A Conversation With John Eldredge (Mar-Apr 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

Interview with John Eldredge
March – April, 2004

NW: You talk in your book, Waking the Dead, about church discipleship programs. Are they effect or ineffective?

JOHN ELDREDGE: Discipleship has become a word that I think most of us are really ambivalent about, because on the one hand it sounds so important. You kind of throw the word out there to get your congregation’s attention—anyone who wants to be even a somewhat serious follower of Christ, oh discipleship, wow, yeah, I’d better do that, but on the other hand, I think it’s a soul-killing word. I think it has become withering because of what it’s become, that in the church what we have fallen to over time has been programs, that discipleship means scripture memorization or it means a program whereby you learn financial responsibility and stewardship or discipleship is a program whereby you learn the four steps to share your faith, or some combination thereof. The example that I had given in Waking the Dead was an example of a program a friend of mine had emailed me just a little while ago from a large, very successful, I think what we consider to be a live, vibrant church in the Midwest and their program of discipleship, it was this year-long thing where you literally have to hit all the bases: your first base, second base, third base kind of paradigm. You could earn an MBA with less effort. Seriously, it’s become this sort of exhaustive program rather than what the disciples actually got.

NW: Which was?

JOHN ELDREDGE: Well, this is the coolest part, I mean you just back up and go, OK to be a disciple of Jesus, what did they get? They got to hang out with God. That’s literally what they got, they got to walk with God. So that—I wanted to reframe it, I really did, I wanted to take discipleship completely out of the programming, though there is a place for programs and seminars and courses and study, there really is—those are not bad things. It’s just that they have taken the place of the most essential thing. You could go through all of those programs and you could learn a great deal of information and you could become a very responsible person, but would you know how to walk with God?

NW: Well, that gets us to the next question a church might ask: what do you want us to do? How can we walk with God, to be disciples? How does the church make disciples? Jesus himself not being with us now, we are left in the hands of the Spirit. Talk about that a minute, about transformation…

JOHN ELDREDGE: Yeah, absolutely, you bet, I think we would want to teach a couple of basic assumptions: one, that intimacy is the goal, not morality, although being a moral person is good. Not social responsibility, not financial accountability—those are not the goal. The goal of discipleship is intimacy with God. And if we can cultivate that mindset, from that, it’s kind of a horse before the cart thing. We’ve gotten the cart before the horse. There’s all these fruits of the Christian life: holiness, and evangelism, and accountability—good things, all. But they are the natural outcome of a person who is intimate with Jesus.

NW: What would you say about the Romans 8 passage that talks about living the life of the Spirit, the passage you reference in 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 about imaging Christ. Talk about imaging Christ and transformation to be like Christ in this process of discipleship.

JOHN ELDREDGE: Yes, holiness is the goal, or is the primary fruit of—the goal is intimacy, but if you bring a person into a genuine intimacy with Christ—and I mean a conversational intimacy where they know him and grow in the depth of knowing him, just like anyone in the Bible was recorded of knowing God. You know, Moses said to the Lord, then the Lord said to Moses. Then David inquired of the Lord, then the Lord said to David. That conversational intimacy with God is normal. I think that’s what I was saying was that we wanted to put in front of people that this is normal, this is available, we want to bring you into and teach you how to walk in a conversational intimacy with God. And the fruit of that, I believe, is that, 2 Corinthians 3:18 but we all are transformed from glory unto glory as we behold his glory, that we reflect the glory of the Lord with ever-increasing glory. There is a natural outcome of hanging out with Jesus, of a genuine intimacy with him, and the point I wanted to make was that I’m really surprised and so saddened by the number of Christians who come to us and say, “But I’ve never heard the voice of God. I’ve never had that kind of intimacy with God.” And they have been Christians for thirty-seven years. I want to stop and say, what have you been given? What else have you been doing?

NW: I’m curious if you talk to these people about their view of Jesus.

JOHN ELDREDGE: Yes, so much of it goes to, they have not lived the life of the heart, the Christianity of the heart, because Paul prays in Ephesians 3, right, that the Father would strengthen us by his Spirit in our inmost being so that Christ would dwell in our hearts. But the heart is like the FM radio (laughs). If God is the signal. If you’re heart is not tuned in, well yeah! You are not going to hear what he is saying to you, you are not going to experience God in your life. That’s been the primary glitch in our system. But our programs of discipleship have been primarily aimed at the mind, a transference of knowledge. Come and learn these things, a cognitive approach to Christianity as opposed to a transformed heart, the heart that is awakened to God.

NW: You talk about in your books about books and movies like Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Matrix, and The Wizard of Oz. For a person who says fiction is not important to read, talk to that person…

JOHN ELDREDGE: First off, God speaks to us through his story. And the Bible is primarily a book of stories, and the whole book itself is a story, right? I mean there’s a beginning and an end and there’s a plot and main characters and a villain. It’s important for us to see this because we’ve lost the fact that reality is a story. Life is a story. Eugene Peterson says we live in a story. And therefore if we can re-orient Christians from a propositional approach to Christianity. Christianity is knowing bites and tidbits and facts of information versus, no, no, no—Christianity is living in this incredible story. Then, you see, all the other stories that human beings have ever told are somehow illuminating God’s story. So Eccl. 3:11 “he has set eternity in the hearts of men…” There’s something written in the human heart. So when people flock to see Titanic, which remains still the leading box office film all over the world of all time…well, they don’t even know that they were going to see the gospel.

NW: Right.

JOHN ELDREDGE: She is trapped in the world of legalism and law and Phariseeism, and he comes and he dies, he gives his life that she might be rescued. And at the end of the movie they’re reunited in a heaven-type scene, you know, which looks like the wedding feast of the Lamb. You know, that we need these stories to help us understand the story in which we live. And that would be a brand new approach to discipleship. And one that I think would take away that weariness that people associate with the word. It would become something very exciting, something very enlightening, something you could participate in because you want to, not because you ought to.

NW: Yeah, it seems like people shut off those stories when they walk into church, as if there is some type of separate reality they are entering, and I think in terms of discipleship in this narrative, when they see a dead church—I’m interested in churches you’ve seen where there is no life—uh, it’s that they are not touching the reality of this narrative.

JOHN ELDREDGE: They haven’t. They’ve lost the story, and they are living purely in propositions and facts. It’s Christianity as Algebra, right? Seriously! It’s like Algebra. And, they’ve lost heart. They’ve lost the Christianity of the heart, you see. And you lose those two things: you lose the heart and you lose the story, Christianity goes dead pretty quick.

NW: In Algebra, you say, “I’ve got it!” If you go to another metaphor, maybe of going to a movie, the narrative “It got me!”

JOHN ELDREDGE: Right, in Algebra you can say, “I understand that!” But in a great story you say, “I want to live like that, see?”

NW: Let’s talk about another discipleship theme related to the cross. You say something controversial about the cross not being the central symbol of Christianity historically. Talk about that in terms of discipleship. When Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me” did he mean to wear crosses, put a cross on your church? What did he mean by that versus how we have developed that idea in these last two millennia.

JOHN ELDREDGE: Yeah, again another way of looking at it would be to say the goal of discipleship is to bring people into the life of Christ. And all that that means. That their life becomes like the life of Christ, they live their life from the power of Christ in them. The difference is it focuses on the life of Christ. Now the cross is essential both for our atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation to God. And yes, we take up our cross to crucify our flesh, but the purpose is—as Paul says—that I might know the power of his resurrection. The purpose is to get people into the life of Jesus. And so, it blew my mind. It was Dallas Willard and the art historian Kenneth Clark who first showed to me that the cross was not the central symbol—it wasn’t even used at all in the first 400 years of Christianity. It appears nowhere in the early symbolism of the church; not in their art or imagery or architecture.

NW: It shocked you when you first understood that?

JOHN ELDREDGE: It blows you away. Because it has become our symbol, and we just take it as de facto. But the more I looked at the New Testament and early church history, the more I realized that it was the resurrection that blew them away. And that again goes back to human need, I mean discipleship is something that brings people life, or discipleship is something that makes people tired.

NW: Thus your title, Waking the Dead. John 1 talks about the life and light coming into the world, and there is similar language in 2 Corinthians 4:11, “We are alive—I’m reading from the New Century Version—but for Jesus we are always in danger of death so that the life of Jesus can be seen in our bodies that die.” Talk about that life and transformation process that it seems like to me is central to your message.

JOHN ELDREDGE: It’s absolutely crucial. It’s the same point Jesus is trying to make in “I am the vine, you are the branches.” A branch that is separated from the vine has no life in it. That it is from the vine, that’s where the branch draws all of its vitality, and therefore bears fruit. So, the point of Christianity is to bring people life—John 10:10. right? That’s the purpose, that’s the goal. And so it’s a great task to kind of look at your congregation, your small group or your discipleship team and ask, “Do they have life? Are they absolutely overflowing with the life of God? If not, then something’s wrong in our system that we are not drawing people into the vine, they’re not receiving that vitality of the life of Christ. Because Jesus makes it very clear that apart from me you can do jack diddly.

NW: That’s your paraphrase, right? (laughs)

JOHN ELDREDGE: We want these outcomes. And what I want to say is, I think we all agree on this: we want to see people transformed, we want to see marriages reconciled and we want to see people sharing their faith, and we want to see people living with financial responsibility, and on and on, we want to see teenagers living sexually pure lives — I think we agree on the outcomes. But what we have failed to take seriously is, they haven’t a chance of reaching those outcomes without the life of God in them in ever increasing amounts. So that’s the goal: how do we get the life of God, the power of the resurrection into our people in ever increasing amounts.

NW: Well, it seems like from your books, from Wild at Heart to Waking the Dead there is a progression from knowing our own story, knowing our woundedness—for men in particular—finding our masculine heart that God gives us and moving on to a sense of life and transformation. Talk for a minute about how you draw people’s stories out. It seems like your are dealing with core beliefs—wrong core beliefs that need to come out in marriage, for instance. How do you do that?

JOHN ELDREDGE: Let’s assume we’re working off of John 8 where Jesus says, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” People have a lot of knowledge of truth and it doesn’t seem to be setting them free. Why not? I mean seriously you take the average member of an American congregation and they know more than the entire church does in the developing world. Our knowledge base is extensive, but it doesn’t seem to be setting people free. And the reason is Psalm 51:6 “You desire truth in the inmost being.” And we’re all children of the modern era and Enlightenment—we think knowledge means head knowledge but what the Scripture is after is heart knowledge. The transformation of the heart. Then, in order to get the truth down into somebody’s heart, you have to take them back into their story and expose what lies have taken root in their heart. Because people live with a world view—all kinds of assumptions about God, assumptions about life, assumptions about themselves, and they have no ideas where those came from or even that they are there!Proverbs says the heart of a man is like deep water but a man of understanding draws it out. So we encourage people to understand their own story and the stories of those they love, so that you can understand, why is grandpa so silent? How come he drinks too much? Let me tell ya, he fought on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in WWII and he saw things he’s never been able to forget. Ohhh! So throwing a couple of verses by grandpa or enrolling him in a program that fails to address that, will never disciple him. So always—for some reason—people always wonder how come he just never seems to be doing well. He can’t seem to get over the hump. He’s stuck, right? Well, you gotta go where he’s stuck, and where he’s stuck is back in his story.

NW: Mitch Albom in his book, Five People You Meet In Heaven, says every father damages his son.

JOHN ELDREDGE: Yes, and his daughter…but hopefully (he is) redeeming that damage. That’s the next book, we’re putting out—for women.

NW: Do you have a publication date for that?

JOHN ELDREDGE: Yes, next year, March 2005. I’m writing this with my wife because I couldn’t write this without a woman. Pretty arrogant for a man to tell a woman how to write that…(laughs)

NW: Yes, that’s right!

JOHN ELDREDGE: The more that I understand what Christianity offers and how important the heart is the more I can know what’s going on in my 14 year old. Because the quick fix is behavior: just do the right thing! But when I stop as a father and say, no I want more than behavior, I want his heart. The heart captured for Christ. Then I can go after the deeper things.

NW: Talking about deeper things, I think, is important in a cultural sense, because you talk about rock climbing, bear hunting in your books, but for those men not really into those things, that’s the veneer—but is it not important to say that it’s the heart that you are talking about at the core level?

JOHN ELDREDGE: Absolutely. Therefore, those are only like parables. I don’t think that to become a true man that you have to become a lumberjack. You know. The guy who is researching, you know, a new medical field is on a great adventure. And he too has many battles to face, so the themes remain the same. For the man who loves chess, for the man who loves writing, the same thing—he has great battles to face and an adventure to live. It’s all the same—the core is the same, though it expresses itself in all sorts of ways.

NW: Have you experienced any other cultures reading your book and giving you feedback.

JOHN ELDREDGE: It’s so awesome. It’s universal. Wild at Heart is published now not only in Spanish but in Chinese, Korean, Russian, Polish, Indonesian, it’s all over the world, and the feedback we are getting is, it’s universal. Missionaries are using it in Africa, in Kazakhstan, even in the Amazon. And the reports we have from them is, its working – its helping them reach men in those diverse cultures. Because man is made in the image of God, and that image is universal at its core, however diverse the expressions might be.

NW: What in particular is universal? I had a reading group review your book and some of the feedback from Wild at Heart was—there was one from Lebanon who went through civil war and another African—and they were wondering, is the need for danger and excitement really universal? For those in war, that’s not what’s desired…

JOHN ELDREDGE: Those who’ve been hurt by it shrink back in any culture. Just like the boy who was forced to play football by his dad. And so bad experiences don’t change the universal nature of man. What is universal is Genesis 1:26-27 that men and women are made in the image of God as men and as women. That the identity, the image of God is bestowed at the level of gender. It’s very clear, right there in the text, that God made them in his image, male and female. Here’s the image of God—it’s in the masculine and feminine. It’s one, that you are going to be distinct, and two, something about that is going to be universal. And that’s just crucial, and that’s crucial to discipleship. I mean, you’ve got to disciple men differently than you disciple women. You know, getting a group of guys around in a circle of twelve chairs to share their feelings is not the best way. I mean men do it but they don’t do it willingly.

NW: It comes out in those rock-climbing sessions, those times at the river?

JOHN ELDREDGE: You have to get a man doing something. Now for some guys it’s golf, I hate golf. I’m not saying it’s a particular sport. I’m not even saying it’s sports. I’m saying there’s something true to the masculine soul that you have to understand, so that you can disciple him as a man, and for a woman as well.

NW: Do you fear that when your book goes into another country that you are somehow exporting an American veneer on top of the reality?

JOHN ELDREDGE: Only slightly, because I trust the work of the Holy Spirit to take what is drivel and chuck it and to bring what is true home to the hearts of God’s people. I mean I really lean on that.

NW: And when the translations are done, do they edit it toward that culture?

JOHN ELDREDGE: We allow indigenous publishers to do the publishing. That’s crucial. And they are going to try and give as true a translation of meaning as they can, so yeah, some examples don’t translate and we allow them use what does.

NW: Talk for a minute about Ransomed Heart Ministries.

JOHN ELDREDGE: What we primarily do are retreats for men and women here in Colorado. The reason is that one of our core values is irreversible change. We want to see people truly set free, truly healed. The Isaiah 61 promise of Jesus that broken hearts are truly mended and captives are actually really set free.New Wineskins

John Eldredge is author of Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secrets of a Man’s Soul, in which Eldredge challenges men to embrace their true nature. It sold more than one million copies and was awarded the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) Gold Medallion in the inspirational category in 2002. In his new book, Waking the Dead, he issues a broader more radical challenge to Christians, men and women, to rethink what they’ve been taught about their faith, to embark on a journey to restore their embattled hearts. Eldredge founded Ransomed Heart Ministries, Colorado Springs, Colorado, a teaching ministry known for its wilderness retreats for men. He also wrote The Sacred Romance (co-authored by Brent Curtis) and The Journey of Desire. John and his wife, Stasi, and sons Samuel, Blaine and Luke, live in Colorado Springs. [Ransomed Heart Ministries

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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