When author John Eldredge lived like millions of other white-collar Americans, his wife dreaded calling him at the office. He would answer the phone in his "work voice": blunt, tense, and in charge. During those years, Stasi Eldredge says, her husband told laundries to load his shirts with extra starch. Stasi gave his alter ego a playfully derisive nickname: Mr. Crisp.
Today Eldredge would rather emulate William Wallace, the sword-brandishing hero of Mel Gibson's film Braveheart, or Maximus, the single-minded warrior of Gladiator. Eldredge prefers wilderness to office space and risky adventures to living-room couches. He believes that men, as creatures made in God's image, have a God-given heart for adventure—usually starting with adventures in the outdoors, but working up to the adventure of loving a woman, even when she's furious, and the ultimate adventure of trusting God on uncertain paths.
When describing God, Eldredge often quotes the adjectives favored by biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann: "wild, dangerous, unfettered, and free." When speaking of Jesus, Eldredge describes a vigorous man of action, C. S. Lewis's untamed lion, one who would infuriate enough people to get himself crucified. And in describing the Holy Spirit, Eldredge favors a phrase from the mystics of Iona: He is the Wild Goose, always ready to lead us into uncharted and exhilarating territory.
To compare the disappearing Mr. Crisp to the man Eldredge is becoming, begin with the dust-jacket photo on his most popular book, Wild at Heart (2001). Standing amid the red sandstone bluffs at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, looking like he's pausing from a vigorous hike, Eldredge wears an improbable light blue dress shirt with a button-down collar. One stray bit of hair on his forehead hints that a wild man wants to bust out. Eldredge's book Waking the Dead and the video series Wild at Heart: A Band of Brothers (both 2003) present the wilder Eldredge: Salt-and-pepper hair now flows past his collar, and he wears a moustache and Vandyke beard. In the photo he wears a dark turtleneck. But on the day he welcomes me to the Ransomed Heart Outpost (never call it an office, or face a $1 fine), he favors faded blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt over a dark T-shirt.
Eldredge downplays his changing image, and quotes Søren Kierkegaard: "And now, with God's help, I shall become myself." But he soon adds another layer of significance: His look today represents his repentance for the years he spent in perfectionism and trying to please other people.
Beginning with The Sacred Romance (1997), which he wrote with Brent Curtis, Eldredge has questioned many of evangelicals' common assumptions:
He challenges Christians who apply Jeremiah 17:9 ("The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure") to their post-conversion hearts. "Not anymore it's not," he writes in Wild at Heart. "Read the rest of the book. In Jeremiah 31:33, God announces the cure for all that: 'I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.' I will give you a new heart."
And what about the seemingly humble assertion that Christians are just sinners saved by grace? It's a Big Lie, Eldredge writes in Wild at Heart, adding: "You are a lot more than that. You are a new creation in Christ. The New Testament calls you a saint, a holy one, a son of God."
As for the mincing piety that imagines heaven as an eternal church service: Boring! Eldredge again stresses the writings of Lewis and of George MacDonald, who imagine redeemed people communing with God, with each other, and with God's many other creatures. He writes in The Journey of Desire (2000): "Now, you've got to get images of Baptist receptions entirely out of your mind—folks milling around in the church gym, holding Styrofoam cups of punch, wondering what to do with themselves. You've got to picture an Italian wedding or, better, a Jewish wedding. They roll up the rugs and push back the furniture. There is dancing."
Eldredge's recurring message is simple: When you give yourself to Christ, God makes your heart good. Your heart matters to God. Liberate your heart and its deepest desires, and your love for God will explode.
To many in his growing audience—The Sacred Romance has sold about 700,000 copies, and Wild at Heart has surpassed a million—Eldredge is 21st-century evangelicalism's heart surgeon.
Dan Allender, one of Eldredge's mentors during his graduate education, has delighted in his former student's emerging ministry. Allender believes Eldredge stands in a literary stream—along with Kierkegaard, Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton—that appreciates Christianity as passion. "In many ways, I see John as the answer to Nietzsche's statement that Christians are both idiots and weak," he said. "John's voice really is a call to the yes of the gospel."
To others, however, he is dangerous. Just go to Amazon.com and look up the many reader comments on his Wild at Heart. Among the notes of exuberant praise, one also finds comments like these:
"Sadly, the Gospel of Jesus Christ contradicts every one of the above points of John Eldredge's gospel."
And "Any man who takes his wild ideas to heart will believe God is not sovereign (p. 30ff), man's deepest problem is not sin (p. 60ff), he needs to save his sons from their mother because she will 'emasculate' them (p. 64ff), woman's core being is 'seductive' (p. 36), only the male is given dominion by God in Eden (p. 48)."
As one reader put it, "As I looked over the reviews of this book, I noted a real polarization: guys either loved or hated this book."
So who is this man who in transforming himself aims to transform the meaning of discipleship in evangelicalism?
Losing his Blood Brother
Getting American evangelicals out of their La-Z-Boys and climate-controlled shopping malls and into God's wild creation was central to the work that Brent Curtis and Eldredge dreamed of doing together. Curtis died pursuing that vision in 1998, and his death could have prevented the work that Eldredge now does under the banner of Ransomed Heart, which is based in a nondescript but cozy building in Colorado Springs.
Curtis and Eldredge met each other when Eldredge sought counseling and spiritual guidance. Eldredge called his mentors Allender and Larry Crabb, asking if they would recommend any counselor in Colorado Springs. They sent Eldredge to Curtis. Counselor and client soon became blood brothers. They discovered a mutual desire to combine counseling with public speaking and wilderness retreats, directed toward rescuing people's hearts from the ennui and passivity that they found common in modern Christianity. They both had long dreamed of centering their work on a ranch. Curtis and Eldredge were holding their first retreat for men, a forerunner of today's Wild at Heart basic training courses, when Curtis died. He was standing on rocks 80 feet above the ground, and the rocks gave way.
In his books, Eldredge repeatedly describes a wound that has pained him throughout life: His father's alcohol-induced emotional absence convinced Eldredge that he was on his own and could not fully give his heart to anyone. Losing his best friend nearly drove Eldredge permanently into the familiar darkness of that wound.
"Brent was a soul mate, a friend of friends. It was a Jonathan and David friendship," Eldredge tells me. "But for the intervention of God, I think I would have bailed. Very early after Brent's death, God came to me and said, You will not walk alone. I will not allow it."
"I would have loved to have seen what these two would have created—together and separately," Allender said. "They were, I think, one of the most remarkable teams of men."
One thing evident in the Wild at Heart video series is that since his best friend's death, Eldredge has poured himself into friendships with the people who work with him at Ransomed Heart. The video series features Eldredge and his colleagues Craig McConnell, Gary Barkalow, Bart Hansen, and Morgan Snyder doing manly things together: riding horses, rappelling down a cliff, rafting in white water, shooting skeet, and stacking hay in a barn. They whoop frequently during these adventures, and they take occasional breaks, during which Eldredge walks them through the main points of Wild at Heart. (Drawing on Eldredge's work in The Sacred Romance and The Journey of Desire, Stasi Eldredge and other friends of Ransomed Heart lead retreats that help women apply similar concepts.)
And they talk about their father wounds. Eldredge is not the sort of friend you seek if you want idle chatter. If you want to live by the Ransomed Heart message, you'd better be prepared not only to bring the pain, but also to talk about it—specifically whatever pain you carry from your childhood, usually inflicted by your father. The video offers some poignant glimpses of such pain: McConnell reveals how his stepfather, a former sailor, repeatedly compared him to a seagull (which he said is good only for sitting, squawking, and defecating). Barkalow recalls his father losing patience during a tennis lesson and sentencing him to return impersonal serves from a machine. Snyder describes struggling to perform a pull-up in gym class while all his classmates watched.
McConnell sometimes lightens the mood, most memorably after riding the horses. "I feel the adrenaline," Eldredge says after winning a race back to the ranch. "I feel adrenaline," McConnell deadpans, "and a certain soreness."
Thomas Nelson has published all of Eldredge's books and distributes the Wild at Heart video series, but in the videos Eldredge lets his rhetorical hair down more than in his books. For instance, Eldredge vents his exasperation about how some baby boomers shelter their boys. Eldredge describes meeting a new neighbor and saying that her son is always welcome to visit the three Eldredge boys, who have an arsenal of toy weapons. The neighbor is crestfallen, Eldredge says, and announces that she doesn't allow her son to play with toy guns. Eldredge confesses to his brothers that he was tempted to tell her, "Just go ahead and cut his [testicles] off."
A crucial element of Eldredge's message in Wild at Heart is that men must have a battle to fight, a beauty to rescue, and an adventure to live. A few times Eldredge holds up Mister Rogers—the soft-spoken TV character created by the now-deceased Fred Rogers—as an example of what too many Christian men believe their faith requires them to be. Eldredge quotes from Isaiah 63, which describes God wearing blood-stained clothes, spattered as though he had been treading a winepress. Then he writes: "Talk about a Braveheart. This is one fierce, wild, and passionate guy. I have never heard Mister Rogers talk like that. Come to think of it, I have never heard anyone in church talk like that, either. But this is the God of heaven and earth."
On the other hand, if more of us had Fred Rogers as our father, might we carry less painful father wounds? "I like Fred Rogers," Eldredge says. "I didn't mean to set him up as the ultimate bad guy. He's simply a good picture of Christianity reduced to being nice. That would not get a man crucified. That isn't the picture of Christ or of his man. If Rogers were our dad, we would carry wounds of passivity."
A Masculine Journey with Detours
During Eldredge's teenage years, he was an unlikely candidate to help evangelicals reclaim their hearts. Eldredge recalls growing up in a home devoid of Christian faith. By the time he was in high school, Eldredge says, he was a raging pagan. "I would hunt down Christians and talk them out of their convictions."
But even as he tried to rattle Christian classmates, Eldredge was on a spiritual search. "I wasn't looking for a church or a religion," he says. "I was looking for a worldview." He tried the New Age, the peyote-fueled mysticism of Carlos Castaneda, and martial arts. While reading Jesus and Kathumi and similar books, Eldredge says, he had an abiding conviction that Jesus wasn't just another ascended master.
Eldredge had another abiding conviction as he reflected on his life as a dope-smoking raging pagan: "I hate the man I am becoming." At age 19, he turned that worry into a prayer, asking if Jesus would begin changing him. One Christian family had prayed regularly for the Eldredges, and they later told John he was the last Eldredge they expected to be affected by those prayers.
Eldredge devoured the works of Francis Schaeffer, pursued theater studies at California Polytechnic State University, befriended McConnell (who, as a young evangelical pastor, had begun a group for college students), and founded a theater troupe, Last Minute Productions. That troupe, modeled after the Lamb's Players in San Diego, performed street theater during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
Eldredge's longtime friendship with Stasi became mutual love, and they married in 1983. Three years into their marriage, he says, he felt that theater had become his mistress and that it would demand still more if he followed his ambitions. For the sake of his marriage, Eldredge went to work for Focus on the Family in 1988. He did it as a matter of financial security and a transitional step, but it lasted more than a decade.
Eldredge worked with the Family Research Council in Washington, then with Focus's public policy division in Colorado Springs, then as an instructor with Focus on the Family Institute. He began graduate studies with Crabb and Allender at Colorado Christian University while working at Focus, and left Focus in 1999 after completing his graduate studies. (Focus sells Eldredge's books through its website, and James Dobson has welcomed Eldredge as a guest on his weekday radio program.)
Another turning point came after he had established a counseling practice based in his home. While counseling a couple one evening, he heard God say he wanted Eldredge to speak to more than two people per evening. The day Eldredge shut down his counseling practice, he took a call from Thomas Nelson about The Journey of Desire and received two invitations to speak at large conferences.
After publishing four books (not counting the study guides and a gift book), Eldredge and Ransomed Heart are leading a small revolution in Christian spirituality and trying to control their ministry's growth so it does not hamper their message. Eldredge shares leadership of Ransomed Heart with McConnell and Barkalow, who was a colleague at Focus. "Jesus was prophet, priest, and king," Eldredge says, "and we find that people typically fall into one of those three categories as leaders."
Eldredge and his fellow leaders have chosen to identify with those three roles. Barkalow is entrepreneurial and tends to ask, How is the realm? How is the big picture? McConnell, drawing on his decades-long vocation as a pastor, is inclined to ask about individuals: How is Morgan today? How are we doing as a team? Eldredge is most concerned about the message: Is it true? Will it transform lives?
None of the three leaders has the autonomy to make a unilateral decision about Ransomed Heart. So far, their decisions have agreed with economist E. F. Schumacher's book from the 1970s: Small is Beautiful. "We could be two or three times our size right now," Eldredge says. "We're fighting growth." RansomedHeart.com lists only 13 staff members—including Curtis, in a posthumous tribute to his early vision.
The three leaders agreed early on that Ransomed Heart would derive two-thirds of its income from books, videos, and conferences, and one-third from donations—thus freeing Ransomed Heart from the perils of monthly fundraising letters. They also chose to emphasize the message more than the messenger. If someone in Idaho—or China, for that matter—wants to start a Wild at Heart group, Ransomed Heart will respond with "Go to it" rather than "You'll need permission to use our trademark name." Nevertheless, Eldredge has published a study guide for each of his books, and the Wild at Heart videos are packaged with a facilitator's guide for small-group leaders. Sample advice: Don't try to solve each other's problems, don't allow any man to dominate the group, and beware of the "doctrine cop," who wants to debate points that aren't central to the group's purposes.
Ransomed Heart focuses on "rescuing the treasure of the gospel, which has been pretty ravaged by modernism and other forces," Eldredge says. "If you don't see Christianity healing the brokenhearted and setting the captive free, you have to ask if you have the real thing."
A Nascent Church
One of Eldredge's most striking and controversial comments concerns the demands of attending church. "When the deepest treasure becomes our most dutiful burden, it really kills our hearts," he writes in The Journey of Desire. "You might even need to give up going to church for a while or reading your Bible. I stopped going to church for a year; it was one of the most refreshing years of my life. I hadn't abandoned God, and I very much sought out the company of my spiritual companions. What I gave up was the performance of having to show up every Sunday morning with my happy face on."
What prompted Eldredge to take such a radical step? "The biggest clue was that I found myself sitting in the parking lot reading Scripture because I couldn't find God inside. For me there was absolutely no life in it. It was routine," he says. He spent the year reading the book of Psalms. "What is described in the Psalms is so much more passionate, so much more honest, and so much more true to human experience."
Eldredge did not return to the congregation where he felt at such a loss for God's presence. Instead, he has spent the past few years in a home church of about 20 people, including his colleagues at Ransomed Heart, their spouses, and friends. For a few years the church called itself the Nebuchadnezzar, named after the hovership in The Matrix, says member Aaron McPherson, who came to know Eldredge while studying at Focus on the Family Institute.
"We listen to one another's stories. We worship together, and we minister to each other in the four streams," Eldredge says. (In Waking the Dead, he spells out these four streams of ministry—walking with God, receiving God's intimate counsel, deep restoration, and spiritual warfare.) Church members gather frequently, and not just for worship. They go camping together, celebrate one another's birthdays, and share holidays such as Thanksgiving.
Eldredge says he wants the church, now called Imago Dei, to multiply into several more small groups that will meet weekly and come together monthly for a larger gathering. Eldredge says he asked his old friend McConnell to lead Imago Dei because its members need to hear teaching from a variety of people.
Some argue that Eldredge's theology of church is thin, and thus ultimately inadequate. But Eldredge believes this different approach to church is more spiritually demanding than attending a larger church outside Ransomed Heart's orbit. "It would be so easy to go to a large church right now. You really don't have to love people there," he says. "If you really want to know somebody, go camping with them. Our camping trips have really brought out some great awfulness."
McConnell agrees with Eldredge that the intimacy of Imago Dei is its strength. "So much of what is asked of the church—life, vitality, engagement, bearing one another's burdens—can only happen, it seems to me, in small groups," McConnell says. "Living with these people is a whole lot harder than being in a large church, because they see my blemishes and I see theirs."
McConnell makes the comparison from experience, as the former pastor of Rolling Hills Covenant and Sierra Madre Congregational, two large churches in Southern California. "In a sermon before 2,000 people, I can appear to be vulnerable and real," McConnell says. "But what does my wife say? What do my kids say? The quality of character and life in pastors is often unknown and just assumed."
McConnell says Imago Dei will allow each small home church to be autonomous about its worship style. "We're looking forward to the day when Imago Dei is not primarily about Ransomed Heart. I wouldn't want to be part of a church that's so tightly focused," he says. "We're sure the transition is going to be messy. One of the things we're telling even this group of 20 is, Be prepared for change. If you're uncomfortable with change, this is not the place for you."
Whether the change is merely messy or the beginning of a renewal movement in evangelicalism remains to be seen.
Douglas LeBlanc is a CT contributing editor who favors button-down collars on his plaid flannel shirts.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A sidebar to this main article discuses Eldredge's theology.
More on John Eldredge and his ministry is available from Ransomed Heart Ministries
Articles from Christianity Today and our sister publications about John Eldredge and his books include:
The Dick Staub Interview: John Eldredge Is Wild at Heart | The author of Wild at Heart and The Sacred Romance discusses rediscovering the Gospel through a ransomed heart. (Nov. 11, 2003)
Battle Cry | John Eldredge calls men, and now women, to a mythical, mystical adventure of faith. (Nov. 11, 2003)
The Gospel According to John (Eldredge) | The gospel is not about sin management, says this best-selling author; it's about adventuresome life. (Today's Christian, May/June 2003)
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