Many men balk at the idea of going to church. Some resist the tendency in Christian circles to "feminize" God. Others object to how Christian men tend to be so tame and passive — more like women — and very bored. And so, it is perhaps not surprising that John Eldredge's books, especially Wild at Heart, have been wildly successful. Seeking to discover the secret of a man's soul, Catholic and Protestant men alike are rushing to buy and read Eldredge's books.
To generations of men who have been force-fed the idea that there are no real differences between the sexes and that men ought to explore their "feminine side," Eldredge offers the encouragement to explore their "father-son wound," to join in the battle for their masculine heart, and find the warrior deep inside. If men understand the reality of sin and the devil and reconnect with the original purity and openness of their masculine hearts, Eldredge claims, they will liberate their hearts' capacity for feeling. Men everywhere are responding to Eldredge's description of heroism and sacrifice, as well as the masculine desire to protect, defend, and honor.
However, Catholic and Protestant writers alike have found serious flaws in Eldredge's theology concerning the wildness and even the sovereignty of the Author of Life, and especially Eldredge's claim that the Gospel is a "dangerous story." While most would agree with Eldredge that men and women are different, and that those differences should be recognized within churches, they disagree with Eldredge's assertion that theological systems and rule-keeping cripple our notions of God and men. Others are troubled by Eldredge's contention that boys become men only in the company of other men. While the initiation into manhood (or womanhood, for that matter) is best facilitated by members of the same sex, God created men and women to complement and complete each other. Because of this, we most fully reflect God's image through giving and receiving self-donating love, particularly in the sacrament of matrimony.
I recently had the singular opportunity to discuss with Eldredge whether his thinking had evolved since writing Wild at Heart. After describing his own experience with the men's movement that began in the 1980's, he said he used to feel like a voice in the wilderness. Not anymore: he has seen a growing recognition that men are different, and have a need to be heroes.
Eldredge told me he is even more convinced that God wants to father us. And that grown men, not just boys, are in continual need of that fathering and masculine initiation. He emphasized that although our age is cynical, healing is available. "We have to treat the wounds and not just the behavior."
Was he familiar with Pope John Paul II's "Theology of the Body"? He said Catholics frequently come up to him after he speaks to tell him about it. They send him books and CD's explaining the Pope's teaching, such as Christopher West's series Naked Without Shame. "I was greatly encouraged by the Pope's teaching," Eldredge said, adding that he plans to order John Paul's Love and Responsibility. And yet, Eldredge could not articulate how his teaching differed from that of the late Holy Father. "It would probably take a better theological mind than mine to point [the difference] out." I found his humility and modesty enchanting.
When I explained that John Paul's development of personalism takes into account the importance of the subjective experience of the individual, Eldredge got excited. Anything about the heart's experience motivates Eldredge. I told him how John Paul's training as a theologian and philosopher enabled him to discover in the subjectivity of man's inner world a unity with the objectivity of man's outer world.
Fortunately, the secrets of a man's soul (or those of a woman's) are not secret within the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Church has always affirmed the importance of cultivating the soul even while living in the world; men and women alike are called to grow in holiness, to conquer vice, and to cultivate virtue. And we need look no further than the stories of the saints for images of authentic masculine heroism.
They are full of the heart. They are full of the powers of the mind. They are united by an integrated understanding of the nuptial meaning of the body and the spousal relationship of God to the Church, and God to each individual. The writings of John Paul II are particularly compelling to the "wild hearts" of the present day.
I have a feeling John Eldredge will one day seriously study "Theology of the Body" and Love and Responsibility. I would love to see what he writes then.