Saturday, September 06, 2008

John Eldredge - Wild at Heart

This is meant to be a book about men and what a man should look like psychologically. It's kind of like a Christianised version of a cross between half of Men are from Mars... and a self-help book. Except that the 'Christianisation' is very clearly American and very clearly charismatic, with some of the weaknesses of both.

It's worth saying at the outset that I think there may well be qualitative psychological difference between men and women as well as quantitative ones; the question is what they are. Although Eldredge is an experiences counsellor, I have yet to find any men who think that Wild at Heart is a good explanation of what it is to be a man. (I have, however, found quite a few women who think that the 'sequel', Captivating is a good explanation of what it is to be a woman.) And of course, when I judge a book like this, all I have to judge it against is myself and male friends of mine. I suspect that the book may well work better for 'average' men living in the Western US - I suspect that's who Eldredge knows and has counselled.

Of course, there are some good insights. Probably the best one is the idea that men benefit from being given permission to do what they think they ought to do. However, this seems to get slightly confused with Eldredge seeing what people think they ought to do as being what they are called to do by God, which is crazy. He does backtrack on it a little in the final chapter where he clarifies that it's true of people who are sufficiently spiritually mature (for which read that if it's not true of you, you just aren't mature enough yet).

Eldredge sees the three fundamental desires of men as being to fight a battle, to have an adventure, and to rescue a beauty. Of the three, I think it is the idea of having an adventure as a fundamental desire that I am most sceptical about. If he allowed it to become a metaphorical adventure, then that would probably be better, but his language remains pretty heavily literal on that one. Linked in with this is the whole idea of 'wildness'. In one story he recounts, he describes his young son as a 'wild man', and the son asks him if he really means it. Now without tones of voice, I wouldn't know what answer the son would want to hear (but Eldredge assumes it has to be 'yes'). Wildness, which Eldredge very strongly associates with the outdoorsy aspects of US culture, has implications of strength and freedom, but also of lack of civilisation and inability to relate - kind of like Crocodile Dundee, only more so. Would a wild man live in a house, or outside? Would he use cutlery at a nice restaurant? And so on. I think there probably is something under all the rubbish, but I wish he'd made a better job of explaining it.

The area I find most interesting / disturbing is Eldredge's conception of 'the Wound'. According to Eldredge, boys at some stage receive a single put down, usually from their fathers, which makes them think they cannot be real men. What is needed is then for them to discover that and overcome it. All sorts of questions arise:

  • Why is it 'wound' (singular)?
  • Does that imply that they would be better (in some way even sinless?) if their father had not done that? - I think it seems to stem from a Rogerian conception that says that sin is all about us not feeling good enough about ourselves (which doesn't work).
  • Eldredge is right in his (eventual) insistence that we need God's approval not man's, but I don't think his message has anything to hold out to the man who is already well-adjusted.
  • Why is it so programmatic?

All in all, there are some interesting insights here, but a lot of muck as well. If he thought through questions like "Why has the Church said for over 1000 years that men's fundamental problem is their pride?" and "Do these patterns manifest themselves in the same way in every man?", the book could be a lot better.

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