John Eldredge is the founder and director of Ransomed Heart Ministries in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a fellowship devoted to helping people recover and live from their heart. John is the author of numerous books, including EPIC, WAKING THE DEAD, WILD AT HEART, THE JOURNEY OF DESIRE, and coauthor of CAPTIVATING and THE SACRED ROMANCE. John lives in Colorado with his wife, Stasi, and their three sons, Samuel, Blaine, and Luke. He loves living in the Rocky Mountains so he can pursue his other passions, including fly-fishing, mountain climbing, and exploring the waters of the West in his canoe.
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FaithfulReader.com's Marcia Ford (with some questions contributed by James Watson, a FaithfulReader.com reader) interviewed John Eldredge, author of WILD AT HEART. Eldredge talks about the controversy that surrounds this bestselling book and also delves into how this book is being used by churches and study groups. He also shares information about his next three books, which will take his writing in some new directions.
FR: You write that God has redeemed our hearts and made them good. Why is it so difficult for people to accept and understand that?
JE: For two reasons: One is theological, and one is personal. The theological reason applies to anyone who has been in church for any part of their life. What they have heard primarily is an old covenant theology that says that the heart is bad. Jeremiah 17:9 says it: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked." For the most part they have not heard the new covenant, that the heart is renewed, re-created, made good again by the redemption of Christ. You simply put the idea that your heart is good in front of people and they're rather surprised by it, because they've never been told that. Look at Luke 8, in the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. For one of the examples, Jesus says, "But the seed that fell on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart" (NIV).
The second reason --- and they're deeply linked --- is deeper, and it goes into our personal history. It's that very few of us get through life without being wounded, and wounded deeply through rejection, shame, through events in our lives. Words are spoken, things are done, and we develop an identity which is tainted, twisted, marred by the words and actions of others against us. You know, the little girl who's told that she's a stupid idiot. The little boy who's told he's a faggot. The things that are said to us, the things that are done, shape an identity. Then you put those two things together, and a bad theology actually ends up reinforcing a bad identity.
FR: What do you say to people who admit their lives are lacking but have difficulty relating to the longing you write about in The Sacred Romance and The Journey of Desire?
JE: You do not live in the habitat your heart was made for. The human soul was designed to live in Eden, in paradise --- a world of love, a world of peace, a world of adventure and beauty every day of your life. We don't live in that world. We live far from it. What has happened is actually worse than the fall of man: What has happened is that we've gotten used to it. We've just gotten used to life. "This is the way life is. So it's hard, you know?" I've talked to so many people who have lost heart, and as a counselor I can see that it directly related to events in their past --- a divorce, a situation of abuse, a failure. But they just completely dismiss the things that have happened to them with comments like, "Oh well, bad things happen to lots of people." They don't give it the weight that it's due. In other words, we've just gotten used to it. It's tragic, because those deep longings and desires for the life that we were made for is the very thing God leaves within us to draw us back to him.
FR: What do you make of the wide disparity in the way people perceive the ideas you present in your books? With each book, for example, you been praised for expressing a biblical view and criticized for not doing the very same thing.
JE: I find myself in very good company. [Laughs.] Jesus, Paul, right? Most of the apostles, Athanasius, Augustine, right? Luther…Okay, I make my point. I rest my case.
FR: In The Sacred Romance, you encourage readers to see their lives as part of a larger story. Walk us through the process of placing our very ordinary lives in an extraordinary, dramatic context.
JE: Two things are needed. One, we've lost the gospel and, in so doing, the process of recovering this understanding of the reality in which we live. You have to get the gospel back for what it is --- not a set of propositions but a story, a rather large and, frankly, dramatic story. A very dangerous story, with all sorts of twists and turns, heroes and villains, and high stakes. We've lost that, almost entirely. We have to get that back. That would be part one.
Part two --- what we might find helpful in that process --- is that we have to go to the stories that we love. The movies you love are telling you something about the role that you were meant to play. My favorite movies are not my wife's favorite movies, and my son's favorite movies are not my favorite movies. They're unique to us. We are drawn to stories of a certain kind, stories that speak to our heart. And this will be absolutely mind-boggling, eye-opening, revolutionary, if you'll allow the possibility that the reason that you love those stories --- somebody may love the story of Joseph in the Scripture; well, it's because you probably are a Joseph. Someone may love the story of "The Return of the King" in the Tolkien series, and they particularly love the warrior hero Aragorn. Well, it's probably because you were meant to be a kind of Aragorn in your life.
The stories you love will do two things for you: They will open up and illumine the story that God is telling --- they will help you recover the larger story --- and they will also tell you something about the secret written in your heart. Stories that you love will reveal something of the role you were meant to play.
FR: Much of what you write applies to the individual. How can leaders use your teachings to transform what you describe as a "toxic" and "soul-killing" church?
JE: Well, the church's role is to present the larger story. So one of the first implications is to help your parishioners see reality for what it is: This grand drama that is unfolding moment by moment and is headed towards a climax here. That's not what most churches do. They do the gospel of tips and techniques or, as Dallas Willard calls it, "the gospel of sin management." It will affect the way we teach. We will use much more narrative in our teaching, as did Jesus. It will also affect our outcomes --- and this is a crucial point, because everything we do in church, our programs, the staff we hire, the curriculums we use, we're trying to get a certain result, and most of our outcomes are fairly narrow, to get people to stop sinning, to get them to be more faithful in their marriage, in their work, and in their church attendance. It's really not the fullness of what Jesus said the gospel would do to someone, which is to heal the brokenhearted and set the captive free. In other words, the restoration of humanity.
We want more than just forgiven sinners, we want transformed lives that reflect the glory of God, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians chapter 3 ["we…all reflect the Lord's glory" verse 18]. And it's as simple as this: If the Christianity that we're offering doesn't get that done, then let's get the Christianity that does. It's coming back to humility to say, "Wow, we're not seeing a whole lot of people transformed in our church. Maybe there's more to the gospel, and maybe there's more to the human soul than we've really been taking into account here."
FR: As you know, some of the teaching and perspectives from your books are now finding their place in evangelical churches through men's study groups and even Sunday morning sermons. Do you fear that your "radical" ideas could become standardized or ritualized into more "toxic" church programs? Do you think churches need to undergo a radical awakening from time to time to remain relevant?
JE: Two thoughts. First, the gospel is always being lost and always needs to be recovered. In once sense the revolutionaries of yesterday are now the gatekeepers of tradition. Yes, that is a problem. I anticipate the unhappy day that my writings will be seen as sort of dinosaurs, and then the new kids will come along and re-discover the treasure of the gospel. But that is a good thing. We shouldn't be threatened by it. Jesus did warn us about new wine in old wineskins. You try and drop my message into a church that is committed to a gospel of sin management, and you're going to experience some breakage. The wineskins will burst. They won't be able to handle it, because they are designed to do something else. But so far I'm grateful to report that that actually hasn't been the case, that the transformation taking place through this message is also transforming churches, and the churches are willing to adjust to find the life and the freedom that I believe the gospel offers. It's as simple as this: So long as we don't make our institutions themselves sacred or our programs themselves untouchable, then we're free to follow the work of God as he asks us to make room for the work of his presence.
FR: In Wild At Heart, the most controversial of your books, you say men have three universal desires: a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue. What about men who don't relate to those desires?
JE: I've encountered a number of men who have said, "Wow. That doesn't quite describe me" But as we've talked about their lives, we've discovered that was simply semantics. They may not resonate with battle because they're picturing the movie "Gladiator." But one of them was a medical doctor, and he battles daily for the health of his patients. He literally fights disease and sickness, and he's exhausted at the end of the day. He fights a great battle. When he saw it in those terms, something in him really did rise up, and he said, "Oh yes, that's me to the core." So it was a semantic thing. I believe these three desires are universal because the image of God in man and in woman is bestowed at the level of the soul. God doesn't have a body. So it's not so much physically that we bear his image as spiritually, soulfully. Therefore, I do believe the image to be universal. Most of the problems that I've encountered thus far have been semantic ones --- or because the desire was damaged early on. A man who feels same-sex attraction might say, "Well, I don't long for a beauty to rescue." But when you go back into his story, we find that the same-sex attractions actually has its roots in a woundedness that took place, and the legitimate God-given desire for a woman has been damaged, broken, harmed in some way.
FR: Also regarding Wild At Heart, many women do not think of themselves as being in need of "rescue." What do you say to them?
JE: I think we also just have a semantic misunderstanding here. Are they saying that they don't want to be loved? Are they saying that they don't want to be pursued, that they don't want anyone in their world to simply want to know them? Yes, I understand that maybe the language of "a beauty to rescue" kind of paints the caricature of the damsel in distress who can't do a thing for herself. That's not what I mean to say at all. In fact, the follow-up book is coming out next year for women, and we'll be able to clarify that. But I think femininity can be very valiant. I think femininity can be very powerful and very brave. But I have yet to meet a woman whose core desires did not include love.
FR: Some credit Wild At Heart with saving their marriage, others blame the book for destroying it. How can a writer ever ensure that readers take away their intended message? Is there anything you would add or change in the book to emphasize the need for men to remain committed to their marriages?
JE: If the majority of stories were of damage and not of redemption, I'd have the book pulled from the shelf immediately. But in fact, of the hundreds of thousands of phone calls, letters and stories we've received, very few actually have a tale to tell of a man who has taken WILD AT HEART, twisted the message, and left his family or done something else that was damaging. One percent? Less than 1 percent. So I defer to Paul in Romans: "Am I saying sin more? Heavens no!" Jesus said, "Did I come to abolish the law? That's not what I'm saying!" Misunderstanding is inherent when you are preaching the true gospel. I'm trying to do everything I can to avoid it, and so far, well --- "You shall know them by their fruits" --- so far the fruit has been tremendously redemptive.
FR: Some of your writings are aimed particularly at men who find themselves in need of recovering or finding their heart. How can we relate these teachings to young boys so that they may avoid the pitfalls their fathers have experienced? Have you considered adapting your books to reach a younger audience?
JE: The first goal is to help men recover their own heart so that they don't pass on the legacy of damage to their children. That is the number one goal in writing WILD AT HEART. What I want men and women to understand is what their sons and daughters need from them when they are young so that they can offer it, so that they can see those moments where a son or daughter is seeking the love and the validation that they need and the parent can offer it. Having said that, I very much want to write a book that describes how to initiate boys, because we've lost that culturally; we don't know how to get that done. We give them a driver's license, and then they're the legal smoking age and then the legal drinking age, and that's kind of it. So we desperately do need a recovery of teaching and a cultural awareness of how to initiate boys and girls into young adulthood, as men and women.
FR: In speaking of the disappointment many men experienced in their own fathers, do you think we can prepare our children to deal with that disappointment when they come to judge us? If so, how?
JE: I do believe we can. Our goal can never be perfect parenting, and even with the insights that I'm trying to offer, I know that I will blow it as a parent. I am banking on what Peter says, that love covers a multitude of sins. At the bottom, if your children know, really know that you love them, then it will help them when it comes to forgiving and understanding you as they mature into adulthood.
FR: What, if any, of your teachings have changed since Wild At Heart? Are there any ideas from that book which you feel differently about now?
JE: No, we continue to do a great deal of work with men, and we continue to hold our "Wild At Heart" retreats here in Colorado. The demand continues to go up, not down. Our experience with men continues to affirm that the truths laid out in WILD AT HEART are eternally true, not just culturally true. In fact, what's fascinating is that WILD AT HEART is now out in a number of foreign languages, including Korean and Polish. And the report is exactly that, that it transcends cultural boundaries. The truths are timeless, because they're written into the human heart. We just heard the other day from missionaries in Kazakhstan that are using it with men there, to great success.
FR: You once said you wrote Wild At Heart in part because it was the kind of book you would like to read. What are some other kinds of books you would like to write?
JE: Well, I very much want to write the book on how to initiate boys; that's burning in my heart to write. And I very much wanted to write the book that I'm currently writing with my wife, Stasi, for women, to try and unchain femininity from all of the cultural and Christian bonds that have been put upon it, just as I was trying to unchain masculinity from similar bonds placed on it. Somewhere along the line we lost the idea that Christianity is simply learning to walk with God. All of the spiritual disciplines, all of the church programs, all of the scriptural studies have that one goal in mind, to bring us into an intimate relationship with a living God, to experience that relationship every moment of our lives. So the next book that I'd like to write is a book that describes how that could be done, how that really is available. This is just a staggering idea --- I don't know where we lost this --- but the Bible is not a book of exceptions, it's a book of examples. Most Christians look at the Bible, or non-Christians as well, and go, "Oh well, those were exceptions. Oh sure, Moses, David, Esther, Deborah, Mary. Those were spiritual giants. They lived in a different culture, a different time, when God really did show up. I can't relate to them." And that strips us of everything helpful in the Bible. But we have to change our way of thinking --- to realize, "No, you can have exactly that." The conversational intimacy that each of them enjoyed with God is the spiritual birthright of any Christian.
The book for women comes out next year [March 2005] and is called CAPTIVATING. The book for the initiation of boys is called THE WAY OF THE WILD HEART.
FR: Your organization is Ransomed Heart Ministries. What is the significance to you of the term "ransomed heart"?
JE: It's the recovery of the heart of the gospel, which is not forgiveness but restoration: "I'll heal the brokenhearted, set the captive free." That we have ransomed hearts.
FR: In what ways has God restored you personally?
JE: I actually came to Christ through the realization that I was not a loving person. My "conviction of sin" was the realization that I was an incredibly self-centered person and that all of my relationships, at bottom, were designed to serve me. I pray, and I believe, that that's changing, that if you were to ask my wife, my sons, my friends, they would say that that's changing.
Another key --- and this is central --- I do believe the promise of the scriptures of the healing of the brokenhearted, because I've experienced that to be true. Christ has healed some of the major wounds of my life, my father's alcoholism, the death of my best friend [SACRED ROMANCE co-author Brent Curtis], those heartbreaking events. I speak of the healing of the brokenhearted because I know it to be true.
FR: You've said that if Christianity does not take your breath away something else will. How does Christianity take your breath away?
JE: In several ways. I love the larger story. I think I've seen "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy probably three times now, all three films, because it speaks to me, because it borrows all of its power from our story, from the gospel. And that is reality for me. I do live in that kind of a larger story. I didn't used to, but I do now. And it is awesome. It puts everything in context. But I think another way is to see the redemption of people's lives, to see actual human hearts rescued, and healed, and restored, and set free. That's breathtaking. That makes all of the struggle, and all of the battle, and all of the misunderstanding and the accusations worth it.
FR: You draw a lot on pop culture. Any plans for writing a book specifically related to finding God in pop culture?
JE: I didn't tell you about a coming project that's just huge! The next book coming out, in August, called EPIC. It's seeing Christianity as the larger story, but it's written with a non-Christian in mind; it assume no background knowledge of Christianity. It draws upon the imagery of contemporary culture. I think it will change the way we do evangelism. We are also writing a curriculum that shows how we use film in our teaching and how you can use it in Bible studies and outreaches.
FR: Do you think you'll ever write a novel?
JE: Probably not, but I hope to write screenplays. I started my life in the theater and wrote stage plays. I have been thinking about writing screenplays --- that feels like the next challenge to me.
FR: Many readers have said that your books have changed their lives. How does that kind of accolade affect you as you're working on your next project?
JE: It's a two-edged sword. On the one hand it creates an incredible amount of pressure to come through again. I refuse to live under that kind of pressure. All of my books emerge from my walk with God. I don't sit down and come up with the next clever idea. If I did that, I would start writing for my audience instead of writing out my own life; it wouldn't be authentic. The other side of the sword is that it's a great blessing in the way you hoped it would be. I want to see more people set free, healed, restored, and get their hearts back.
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