Friday, October 26, 2007

Wicked At Heart: A Response To John Eldridge's Popular Book

Perhaps it is a sign of an elitist attitude, but if a book is popular, I am unlikely to read it because it is popular. Most things that are popular today will not be tomorrow, as the next fad replaces it. John Eldridge’s Wild At Heart is one book that I avoided, but unlike The Di Vinci Code, it did not die as I assumed it would. Rather, I noticed more and more friends including it on lists of favorite books. Even women seem enamored with it. Since I did not have the time to spend reading it, I turned to the next best thing: online book reviews. Unfortunately, I found no consensus. Reviewers either loved or hated the book. While more gave the book a positive review than not, the criticisms leveled against the it by detractors warranted finding the time to read it myself. So, I finally found time and read Wild At Heart (everything but chapter 12, that is...or perhaps this is my chapter 12).

To be honest, I was not impressed with Wild At Heart. I think that while John Eldridge may have the best intentions and is sincerely trying address very real problems, the theological basis on which his book rests is severely lacking. I wish I could support the message of Wild At Heart, as Eldridge sells his ideas in an attractive manner, but, as Augustine noted, rhetoric is merely the makeup of language. Something in me wanted what Eldridge wrote to be true, but another part of me shudders at some of the poor arguments he made.

My disagreements with Eldridge boils down to this: he tells men to follow their hearts. He tells his reader that all real men have certain kinds of desires, and argues that God takes risks. I think these errors make Wild At Heart not worth giving to anyone but a discerning reader.

The most fundamental problem with Wild At Heart is that he tells people that they are basically good. The fundamental premise of his book is that when the desires in a man’s hearts are suppressed, he will live an unhappy, boring and unfulfilled life. Only by following the desires of his heart can he truly thrive. Thus, Eldridge tells us nothing not already blared at us from pop music and Disney movies: “follow your heart. Jeremiah 17:9 states: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Eldridge briefly addresses this verse, dismissing with the claim that it only applies under the “old covenant,” and that since we are under the new covenant, the verse no longer applies to us. While I understand that Eldridge is trying to remind us that we are a new creation in Christ, he seems to forget that even the Christian is still battling against the old sinful nature at every turn. Even the Apostle Paul experienced this, as noted in Romans, where he writes: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Give such frank admissions from Paul, I fail to see how Eldridge can make such sweeping claims that the knowledge that his heart is good can keep him from sinning. This is an unorthodox understanding of original sin; some might even say that it is Pelagianism.

While the discussion of this topic takes up only a few paragraphs in total, it is so foundational to that it renders the rest of the book suspect. I do not have time (nor a copy of the book any longer) to evaluate each and every one of these subordinate ideas, but if anyone would care to show how his conclusions can follow from a more correct understanding of human nature, please let me know.

Another bone I pick with Wild At Heart is the picture of manhood that it presents. Danger, adventure and beautiful women typify the life that Eldridge calls men to. Further, he presents the solution to men as something that rests in their own hands. To Eldridge, the answer to the crisis of manhood rests in men affirming themselves and indulging in their desires. I strongly disagree with this picture of manhood.

Missing from the pages of Wild At Heart is the call to self-sacrifice and to duty. Rather than denying himself and putting others’ needs before his own, Eldridge teaches that one must fulfill his own desires and take care of his own needs before he can meet the needs of others. This is not manliness, it is selfishness. Eldridge eschews the concept of duty, a virtue even the pagan Romans understood. Duty calls a man to live up to his principles and to those he has committed to. When his heart does not desire to love and honor his wife, a man’s duty to her will call him to maintain his fidelity. Duty is a powerful and noble motivation maligned in Wild At Heart.

There is no better example of manhood than Jesus Christ. He did not seek to meet his own desires. Indeed, in the Garden of Gethsemene, Christ prayed to the Father, asking that the cup of his crucifixion be taken from him, but then he prayed, “not my will, but your’s be done.” Christ sacrificed himself for others. He lived a life of service and would inconvenience himself to heal others.

My next point is the weakest of my accusations against Wild At Heart. It is more of a hunch and a result of “reading between the lines,” but I think Eldridge’s picture of manhood does not demonstrate an good understanding of men like me, who would rather read Plato than skydive. Not every man want to live “wild” in the sense that he desires to go into the wilderness weeks at a time and kill his food with his bare hands. While there are certainly those men among us (and I in no way attempt to invalidate their manhood), there are others who find the more refined, leisurely, aspects of culture more desirable. That I enjoy going to a symphony than going camping does not make me less of a man. Courage can be demonstrated just as clearly on a football team as it can in an intellectual debate. Sacrifice is not a virtue relegated to the battlefield, but is readily seen in daily life.

When father was younger, he enjoyed having a motorcycle. Due to a variety of circumstances, he eventually decided that it would be for the best if he sold his motorcycle. He did this to keep himself safe and able to provide for his family. John Eldridge would say that he is giving up his desire to be dangerous and adventurous; only hinders his life as a man. I say that there is true manhood in my father’s example. Rather than indulging in his own desires, he decided to make a sacrifice for the sake of his family. One does not need to go skydiving to be a man. A man is one who can deny himself and seek the betterment of others. As Voddie Baucham said with regards to men being the head of the family, it means that if anyone suffers, he is going to be the first one. If anyone is going to go hungry, he is going to be the first one. He does this because duty, an expression of love, binds him to the commitments he has made, and calls him to sacrifice himself on the behalf of others.