Book Review: “Wild At Heart” (Jul-Aug 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

By Daniel Mangrum
July-August 2002

The church is full of nice guys. Nice, boring guys who, according to John Eldredge, need “permission to live from the heart and not from the list of ‘should’ and ‘ought to’.? In his book Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, Eldredge comes to offer that permission to his primarily male audience. (A similar offer is extended to women who read this book, but only secondarily.) He comes also with the message that “you can get your heart back?”For Eldredge, this book is “about the recovery and release of man’s heart, his passions, his true nature which he has been given by God.”

Formerly an actor and a director for the stage in Los Angeles, Eldredge received his MA in Counseling from ColoradoChristianUniversity. He has worked for Focus on the Family and is currently the director of Ransomed Heart Ministrieswhich is “part monastery, part military outpost, part Red Cross unit for the soul”. Drawing upon his experience as a counselor, lecturer and outdoorsman, Eldredge attempts to lead his readers on a “safari of the heart to recover a life of freedom, passion and adventure”. This safari ranges across a wide and variable terrain in only 223 pages, touching upon so many ideas and issues that readers will be hard-pressed to examine them all.

Eldredge apparently believes our churches, our women and our world are in desperate need of “men who have come alive”. However, before a man can come alive, he must deal with his wound.Eldredge claims that a blow is dealt to every man (usually by his father) “in the center of his heart, in the place of his strength”. This wound is what hinders a man from knowing and living according with his true heart. Eldredge identifies three needs of a man’s heart; a battle to fight, a beauty to rescue and an adventure to live. (These needs have their counterparts within the hearts of women which he also touches upon briefly.) His book explores the origins of the three needs, how they reflect the image of God and what keeps men from either acknowledging them or pursuing them. By sharing with his audience his own story, the stories of his clients and even borrowing stories from Hollywood, Eldredge aspires to assist with the initiation of men into an “authentic masculinity”. He opens each chapter with two or three quotations from a variety of sources including popular songwriters, authors, poets and playwrights, both secular and religious, which he believes to be relevant to the topic at hand. There are many voices represented in this book yet the voice of Robert Bly, American poet and father of the “expressive men’s movement”, seems to rise above them all.

Eldredge says that “there are no formulas with God” and that the way in which God leads individual men to deal with their wound is quite personal. Since I happen to agree with him, I hesitate to say how God may use this book in your life. Will you get your heart back, if it has in fact gone into hiding? You might. Will you become a freer, more passionate and adventurous man of God as result of joining Eldredge’s quest? Possibly. Did I experience these things? No, not really.

I think the reason that I did not come away from Eldredge’s safari with the big game he is after is because I rarely made meaningful connections with the author’s ideas. The first time I read the book, it left me a bit flat. It appeared to me that by making the disclaimer that his book is not “some sort of macho-man pep rally”, Eldredge feels free to employ as many Marlboro Man stereotypes as he can muster. His stories of rock-climbing, horse-roping, bear-hunting and fly-fishing failed to awaken in me that “something wild in the heart of every man”. While those rough and tumble narratives tend to get his point across, they never resonated with my experience and interests. Anticipating this effect on his readers, Eldredge attempts to distance himself from the stereotypes he invokes by saying that he?s not a ?great white hunter? or a great athlete or devotee of the monster truck. The tension between how he comes across through his examples and how he wants to be perceived by his readers as seen in his disclaimers makes it hard to know just whatEldredge is truly saying. However, I did find myself agreeing with him that there is something in the hearts of men that craves danger, risk and excitement. Then I read the book a second time.

My wife and I were part of a discussion group with about six other couples from our church. Not everyone in the group came from the US or even a Western culture. Two of the men in this group had lived in Lebanon during its civil war. One had been a soldier. The other had been a teenaged target for a sniper. They did not enthusiastically subscribe to Eldredge’s ideas regarding the need for danger and excitement in men’s lives. They also had trouble sharing Eldredge’s initial assessment of men (in the church). Listening to their perspectives lead me to question what he claims to be the feelings, experiences, fears and desires of “every man”.

Not only were Eldredge’s examples and illustrations ineffective in rousing ?something fierce in the heart of? this Every Man, I was indifferent to his passionate language. Like many men, I tend to do more thinking and less feeling. As a result, I found his rhetorical style to be melodramatic. One exception came during our group meetings when the wives took issue with Eldredge’s advice to his son on how to deal with a bully. He told Blaine to “hit him as hard as you can”. They were appalled, but I understood him. “You cannot turn a cheek you do not have.” I explained to the group that, unlike Jesus who was well aware of his strength, many men are unaware of theirs. Sadly, in our fallen world men only learn about their strength when it is challenged or called into question. Until a man has been tested and he learns that he is strong, he can’t be asked or expected to restrain his strength. Nor can he be trained to use his strength for good instead of evil. As a kid who often had his strength questioned, it’s understandable that this would reach me at a visceral level. This was about the only connection that Eldredge and I made.

Another thing that restrained me from whole-heartedly enlisting with Eldredge’s campaign was my understanding of what the Bible teaches about “spiritual warfare”, a term that is difficult for me to use. In Eldredge’s view, there are three enemies in man’s spiritual struggle. They are the flesh, the world and the devil. The flesh and the world are explained and dealt with rather briefly in comparison to the time spent discussing Satan. After identifying the devil as the cause of a wide variety of afflictions ranging from dizzy spells to the wound, Eldredge offers this apology; “Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not blaming everything on the devil.” And yet, there is more elaboration upon the Great Serpent’s strategies and “how to slay him” than there is upon how to discipline the flesh or remain uncorrupted by the world. Eldredge’s concept of spiritual warfare is decidedly more aggressive than mine. When I think about spiritual warfare, I think about a defensive battle instead of an offensive battle. I remember Paul encouraging the Ephesians to “stand your ground” and to “stand firm” (Eph.6:13-14 NIV) against the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph.6:12 NIV). The reason that the Christian’s war is defensive is because Jesus “disarmed the powers and authorities,” and “made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Col. 2:15 NIV) It is not our commission to take the battle to the enemy. Instead, we’re told to “resist the devil”. Until Jesus returns to rescue us, we’re to stand our ground receiving any whom the Spirit rallies to the cause of Christ. Eldredge has a much more assertive role for the Christian soldier in mind.

Certainly our churches would be better “Red Cross units” for wounded souls if men were more closely conformed to the image of God. Our families would definitely better serve as “monasteries” and safe havens if men would relinquish their anger toward their wives and release them from the burden of validating their masculinity. As for the world; if men would simply follow their marching orders to be salt and light, to preach the gospel, and to live good lives among the pagans, then God would continue to go before us, fighting our battles and winning glory unto Himself. I’m not sure that Eldredge’s “invitation to rush the fields at Banockburn, to go West, to leap from the falls and save the beauty” is the same invitation that God issues to men. Nevertheless, I am certain that God can use anything He chooses to save men from lives of bondage, depression and banality, including this book.

Contact Daniel Mangrum at mudpit2000@yahoo.com

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This author published 1598 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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