Wild at Heart – A Review

I’ve posted various book reviews on our Church web site – http://www.ecfnet.org But thought it might be good for conversation to repeat them here as well.


Talk amongst yourselves.

Wild at Heart is the train wreck that occurs when Psychology drives Theology instead of it being the other way around. What appears to be a sincere attempt to answer some basic questions about why things are the way they are in our culture, specifically why men are the way they are, careens way off course and time after time confuses and confounds things errantly. Extant desires are confounded with created ones; the author’s own longings (however legitimate or illegitimate) with every other man’s; liveliness with life; lack of aggression with demasculinity; lastly, and most dangerously, sinful tendencies as expressed by fallen males, as masculinity itself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Lets back up.

Wild at Heart is neither John Eldredge’s first nor only book. Thomas Nelson also publishes his Waking the Dead, The Sacred Romance (which Eldredge co-authored with the late Brent Curtis), The Journey of Desire and Dare to Desire, along with some other assorted publications. He spent a dozen years speaking and writing for The Focus on the Family Institute and is currently Director of Ransomed Heart Ministries in Colorado Springs, CO. Ransomed Heart is a ministry Eldredge founded as a “teaching, counseling, and discipling fellowship devoted to helping people recover and live from their deep heart.” His autobiographical sections let you know that he has been a practicing counselor as well.

I confess that I struggled a lot with this book. Knowing its intense popularity I wanted to find much redeeming about it. Fortunately, I can say that his sections on “Healing the Wound” were immensely insightful and could be of great help to some. What makes this somewhat frustrating however, is that those sections alone do not and cannot justify the balance of the book. I wish he had covered that material under a separate cover which I then could recommend. He has some very important things to say. Sadly, in this book, they are buried deep inside some very convoluted notions of truth and reality.

I am tempted at this point to just give a listing of citations which are disturbing. They are many in my estimation. But I have decided that the better route is simply to state at the outset, what is (I believe), the underlying false presupposition which drives virtually all of the errors from cover to cover. The root problem is this: Eldredge has absolutely no concept of what man was before the Fall, nor what he is to be after glorification. As such, he views man through the distorted lens of the Fall, while trying to identify normalcy in the distortion. Like an astronomer with a speck on his lens which he confuses with an actual celestial object in the quadrant of space he is observing. He mistakes many of the fallen tendencies of man to be what God designed. They are the norm, simply misdirected or misinformed or misfiring. This is best exemplified in his repeated appeals to aggression in men. Something he thinks we need to stimulate more. Aggression coupled with a list of stereotypical macho expressions of masculinity that are informed more by his observations of men (fallen men), than the Bible. But more about this later.

Page after page echoes with his own exploits hunting, fishing, rock climbing, whitewater rafting etc. etc.. One comes away with the message, that any man not engaged in such activities – is not a “man”. A charge easily corroborated by the “Wild at Heart: A Band of Brothers” multi-media package advertised at the rear of the book. I quote: “Five friends. Eight days. No scripts. Here’s what it looks like to live in the message of Wild at Heart in a band of real brothers. John and his band of brothers spent eight days shooting this series on a ranch in Colorado. Horses. Rappelling, Whitewater rafting. Fly-fishing. And some of the most honest conversation you will ever hear from men.” For Eldredge it seems – masculinity is bound up with these things. His world requires them. The Statesman lives of a Joseph or Daniel for instance would not be an environment where real men could thrive and live for him. In fact, quoting Howard Macey, he comments that “The spiritual life cannot be made suburban.” Sorry you stock brokers, insurance salesmen, scientists, academics and pastors out there, I guess you can’t be Christian men unless you hunt and fish on the weekend.

For Eldredge, “The whole crisis in masculinity today has come because we no longer live in a warrior culture, a place for men to learn to fight like men.” Huh, I could have sworn that the scripturally diagnosed problem with men is that they aren’t Christ-like. But then, for Eldredge, things like retaliation (his word, not mine – I would have chosen self-defense or self-protection) and being “dangerous” IS Christ-like. Counseling his son Blaine in the aftermath of being pushed down on the playground by a bully at school, he tells him: “The next time that bully pushes you down, here is what I want you to do…I want you to get up…and I want you to hit him…as hard as you possibly can.” His rationale? “Yes, I know that Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. But we have really misused that verse. You cannot teach a boy to use his strength by stripping him of it. Jesus was able to retaliate, believe me. But he chose not to. And yet we suggest that a boy who is mocked, shamed before his fellows, stripped of all power and dignity should stay in that beaten place because Jesus wants him there? You will emasculate him for life.” Isn’t it interesting that the idea of teaching his son to choose not to retaliate doesn’t even enter the picture? The logic is confused at best. Anti-Scriptural at worst. Thus he continues “At that moment, Blaine’s soul was hanging in the balance. Then the fire came back into his eyes and the shame disappeared. But for many, many men their souls still hang in the balance because no one, no one has ever invited them to be dangerous, to know their own strength, to discover that they have what it takes.” This is deeply disturbing. For to be a man, to “have what it takes” means I cannot choose to turn the other cheek. I cannot pray for my enemy. I cannot choose as Christ did. No, I have to be ready to swat him down in retaliation.

Equally disturbing if not more so are his numerous referrals to what God says to him. In one section where after a particularly draining and difficult trip in England, he tells how he poured out his heart to God in his journal. His prayer is not disturbing, the “This is what I heard” in response part is. Ostensibly God replies to 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.” And then “You are my friend.” But as seems true throughout the book, Eldredge himself is striving so much after the affirmation of his own masculinity, that these – not the words of God IN the Word of God are the things which mean the most to him. And of course the question must be asked – what if it wasn’t God speaking at all? What if it was just self, or the enemy building self-confidence over trust in Christ alone? What then? He never even approaches the subject.

Another exceedingly troubling section is where he seeks to buttress his presuppositions about men desperately needing adventure, by locating the origin in God. Here, he asserts that “God loves wildness”, “God is a person who takes immense risks”, “God seems to fly in the face of all caution”, and that “God’s relationship with us and with our world is just that: a relationship. As with every relationship, there’s a certain amount of unpredictability, and the ever-present likelihood that you’ll get hurt.”  Then, whether or not he caught himself, or someone else pointed out to him the inevitable conclusion of such statements – he tacks on (in what appears to be an awkward afterthought) “I am not advocating open theism.” Call it (or don’t call it) what you will, it makes the same base assertions as open theism. And that is troubling indeed.

I will pass over some other strange ideas without much comment. Ideas like: Satan being afraid of men recovering their masculinity (apparently instead of his fearing our growth in godliness); preoccupation with every man needing to fight some battle; his contention that when Jesus confronted the Gerasene demoniac “the first rebuke by Jesus doesn’t work. He had to get more information , to really taken them on”; that (quoting a friend) “a woman who is living out her true design will be valiant, vulnerable, and scandalous” – scandalous?; or after viewing nature (in its current fallen state mind you) he concludes “God made all this, pronounced it good, for heaven’s sake. Its his way of letting us know he rather prefers adventure, danger, risk, the element of surprise. This whole creation is unapologetically wild”. I leave those to others to sort out because I realize that this review must come to an end. So let me return once more to what I believe is the real problem with Eldredge’s entire premise.

The underlying false presupposition, upon which builds the framework by which he contextualizes everything, is stated in his own words: “The core of a man’s heart is undomesticated and that is good.” Thus, “in the heart of every man is a desperate desire for a battle to fight, and adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.” This is why normative masculinity in his estimation will “grow bored of games that have no element of danger or competition or bloodshed.” Might I simply say, that based upon this, Eldredge is going to hate Heaven. Not because Heaven will not be gloriously adventuresome in the sense of unending discovery – but because there will be NO violence after sin is eradicated. No aggression. No war. No danger. Peace and joy and the glory of a sinless life were ours before the Fall, and the Father will restore these and more.

Absent from his thinking is the fact that there is no competitiveness or adversarial arrangement in the Godhead. Such things are not in Him ontologically and were not given to us as such. Yet he assumes we will still have these fallen propensities in Heaven rather than being fully conformed to Christ’s image. For if he considers our spiritual maturity as tied to these claims of wildness – they must remain as proper. He doesn’t seem to understand that the enemy is aberrant, and unnatural. Our present existence with its sin-wracked reality is a perversion of life as God gave it. The lion will lay down with the Lamb and the child will play on the adder’s nest without fear there. Eldredge’s notions of wildness will be done away with. They are the result of the Fall. But he has no category for this. Bloodshed ALWAYS implies the involvement of sin on some level. Sin will be put away. He seems to possess no awareness of what man’s existence was before sin entered the picture, and what it will be like after sin is completely vanquished – and that what lies between – the present course of human history, is everywhere marred by sin’s corruptions. Eldredge doesn’t appear to know that God’s end for us, is to be able to beat our swords into plowshares, not the other way around.

“Wild at Heart” is a good expression for what fallen men are. “A bondslave of Jesus Christ” is the right expression for what a redeemed man is. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control, not wildness. John Eldredge has gone horribly wrong here.

15 thoughts on “Wild at Heart – A Review

  1. Solid response. Agreed that the “Wound” section is potentially helpful, but the oddities and bad theology of the rest of the book makes this an ultimately unhelpful book for Christian men. I have friends who are enamoured with it.

    I recall Challies wrote a good review of this as well.

  2. I glanced through the book back in July, but found Howard Macey’s quote about the spiritual life never being made suburban to be the best thing in the book.

    I like the warrior motif myself, particularly as expressed by Don Juan Matus in all the Carlos Castaneda’s books. That author is more of an esoteric author, that few Christians would probably ever give serious thought to. He calls it sorcery, but certainly not in a traditional, let alone evangelical, sense.

    “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth, so is everyone born of the Spirit. John 3:8

    There is no such thing as a cat owner. Maybe the cats cannot be made suburban either.


  3. Thanks for stopping by the site Mick. I have no problems with the concept of warrioirs (except of course in the New Heaven and the New Earth where it will NOT be part of our existence as far as we know) – but what troubles me more are the stereotypical representations. As men of God, our first battle is against indwelling sin. Our main theater of battle is on our knees. Our weapon is the truth of God’s Word. Our enemies are the World (love it not), the flesh (put its deeds to death) and the Devil (resist him and he will flee from you). These warriors are not singled out by human or cultural conceptions of manliness, but by faithfulness to God. In that army, muscles, cunning and fishing skills count for nothing. To be godly in this day and age is a greater challenge than anything we can face physcially. Yieldedness to God’s Spirit and commitment to the pursuit of holiness – those are the stuff of God’s warriors. And those battles can be an are fought in the hospital bed, the corner office, the couch, and the Iraqi front lines, as well as by musicians, artists, poets, nerds, the phyically emaciated, mental dwarfs, the blind, hearing impaired, paralyzed and otherwise “unmanly”.

  4. I read two chapters in the middle of Wild at Heart at a Christian bookstore one afternoon and was so moved that I excitedly purchased the book. Starting from the beginning, however, wasn’t so stimulating. The frequent references to hearing directly from God and the implied inerrancy/authority drained my interest rather quickly. It also felt like John Eldridge built on ideas from the work of Dan Allender and ran with them – right off a theological cliff. I apparently read the best of the book first as I was unable to read much afterwards. Your review was accurate from the few more chapters I managed to struggle through.

  5. Thanks for your comments Rick – and I agree there are some excellent parts. It is just that so many of the underlying presuppositions and paradigms end up just not being scriptural. It is sad. Some good books on true Biblical masculinity are in sore need.

  6. I was perusing your review, and a couple things caught my eye. For starters, I loved Wild at Heart. Like it says on the first page, “Men need permission.”

    You attack his statements on what God spoke to him. Not to be rude, but thats judging him on his spiritual condition. Hearing God’s voice is much different from your flesh or the enemy speaking to you.

    Another thing you said is that bloodshed always involves sin on some level. Sin on whos part? The people commiting the act of violence? Because last I checked, Jesus is going to come back riding on a horse to judge the nations. Not to mention God killing 185,000 soliders in the OT. Seems rather violent.

    Its because its justice. God is a just God, and we are called to be just as well. Yes, vengence is the Lords. But Jesus didn’t turn the other cheek in the temple. He pulled out a whip and beat on people.

    You don’t seem to like what he told his son about punching the bully. I was hesitant at first, but after awhile, I realized thats exactly what happened to me when I was younger. I was stripped of my manhood at an early age because I never fought back. I was passive, just took it, like everyone. That would have been the best advice my Dad could have given me at that age.

    Eldredge says in one part of the book that God told his friend that spirituality is masculine. Its soo true, but we stop there in America today. Many people struggle with fear and insecurity. Wild at Heart really brings a boldness that has been lacking in the American church nowadays.

    Besides, how many real men are there out there? Not a lot, I dare say. Certainly not myself. And its a long, hard journey to go and recover my heart.

  7. Thanks for stopping by Jared, and for your thoughtful comments as well. They are appreciated even where I disagree.

    1. What God supposedly spoke to JE. I am not judging his spiritual condition at all. I am reacting to the fact that he was more moved by some “supposed” – non-Scriptural word from God, than he was by the Word of God itself as a verifiable authority. We have no means whereby to judge such things acceptably except by the Word of God itself – “Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.” (Isa. 8:20) Even in the NT, those who supposedly would “prophesy”, were to have their words “weighed”. We are to weigh them against Scripture – it is our only secure and divinely objective means. And the things supposedly revealed in that section could be tested against Scripture as they were purely subjective. We ought (I believe) to reject such things.

    2. Violence. I did indeed say that all violence involves sin of some sort, but did not speak so broadly as to say every act of violence may be sin itself. In war, violence must indeed be met with violence, and those seeking to see justice prevail are not sinning in doing so. That being said – all such violence always has as its end – the ending of violence, not the perpetuation of it. When Christ returns, it will be a violent time. BUT -and this is most important – it is to put a final end to ALL violence. The Bible’s clear message against human violence (wherever and whenever possible) is unmistakable. That it is sometimes necessary in this present fallen world is not an endorsement of it as a normative action where sin is finally subdued. There will be no violence in Heaven. All sin will be put down and all violence will end. That is what we are after. Not the promotion of it in this life.

    3. Your citation of Christ in the Temple. Several things are errant in your paradigm there. a. Jesus wasn’t being accosted, and thus wasn’t in the circumstance of turning the other cheek. He was eaten up with zeal for His Father’s house. He was not being vengeful. b. This was not in the context of a personal affront. c. There is no scriptural evidence he used the scourge on the people. Most commentators agree it was for the purpose of driving out the animals. Jesus never once in His life resorted to physical violence and did indeed turn the other cheek, or you and I wouldn’t have the cross. None of this is to negate the right of self-protection, but if you will read the NT approach, it was to flee first, and avoid physical retaliation on a personal level. A good reading of the OT laws on this as well would be enlightening.

    4. Your story about your own experience is compelling, but it is not how we interpret Scripture. We use Scripture to assess our actions, not use our actions or experiences to interpret Scripture. The best advice my Dad gave me was to have justice done by getting the proper authorities involved, rather than taking justice into my own hands. God’s prohibitions against our acting independently in such cases are replete in the OT laws governing Israel. We do well to listen to them even though we are not Israel. Private justice is always a poor substitute.

    5. I will not argue that there is a masculine aspect to spirituality, but there is also a feminine one too. That God told his friend that, I find highly suspect. God’s Word on these issues is sufficient to build the right constructs on masculinity and femininity as well. These extra-Biblical revelations are not the way to progress. Lets find out what God has ALREADY said in these subjects. Once we’ve truly mastered that – then come and talk to me about “God said”.

    I pray the Lord will indeed assist you in “recovering” you heart – though to be honest I am not quite sure what that means. But if you would be truly masculine – lead your family in knowing God’s revealed Word and will, and set yourself to live it. You will never need to be more masculine than that – and that (believe me) will be quite enough.

  8. Thank you for your analysis of Wild at Heart. I had previously read “The Way of the Wild Heart” and liked it, and so bought Wild at Heart to see what it had to say. i’m very glad to come across an analysis like this, so i can be more critical in my reading.

    On a sidenote, as my reading is not in the right order, i wonder if Eldredge’s sequel is a response to many of these criticisms that you and others have made? Either way, your points are very interesting and deserve a closer look on my part.

    Two last items:
    1. There seems to be some formatting issues with this article. My view of it in Firefox shows numerous question marks amidst the text, and the text itself appears to have parts missing….

    2. When John says that every man needs “a beauty to rescue”, i think it is a bit of a stretch to say that he will “hate heaven”, because there will be no “beauty rescuing”, etc..! I know your main point is about violence and that there will be none in heaven, but i simply question your interpretation of heaven, and that simply because the premise of this book is based on these three statements about masculinity in the here and now, that in another reality, these three will not apply. Does this make any sense?

    I would like to take more time to look at what Scripture says about the afterlife, and what verses you are basing your critique on. I cant quote any verses offhand, but a Heaven that doesn’t have room for courage and danger (what is adventure without these elements?) doesn’t sound quite right to me…. (and yes, I confess, sounds a tad boring…! hahaha)

    Thanks in advance for your reply.


  9. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Joel. I appreciate your comments. I have not read the other title you mentioned, so whether or not he actually addresses some of the issues I dealt with in this review I cannot speak to. I’ll have to take a look at it when I can. It would be interesting to find out. Having done a fair amount of writing myself, I DO know that one looks back with fear and trepidation always at your own work – wondering if some things were said in ways you would want to modify had you more space, time, etc.

    As for your two last items: Thanks for the formatting mention. I posted that when the blog was hosted under another platform, and never thought to go back and check. I’ll try to fix it first chance.

    Second item: I cannot see anywhere in Scripture where danger or rescuing from danger is a part of the afterlife. But as to whether or not such absences would be boring – I don’t think so on several fronts. First off – not unless we assume the Godhead had to be bored in eternity past without any such things. Secondly, how will the endless plumbing the depths of the awesomeness of the infinite God ever even remotely become boring? Endless, mindblowing discovery sounds pretty exciting to me.

    Blessings. Reid

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