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Are Men Really Wild at Heart?

By October 16, 2004 No Comments

Have rifle sales started to soar at the local Wal-Mart? Are friends discussing white water rafting and rock climbing for the first time? Are church council disagreements now settled with fisticuffs instead of votes? If you answered yes to one or more of the previous questions, chances are that the men in your community have just finished reading John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Thomas Nelson, 2001). Wild at Heart And your community is not alone: the book has sold over a million copies and spawned a cottage industry of retreats, conferences, and spin-off products. It has also been the focus of men’s Bible studies both at churches and on college campuses across America. Our interest in the Wild at Heart phenomenon was triggered by the attention the book was receiving in dorms on the campus where we teach, as well as in local churches.

Wild at Heart is insightful in noting that men live unfulfilled lives, searching to satisfy a vaguely unsettling malaise. So it is understandable that Eldrege searches to discover that certain “something” that we’re all longing for. The Irish musical group U2 articulated this longing well when they crafted the song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Unfortunately, although Eldredge has asked the right questions, he offers solutions that are sometimes misguided and at other times patently wrong.

In particular, we are concerned that the embrace of Wild at Heart by men in the Reformed tradition is a symptom of a wider phenomenon: an accommodation to broader cultural forces, including an embrace of generic “evangelical” theology and practice that, upon closer inspection, is at odds with the distinctives of biblical, Reformed faith and practice. Let’s consider first the shape of Eldredge’s proposal that men are “Wild at Heart.”

Manhood as an Adventure

In Wild at Heart , Eldredge argues that men have been emasculated–they’ve been told by the church and society in general that they should be “responsible, sensitive, disciplined, faithful, diligent, dutiful, etc.” (xi). These are all fine qualities, according to Eldredge, but they stifle and constrain men from being what they really are: wild and dangerous. The restlessness that he suggests all men feel is due to the confusion engendered when society asks them to act like women while the church asks them to be “Really Nice Guys.” Both have conspired to cheat men of the opportunity to become William Wallace (as portrayed by Mel Gibson in the film, Braveheart), demanding instead that they act like Mother Teresa. Eldredge counsels his readers to search their hearts, confident that they will find three universal desires: a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.

In essence, all men have a battle to fight because they have been “hardwired” for it–it is part of the “masculine design” (10). As evidence of this supposedly natural instinct within men, Eldredge cites the phenomenal commercial success of combat films like High Noon, Saving Private Ryan, and Die Hard and declares that it was men, not women, who flocked to the theaters and video stores. Eldredge takes the seemingly universal penchant of our sons to construct guns out of sticks, Lego toys, and napkins as further evidence of this universal ferocity. Similarly, all men have a need to live the adventurous life. This is why Eldredge’s sons attempt to rappel from the second story window of his house, why the western cowboy has taken on mythic proportions in the U.S., and why men get much more excited about seeing the latest Steven Segal flick than they do about going to Bible study.

Finally, Eldredge suggests, all men have an inherent desire to rescue a beauty. Eldredge contends that nothing inspires a man like a beautiful woman; she makes a man want to be a hero. The fact that the woman, in turn, “yearns to be fought for” (16) ensures that the process is full of synergy. We could engage this book on a number of levels. Here we want to consider just a few.

Creation and Manhood: Is War Good?

One of the core themes of the Reformed tradition–and one of the accents that it offers to the larger Body of Christ–is a distinct theology of creation. At the heart of the tradition is an affirmation that “the whole world belongs to God.” This stems from the fundamental biblical affirmation that creation is good (Gen. 1:31). The reason we can affirm the spheres of art and politics, economics and recreation, is that these are part of a good creation. This is an affirmation about not just some long lost origin; it is also our fundamental hope for the future. All things are being restored to this goodness. Redemption is the foretaste of the creational goodness, and we are called to be agents of such restoration. Like the dove that brought back an olive leaf to the ark, bringing hope, so we in the Church are to bring foretastes of the kingdom to a broken world.

But what does it mean to say that creation is “good?” One important aspect of the goodness of creation is harmony or peace. God’s creation is a place where we certainly find difference– different kinds of creatures, differences between men and women–but these differences are related in harmony. The original shalom of creation is characterized by both a lack of conflict and an abundance of flourishing. The Fall introduced enmity and conflict into the peace of a good creation (Gen. 3:15). But this is precisely why redemption is concerned with the restoration of peace and the undoing of conflict. This is pictured most powerfully in the prophecies of Isaiah, who paints a picture of swords being beaten into plowshares (Isa. 2:4) and wolves lying down with lambs (11:6-7). This is not just about the end of the defense industry or a global petting zoo: redemption is the promise of a renewed creation where every facet of enmity, violence, and war is erased precisely because it was never part of what God intended for creation.

But what does this theology of creational harmony have to do with Wild at Heart ? If one reads carefully, it is clear that Eldredge offers a theology of creation diametrically opposed to the vision we’ve just sketched. First, we must appreciate that he stakes his account of “manhood” on a notion of how God made us; in other words, he tries to suggest that his account of manhood is rooted in creation. The book is riddled with claims about “how God made” men and women, making claims about the “essence” of little boys and girls.

But what Eldredge attributes to creation, biblical Christianity ascribes to the Fall! Eldredge wants to inscribe war into the very hearts of men: “the warrior,” he tells us, “is hardwired into every man” (p. 141). For Eldredge, men are made for war–indeed, created for war. Men can only be men where there are battles to fight! Battle, war, and enmity are thus inscribed into the very structure of creation.

But if battles are the fruit of enmity and conflict, and such enmity is a result of the Fall, not creation, then it cannot be the case that being a warrior is essential to being a man. (What will men do in the kingdom–when peace reigns and the swords are beaten into ploughshares?) Eldredge actually ends up endorsing a consequence of the fall as if it were part of God’s good creation. However, to endorse the warrior-ideal fosters sinfulness, not redemption. Whereas the prophetic vision of redemption sees swords transformed into plowshares, Eldredge wants to keep them all as swords.

William Wallace or Jesus of Nazareth: Will the Real Man Please Stand Up?

While Eldredge wants the hero of his book to be God, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the real hero is William Wallace of Braveheart fame. (Bruce Willis’s Die Hard films are a close second.) But given the picture of manhood that Eldredge has painted as that in
tended by our Creator, we found ourselves asking: “Is Jesus a man?” How can men be warriors at heart when we see the model of Jesus’ non-resistance?

Wild at Heart anticipates this problem by holding up God as the very paragon of manhood. Just as he suggested that men are warriors at heart, so he argues that God is a kind of transcendent Braveheart (p. 35), concluding that “there is something fierce in the heart of God” (p. 29). But this theology runs into a couple of significant problems.

First, Eldredge wants us to believe that his picture of manhood is deduced from his theology of God’s nature, but actually the logic runs something like this: we are created to be warriors; we are created in the image of God; therefore, God is a warrior. In other words, we worry that Eldredge’s picture of God as the paradigmatic warrior, adventurer, and rescuer is, in fact, reading a fiction back into God. In addition to painting a deficient picture of God as needing adventure (as if God could lack something), more significantly Eldredge’s theology makes God essentially a warrior, and by doing so inscribes conflict into the very heart of God. In other words, Eldredge fails to distinguish between God’s relation to a fallen world and God’s very essence.

Second, Eldredge’s theology has a big problem: women. He wants us to deduce that men are essentially warriors because God is a warrior and we are created in God’s image. However, is it not true that also women are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27)? If so, why wouldn’t women be considered to have been created warriors as well? Well, no, Eldredge replies: “the masculine and feminine run throughout all creation” (p. 35). And, in fact, God also has all of the “feminine” traits as well (he wants to be loved, wants an adventure to share, and has a beauty to unveil). But if that’s the case, what exactly are the clues as to which of these divine traits men are to emulate, and which women are to model?

Is it not rather the case that men and women are called together and in the same way to be disciples of Jesus, bearers of the divine image? And do we not find the traits of the divine image encapsulated in the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22- 23)? Do we see such fruit in William Wallace? Do we not see these most powerfully embodied in Jesus of Nazareth?

A Universal Longing

As we’ve suggested, Eldredge assumes that this quest for adventure is a uniquely male pursuit. (Women never get to have their own adventure; they only get to share an adventure.) He asks the reader to allow him to “bypass the entire nature vs. nurture ‘is gender really built-in?’ debate” (p. 8). With a tenuous interpretation of Genesis 1:27, he charges ahead with the assumption that male and female biological distinctions inherently make them radically different social beings. If he is correct about the so-called “hardwired” nature of men, why then do some societies expect drastically different behaviors of men than do others? How is it possible that some societies associate what Western cultures would assume to be feminine characteristics with men? So the “nature vs. nurture” question cannot be avoided so easily. As we’ve already noted, from a biblical perspective, despite biological differences all humans–women and men–are called to image God by bearing the fruit of the Spirit. And the Bible encourages us to see such image-bearing as the product of formation or nurture: disciples aren’t born, they’re made.

Eldredge, however, insists that there is a spiritual restlessness that’s somehow unique to men (p. 5). Such an assertion assumes that men and women have distinctly different methods of fulfillment. Is it not rather that all humans have an emptiness that can be best described as what U2 names a “God-shaped hole”?

Moreover, Eldredge’s method here once again confuses creation and Fall. He urges men to look into their hearts and find “written” there three desires: for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue (p. 9). And in view of the new covenant promise (Jer. 31:33), he urges us to trust our hearts. But although it is true that we are a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) and have been renewed by the Spirit (Rom. 8:4), it does not follow that desires for battle and adventure are the fruit of this new heart. In fact, in these contexts Paul says exactly the opposite: being a new creation makes us ambassadors of reconciliation not enmity (2 Cor. 5:17-20), and the heart set on the Spirit seeks peace not conflict (Rom. 8:6).

Hollywood Baptized?

Finally, although Eldredge presents his work as countercultural, it ultimately falls short of seriously undermining the status quo. In fact, Wild at Heart could probably be described as simple accommodation at best and a kind of pandering at worst.

Eldredge offers little to subvert the archetype of the macho man personified ad nauseum in popular movies by Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone, among a host of others. It remains difficult to discern what’s so revolutionary about what Eldredge is offering. Although he writes as if he is upsetting cultural norms, he’s actually perpetuating the notion of the “manly man” that’s been in place for centuries, giving us a kind of Iron John for Christians. Routinely the protagonists of these films are men who have been deeply wounded and are initially unwilling to respond when called into their “battle to fight.” They universally respond with a vengeance and along the way manage to somehow meet Eldredge’s requirement “to rescue beauty” (usually a voluptuous damsel, incapable of mustering her own defense, much less intelligent conversation). It could be compellingly argued that Wild at Heart has simply taken the rote script of nondescript action movies, justified it with a questionable scriptural hermeneutic, and presented it as God’s plan for Christian men.

Beyond that, and as already alluded to, Eldredge does note that women have a role to play in this drama: they are there to be rescued by strong men–it’s universal to human nature, he claims (p. 181). What do women need to be rescued from? Basically, insecurity: Eldredge writes that “every woman needs to know that she is exquisite and exotic and chosen” (p. 182). How can she elicit that kind of rescue from a man? The answer: “She seduces him. She uses all she has as a woman to arouse him to be a man” (p. 191). The ultimate example of proper seduction, he suggests, was Ruth and Boaz. God sets that template for all women to follow when “he not only gives Ruth her own book in the Bible but also names her in the genealogy” of Jesus (p. 191).

Again, questionable biblical interpretation aside, such notions only perpetuate the cultural status quo. Eldredge’s recipe for female fulfillment hardly diverges from that of the makers of the Barbie Doll or the franchisers of Hooter’s restaurants. Rather than offering a subversive and invigorating message for a woman, Eldredge has endorsed the exploitative and oppressive conception that objectifies female sexuality and communicates that a woman has value only in her relationship to a man–insinuating that men and women cannot be completely whole unless engaged in some sort of romantic relationship. Such a notion seems contradictory to 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul extols the virtues of singleness, noting that in singleness, the Christian can become more dependent on life within the larger family of God.

A Counter-Cultural Gospel

Eldredge may be applauded for asking questions about the lack of fulfillment American Christians experience in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, however, we feel that men and women who follow his prescription will still not find what they’re looking for. In Wild at Heart , Eldredge has convoluted scripture to the point that war, instead of peace, is seen as the ideal state of human relations and Jesus is the brigadier general of a host of 10,000 armed and trained angels, instead o
f the teacher who proffered the revolutionary ideas of meekness, mercifulness, and peacemaking.

Moreover, Eldredge’s argument, though couched as counter-cultural, actually sustains a flawed caricature that ultimately inhibits men from fully realizing who they are in Christ. Perhaps most perilously, Wild at Heart both implicitly and explicitly minimizes the consequences of sin and the fall. To argue that there are separate “secrets” for men and women in finding spiritual contentment suggests a kind of “selfhelp” strategy that ignores the deep reality–and necessity–of grace.

Instead, we ought to hear the gospel’s call to men and women as a call to a deeply countercultural identity: while appreciating our differences, together (Gal. 3:28) we are to find our identity in the Crucified One who did not assert his own interests (Phil. 2:1-11). To be a peculiar people of peace and love, a holy nation distinguished by kindness and gentleness–that is the Gospel’s truly counter-cultural calling to both men and women who are disciples of Jesus.

Mark Mulder is Assistant Professor of Sociology and James K. A. Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Both are members of Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.