compare Eldredge’s thoughts with the Bible. The bottom-line question to keep warming on the front burner throughout this book is, “What does the Bible say?”
Isn’t God Enough?
Worthy of sober consideration is James’ warning about the “double-minded” man (James 1:5-8). If one regards the Word of God as somehow insufficient, his answers to the questions like those raised in Wild at Heart will be deficient and distorted. The true answer comes in observing closely the truth of Scripture (John 17:17; 2 Tim. 2:15). It is only the Word of God that is living and powerfully active (Heb. 4:12). Likewise, it is only the Word of God that sets men free (John 8:31-32). God’s purpose for a man’s life is an upward call to Christian maturity, resting distinctly within the declarations, directives, and instructions in Scripture (Ps. 19:7-11; Rom. 8:28; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3-4) and not among the teachings of men (1 Cor. 2:5).
It is no wonder that men who become immersed in the many movies and activities that Eldredge mentions become “passive and bored to death” in church. Men and women who immerse themselves in worldly entertainment become bored with life as well. Many worship at the altar of the adrenaline rush, living on a roller coaster of transient highs—excited, yet never really satisfied. Eldredge’s description of man and his proposed solutions to what he describes as the church-alienated man are themselves the sinful causes of men avoiding church. Worshipping, fellowshipping, and listening to God’s Word will never provide the carnal man with the heart-pounding, flesh tingling, eye-widening experience of Eldredge’s “manly” activities. The carnal man will always be more attracted to the “lust of the eyes, and the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16-17). While Wild at Heart can never reveal “the Secret of a Man’s Soul,” it does reveal the ideas and activities that appeal to man’s flesh—the old Adam.
In the end, true understanding of Biblical manhood will begin humbly with a right vision of God. Isaiah was one who had that vision:
In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts (Isaiah 6:1-5).
PAL V11N3 (May-June 2003)