In preparing for a seminar for the men of our church in a couple of weeks, I’ve been reading through Richard D. Phillips’ nice little book The Masculine Mandate: God’s Calling to Men. I’ve come to appreciate Phillips greatly on a number of topics. His book on dating, Holding Hands, Holding Hearts: Recovering a Biblical View of Christian Dating (co-written with his wife, Sharon) is one I recommend highly. He holds to conservative, complementarian values, while steering clear of many of the snares of the Christian patriarchy movement. His booklet on the Lord’s Supper in the Basics of the Reformed Faith series is also a gem.
The Masculine Mandate has been an excellent read so far and I appreciate that he puts the emphasis in the right place with regard to what Christian men are truly called to be doing as marks of “Christian masculinity.” This actually pits him against many of the “Christian man” books that are out there with their “burly man” approaches to masculinity. In an effort to contrast the popular view of Christian manhood with the biblical view, he offers a critique of one of the most popular books of the last 15 years on the subject, Wild at Heart by John Eldredge.
In Chapter 1, “Man in the Garden,” Phillips explains:
Since its publication in 2001, the top Christian book on manhood has been John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. This book has become practically a cottage industry, complete with supporting videos, workbooks, and even a “Field Manual.” In my opinion, Wild at Heart gained traction with Christian men in large part because it calls us to stop being sissies, to cease trying to get in touch with our “feminine side” (mine is named Sharon), and instead to embark on an exciting quest to discover or male identity. I can add my hearty “Amen!” to the idea that Christian men should reject a feminized idea of manhood. The problem is that the basic approach to masculinity presented in Wild at Heart is almost precisely opposite from what is really taught in the Bible. For this reason, this book has, in my opinion, sown much confusion among men seeking a truly biblical sense of masculinity.
We encounter major errors in Wild at Heart right at the beginning, where Eldredge discusses Genesis 2:8: “Eve was created within the lush beauty of Eden’s garden. But Adam, if you’ll remember, was created outside the garden, in the wilderness.” Eldredge reasons here that if God “put the man” into the garden, he must’ve been made outside the garden. While the Bible does not actually say this, it’s plausible. But even assuming it’s true, what are we to make of it? Eldredge makes an unnecessary and most unhelpful leap of logic, concluding that the “core of a man’s heart is undomesticated,” and because we are “wild at heart,” our souls must belong in the wilderness and not in the cultivated garden. That is, Eldredge assumes and then teaches as a point of doctrine a view of manhood that Scripture simply does not support.
It’s easy to understand how this teaching has appealed to men who labor in office buildings or feel imprisoned by the obligations of marriage, parenthood, and civilized society. But there is one thing Eldredge does not notice. God put the man in the garden. The point of wild at heart is that a man finds his identity outside the garden in wilderness quest. In contrast, the point of Genesis 2:8 is that God has put the man into the garden, into the world of covenantal relationships and duties, in order to gain and act out his God-given identity there. If God intends men to be wild at heart, how strange that he placed man in the garden, where his life would be shaped not by self-centered identity quests but by covenantal bonds and blessings.
The opening illustration of this chapter tells the story of a Moto-X freestyle rider named Brian Deegan who, by God’s grace, was convicted of his sin and became a Christian. He left a lifestyle consumed by seeking pleasure, alcohol, drugs and violence, and sought to grow as a Christian husband and father. Phillips notes that Deegan still has much maturing to do, but Deegan himself is fully aware of that fact.
After drawing attention to John Eldredge’s exegetical missteps, Phillips makes a final reference to Deegan:
Let me end this chapter by going back to Brian Deegan. The last thing this brother needs to be told – newly married, with his little baby on his lap, and through his God-given talent holding a position of influence among his generation – is that God wants him to look on life as a series of ego-adventures in the wilderness so that he might find his masculine self. That is precisely what Deegan was doing prior to becoming a Christian. Indeed, this is what modern and postmodern masculinity has been all about – men behaving like little boys forever, serving themselves in the name of self-discovery.
Pg. 9 (Bold emphasis added).
Would that we as Christian men might grow in maturity and be better leaders and servants in our families, churches and communities. Richard Phillips’ The Masculine Mandate is a good resource for considering how to do just that.
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)