Rating: 1 out of 5 starts
What does it mean to be a man? What is the heart of a man, specifically, a Christian man? These are the questions that Wild at Heart seeks to answer. They are important questions. Very important questions, in fact, for our time. Though the book was written 20 years ago, the questions it raises are all the more relevant in a day and age where gender is arguably the key issue.
Eldredge’s view is that recapturing the heart of true masculinity will not only help a lost, confused, and spiritually wounded generation of men but also the women with whom those men relate (whether as wives, daughters, or mothers). With this, I wholeheartedly agree with him. The questions he raises and the implications he draws from such questions are vital.
Throughout the book, Eldredge does well to highlight some issues that particularly face men. In particular, he talks about the damaging effects of pornography, the worrying trend of growing fatherlessness, confusion between the genders, and moralism in the Church (i.e. that men feel ‘doing good’ and ‘being nice’ is the heart of the Christian faith). They are all issues and questions men must face.
Unfortunately, however, my praise and agreement with Eldredge ends there. Eldredge’s book is a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease. His answers to the above questions are just as damaging as the problems he addresses. The issues with what Eldredge presents in Wild at Heart is treated accurately and thoroughly in Garry Gilley’s review (part one here, and part two here) which I highly recommend. However, I want to offer a critique of the major issues in Wild at Heart.
Rigid Definitions of Male and Female
As mentioned above, the main focus of Wild at Heart is discovering and recovering the heart of true masculinity. Eldredge’s initial claim is that in the heart of every man and boy are three fundamental desires: a battle to fight, an adventure to love, and a beauty to rescue.
These desires, says Eldredge, are in the heart of every man as he states multiple times “I gaze into boyhood, I search the pages of literature, I listen carefully to many, many men, and I am convinced these desires are universal, a clue into masculinity itself.” (p. 7, pdf version).
Firstly, this imposes a uniformity on masculinity that, frankly, isn’t present. More disconcerting, however, is the application of these desires that Eldredge brings forth.
In explaining the male desire for “a battle to fight”, Eldredge says “Aggression is part of the masculine design; we are hardwired for it…Little girls do not invent games where large numbers of people die, where bloodshed is a prerequisite for having fun.” (p. 7). This is a rather disturbing view of the male psyche which is extrapolated, if anything, from the innate sinfulness of the human heart. This may indeed be a particular sinful inclination, that of violence, that men are prone to more than women. However, Eldredge lauds this thirst for bloodshed in boys as a virtue.
Not content to acknowledge such a desire in the heart of boys and young men, Eldredge takes steps to actually encourage this desire in his own sons as they grow up. He recounts that “As [his sons have] gotten older, they love to start punching matches with me…Luke senses the opportunity, and he sneaks downstairs and silently stalks me; when he’s in range, he lets loose a wallop…I’ll never forget the day when Sam gave me a bloody lip, quite by accident, when we were wrestling. At first he drew back in fear, waiting, I’m sorry to admit, for my anger. Thankfully, on this occasion I just wiped the blood away, smiled, and said, “Whoa . . . nice shot.” he beamed; no, he strutted.” (p. 35). This is not just a particular dynamic Eldredge happens to have with his sons but is, in fact, meant to show the healthy approach for all boys and their fathers.
Not only is there the masculine desire for a fight, but also the second universal principle of manhood: a desire for adventure. Now, this particular desire would be less objectionable if it were not for the incredibly narrow definition of ‘adventure’ that Eldredge supplies. Generally, ‘adventure’ is synonymous with ‘outdoors activities’. Eldredge regales the reader of tales of hiking in arctic conditions, hunting, camping, rock – climbing, and so forth. Exploring is the key to masculine heart. Indeed, Eldredge states that men have an “innate love of maps” (p. 4) which is quite the claim.
Adventure and challenge cannot be interpreted outside of Eldredge’s narrow definition, however, which he presents as follows:
“Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man. The masculine heart needs a place where nothing is prefabricated, modular, nonfat, zip lock, franchised, on-line, microwavable. Where there are no deadlines, cell phones, or committee meetings. Where there is room for the soul. Where, finally, the geography around us corresponds to the geography of our heart.” (p. 5)
In fact, men who are not enthralled with the same things that Eldredge are simply denying and suppressing their nature. Those who are naturally more bookish or artistic are simply not as inherently masculine as the canoeist.
Finally, there is the “desire for a beauty to rescue”. After all, “What would Robin Hood or King Arthur be without the woman they love? Lonely men fighting lonely battles.” (p. 10) Not only does Eldredge implicitly dismiss the idea of singleness as compatible with his model of masculinity (bad luck to Paul and Jesus, I suppose, who weren’t true men after all) but he gets dangerously close to viewing women in a very unhealthy object-to-be-saved light. I say “close” because I do not believe that is Eldredge’s actual view of women, but the lines of his argumentation stray close to those waters on occasion.
Ultimately, the view of the male heart provided by Eldredge is full of stereotypical macho-image outdoor explorer types with a sinful lust for aggression paraded as a virtue. In fact, I would suggest Eldredge actually argues for a kind of asceticism for men. Instead of men becoming monks to live in monasteries separate from the profane influence of society, they become adventurers living in the wilderness separate from the profane influence of society.
Use of Scripture
Underpinning Wild at Heart is Eldredge’s poor use of Scripture. Firstly, Scripture is not used at the primary source for Eldredge’s ideas about male and female. I was expecting the ideal, archetypal man to whom Eldredge would point as an example would be Jesus Christ. Alas, I was disappointed. Who does Eldredge point to? William Wallace, from the film Braveheart. A running theme of the book is that we are to look to films (and sometimes novels) for our understanding of human nature rather than Christ and His Word.
When Scripture is used, however, verses are shoehorned in wildly, with little care for context or original meaning. Of particular note, and one of the only times in the book Eldredge’s spends more than a sentence explaining a Biblical text, is his exposition of the book of Ruth.
According to Eldredge, the book of the Ruth is primarily about Ruth using her femininity to seduce Boaz into acting like a man. Moreover, Eldredge holds Ruth the Seductress as a model for all women to follow. I will let Eldredge speak for himself:
“Boaz is a good man, this we know. He offers her some protection and some food. But Boaz is not giving Ruth what she really needs–a ring.
So what does Ruth do? She seduces him. Here’s the scene: The men have been working dawn till dusk to bring in the barley harvest; they’ve just finished and now it’s party time. Ruth takes a bubble bath and puts on a knockout dress; then she waits for the right moment. That moment happens to be late in the evening after Boaz has had a little too much to drink: “When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits …” (Ruth 3:7). “Good spirits” is in there for the more conservative readers. The man is drunk, which is evident from what he does next: pass out. “… He went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile” (3:7). What happens next is simply scandalous; the verse continues, “Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down.”
There is no possible reading of this passage that is “safe” or “nice.” This is seduction pure and simple–and God holds it up for all women to follow when he not only gives Ruth her own book in the Bible but also names her in the genealogy.” (p. 91)
Finally, scattered throughout the book are some very bizarre theological ideas that are used to support his argument. Of these, I note three.
First is that Eldredge’s view is essentially that of Open Theism (that God does not know future events). Now, Eldredge explicitly denies this claim, but when you say things like “God is a person who takes immense risk” (p. 17) and “It’s not the nature of God to limit his risks and cover his bases” (p. 18) and “It’s not just a battle or two God takes his chances with, either.” (p. 18) such statements are meaningless unless God does not know future events. How does an all – powerful, sovereign, and all – knowing God “take risks” or “take his chances”? The good news of the gospel is the sure foundation of God’s promises, not His apparent risk-taking.
Second is the shaming of the servant hearted. One of the saddest portions of the book was when Eldredge says “I’m telling you that the church has really crippled women when it tells them that their beauty is vain and they are at their feminine best when they are ‘serving others.'” (p. 91). This view is explicitly denied by the Lord Jesus, who not only instructed His followers to be servants of all (Mark 9:35) but modelled servitude in a humility we could never hope to replicate (Mark 10:45). In fact, the whole idea of service and sacrifice which is central to the Biblical idea of masculinity (Ephesians 5 is but one example) is never once mentioned. In its place is a self – serving view of masculinity; of adventure and pleasure – seeking.
Thirdly, Eldredge claims in a number of places that God verbally and audibly speaks to him. Whilst I am able to charitably disagree with brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to a different view of spiritual gifts than myself, there is a limit that both sides of the debate (who wish to deal honestly with the Bible) do not cross. In my opinion, Eldredge crosses this line in what he claims God has audibly told him. 4 or 5 times Eldredge records God’s audible words, including God telling him “You are Henry V after Agincourt … the man in the arena, whose face is covered with blood and sweat and dust, who strove valiantly … a great warrior … yes, even Maximus.” (p. 66, ellipses are original and not abridgements).
There are many other things I could have mentioned about this book, but this review must end at some point. The few good observations Eldredge makes are entirely obscured by his narrow and unbiblical view of gender roles, his wild and irreverent use of Scripture, and his poor theology. Wild at Heart should be read with great discernment or, preferably, not at all.