The “Wild at Heart” kind of guy.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 June

Nine years ago a friend, who should’ve known better, gave me a copy of John Eldredge’s Wild At Heart as a Christmas gift. The book was all the rage among Christian men five years before. At the time (’cause I tried to get rid of it on Amazon) it was going for 20 cents. Betcha she found it on sale.

People buy books like Wild at Heart to inspire the men in their lives. That’d include men who don’t read. Consequently there are a lot of men who own a dusty copy of Wild at Heart, and mine’s pretty dusty too, ’cause I refuse to read it again.

I’d read it years before. It wasn’t my copy, which is the only reason I didn’t throw it across the room in disgust. Nope, I don’t care for it. Here’s why.

Eldredge’s profoundly misguided thesis is constructed around certain 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, 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 his grand adventure.
  • HAPPY PREMISE #3. This was how God made men to be, and even Jesus was like this.
  • HAPPY PREMISE #4. You must never, ever show it to the Laker Girls.

No wait; that last one’s from Bowfinger.

In Wild at Heart, Eldredge explains why humanity doesn’t know his Happy Premises, despite them being buried deep in every man’s heart (where Eldredge found them, though others hadn’t), despite them being buried deep in the scriptures (where Eldredge found them, and where millennia of other Christians hadn’t). Men aren’t proper, masculine males; their fathers never taught them to be one. Instead, their mothers teach boys to be girly, and domesticate and figuratively castrate them.

Hence women are wholly unfit to raise men. Seriously; that’s what Eldredge teaches. Something ladies better bear in mind, next time someone recommends this book for your husband.

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? Any other man? 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 some unrelated stranger should be able to overrule you and supply your boy with a box of matches, because you don’t get it?

Yes. Yes he does. To make his case, Eldredge references the Clint Eastwood movie A Perfect World. Kevin Costner plays an escaped convict who kidnaps an 8-year-old boy. He lets the boy ride the roller coaster his mother wouldn’t. He compliments the boy on his penis. Yeah, there are other instances in the movie of bonding between the criminal and his victim, but Eldredge picked those two. Wild rides and genitalia. The two things in this book he upholds most.

Eldredge blames emasculation on clingy mothers, and bad fathers who let their wives turn their sons into girly-men—then mock the boys for not being manly enough. He claims he’s never met a man who’s not been wounded this way. Eldredge 72 As a result, he says, men either overcompensate and become driven, violent men; or they retreat and become passive. Or 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 

Thus unwittingly providing us an example of mocking boys he doesn’t deem manly enough.

Y’know, I have a goatee, and by golly my hat is turned backward. However, I never considered ’em messages of strength and weakness—and if I did, they’d be opposite of Eldredge’s. My facial hair is ’cause I passively don’t feel like shaving every day. My backwards hat is because I can handle the dangerous glare of the sun—and the judgment of misogynistic authors.

Oh, I’m just getting started on this book.

The adventuresome, irresponsible wild man.

Coincidentally round the same time I read Wild at Heart, I read G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics. Its chapter 3, on warrior poet Rudyard Kipling, is mighty applicable to Eldredge’s philosophy.

Kipling was also a fan of “the great adventure,” and wrote tons about achieving manhood through great and violent feats. (Fr’instance his poem “If.”) Chesterton felt Kipling did so in order to avoid getting connected to his local community, putting down roots… becoming responsible, getting domesticated. And Chesterton particularly critiqued him for that. True, Kipling trotted the globe, but he never bothered to gain more than a superficial knowledge of it; he only cared about the British Empire conquering the globe in manly ways. Chesterton wanted Kipling to become domesticated in the very way Eldredge abhors.

Y’know, I’m not sure Eldredge would approve of Chesterton’s lifestyle either. He wasn’t the he-man outdoorsy sort; he was a morbidly obese city-dwelling pundit. Eldredge critiques contemporary men for not fitting his romantic ideal; Chesterton critiqued his contemporaries for their romantic ideals being selfish, godless, and stupid.

Eldredge’s romantic ideals come from Carl Jung’s and Joseph Campbell’s literary archetypes. Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (or even Mythology for Dummies) will explain “the Hero’s Journey” for you: It’s the heroic story we’re all used to, found all over popular mythology: Greco-Roman myths, classic novels, superhero comics, Star Wars and Harry Potter. Heroes, heroines, wise mentors, evil villains, adventure far from home. Eldredge wants to take this journey—and justify himself by claiming this desire for adventure is universal. God put it in all men. We were born that way.

True, there’s no bible verse which states, “Man is made to explore the wilderness and have adventures.” But Eldredge claims it’s in there, if you look for it.

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 

This claim doesn’t explain so many men’s desire to create a “man cave” in their house, and spend loads of time in it. True, lots of men enjoy the outdoors. I do too. But it’s hardly an insatiable desire: I go to the beach, go to the park, go camping… then my desire gets sated, and I wanna go home. Home’s the insatiable desire. Heck, that’s even true in the myths. Where’d you think Odysseus was so intent on going? What was Aeneas doing, if not trying to find a new home? Home was the only place Bilbo Baggins longed for. And in Christianity, heaven is home, and God is our Father; it’s to heaven where our hearts turn.

True, Adam was created outside Eden. But God’s intent was hardly for that to be his habitat. God deliberately assigned him a garden to domesticate. Ge 2.15 Make Eden his man cave. And after Adam sinned, his curse was to be returned to the wilderness from whence he came. Ge 3.22-24

I’m not claiming wilderness is evil. Yet throughout the scriptures, wilderness is a metaphor for desolation, waste, banishment, being outside God’s favor. The scapegoat was sent into the wilderness, Lv 16.10 and the Spirit drove Jesus into it to be tempted by Satan. Mk 1.12-13 Don’t read too much into the metaphor; 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 wrath and deep sorrow.

Eldredge assumes he can find all the Jungian archetypes in the bible if he looks hard enough. It’s why he keeps misinterpreting the bible: The bible isn’t proper mythology. We find these archetypes all over mythology ’cause that’s how their composers designed those stories. The bible, in comparison, doesn’t work like that. First of all, it’s based on history, which doesn’t always fit archetypes so neatly. Secondly, humans aren’t the bible’s heroes. They’re the companions and the villains. God’s the hero.

Eldredge didn’t use endnotes or attribution in his book, so I had to Google some of his quotes to find out where on earth he got ’em. He quotes big huge paragraphs from Robert Bly’s 1990 bestseller Iron John: A Book About Men. Bly wrote it as part of his Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, a group searching for masculism by not bashing feminism. (For once—and unlike Eldredge.) Bly sought the true meaning of masculinity by digging through the archetypes in classical literature and folk tales. Like Grimm’s fairy tale “Iron John” (also called “Iron Hans”) about a young hero and his wild-man mentor.

Christian leaders, back in the ’90s, figured 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 same year. And McCartney never taught that masculinity is defined by wildness: It’s defined by keeping one’s word. I attended many PK functions myself back then, and agree: Manhood is defined by integrity and responsibility. So’s adulthood in general. But whereas women regularly step up and take positions of responsibility, men too often run away from them, or take advantage of women and slack off. You don’t reclaim your manhood through acts of bravado. You do it by doing your duty.

I’ve found people who claim Wild at Heart is simply a Christian knock-off of Iron John. I don’t know, ’cause I never read Iron John myself. All I knew about Bly in the ’90s was how certain men read his book, then joined drum circles and vented about how Daddy never told ’em he loved them. I assumed Eldredge was referring to Carl Jung’s and Joseph Campbell’s literary archetypes ’cause he learned this stuff in college. Not because he was ripping off Bly.

But it does explain why Eldredge’s reasoning is far more pagan than Christian.

Jesus as Mel Gibson William Wallace.

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 I’m getting downright obsessive about it. But if I claim God put this desire in me, nobody’s allowed to take it away. It’s become a divine right. In this way I’d take a good thing and turn it into an idol: Bean-flavored water in exchange for my divine inheritance. Which is a really stupid trade. You might recall Esau made it. Ge 25.34

Eldredge does this throughout Wild at Heart: God put wildness into men. God put wildness into Jesus, and it helps when we know our forebears and role models are badasses like Jesus. Or like Sir William Wallace, the medieval Scots folk hero.

In chapter 2, Eldredge shared the story of when Wallace rallied the troops at the Battle of Stirling. One catch: We’ve no idea how Wallace rallied his troops. We have Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, but as any historian will tell you, the movie’s mostly fiction.

No, really. The battle of Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297, took place on a wooden bridge, not a field, as depicted in Braveheart. The Scots bottlenecked the English forces—more like the Spartans in Zack Snyder’s 300 than like Gibson’s movie—and slaughtered ’em like cattle down a chute. Gibson went with a conventional battle in a field ’cause he didn’t want the victory to look quite so easy.

As for Gibson’s costume, he wore a 500-years-too-early tartan and kilt. He painted his face blue with 1,000-years-too-late woad warpaint. He galloped round on a horse, shouted how “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” and everybody shouts, and… nope, the real battle didn’t look at all like that. The movie version looked awesome, though. Won Gibson an Oscar.

The troop-rousing speech and Wallace’s fight-picking, were written by screenwriter Randall Wallace. (No relation.) The present-day Mr. Wallace loosely 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. Blind Harry wasn’t historically accurate either. But Randall Wallace and Mel Gibson’s primary jobs as moviemakers is to entertain, not instruct. These guys don’t need to care about historicity. They only need to tell a cool story and sell tickets. Which they did. It’s only a movie, after all. You want accuracy, watch a documentary.

Eldredge didn’t recognize this, so that’s the story he shared in Wild at Heart. Not the historical Sir Wallace, but movie-Wallace. He points to this and says, “That’s the guy. That’s who I want to be like. I wanna be a badass like him.”

As a Christian, Eldredge should wanna be like Jesus. But in his mind, that’s no problem: Seems Jesus is actually like movie-Wallace. In Braveheart, movie-Wallace “picked a fight” with the English nobles. In the gospels, Eldredge claims, 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 committed adultery with a hot French princess, and secretly fathered King Edward 3.

Okay, no he didn’t: 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 isn’t the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” caricature we find in some American churches. Charles Wesley wrote that line to teach children Jesus isn’t scary, but it had the unfortunate side effect of making Jesus sound like a nice friendly Mormon who’d 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 a soccer hooligan.

Eldredge appropriately mocks the false images of Jesus, but inappropriately drags in other examples of mildness, and mocks them out of context. Like Mister Rogers—a children’s show host, who was mild on television because he knew mildness, not the kinetic frenzy we tend to see in children’s programming, helps kids calm down and pay attention. Like Mother Teresa of Kolkata—mild towards the dying sinners she found in the streets, but she was far from mild when it came to requesting help from the rich and the bureaucrats. No living person is one-dimensional, unless the devil gets ’em overly fixated on some soul-destroying obsession. Both Rogers and Teresa had their mild and not-so-mild moments. As did the actual Sir William Wallace. As does Jesus.

Movie-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. Passion for boning princesses.

Zeal (KJV “emulations,” NLT “jealousy”) is a work of the flesh. Ga 5.20 There’s a lot that’s unhealthy with this sort of overboard passion. “I warn you now like I warned you before,” Paul wrote; “those who do such things don’t inherit God’s kingdom.” Ga 5.21 Ass-kicking isn’t a fruit of the Spirit. Peace is.

“A cheek you do not have”?

Chapter 5 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: “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 get where he’s coming from. I wouldn’t want my kid picked on. But Christians are not to be typical fathers, but follow Jesus. If you get backhanded, you turn the other cheek. Mt 5.39 When you fight back, bullies use it to justify beating the tar out of you. I know; I’ve been a bully. I wanted ’em to fight back; it meant I wouldn’t feel at all guilty for smacking ’em around. So don’t give bullies any such justification. Get teachers and cops involved. If they do nothing, make noise.

Passive resistance was the basis of Indian independence and American civil rights—both of which worked. Compare this with the Palestinians and Irish, who spent decades fighting the folks who occupy their land, with only token progress. See, when they resort to violence, people stop thinking of them as victims, but terrorists. Their opponents elect hardliners, and they get tamped down all the more. People may hate bullies, but have no trouble voting for ’em.

Jesus’s directions are proven to work. But few have the guts to try them, or the patience to await results. More often our pride gets in the way. We hit back because “a real man wouldn’t stand for this.” Eldredge fancies himself a real man, so he told his boy to hit back. And incoherently tried to justify this anti-Christian behavior.

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 

Yeah, he makes no bloody sense. “Cannot turn a cheek you do not have”? Jesus chose not to retaliate, but if our kids choose not to retaliate, it emasculates them? First a boy has to prove his manhood by besting a bully, and then he can turn the other cheek? None of this is logical. Because Eldridge isn’t using his head; he’s venting his spleen. All of this is fleshly.

What pissed Jesus off most about how the Pharisees interpreted the bible? Their loopholes. Their ways of weaseling out of God’s clear directions, so they could cling to their money, power, or pride. And pride is the very issue Eldredge means, but won’t say. The boy is “mocked, shamed before his fellows, stripped of all power and dignity.” Power? Dignity? Honor? Pride. Yet, according to Eldredge, Jesus never intends us to forsake pride. Follow Jesus, but not at the cost of your pride.

This is the point of the book where I decided I was done with it. I will read no further. Nope, don’t gotta provide more bad examples from the rest of the book. Like the old editor’s saying (attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but I can’t confirm it): “You don’t have to eat a whole egg to know it’s rotten.” I think I’ve demonstrated enough how the book is damned.

Still popular though.

And yet people love this book. Love love love. Wanna cuddle with it on warm winter nights and stroke its hair.

Unlike other books I’ve been obligated to read, or forced myself to, Wild at Heart is an irredeemable book. Other books have something of worth in ’em; some wheat mixed in among the wet feces. I found none in Wild at Heart. It badly misquotes the scriptures, reduces women to props and prizes, disguises its rampant misogyny as something noble and beautiful, uses movies and poems instead of real life as social examples, and makes up for a lack of depth by repeating the same ideas over and over again.

It makes absolute statements which are meant to appeal to our carnal nature. Justifies it too.

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 

Yet as every Christian knows—or should—the deep desire of our hearts is selfishness. “The heart’s more incurably twisted than anything. Who understands it?” Jr 17.9 The junk in our own hearts—the rubbish we find in there before the Holy Spirit regenerates us—are not what we’re 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 can’t trust the heart.

The reason Wild at Heart appeals to so many men is because it tells us, “You don’t have to tame your passions, nor regulate them with the scriptures. Let them roam free. God wants you to. He put those passions in you.” Trouble is, he didn’t.

Eldredge’s message is to trust your heart. God’s message is to rebuke the heart, reform, repent, and seek God’s heart. Eldredge wants us to resist being shaped by various pressures, while God the Potter is pounding our human clay with those various pressures.

Wild at Heart is as fleshly a “Christian” book as I have ever read. Can’t recommend it. And I gotta warn you not to fall for it. It won’t make you any more of a man. Only more of a jerk—towards your wife, towards your kids, towards other men who don’t suit Eldredge’s ideals, even though Jesus might be mighty pleased with them. It’ll make think your spirit is the Holy Spirit—and follow the wrong god.