Pastor's email: about Wild at Heart

I received the following email, with permission to post & thought it might be a good ongoing article that reflects real concerns in churches. The prompt:
Hi Pastor, I was wondering if you ever read Wild at Heart by John Elderedge or Iron John by Robert Bly. I'm still interested in the societal loss of the father figure and longing to be a warrior and wanted to hear your thoughts on it sometime. I was talking at church on Sunday about MMA and I've been feeling lately that there's a force within the men at church, waiting to be released.
Sounds like a great discussion.  Quite simply, I have nothing good to say about Wild at Heart and its popularity worries me.  I have some thoughts about the book, but I want to preface them by saying that the things you are sensing at church sound right on, and I love the discussion.  As for Wild at Heart, I understand people have found comfort in it, but if you cherish it, it might be best to stop reading my note here.  I will say this about Iron John: it doesn’t seek to be Christian and it succeeds.

Wild at Heart is just the kind of Christian pulp that makes me think American Christianity is doomed.  It is both biblically and philosophically spurious, rehashing old macho, misogynistic tropes that say more about our culture than the Kingdom of God, yet it purports to be  “biblical” work.  He even quotes scripture.

My most serious concern about the book is how much he interprets our culture as Christ.  (I also worry about the terrible exegesis and hazy reasoning, but I don’t have space for that here… ) What I hear in the pages of Wild at Heart are the cries of male powerlessness and insecurity.  Now, those are real feelings and real problems, and I agree that passivity and insecurity are draining our life away, but his solution is the very thing that got us into this mess: wielding worldly power selfishly.  Acting on impulse, without accountability is the problem, not the solution.  So this is my concern; who has understood power correctly, Jesus or Eldridge? 

Because Eldridge has not understood Jesus.

He suggests battles, adventures, and pursuing women are what’s truest about men, and I tend to agree.  They are also some of the truest things about apes.  Sadly, most men do not grow into fully functioning adults capable of mastering their biological impulses and offering love instead, and in his quest to reclaim a male voice, he ends up infantilizing it, dehumanizing us.  He writes, “Hopefully by now you see the deep and holy goodness of masculine aggression and that will help you understand what Christ is saying." (177) Masculine aggression?  Is that different from feminine aggression?  Has he ever been hit by a parent?

I am gobsmacked he interprets what Christ did as “masculine aggression.”  That reeks of white privilege to me, assuming that cleansing the temple and challenging authority stemmed from masculine aggression and not a holy passion for justice, an abhorrence of injustice or a hope for a better tomorrow.  -Nope, its just good ‘ole ___  whoopin'.  He interprets Christ’s love as aggression, but Jesus seems to interpret his own actions as love.  Never mind all that not bruising a reed, or “come all who are weary” stuff.  In fairness, perhaps Eldridge himself would advocate for turning the other cheek, and that the warrior idea can motivate this.  Sometimes you have to be strong, be a warrior, to love under duress.  If this were his point, I would be pleasantly surprised, as it does take profound strength to love one’s enemies.  But that’s not the feel I get from the book.  Wild at Heart succumbs to a subtle belief in redemptive violence, not turning the other cheek. It makes the same mistake as Peter, egging on the pride of men with "I'll never quit on you Jesus" sentiments of a warrior, but it does not teach how to be in Gethsemane, how to be weak and crucified.

I also find these discussions are often centered on notions of masculinity which is a notoriously fluid, slippery concept that differs from age to age and place to place.  Which culture’s definition of “masculine” is in mind?  Take a look at this list of "male" qualities.  Wild at Heart says stuff like,
"‘this is the man you ought to be. This is what a good husband/father/Christian/churchgoer ought to do.' Fill in the blanks from there. He is responsible, sensitive, disciplined, faithful, diligent, dutiful, etc. Many of these are good qualities. That these messengers are well-intentioned I have no doubt. But the road to hell, as we remember, is paved with good intentions...”
It's ridiculous.  “Many are good”?  Sorry, which one wasn’t -faithful or sensitive?  Where do his assumptions come from?

Eldridge writes as if these virtues get in the way of  our true nature.  I believe the whole goal is to redeem nature, not be enslaved by returning to it.  A man’s real passions?  - Should we just give into our megalomaniac dreams?  More Internet porn?  I thought the whole point of the Bible’s ethical instruction is that those virtues, “responsible, sensitive, disciplined, faithful, diligent, dutiful,” are actually good for us.  Wild at Heart casts them as obstacles to being who God desires.  God desires us to be like Jesus.  All of us.  Men and women.  I also think our truest holy desires, the deepest ones, are not for dominance, but to be loved and connected.  I understand the book is not advocating pornography or a completely willful life, but he robs men of the God ordained tools to ever grow in Chrsitlikeness when he describes them as obstacles.

Ikea-decorated house. They retell the Aurthurian legends without any of subtlety or the unhappy ending.  Worse yet, he obliterates scripture to do so.  It saddens me how much he wants women to “use” their beauty.  Brains- not so much.  Or at least in submission… 

If there is something positive here, it is that Eldridge helps men get in touch with their own internal, emotional world.  The problem is that it’s stuck at age 12 and he mistakenly thinks this is a good thing.  Likewise with the MMA stuff.  We romanticize male immaturity and in the process justify some pretty ugly stuff, losing sight of God’s expectations for a mature believer.  It is very ironic to me that despite the emphasis on masculinity, his main point is, “get your heart back.”  -Then he cries watching Gladiator like Maximus is God’s word to us.  It is a profound picture of the problem with the book: Wild at Heart doesn’t distinguish between Jesus on the Cross and Maximus in the Coliseum, and this is an insight into the feelings of powerlessness that motivate the book.  I agree with him that the “shoulds” and “oughts” screw life up and sap it of the joy.  Instead of compelling us into the arms of a loving God, they distance us from him.  The answer, though, cannot be to abandon truth and moral standards to keep from feeling burdened, but to ask for strength to hope that God will teach us, kindly, how to love better.

As for a societal loss of a father figure:  I’m not so sure it is happening the way we think it is.  People, especially Christians, bemoan the loss of clear authority and patriarchal systems that we can trust, but I don’t know if they ever existed like we think.  It is scary when the answers aren’t black and white but that is reality, and I think mature men can navigate this ambiguity.   The real brave thinking to be done is to consider and examine how the power of love can change things and seek God’s Spirit to do so.  Real courage comes from dealing with the actual feelings we have so that we can know people and be fully known by them, to give and receive love, and that is hard.  I mean really hard. There's no challenge to get a guy to fight, or to woo a woman   Real strength comes from confronting injustice diligently in a way that doesn’t dehumanize your oppressor.

Sociologically it makes me shake my head because, while it is true many fathers don’t stick around or provide their children what they need, it seems that Eldridge’s virtues are part of the problem- too many men run off for a sense of adventure or another woman, or become obsessed with winning the battles at work, or the adrenaline of drugs.  In the process, children are raised without fathers because they do not grow out of Eldridge’s 12-year-old heart. It’s a message perfectly pitched to American values of independence and selfishness.

I really do believe that many people have been helped by this book, if only to find courage to be honest and seek their own voice.  That is a testimony to God’s Spirit at work, because the content of the book is spurious.  I also think a lot of people have been led astray.  Hope that’s not too harsh. I think discussing how to heal men and women to live full lives of joyful obedience is always a great topic!


  1. This is a shame, I wonder if this blogger read the book, he seems to have misunderstood its point.

  2. yes, and I realize the author wants to point away from testosterone fueled irresponsibility on the face of things, but his reasoning to get there actually sets the grounds for more of it. So his point, and I am being generous here, might be that a biblical manhood frees people and empowers others. Fine. I agree. But the way he establishes this point undermines everything.

    Poor exegesis, really eisegesis, reaffirms the very framework that creates the problem he seeks to avoid. And I'm not sure he is seeking to avoid it, honestly. His position is largely essentialist without addressing the cultural nuances involved in defining "manhood." He has read Jesus as a Liberal Democracy gestated white male so at best he can attenuate machismo but only by working within its frame, and this needs to be rethunk. Again, I think he has helped people in the short term, but in the long run, I believe his book creates more errors.

    But this is the internet so communication can be difficult. Perhaps you might point out some specific items that need to be rethought?

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