What Was All That Fuss About? A Late Review of Wild at Heart by John Eldredge
Over the years of this blog several commenters have asked my opinion about the book Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Thomas Nelson, 2001) by John Eldredge. They asked because of my interest in the “decline of men” and the “wounded male psyche.” Recently here I interacted with the book Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World (Zondervan, 2015). Again, some commenters asked what I thought about Eldredge’s book. I had to admit I never read it.
I vaguely remember the controversy over Wild at Heart when it was first published. I read reviews of it in some Christian magazines and heard that many women’s advocates, both Christian and non-Christian, both male and female, absolutely hated it. Somehow I formed the opinion that, at least in that book, Eldredge was promoting some kind of Christian form of machismo. So, having no interest in that, I avoided the book. But because here I have frequently talked about the growing social neglect of, if not outright prejudice against, males—especially in education and health—people keep asking for my response to Wild at Heart.
I assume what really provokes those questions is my cautious but increasingly insistent opinion that maleness and femaleness, though equal in value and rights, equally sharing God’s image, are different in more ways than biology and contemporary sociology say. As I have explained here before, based on my own life experiences and observations, and informed by Scripture, I believe masculinity and femininity are not reducible to physiology or social conditioning alone. Both can be and often are very seriously distorted by social conditioning and sin and, at least in the case of males, hormones can distort gender—from what is ideal and intended. (I believe, and this is based also on reading scientific literature [“socioendocrinology”] that “testosterone poisoning” is real even if not automatic. (That is, not all males suffer from it; some do—in which case others often suffer from their acting out based on too much testosterone or their inability to control the impulses testosterone gives them.)
Here I don’t want to repeat all that or go over that territory again; it’s been almost run into the ground here (and elsewhere). What I mean by that is that opinions seemed largely “locked down.” No amount of discussion or argument will change them.
My immediate concern here is with John Eldredge’s message in Wild at Heart. (It’s the only book by him I’ve read and I have not listened to any of his podcasts.)
A few weeks ago I happened to see a used copy of Wild at Heart in the world’s largest Half Price Bookstore. (For those interested who might live near it or find themselves near it at some time—it’s the “mother store” of the chain and is in Dallas, Texas just east of Highway 75 on Northwest Highway—a few miles north of downtown Dallas. It’s the largest bookstore I’ve ever seen!) I decided it was time to read the book for myself and see what all the fuss was about and why so many people ask for my opinion about it.
Having finished the book now, I honestly do not understand what all the fuss was about—unless readers firmly believe there is no such thing (or anything good) about masculinity. Eldredge believes there is; it is hard wired into males—by God. It is the way God intended males to be in the world. It cannot be reduced to social conditioning or biology alone (contrary to what I here called “contemporary sociological orthodoxy). However, by no means does Eldredge promote anything approximating machismo or even patriarchy. Nowhere in the book does he promote male domination of women or of other men. His overall message is that males are intended to find their center in God in submission to him as their true Father and that the “father wound” many men suffer—being emasculated rather than mentored into true, positive manhood by their fathers—can find healing in relationship to God who loves and honors them as men.
Nowhere in the book does Eldredge blame women for the “damaged male psyche” many men suffer. Nowhere does he attack feminism or the liberation of women or even hint at patriarchy or “complementarianism” as that is explained and defended by many fundamentalists. If Eldredge blames anyone for the damaged male psyche many men suffer, a feeling of worthlessness that causes them to “put on” a “false self,” it is mostly fathers. Not all fathers, of course, but the onus lies there. Too many fathers, Eldredge claims, fail their sons (and often their daughters as well) by never mentoring them into true manhood which means channeling their natural adventure-seeking constructively and positively. Too many fathers also fail to bless their sons—affirming their essential goodness—something young males need from their fathers or at least some father substitute.
Eldredge does lay some blame at society’s doorstep for increasingly emasculating young males by teaching them that their natural desires for physical activity, risk and adventure are bad and that they should be more like young women in terms of natural ability to sit still longer, listen more attentively, be calm and not take risks.
Nowhere does Eldredge advocate males, boys or men, fighting (unless they are first attacked), dominating, acting out aggressively toward others, or creating or using hierarchies to gain power over others. What he does advocate (in Wild at Heart) is boys and men valuing their maleness including their natural, God-given desire for adventure and taking off the “false self” they have created to hide their wounded psyches which are usually the result of emasculation by someone.
Of course, Eldredge makes many points in the book, but nowhere did I read him advocating any kind of disposition, attitude or behavior that would in any way harm or injure or demean others—women included. His harshest criticism is aimed at men—fathers and father figures who fail to initiate boys and young men into true manhood which uses natural, inborn aggressiveness in creative and positive ways. His strongest criticisms are aimed at fathers and father figures who emasculate boys and young men by sending them messages that they naturally interpret as meaning they can never measure up to expectations.
Actually, on a very personal level, I could resonate with much of Eldredge’s message. My own father, a Pentecostal minister, was absent from my life much of the time. And I don’t mean just physically absent; even when he was physically “there” he was emotionally absent. I never heard him say “I’m proud of you son,” or “I love you, son” or anything like that. He did not seem happy to be with me; his mind was “somewhere else” even when he was with me. I can remember many instances when I had to beg him to attend some school event where I would be involved—a sports event, a play, a class trip, whatever. I intentionally attended seminary in the town where his church—my home church—was located so that I could be his assistant pastor. I hoped it would be a time of being mentored—finally—by my father. Instead, it destroyed our relationship. I won’t go into the details here, of course, but, once again, as before when I was a child and teenager, he utterly, totally failed to bless me in any way. Instead, he continually gave me insignificant tasks that he did not want to do himself. He never “gave me the pulpit” unless he had to be out of town. He never pointed out my strengths or showed me how to do anything of importance better; he only criticized me and took away my authority. In the end, he asked me to resign as his assistant pastor when I inadvertently discovered his long-standing secret life that involved gross immorality and criminal activity. After I bailed him out of jail and reluctantly agreed to keep his secrets (something I should not have done, but I was only twenty-five and very much under his control) he said “I don’t think you can work with me now that you know what you know about me.” It was the most devastating thing that ever happened to me and meant the total ruin of our father-son relationship which was on the ropes anyway. Years later, when I finally found the courage to confront him and get him to leave behind his secret life, he said “If you tell anyone what you know about me it will ruin many lives and that will be your fault and not mine.” Again, devastating to hear from one’s father who is also a highly respected and influential minister.
I actually found myself weeping at times as I read Wild at Heart; it certainly “hit home” for me. And it is the diagnosis and prescription—to find your center in God and learn your value from him—that both I and many men I know need to hear and heed.
Totally coincidentally, at the same time I have been reading Wild at Heart—off and on over a few weeks time—my wife and I have begun watching the television drama series “Madam Secretary”—on Netflix from the beginning. I was a big fan of “West Wing” and I find “Madam Secretary” much like it. (My only criticism of the series is that the main character and her family are portrayed as too perfect. No family is that non-dysfunctional! Well, okay, on second thought, I have one more criticism. Overall and in general the female characters are portrayed as sometimes misguided and flawed but always having good intentions. The male characters almost all—“Madam Secretary’s” husband the one main exception—are portrayed as sinister, not to be trusted.)
My point in mentioning “Madam Secretary” is that, at least there, if few other dramas, I have found my television portrayal of a truly good father—Henry McCord played by Tim Daly. Henry is the Secretary of State’s husband, father to their three children, professor of theology at Georgetown University, and secret agent (on the side and only occasionally) for the NSA. I love Henry’s portrayed relationship with his wife and children—especially his teenage son Jason. Henry is portrayed as “the perfect husband and father.” A little unrealistic, of course, but still refreshing after all the bad fathers in popular entertainment. He’s a true “man’s man,” loving adventure (often lived vicariously through his wife), supporting his powerful wife and sometimes quarrelsome children, and mentoring his son into positive, creative, sensitive but not emasculated manhood.
Over my lifetime I have found many male mentors, substitute fathers, if you will, who have mentored me and I have tried my best (with many mistakes, I’m sure) to be a good father, grandfather, and mentor to especially young men. Many of them have said to me what I never heard from my own father: “I’m proud of you.” And I make a point of saying that to the young men I mentor. It’s what every boy and young man needs desperately to hear from an older man and especially one mentoring him.
All that is not to say I agree with everything Eldredge wrote in Wild at Heart, but I do believe its basic message: that males are hard wired to seek adventure and desperately need a father or father-figure to mentor them into positive, creative, constructive modes of adventure-seeking. And that, when that fails, when they are emasculated and tempted to put on a “false self” to feel good about themselves, men need to re-discover God as their true, loving, affirming heavenly Father and leave behind the false self and the empty center at the core of their being created by the “father wound.”