Wild At Heart (Book Review)

Every now and then I get asked whether I’ve read such-and-such a book.  Usually it’s a popular Christian book, sometimes a bestseller. (Hey, I’m a pastor, so I’ve come to expect people will ask about these.)  Unfortunately for these folks, I rarely read any of those “It” books that every evangelical Christian is talking about all at once.  You know which ones I mean: The Purpose Driven Life, Jesus Calling, The Gospel According to Veggie Tales.  You get the idea.  Not that there isn’t anything valuable in these sorts of mass-market volumes.  It’s just that they often have significant flaws as “lower common denominator” books.  In order to aim for a wide audience, they have to minimize doctrinal distinctives, focus on motivation and practice, and sugar-coat the materials so it goes down easy.  Not all high print volume books have these flaws, but I’ve read a few of them to know their common characteristics.  And I’m not alone either.  Plenty of reviewers have noticed that the huge number of evangelical readers out there have created a market for this kind of Christian publishing.  Even though I don’t fancy myself as a watchblogger, I do enjoy critically engaging with Christian books.  I prefer to read stuff I suspect I’ll want to recommend for my readers.  That’s why I commit to reviewing (nearly) everything I read here at Dangitbill!  It’s not for me (although I do enjoy and profit-without-“profit” from the exercise), but for you.

And so, every now and then I get asked by friends about the same book.  When that happens, my interest in reading a bestselling Christian book goes up.  Such is the case this time with John Eldredge’s Wild At Heart (WAH).  As a book that has been out there for a while (16 years and counting), it was probably about time that I pulled it off my shelf and looked into it.  Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 15 years, you know the basic premise of WAH.  It’s a famous book; over 1 million copies sold.  Its topic is biblical masculinity in contemporary evangelical Christian culture and teaching.  What I found didn’t surprise me.  More than a few positives that make it captivating and useful.  But even more problems that make it difficult to recommend.  The remainder of this review will be my reflections on the positives and problems as I see them.

Positives

  1. I was deeply moved by the central thesis of the book: all men are “wild at heart,” meaning we have (1) a battle to fight, (2) an adventure to live, and (3) a beauty to rescue.  Biblical teaching on manhood is surely compatible with these assertions.  To the extent that men have wandered away from this three-fold calling, they have abdicated God’s role and responsibility for them.  One of my friends who asked me about WAH is active in helping fathers in the formation of boys into men.  The three yearnings of a man’s heart begin to manifest early in boyhood, so I can see why this book would be useful in helping fathers disciple their sons, and in helping mothers understand their boys.
  2. As an American man who remembers and dabbled in the Christian Men’s Movement of the 1990s, this book stirred my heart with its call to reject the feminization of manhood and recover the biblical vision of what a man is and what a man does.  The movie illustrations spoke to me since I was still a movie-watching young man when they were first released.  The illustrations from classic literature and poetry are excellent, and have the potential for sustained impact for younger (or significantly older) readers.
  3. Spiritual warfare with the forces of evil is helpfully portrayed in the book.  Even though it is probably overemphasized, the suggested battle strategies are sound.  The devil and his demons are described in a biblically accurate way.
  4. The psychological and spiritual insight into the nature of a man’s “father wound”.  I think the author is on to something important and often neglected.  A boy does receive lasting scars from the sins of his father that “visit” his children in a way that passes sin onto the next generation.  The effect of the sin can leave a scar.  Nobody denies that.  But the sin itself can leave a scar too.  The memory of receiving such a wound can be devastating.  It can bind a man’s heart and redirect his life toward pursuing false remedies (idols) in order to heal his wound.  Even so, I want to temper my excitement of this positive.  Eldredge makes it sound like a man’s father wound is his primary problem.  But that is just not the case.  The Bible will not sustain that argument.  Everyone’s main problem, including every man’s, is our sin problem that alienates us from God and puts us under God’s wrath and curse.  The gospel is the solution to the “father wound” but it is the solution to a deeper, more fundamental problem.  Jesus didn’t just die to heal us and make us men—although the cross does heal in this way.  He died to atone for sins in order to save us from the penalty of our rebellion against God.

Problems

  1. Eldredge teaches some tenets of the heresy of Open Theism, but dishonestly argues he is not teaching it.  The author says repeatedly that God takes risks (e.g., pgs 29-32).  Instead of denying the charge, he needs to explain what he believes about God’s sovereignty over history and the actions of men.  But Eldredge doesn’t do this.  Using the terminology of “risk” for God’s actions puts the author at odds with Reformed and even classical Arminian doctrine on God’s control of the future.  If the “open theist” shoe fits, then wear it openly!
  2. He also teaches that God communicates through verbal, private divine revelation to people.  In several places the author claims to have conversations with God in which he “hears” from God clear answers in his mind.
  3. WAH teaches that most of the spiritual casualties and spiritual assaults Christians face directly come from the devil.  In this accounting, our enemies are (at least) 50% the devil, 25% the world, and 25% the flesh.  This might be considered mildly corrective accounting practices in a modern nominalistic culture like America, but in many religious subcultures that blame every problem on the devil, this accounting reinforces an unbiblical imbalance that gives short shrift to personal sin and worldliness.
  4. This is more of a quibble: no bibliography or end/footnotes.  When sources are cited they are incomplete references.  It is virtually impossible to track down quotes and citations.
  5. Vacillating audience.  Sometimes it seems the book’s primary audience is evangelical Christian men.  Other times it appears the audience is unbelieving men who happen to be interested in manhood.  This inconsistency creates confused advice, especially when some of the doctrinal statements apply only to Christians (e.g., “you have a good heart”).  More on this problematic doctrinal statement below.
  6. The “you can do it” feel of the book.  The nature of the gospel (it is finished, and you didn’t/couldn’t do it) is not emphasized at all in WAH.  Rather, the nature of the Christian’s duty (now live this way) is at the front and center.  Without a solid gospel foundation, the book feels ruggedly American (i.e., Pelagian).  This is no book for those who are weak, who desperately feel their need of a savior, or lack the resources, time, or power to live out your dream to be “wild at heart.”  The message of the book will only resonate with a particular kind of man.  One who does not yet feel spiritually defeated, poor, meek, hungry.  One who has the freedom and money to live the rugged man dreams.  One whose dependents (wife and children) are willing to give room to take such risks at their expense.  In other words, there is nothing in Wild at Heart that is useful in the hospital ICU.  Or to a family shattered by death.  Or for that matter to the man who needs to stop pretending to be a man in a “boyish” manner.
  7. The book feels like one sustained sermon (which is heard in one sitting), but this is problematic for a book.  For example, some of the questionable things the author says are not cleared up until later in the book—sometimes several chapters later.  This is permissible in a sermon as a rhetorical device.  But it is barely excusable in a 200+ page book.  Perhaps this is an editing problem, but it leaves the author open to such criticisms as inconsistency, error, and irresponsibility.
  8. The book feels outdated less than 20 years after publication.  Many of the most relevant and poignant illustrations are derived from movies released in the late 1990s, such as Braveheart, Gladiator, and A Perfect World (betcha you forgot about that Kevin Costner flick!).  But in 2017 younger men, even if they have seen these films, will probably not connect with them in the same way.  Normally, movies can provide powerful teaching illustrations for only the brief time period when they are culturally current and experienced in community.  Once they are no longer new, they transform into a decontextualized and isolated historical artifact.  In other words, they lose their illustrative power.  Thus Wild At Heart is a less powerful book today because it was written for to be highly relevant, but only for a moment in time.
  9. The author’s view of masculinity and femininity has proven to be dysfunctional.  He separates gender from biology, thus opening the door to a transgender view of anthropology.  “Now, we know God doesn’t have a body, so the uniqueness can’t be physical.  Gender simply must be at the level of the soul, in the deep and everlasting places within us.  God doesn’t make generic people; he makes something very distinct—a man or a woman.  In other words, there is a masculine heart and a feminine heart, which in their own ways reflect or portray to the world God’s heart” (pg 8).  The problem with such a statement was not as apparent when Wild At Heart was published in 2001.  But in 2017 with the popularization of transgender theory, separating gender from biology opens the possibility of biological men claiming they have a feminine heart, or biological women claiming a masculine heart—and claiming this is how God made them to naturally flourish.  When gender is not connected to biology, fallen human beings are unnecessarily subject to gender identity disorders.
  10. The author demonizes potential criticisms.  This is plainly irresponsible and uncharitable.  Setting up thoughtful critics who harbor no animus as “typical Pharisees, bureaucrats, religious administrators” (pg. 23), or one who scares you “with his doctrinal nazism” (pg. 27), is to cut off those who seek to bring every argument under the lordship of Christ.  Authors who demonize their critics are beyond correction.  And that is a dangerous place for a teacher to be.
  11. As many (most?) of those who set off before John Eldredge looking for the real Jesus, the seeker inevitably finds a Jesus in his own image, to his own liking.  This is perhaps the most fundamental problem with the message of Wild At Heart.  That it is just another trek into the Bible to search for the “Historical Jesus”.  Albert Schweitzer called out these quests for the real Jesus as nothing more than looking into the Bible as one gazes into a mirror.  So political radicals inevitably find a Jesus for them.  Social liberals find their Jesus.  Religious conservatives find a Jesus to their liking.  Art lovers discover a Jesus who loves beauty.  Truth seekers uncover a Jesus who is the Truth.  Morality police find a Jesus who upholds the Good.  Mystics see a fellow spiritual traveler in Jesus.  Skeptics find Jesus has an “open mind” that questions authority—just like them.  And when manly men like Eldredge go looking for the real Jesus—what do you know?—they find a Jesus made in their own image.  This is not to say Jesus is merely an idea to be used for whatever our purposes are, or that Jesus is a wax nose to be shaped however we desire.  Rather, Jesus is all these things and more!  He cannot be contained.  He cannot be described according to our types or categories.  He busts them all.  Confirming the good, true, and beautiful in all of us—men and women.  And challenging and confronting our idolatries and incomplete images of who he is.  Jesus is manly.  Jesus is the ideal for men.  Jesus is “wild at heart.”  But he is also so many things Eldredge minimizes, ignores, or denies.  Isn’t that what you would expect of Jesus?  A man, but more than a man.  The God-Man who reveals to us the inexhaustible character, heart, and word of God himself.  Unfortunately, you won’t find this Jesus described in Wild At Heart.  For the full picture of Jesus, you’ll have to read the Bible—the whole Bible.  Men, stop trying to find Jesus in the latest Christian bestseller, or in a movie, or in a sunset, or in the wilderness, or in the quiet whispers of your mind.  Seek him where he has revealed himself clearly and fully—in the Bible.

There are many more things I could say about this book.  My copy is filled with marginal notes: asking questions, objecting to sloppy explanations, disagreeing with Bible interpretation, offering Amens! And so forth.  Here are just a sampling of my notes delineated by chapter.

Chapter 2

  1. Does the author believe all boys and men like to do outdoorsy things?  If yes, then what do we make of boys and men who don’t?  Are they denying or suppressing their true selves?  How does he know this is true?
  2. Does the author disparage sound doctrine and pastors who try to guard the church from false teachers?  He has set such pastors up to be labeled as Pharisees, doctrinal Nazis, cowardly weasels.
  3. Does the author believe God’s “risk taking” has a possibility of God failing?  This sounds like Open Theism by another name.

Chapter 3

  1. Is a man’s problem a failure to function as “designed to come through in a pinch”?  Or is man’s failure one of rebellion against the word of God?  Which does the Bible emphasize?  The former encourages a man to “man up” while the latter moves him to repentance and restoration in order that he can “man up” again, but this time by God’s grace and empowerment.
  2. “Most of what you encounter when you meet a man is a façade, an elaborate fig leaf, a brilliant disguise” (pg 52).  But this man is hiding from what?  Shame from what?  Disobedience or failure to come through in a pinch?  This latter option can be portrayed as amoral, a failure of design rather than a moral evil of rebellion.  WAH makes the reader feel less of a sinner and more of a wimp.

Chapter 6

  1. In a feminized culture like modern America, Christians are tempted to load heavy freight onto the desire for intimacy and relationship with a woman.  The author swings to the opposite extreme of rugged masculine individualism.  This is not the biblical ideal, as his eisegesis of texts in Genesis demonstrates.
  2. The author argues that men try to satisfy their existential thirst for meaning, to “heal their father wound,” by idolizing a woman.  And that this is what Genesis teaches.  But how is this manifest in Genesis from the Fall to the end of Genesis?  I don’t see it.  The patriarchal cultural assumptions reveal instead men using and dominating women—not men seeking their comfort and identity in women.  If anything, the Bible teaches the exact opposite!  “Your desire will be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16b).  A better case can be made that women, acting according to their fallen nature, seek their comfort and identity in men, and this is a result of the curse in Genesis 3.  Thus it seems to be that the author’s thesis only works in a feminist and feminized culture.  That’s America today.

Chapter 8

  1. Is God my co-pilot?  Am I the hero of my story or is someone else (Christ)?  It is interesting that real human heroes often deflect adoration.  We need human heroes, but not ones who gladly and proudly assume the role.  That place is reserved for Christ alone.
  2. If a Christian’s heart is now good, what is the place of indwelling sin?  Or is indwelling sin (the old man, sinful nature, the flesh) not a significant factor in our battle for holiness?  This would seem to be the case if we minimize the power of total depravity and maximize the power of the devil’s influence.

Chapter 9

  1. The advice in this chapter about fighting the devil is good, but it rests on a faulty foundation: that the heart is good for the Christian.  Better to say: the Christian is saint and sinner at the same time, while being transformed to be more and more good through the progressive sanctification.
  2. “Satan will throw a thought or a temptation at us in hopes that we will swallow it…Knowing that my heart is good allowed me to block it, right then and there” (pg 163).  But when we fall, we cannot fall back on “my heart is good” with full integrity.  This is why it won’t work to rely on our “good heart.”  A failure or sin will crush you!

Chapter 11

  1. The author’s doctrine of divine revelation makes room for private, verbal, conversational messages from God to Christians.  Myriads of Christians have literally no idea what this sounds like.  Can God speak this way?  Definitely Yes.  Should Christians expect God to normally speak this way?  Definitely No.
  2. The author effectively brings God’s revealed word to holy men (i.e., the Bible) down to the level of inner mental conversations that are a universal psychological feature of humanity.  Not hard to imagine the devastating effect such a view of revelation would have on our reverence for God’s revealed written Word.
  3. The author believes a man’s calling (vocation, purpose) is discovered and confirmed only by looking inwardly.  Nothing is mentioned about the confirmation of an outward call.  I know men who have an inward call to such and such a career, but virtually no one agrees with them because frankly, the man-career match is a terrible fit.  Divorcing outward calling from inward calling fosters delusional dreaming.
  4. “My formula for the spiritual life is not a formula.”  This formula (yes, that is what it is!) is literally dangerous.  People have died in the wilderness following Eldridge and his teaching on manhood.  The author didn’t lament this as foolishness, but as a glorious casualty of war.  Those who live “wild at heart” will sometimes die in the wild.  Apparently we’re supposed to believe that’s the price we must be willing to pay for being a real man!

Another of my friends describes his experience reading WAH as an emotional arc.  Trending up Up UP, reaching a PEAK, and then quickly descending down into a mess of confusion and mixed feelings.  Alas, what started with such promise and moved to such heights, how did it end up crashing?  I had a similar impression, and like I said before, I wish I was surprised.  Again, this is the pattern I find in so many mass market books that purposely aim at pleasing everyone by aiming shallow rather than deep.  It’s a difficult target to hit when that’s your strategy.

So in the end do I recommend Wild At Heart?  For the very discerning Christian reader?  A qualified Yes.  There are certainly other books on the topic of manhood that rest on surer footing.  But then again, Wild At Heart truly is an emotionally powerful read that can be profitably read if you can separate wheat from chaff, sound teaching from error, and responsible Bible interpretation from eisegesis.  Otherwise, I cannot recommend it because regrettably the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.  And if taken literally, it could prove life-threatening (pg 216)!

Resources

John Eldredge’s blog

Reviews

Challies.com (negative).  See also Tim Challies’ evaluation of John Eldredge as a Bible teacher.

Christian Communicators Worldwide (negative)

Christianity Today (negative)

Goodreads

Roger Olsen (positive)

Sam Storms (qualified positive)

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