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Wild at Heart

I finally did it. After nearly four years, countless reviews, and over one million copies in print, I picked up and read John Eldredge’s best-selling book, Wild at Heart. I don’t know why it took me so long to do so. After all, I had read with great delight and profit the book he co-authored with the late Brent Curtis, The Sacred Romance.

There is much to commend in this volume, not least of which is Eldredge’s engaging and vivid style of writing. One simply cannot deny that reading this sort of writing is fun! Eldredge has a way with words and illustrations and images that make it understandable why his works are so massively popular. Would that all Christian authors could communicate as effectively as he.

But my response must not stop with issues of style. We have to move on to substance.

As I said, there is much in this book to like. It’s about time someone addressed the issue of what it means to be a man. What’s at the core of masculinity? Eldredge looks at the church today and doesn’t find a satisfying answer. He sees, and he’s right, a bunch of bored, passive, frightened, complacent men who have no idea what it means to love God or their wives or their families. The church, says Eldredge, has focused on teaching men to be “nice” and “good” and “moral”, all of which are certainly o.k., but woefully short of what true masculinity is all about.

Those of you who have read this book already know that Eldredge identifies three features in the masculine soul that he contends are essential to “man” as God created him. Not “woman”, note well, but “man” as a male. There are also distinctive features to females as divine image-bearers, but Eldredge’s focus is on the male. Eldredge insists that all men, without exception, long for “a battle to fight,” “an adventure to live,” and “a beauty to rescue.” The failure to recognize these features as “hardwired” into the masculine soul accounts, in large measure, for the insipid, controlled, and bored lives most men live.

There are other things Eldredge says with which I whole-heartedly agree. He points to the tragedy of lonely women, fatherless children, and so few men who will honestly engage with their families. He also identifies correctly every man’s deepest fear: “to be exposed, to be found out, to be discovered as an impostor, and not really a man” (45). This fear is largely what motivates the creation of a false self, an image men project that insulates them from the danger of being exposed as incompetent. Most men live terrified that one day they will be revealed as inadequate, unable to provide and protect and defend and deliver those answers that their wives and children so desperately need.

Eldredge also makes several excellent observations on the power and appeal of pornography. A man is drawn to it because “it makes him feel like a man without ever requiring a thing of him” (44). Again, the real reason men become addicted “is because that seductive beauty reaches down inside and touches your desperate hunger for validation as a man you didn’t even know you had, touches it like nothing else most men have ever experienced” (91).

I applaud Eldredge’s focus on the need for men to embrace their God-given strength, as well as his call for masculine courage, boldness, and the determination to pursue one’s dream. He calls on men to get up off the couch and to engage their wives in the way God intended. One of the principal reasons they don’t is fear: deep in their souls they are terrified that it won’t be enough. “Too many men forsake their dreams because they aren’t willing to risk, or fear they aren’t up to the challenge, or are never told that those desires deep in their heart are good. But the soul of a man . . . isn’t made for controlling things; it’s made for adventure” (205).

Most, if not all, men need to own up to the initial wounding they received in their youth and pursue the healing that only comes through union with Christ and surrender to God’s love. “This deep intimate union with Jesus and with his Father,” he rightly notes, “is the source of all our healing and all our strength” (131).

He is right to stress the importance of a father in a young man’s life, and contends that “femininity can never bestow masculinity” (64). I also found his discussion on the reality of spiritual warfare, the tactics of the Enemy, and how we are to combat him to be both biblical and insightful.

If that were all that Eldredge said, one could hardly find fault. But there are other dimensions to his understanding of the masculine soul that I question. Most are found in the first two chapters of the book. Perhaps it would be best to take them one at a time.

First, Eldredge appears to argue that every man, by God’s design, loves the “wilderness” and yearns deep in his soul for the outdoors with all its dangers, risks, and physical challenges. He tries to build his case for this, at least in part, on a very precarious interpretation of the creation of Adam. Adam, says Eldredge, “was created outside the Garden, in the wilderness. . . . 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” (3-4). If Eldredge wants to argue for man’s instinctive longing for the rigors of wilderness life, he’s certainly free to make his case. But basing it on this interpretation from Genesis 1-2 is highly questionable. There is no indication that Moses’ point in saying that God created Adam and placed him in the garden was that all men are divinely hardwired for the outdoors!

I may be tipping my hand here, but on Eldredge’s criteria, I’m not much of a man. I am entirely “at home indoors” and I have virtually no “longing to explore,” at least not an insatiable one.

“Ah, but isn’t it possible, Sam, that you have universalized Eldredge’s claims in a way that he never intended? Why must you conclude that he means that all men are this way?” Because he explicitly, on several occasions, says that it applies to all men. These desires, he says, are not only “core to who and what I am and yearn to be,” but “are universal, a clue into masculinity itself” (9). They exist “in the heart of every man” (9). Again, God set this masculine heart “within every man” (8).

Listen again to Eldredge’s description of true masculinity:

“Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man. The masculine heart needs a place where nothing is prefabricated, modular, nonfat, zip lock, franchised, on-line, microwavable. Where there are no deadlines, cell phones, or committee meetings. Where there is room for the soul. Where, finally, the geography around us corresponds to the geography of our heart” (5).

This sounds more like autobiography than biblical theology. I’m thrilled that Eldredge and his friends enjoy the outdoors and the absence of modern technological comforts, but he’s gone too far in prescribing this for every man and by doing so suggesting that those who don’t share that longing are less than real men, or are living in denial.

Perhaps I’m all alone in this, in which case I need counseling worse than I thought (!), but the geography of my heart corresponds perfectly to where I am right now as I write this review: in an air-conditioned office at my home, with a working laptop, a cell phone at my right hand and a cup of coffee at my left, comfortably at work in a chair that fits the contours of my backside very nicely.

There’s a chance I’m misreading Eldredge. Perhaps he has in mind those early years in a young boy’s life when he wants nothing more than to play cowboys and Indians, grovel around in caves, and throw rocks at girls. Been there, done that. Yes, young boys long for adventure and exploration and athletic competition. But it’s one thing to suggest this is the instinctive impulse of a young boy or even a teenager and another thing entirely to extend this to all men who are well beyond puberty and have happily found their calling in life that may place them beyond the reach of the call of the wild.

Again, Eldredge writes: “Deep in a man’s heart are some fundamental questions that simply cannot be answered at the kitchen table” (5). Oh, really? Who says so? I’m not aware of anything in Scripture that remotely indicates that a real man cannot discover his identity and destiny at a kitchen table. Says Eldredge, “It is fear that keeps a man at home where things are neat and orderly and under his control” (5). “A man,” read that as a real man, one who is unafraid and not a wimp, “needs to feel the rhythms of the earth; he needs to have in hand something real – the tiller of a boat, a set of reins, the roughness of rope, or simply a shovel. Can a man [i.e., a real man] live all his days to keep his fingernails clean and trim?” (6). The options he allows are a bit exaggerated, but you get the point.

“Aggression,” argues Eldredge, “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). I have several problems with this. First of all, “aggression” is characteristic of man’s nature within a fallen and corrupt and hostile world. But there is no indication that aggression was a constituent element in Adam before the fall and therefore one cannot contend that it is a fundamental and divinely ordained characteristic of the man as male. Second, women are also formed in the image of God. Are they for that reason inherently aggressive? And third, God is a “warrior” because he fights against sin and Satan and corruption and evil and unbelief and decay, not because he is “hardwired” in his being for the physical and emotional challenges of the wilderness!

Eldredge asks us to compare our “experience watching the latest James Bond or Indiana Jones thriller with, say, going to Bible study” (13). O.k., count me weird, call me a “girly-man” (to use Arnold Schwarzenegger’s language), but I would much prefer, on any day at any time, to spend time with friends digging deeply into the Word of God than watching any kind of movie, Bond, Jones, or otherwise.

I’m not advocating male passivity or weakness or fearfulness or timidity or hesitancy to defend when danger is at hand. Men are called and ordained by God to lead and protect and provide and defend and I applaud Eldredge’s efforts at calling us back to our responsibilities as husbands and fathers. But I see no basis for equating this with an aggressive and adventurous spirit that craves for horses to break and enemy soldiers to kill and mountains to climb. I have numerous friends who love to hunt and fish and scale mountainous peaks. But I don’t think that makes them more real as men or more biblically masculine any more than those who prefer the library or the art museum or the office are for that reason less than what God created them to be.

Perhaps I’m reacting this way for reasons other than my own inclinations, likes and dislikes. The fact is, my own father was the most masculine and godly leader I’ve ever known. He was strong and firm and courageous and kind and tender and loving. If he ever went fishing or hunting, it was for the fellowship of his friends who enjoyed such pursuits. It certainly wasn’t because he wanted something to conquer or an outdoor adventure to pursue. Eldredge seems to suggest, or merely concedes (and reluctantly at that), that being “nice” and “good” and “well-mannered” are important. But they aren’t what real men are like. I beg to differ. My father was the nicest and best and most well-mannered real man I’ve ever known, and from what I’ve been told by others their lives are forever changed for the good and for the glory of God because he was that way.

I happened to finish reading this book about the same time I watched To Kill a Mockingbird yet again. If you haven’t seen this classic film, please rent it and watch it. Atticus Finch, wonderfully portrayed by Gregory Peck, is my idea of a real man. He tenderly loves his children after the death of his wife, takes on unpleasant tasks that no one else would dare to touch, puts his reputation at risk for the sake of honor, and refuses to fight back when the town drunk spits in his face. He confesses to his son that he’s “too old to play football with the Methodists” and, despite a lucky shot at a rabid dog, doesn’t know how to handle a gun very well. Here is a man whose strength and courage and masculinity are expressed in non-violence, non-aggression, and unshakeable integrity. I’m not saying that Eldredge wouldn’t applaud Atticus Finch or his moral valor. But neither do I believe that Finch or my father or others that I’ve known would fit the mold for what he considers to be a real man

In all fairness to Eldredge, he points to what his own sons really long for at night, just before bed: “snuggle time.” They long for “intimacy, closeness, connection” (120). It’s not contrary to true masculinity, he notes, to acknowledge that we need something or someone beyond ourselves. “The true essence of strength is passed to us from God through our union with him” (122). Amen.

Let me move on to a second complaint I have with Eldredge’s portrayal of masculinity. He tells the story of his son Blaine being pushed to the ground by the school bully. Eldredge’s advice to his son? “I want you to get up . . . and I want you to hit him . . . as hard as you possibly can” (78). To do otherwise, says Eldredge, is “weakness” (79).

I understand this initial, knee-jerk reaction. In my days as young boy, I confess to having done precisely what Eldredge told his boy to do. Let me be clear about one thing. I’m not a passivist. I most certainly do believe in the legitimacy of self-defense. And I do not believe that Jesus’ word about “turning the other cheek” is relevant here (see my discussion of this text in the series on the Sermon on the Mount elsewhere on this site). If this were strictly a matter of his son’s physical well-being I might agree with his advice. But that does not appear to be the case. Therefore, would it not be more in keeping with the ethic of the New Testament, as painful as the cost may be, to tell him to stand up, daring the bully to push him down again; then get up again, once again daring the bully, again and again and again, proving that neither the bully nor anyone else ultimately has power over him. To my way of thinking, that takes a “strength” of will and character far greater than what is required to punch him in the mouth.

So, at times I struggled to find myself in this book. Contrary to Eldredge, I was repulsed by the wanton violence, cruelty, and bloodshed of Braveheart and Gladiator and, at risk of appearing like an ignorant pansy, I don’t hesitate to tell my mechanic that looking under the hood of my car makes me sick to my stomach!

My third and final point concerns Eldredge’s portrayal of God, who, says Eldredge, “prefers adventure, danger, risk, the element of surprise” (30). He is quick to point out to his more theologically informed readers that he is not advocating “open theism”. Yet it’s hard to tell at first if he is an advocate of exhaustive divine foreknowledge. If God has “everything under absolute control”, says Eldredge, there can’t possibly be any risk to his life. Right? Yet “God is a person who takes immense risks. No doubt the biggest risk of all was when he gave angels and men free will, including the freedom to reject him – not just once, but every single day” (30). But then Eldredge seems to backtrack somewhat and affirms that God did know “what would happen” (31) when he created the human race, yet he still “took a risk. A staggering risk, with staggering consequences” (31).

This is theologically problematic. Eldredge apparently thinks that we can be risk takers because God is one. But I agree with John Piper that “the dimension of God’s character that frees me to be a risk-taker for his glory is precisely the truth that God does not and cannot take any risks” (The Pleasures of God, 54). To say that God is a risk-taker suggests “1) that he cannot foresee what will come of his decisions; and 2) that he is not in control of things so as to make his counsel stand” (54-55). But Scripture portrays God in an entirely different light.

We should also define the word “risk” more carefully. Says Piper:

“A person takes a risk when he performs an action that exposes him to the uncertain possibility of injury or loss. This means that if you know that an action will hurt you and you choose it anyway, you do not call it a risk. You may call it foolishness. You may call it sacrifice. Or you may call it love. But risk implies uncertainty: maybe I will lose, and maybe I won’t; I’m not sure” (55).

But God, who possesses exhaustive divine foreknowledge, is not uncertain about anything. The reason we humans can take risks, says Piper,

“is because we are ignorant of our earthly future. We are uncertain how things will turn out here. But God is in heaven and does whatever he pleases (Psalm 115:3). His counsel always stands and his purposes are accomplished (Isaiah 46:9-10). He knows the end from the beginning, and therefore cannot take risks. He can sacrifice himself, and he can love. But he never rolls dice. Nothing that he does is ever a gamble. For his own wise purposes, he can allow his cause to suffer temporary setbacks (both individually and globally). He can love at the price of his son’s life. But to describe him as a risk-taker calls into question his omniscience and sovereignty, and therefore takes away the very foundation of our confidence, and thus power that enables us to take risks for God” (57).

In conclusion, and all that said, I still recommend that men read this book. I spent more time on the few negatives than on the many, many positives. But don’t let that deter you from gleaning from Eldredge considerable wisdom and practical advice on becoming the leader God designed you to be and experiencing the joy of loving the way he designed you to love.