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John Eldredge is a popular pastor whose books have sold millions of copies, making him one of the most prominent and influential, if not intellectually sophisticated, thinkers on the issues surrounding gender roles among evangelicals. Eldredge’s 2001 book, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, articulates a particular vision of masculinity in which men are called not to abandon forms of power but rather to actively reclaim them. Wild at Heart represents a contemporary reincarnation of muscular Christianity, which was a Victorian movement that sought to “masculinize” the church because it was losing male members, with American baseball player-turned-revivalist Billy Sunday at the fore. Within the framework of muscular Christianity, Christ’s example (to men) is that of powerful masculinity and assertive control at all times. This Jesus is neither truly vulnerable nor self-emptying. How does a contemporary pastor like Eldredge end up here, with a version of Jesus who looks more like Braveheart and less like one who was "despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity... one from whom others hide their faces, held of no account, stricken and afflicted" (Isaiah 53:3-4, NRSV) - a Jesus so far removed from the Bible? In other words, my question is: What cultural and theological assumptions permit Eldredge to claim that the task for Christian men is to assert their power more boldly?
Culturally, it is clear that Eldredge accepts and propogates a narrative of social “emasculation” in which men have been robbed of their proper “warrior” status by a politically-correct, liberal society (see Wild at Heart, 7, 79, 82). Journalist Susan Faludi documents the same perspective among followers of the Promise Keeper’s movement of the 1990’s in her book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. She states: “This reconfiguration of the male role on a spiritual battlefield helped ease one of the group’s greatest collective anxieties… that their wives were really the well-armed ones. Their vision of women as the more powerful combatants was in itself, however, only another way to cloak in metaphor their painful domestic disputes, a way to make them look like so many heroic Davids before feminine Goliaths” (240). Throughout his book, Eldredge repeats this mantra of a victimized masculinity; the problem facing men is not, the legacy of centuries of unquestioned patriarchy, but rather the ways in which men have been “feminized” by contemporary society, including the church (Eldredge 7, 82). In one of many similar passages, he asserts: “Christianity, as it currently exists, has done some terrible things to men. When all is said and done, I think most men in the church believe that God put them on the earth to be a good boy… That’s what we hold up as models of Christian maturity: Really Nice Guys” (7). Christian men, therefore, are living without a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue and are little more than “bored” (7). Armed with this simplistic cultural narrative, told primarily through movies and personal anecdotes, Eldredge is able to offer his version of male discipleship, in which men need to abandon their sense of passivity and low-risk attitudes and become more adventurous.
At a theological level, Eldredge construes the life of Jesus in such a way that he no longer represents the self-emptying love of the Father but rather exemplifies forms of masculine “aggressiveness” and power (177). Eldredge follows the christological trajectory laid by the muscular Christianities from 19th century Britain to late 20th century Promise Keepers wherein Jesus becomes the most “manly” of men. Eldredge appropriates this theological vision wholesale, declaring that any sign of weakness is, for the Christian male, a spiritual failure. Concerning Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, Eldredge writes: “I know Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. But… Jesus was able to retaliate, believe me… And yet we suggest that a boy who is mocked, shamed before his fellows, stripped of all power and dignity should stay in that beaten place because Jesus wants him there? You will emasculate him for life… It may look moral, it may look like turning the other cheek, but it is merely weakness” (79). In other words, if men have been emasculated by society and by a church that admonishes them to “turn the other cheek,” Eldredge would have them strike out on the process of remasculation as a holy endeavor. Remasculation – a reassertion of power – thereby replaces self-emptying love as the dynamic of power which (male) Christians are called to embody. Thus, a few Scriptural examples of Jesus’ masculine forcefulness are interpreted theologically as a call for Christian men to exhibit a specific kind of assertiveness and power, that which seeks “a battle to win, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue” (9). Eldredge grounds his christological vision of manhood not in the Philippians 2:6-11 Christ-hymn, but in a particularized Braveheart-inspired reading of Matthew 11:12, in which Jesus states: “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” (NASB). Eldredge seems confident that “by now you see the deep and holy goodness of masculine aggression and that will help you understand what Christ is saying” (177).
Eldredge’s Wild at Heat offers little account of the destructive dynamics of male power at work in our history and contemporary society. Indeed, the word “patriarchy” is never invoked as an appropriate description of gendered dynamics of power. Rather, he invokes the language of victimhood for men, not only in society but in the church as well. The church has, according to Eldredge, taught men to be “soft,” which has resulted in generations of victimized men who need to aggressively reclaim their rightful place in society (82). This simplistic cultural narrative, of males as victims of a liberal, politically-correct society, resonates deeply with many people. Susan Faludi’s analysis of the Promise Keeper’s movement is invaluable on this point, for she offers a convincing explanation for why such muscular Christianities as Eldredge’s continue to succeed in the pews. Eldredge’s narrative, filled with thrilling anecdotes of outdoor adventures and spiritual battles, rings true and offers hope for many men who have felt occupational, civic and domestic betrayals since World War II. Of a cultural narrative such as Wild at Heart, Faludi writes:
The ingenuity of such a solution was that it slipped the traces of traditional male work identity without challenging the underlying structure of the American male paradigm; that paradigm was simply reformulated in religious-battle terms. Men’s shared “mission” now became the spiritual salvation of their families; men’s “frontier,” the domestic front; men’s “brotherhood,” the Christian fraternity of Promise Keepers [or, in Eldredge’s case, not of accountability groups but of “fellow warriors” to “watch our back”]; and men’s “provider and protector” role, offering not economic but religious sustenance and shielding their wives from the satanic forces lurking behind consumer culture (Faludi 240).
Eldredge grounds his (essentialist) understanding of gender in a particular conservative reading of larger cultural phenomena, asserting that the new paradigm which he offers is not only liberating from the constraints of contemporary culture but, indeed, is a faithful vision of the kingdom.
However, from a theological perspective it is immediately clear that there is no room in Eldredge’s vision of the kingdom for laying down forms of power, for radical self-emptying, for the meek, the brokenhearted, or the crucified. Completely aside from feminist critiques of cultural systems of patriarchy, Eldredge’s reading of Scripture is deeply flawed. Muscular Christianity of his sort does a particularly clumsy job of proof-texting. Quite simply, it ignores the myriad of ways in which God chooses “what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (I Cor. 1:27; see also Deut. 7:6-11, I Sam. 16:7-12, Ps. 33:16-22, Isa. 53:1-12, Matt. 5-7, II Cor. 12:9-10, James 2:5). To be clear, Scripture affirms that God is indeed strong; however, God exhibits God’s strength in a variety of ways, in most cases through men (and women) that Eldredge would dismiss as weak and emasculated, men that Eldredge regards as spiritual failures. Jesus may not have been just a nice guy, but without doubt Scripture affirms that he resisted the more adventurous, inspiring forms of power pursued by Herod, Caesar, and William Wallace. Nowhere does Eldredge attempt to explain how it is that the meek shall inherit the earth. Thus, even within an evangelical, essentialist framework of assumptions, his particularly narrow reading of Scripture should be challenged and resisted.
By what means can evangelical configurations of masculinity resist the temptations for power, for cultural and theological narratives which offer merely new names for age-old quests of domination? “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). What would it look like for evangelical men to practice a spiritual discipline which left them waiting, silent, open, receptive? What would it mean to actively embrace a theology of the cross – of self-emptying love – in which Christian men really became servants to God, servants to all? The results would prove to be perhaps less “exciting” than Eldredge’s Braveheart-inspired adventures, but rather, I suggest, more faithful to our Crucified and Risen Lord.
~adapted from an essay I wrote entitled "Kenosis in Christian Feminism and 'Evangelical Essentialism': The Power of Christological Narratives." Click here for a full copy in pdf format.