Eldredge, raised in a home where his father was an alcoholic, found employment at Focus on the Family (which now sells and promotes Wild at Heart) after his conversion. He went to see Larry Crabb, a well-known Christian psychologist, who referred him to another counselor named Brent Curtis. Eldredge and Curtis pursued their love of the wilderness and outdoor life, but in 1988 Curtis died when a mountain precipice gave way, plunging him 80 feet to his death. After Curtis’s death, Eldredge studied with Larry Crabb and others, completing a degree in counseling. He began a counseling ministry in his home, authored a number of books, and established a ministry headquarters called “Ransomed Hearts.” From there, his books and videos are promoted and he conducts seminars and wilderness retreats for men.
With this in mind, take a look at Wild at Heart. The basic contention is that God created man with a wild heart, and God did this because God Himself is wild at heart. An idea central to Eldredge’s message (and quoted from the inside dust jacket of the book) is that every man must have “a battle to fight, a beauty to rescue and an adventure to live. That is how he bears the image of God.” Eldredge holds up Braveheart hero William Wallace as an example of a real man, in contrast to the late Mister Rogers, the soft-spoken children’s TV personality, as a weak, modem Christian man.
Eldredge claims that if Christian men are going to change from a pitiful bunch of “really nice guys” to men who are made in the image of God (imago Det) they must re-examine their false presumptions about God’s character to recover their true, God-given, male identity as wild hearts. Eldredge’s message is permeated with his outdoor experiences, mixed with selected ideas gleaned from a variety of sources, including the neo-pagan offerings of several secular men’s movement writers and movies (especially, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, and Gladiator). He combines this with loosely-interpreted Bible passages and evangelical “christianese.”
“Eldredge quotes from Isaiah 63, which describes God wearing blood-stained clothes, spattered as though he had been treading a wine press. Then he writes: ‘Talk about Braveheart. This is one fierce, wild, and passionate guy. I have never heard Mister Rogers talk like that. Come to think of it, I never heard anyone in church talk like that, either. But this is the God of heaven and earth.””
Eldredge discounts and mocks the “nice guy” who works at a regular job, and implies that a man who doesn’t rappel from rock cliffs, shoot whitewater rapids, or hunt elk is living according to his false self and not his liberated true and wild self It is nice that Eldredge and his companions have found fulfillment living in the wilderness, but Eldredge extrapolates from his own outdoor experiences more than he should in developing his contention that God is a wild, unpredictable, risk-taking deity, that man is made in His image to be the same.
Eldredge relies heavily on stories, often taken from movies, to illustrate his message. This technique certainly does establish a common connection with his readers, but the question is in how these stories are used. In the first chapter, of his book, Eldredge uses the movie Legends of the Fall to illustrate his theme that men need to recover their true and wild self.
“In the film, Brad Pitt plays Tristan, the ‘wild man’ whose immorality, criminal conduct, and selfishness leads to the deaths of several characters in the movie, including his own wife-as a result of his bootlegging operation. He is a godless man whose only involvement in spiritual matters is his dabbling in Native American spiritism. The two other brothers are Alfred … and Samuel… Both try to live decent and honorable lives. Samuel, however, is killed in World War 1, and Alfred becomes a responsible businessman and runs for Congress.
At the movie’s end, Tristan has gone off into the wilderness leaving his child to be cared for by his father mid surviving brothers. He eventually is mauled to death by a grisly [sic] bear, and the Indian narrator in the film applauds this tragic and senseless end as a ‘good death.’ Tristan has left nothing but destruction to all those around him-but Eldredge views him as a heroic character and claims most Christian men really wish to be like Tristan.
According to Eldredge, ‘I have yet to meet a man who wants to be Alfred or Samuel. I’ve yet to meet a woman who wants to marry one.’ Tristan, says Eldredge, ‘is wild at heart’ If what Eldredge says is true, it is a very sad commentary on the spiritual state of those who profess to be Christians. Tristan was certainly wild at heart. But more proper descriptions of Tristan would be: pagan, uncivilized, primitive, selfish, rebellious, and barbaric. Is this a proper role model for a Christian man?” 2
Before exploring Eldredge’s thesis and theology further, it’s interesting to note that a focus on a primal, masculine Christianity is not a new ‘ idea. During the Victorian Era, a concept called “Muscular Christianity” promoted masculinity among Christian men (while traditional morality was considered to be feminine). Rather than flowing out of Scripture, Muscular Christianity (MC) was itself informed by Plato’s concept of thumos–theprimal and virtuous manly force associated with belligerent and aggressive attitudes and behaviors. At the turn of the 20th century, the British Empire, in particular, was steeped in Muscular Christianity, but MC faded away as its emptiness was exposed during the aftermath of World War 1.
“All too many English-speaking Christians had sacrificed a clear presentation of the Gospel on the altar of masculinity, and what it supposedly meant to be a ‘manly man.’ We’re still paying the price for it today.
A century ago, the proponents of Muscular Christianity syncretized Christianity with Victorian culture and Platonic thought, which resulted in spiritual bankruptcy. Today, John Eldredge syncretizes Christianity with Hollywood cultural and occultic/NewAge thought and the result is the same.”3 (my emphasis]
Remember that few “new and radical” ideas are truly new. Often, seemingly new teaching that is “off” is an older idea that is just repackaged and recycled.
Eldredge’s focus is flawed. Let’s shine some light selectively on two major flaws in Wild at Heart: Eldredge’s non-Christian sources and his redefinition of biblical categories.
1. NEW AGE/PAGAN SOURCES
Much of what Eldredge presents in Wild at Heart is imported from non-biblical sources, in particular, neo-pagan writers of the secular/New Age men’s movement. He quotes these writers without pointing out their neo-pagan worldviews. From Eldredge’s writings, the unsuspecting reader would never know that these non-Christian writers hold world-views that oppose Christianity. This is irresponsible, to say the least. Lifting certain scripture verses out of context and wrapping them around secular/pagan ideas does not “Christianize” the ideas–it only twists the Word of God, leaving men with distorted pictures of God and of themselves.
Eldredge has built his wild-heart paradigm on the works of Jungians like Robert Bly, Sam Keen, Brennan Manning, and other New Agers. Robert Bly, well-know for his book Iron Man(a best-seller, published in 1990), who could be described as a Freudian/Jungian, neo-pagan poet, was very popular in the burgeoning secular men’s movement of the 1980s. For Bly, contemporary men have been submerged and repressed into being “nice guys” and have abandoned the old macho version of manhood. Bly’s writings, favorably quoted in Eldredge, are near the center, if not actually the core, of Eldredge’s view of what it means to be a real man with a wild heart.
Sam Keen is a self-confessed Jungian, a follower of the teachings of occultic psychologist Carl Jung who actively explored the spirit world and credited his spirit-guide, Philemon, with many of his insights. Keen, the author of the book Fire in the Belly, (which appeared about the same time as Iron Man), is also referred to favorably. Keen urges men to be fierce; Eldredge urges them to be wild.
In addition to Bly and Keen, Eldredge quotes Brennan Manning as a trusted source. Manning is the author of Ragamuffin Gospel, published by the evangelical Multnomah Press. Manning is a former Franciscan monk who is now dubbed “the new monk of mystic Protestantism” by Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP). SCP is a discerrunent ministry headed by Tal Brooke, formerly a New Age pagan practitioner, but now a convert to Jesus Christ.
“… John Caddock explained the heretical and pagan roots of Mannings’s religious beliefs in the spring 1998 issue of the SCP Journal. According to Caddock, Manning’s promise of intimacy with God ‘is a mixture of Eastern Mysticism, psychology, New Age theology, liberation theology, Catholicism and Protestantism. 4a
Caddock details one of Mannings techniques for achieving intimacy with God. This is called centering prayer, and it is a technique that Manning learned from Trappist Monks Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington. This involves using the Zen Buddhist technique of emptying one’s mind as a way of supposedly gaining intimacy with God.
In addition, Manning teaches a new extra-biblical doctrine called “false self’ versus the authentic self, which he apparently adapted, in part, from Basil Pennington’s book True Self/False Set: Unmasking the Spirit Within. Manning also quotes favorably from Carl Jung…
John Eldredge devotes a considerable amount of time discussing this ‘false self and ‘true self.’ It rises, says Eldredge, out of the ‘wound’ each of us receives from our father or from life’s tribulation. According to Eldredge, each man is wounded and has created for himself a ‘false self’ that is a pose directly related to the kind of wound he received. His goal is to help men become free of this false self and discover the so-called true self.” 4
Back in 1991, Jackie Alnor said that Brennan Manning also discredited himself with the vulgarity he uses in his book Ragamuffin Gospel. She cited Manning’s words on page 137 of that book: “I go before the Lord. And he whispers, ‘You ungrateful turd.”‘ She also cited page 46 of his book, and then asked, rhetorically, “Does it edify the Body of Christ to read a detailed account of how the author learned to masturbate?” 5
Manning is popular and respected in the Evangelical world. He was a featured speaker this summer at the historic 70th annual Okaboji Lakes Bible and Missionary Conference in Iowa. Why? Why did Multnomah not only print but promote the teachings of Manning, which are a mixed brew of Eastern mysticism, psychology, and new age nostrums? Why did Word print and market Wild at Heart? Indeed, why do other publishers print and market similar books? Moreover, with this kind of material readily available and widely accepted, what can we expect of local pastors and men in the pews?
Why do sincere evangelicals, who pride themselves on being biblical, not see how unbiblical these books really are?
Christian men and women have a clear and authoritative standard, a plumbline to guide and guard their doctrine and lives:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching,rebuking,correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV
2. REDEFINITION OF BIBLICAL CATEGORIES
It follows that if one imports into Christianity ideas that are not consistent with the biblical record, one must adapt and change biblical ideas. Eldredge does just this in many places. In order to make his case, Eldredge finds it necessary to redefine the character of God, the character of Christ, the Fall, the Gospel, and the two natures of believers.
a. THE CHARACTER OF GOD
“In the opening pages of his book, Eldredge portrays God as one who loves wildness. Eldredge argues that the fierceness of certain animals (killer whales, bull mousses [sic], white sharks) and the untamed nature of certain parts of creation (the woods at night, the Great Barrier Reef) reflect the fierceness and untamed nature of God (p.29). Eldredge contends that the wildness of creation is God’s way of letting us know he rather prefers adventure, danger, risk, the element of surprise (p. 30).” 6
The ferocity of nature surely reflects the post-creation Fall more than the eternal character of God. Furthermore, the biblical teaching of the eternal state has no suggestion of wildness in heaven:
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” – Isaiah 11:6 NIV
The violence and pain of post-creation nature will be gone forever. So how can we say that wildness is a part of God’s intrinsic nature? “What Eldredge claims about God reduces the Lord of heaven and earth to the wild man upstairs.” 7 Eldredge’s view and descriptions of God as an adventurous risk-taker may be emotionally thrilling, but this is hardly a biblical view. A risk suggests the possibility of failure. This is so very close to Open Theism teaching, also regrettably given a place in much evangelical thought today. However, if God is a risk-taker, then faith in such a god would also be a risk. Thank God that He is sovereign, always acts in agreement with His word, and that saving faith in Christ is not risky!
We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. … Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” Hebrews 6:19 and 11:1 NIV
b. THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST
Rut Etheridge summarizes Eldredge’s view of Christ:
“Eldredge essentially summarizes his view of Christ on page 203 [Wild at Heart] by calling Him fierce, wild and romantic to the core. … Eldredge … likens Christ’s fierceness to that of movie heroes such as William Wallace from Braveheart. … Is Christ wild? Since Christ is in absolute control of all things (Mark 4:39-41), the term ‘wild’ just does not apply to Him. Further, when we examine the distinctive personhood of Christ and His Messianic role, we see not wildness, but pure and complete submission. Jesus said and did only what the Father wanted Him to (John 8:28, 29; Philippians 2:7, 8), and He lived in complete submission to the Law (Matt 5:17, 18). … Sure, Christ railed against Pharisaical hypocrisy and drove the moneychangers from the temple, but are those things really indicative of wildness … or self-controlled, passionate obedience to the Father? How can the very personification of meekness, humility, and absolute power be considered wild?” 8
Our Lord Jesus Christ said,
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”–Matthew 11:29 NIV
c. THE FALL AND THE GOSPEL
Eldredge fast-forwards past the traditional view of the Fall-mankind’s sinful rebellion against God’s authority, resulting in death. For Eldredge, the Fall amounts to being wounded deep in one’s spirit-his version of the Fall is echoed in his recurring theme of woundedness from one’s earthly father. Eldredge assumes that all men have been, in some way, wounded by their fathers-in his case, those wounds would be from his own alcoholic father. Even though this “father-woundedness” is obviously not one’s own fault, it nevertheless needs healing. Thus, it is not surprising that, for Eldredge, the purpose and mission of Christ is to come and heal us of something that is not our fault. This distorts the purpose of Jesus’ death. Jesus Christ came to save his people from sin and from the sins for which they are each personally culpable.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities…–Isaiah 53:5 NIV
According to Eldredge, Christ comes to restore man’s supposed true masculinity–to save their good, true, and wild hearts from the overweening Milquetoast within them. Eldredge drains the blood from the true and revealed meaning of the Atonement so that he can apply this “atonement” to his own felt needs, identified by the neo-pagan authors he references. Man, made in God’s image (imago-dei), was born to be wild and free according to Eldredge; the Fall, then, is that man has been domesticated and tamed. This tamed self is what Eldrege calls the “false self.” This “false self is a facade, an elaborate fig leaf, a brilliant disguise” 9 that turns men into posers. For Eldredge the biblical concept of the “flesh” is a poser and not the real you. The secret of manhood is to slough off the false self and restore the wild and free identity that is an image, a copy, of God’s wild and fierce nature.
“He [Eldredge] develops a theology of not ‘the devil made me do it’ but ‘my poser/girlie-man/false self made me do it.’ … But given the psychologically drenched, pop-culture fueled, theologically-shallow immaturity of most weak-kneed evangelicalism, it seems odd to remind guys that they aren’t really so bad. Doesn’t the publishing house have a theologian on retainer to check for this sort of shoddiness? (Well … this is the same publishing house that brought us Gwen Shamblin and Benny Hinn, fudging on silly little notions like the Trinity.” 10
For Eldredge, then, the cross is not a propitiation for the sins of the world, but the release of men from their false selves.
d. THE TWO NATURES
“Mr. Eldredge says, ‘The real you is on the side of God against the false self.” This odd psychobabble apparently presuming a neo-Jungian, Blyian view of the self, leads Eldredge to confuse what classic theology calls our two natures.” 11
Eldredge never tells us to put to death the flesh (so very much like a selfish wild hearty-an absolute contradiction of biblical teaching, which shouldn’t get a pass from or get past those who hold Scripture to be authoritative. Mr. Eldredge should take Peter’s advice into his wild heart:
“Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled, set your hope fully on the grace to be given to you when Jesus Christ is revealed As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.” –I Peter 1:13-14 NIV
Finally, in addition to an over-reliance on illustrations from movies, Wild at Heart addresses men as though they all have the same temperament and interests, namely those of the author. Eldredge absolutizes his own outdoor experiences as being normative and a restoration of the image of God in man. Men who don’t particularly enjoy repelling or hunting (or movies for that matter) can be true heroes living noble and respectable lives; some have even died noble martyrs’ deaths.
Rut Etheridge observes:
“We live in a day and age in which sincerity is valued more than truth … Undoubtedly many have benefited from Wild at Heart, but at what cost? To buy completely or even partially into the core principles of this book is to abandon crucial aspects of biblical Christianity for an ill-conceived masculine self-realization. A work cannot be judged by its superficial benefits; after all, many cults boast of happy families and fulfilled lives, but they are rooted in false teaching and thus are deceiving those who look to them for help. We must look beneath the surface to the biblical integrity of a work or movement to determine its true value, and Wild at Heart is sorely lacking in biblical integrity. … Of those who would view this critique as unnecessary and harmful, I ask, Can something be truly helpful if it is not based on and guided by God’s truth? … Another more fundamental question must also be asked. If something is not true according to the Scriptures, should we as Christians want anything to do with it, regardless of how much we think we get from it? If the price of our happiness is the violation of God’s Word, and we are willing to pay that price, then [sic] we have revealed ourselves as worshippers not of God, but of ourselves. … I hope, as worshippers ol’ the One who is the way, the truth, and the life, that we cling to that truth no matter what falls apart around us, and in so doing prove that we love our Savior and His Word more than we love ourselves. God has given us what we need to know from Him in Scripture, and if we would just take the time to truly know His word, we will … find the true help and healing we need. Men will learn how to be real men, women how to be real women, and we will be working toward a goal beyond our own personal feeling of fulfillment. … We’ll be working toward the goal to which every Christian aspires, the glorification of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” 12
In our culture and in the Church there is undoubtedly an unhealthy feminizing trend and Christian men do need to be Christian men. That being said, the way for Christian men to accomplish this is NOT to turn to non-Christian or un-Christian secular sources, but to study Scripture for a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian man yesterday, today, and in the future.
“And this is my prayer. that your love may abound more and more In knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ-4o the glory and praise of God.” –Philippians 1:9-11 NIV