The book that revolutionized ‘Christian manhood’: 15 years after ‘Wild at Heart’

In 2000, a Christian counselor named John Eldredge left Focus on the Family to launch an independent ministry with a mission to, among other things, “equip men to rescue others.” The following year, Eldridge released “Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul,” a book that sold more than four million copies in the U.S. alone.

The book sought to empower men to realize “dreams of being the hero, of beating the bad guys, of doing daring feats and rescuing the damsel in distress” and to help women realize dreams of “being rescued by her prince and swept up into a great adventure, knowing that she is the beauty.”

Critics claimed Eldredge was promoting an antiquated fairy tale version of gender, but the message resonated with millions and sparked a ‘Christian manhood’ cottage industry. This included books with titles like “Act Like Men: 40 Days of Biblical Manhood,” “Manhood Restored: How the Gospel Makes Men Whole,” and “The Dude’s Guide to Manhood.”

Has fifteen years of “Wild at Heart” propelled Christians forward or pulled them backward? I talk with John Eldredge about why he thinks the message is still relevant and what he would change if he were writing it today.

RNS: It’s been 15 years since your book “Wild at Heart” became a runaway bestseller. When you look back, what do you think made it resonate with so many people?

JE: “Wild at Heart” came at a critical moment in our culture; men and women were hungry for some straight talk about gender. We’d lived through the caricatures of the John Wayne and Donna Reed era, followed by the reaction of the feminist movement, and honestly, neither were satisfying. It left a lot of women and men wondering about the reality they found in their lives – that there are deep and soulful differences between men and women and what does it look like to honor one another while preserving the dignity of masculinity and femininity?

RNS: Some of your critics charge that your view of gender–with men as something of a knight in shining armor and women as something of a damsel in distress–is antiquated and possibly damaging. How do you respond?

JE: By saying that’s not my view of gender. We had been so conditioned by political correctness that for someone to step forward and say, “men are different than women” caused a knee-jerk reaction. Almost as if any attempt to talk about the masculine in particular was going to throw us back to the stone ages.

At the same time, we had all those talk shows where you found women asking, “Where are the real men? Why won’t men commit? Why won’t men treat us with dignity?” The point I am making about masculinity is this: [tweetable]Men bear a soulful strength and that strength needs honoring and cultivating.[/tweetable] The firefighters that ran up the stairs in the World Trade Center when everyone else was running down – that kind of courage is exactly what you want to cultivate in boys and men. You don’t cultivate it by telling them all strength is bad.

RNS: I know a lot of men who don’t fit into the traditional rough-and-tumble, domineering understanding of masculinity. What does “Wild at Heart” have to say them?

JE: “Wild at Heart” isn’t about being a lumberjack. I’m an artist; I never played college football; I don’t enjoy watching hockey. This isn’t a throwback to the “macho” version of masculinity. Whether a guy serves in the military or works as a musician, the core issues are always the same – courage, bravery, self-sacrifice. It takes courage to pursue a woman, to pursue a PhD, to start a record company or a private school.

At our core, men share a lot of things in common. One of the critical issues in any boy’s life is his search for validation and his need for a good father. When you listen to men talk about their deepest wounds, they are always around the issue of validation – of not believing they are a man. “Wild at Heart” is actually a very tender book, tenderly honest about the wounds men carry. If you can help a man heal from those wounds, he can live as a truly good man.

RNS: What would you change about “Wild at Heart” if you were writing it today? Anything?

JE: Here’s the fascinating thing – the proof is in the pudding. “Wild at Heart” is still the #1 book for men in spirituality on Amazon. We still fill every conference we hold. More importantly, “Wild at Heart” is being used in prisons all over the world to help men; it is being taught in Catholic monasteries in Europe and in rural villages in Uganda. What does that story say? [tweetable]There are deep and lasting truths about men that transcend time and culture.[/tweetable] More importantly, the thousands of letters we receive every year are stories of men who have become good dads, loving husbands; stories of men getting free from addiction and living a life of genuine integrity. Isn’t that what society needs? Human trafficking and particularly the sex trade are fueled largely by men with evil intent; men with deeply distorted sexuality. If you can heal a man’s soul he doesn’t support that industry. That is our only hope for lasting justice.

RNS: Your newest book, “Moving Mountains,” is on prayer. Why do you think so many people’s prayers seem to go unanswered?

JE: We thought prayer would easy – like we thought marriage would be easy, or that parenting would just come naturally. We came to it with some very naive assumptions. We actually give it less time and effort than we do mastering an instrument or our tennis serve, learning to beat our favorite video game. Honestly, people approach prayer like sneezing – you just sort of do it, and that ought to be enough. But prayer is something you learn, and grow into, and get better at, just as you do anything else in life that really matters. Look at it this way: people spend thousands of dollars on personal coaches, or physical trainers; they spend hours in therapy or learning a new language. But do you see anything close to the same effort and attention with prayer? What does that say about our posture towards it? You can’t throw prayer a few scraps and expect to reap huge dividends; if you treat your marriage like that you will end in divorce.

RNS: You say many Christians hold to a “zap” view of prayer. What does this mean and how is it insufficient, in your view?

JE: This is the naiveté I spoke of. We think if God is going to act he is going to act quickly – zap. We thing prayer works like this: we ask, and God zaps the answer, and everything is fine. But that is not the picture you are given in Scripture. Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow; the point he was making is that prayer takes some real sticking with it, it takes perseverance, and faith. There’s a very sober story from the book of Acts, where the disciple James was executed by Herod. Peter was also arrested, and the young church is said to have been praying “very earnestly” for him. In fact, they were praying all night; they were praying like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. This is diligent prayer, focussed prayer; prayer that requires a totality of your being. Peter was rescued from prison. I don’t think we ought to talk about “unanswered” prayer until we have learned to pray like that.