A Jesus for a Dangerous World
We introduced the very popular evangelical author and teacher John Eldredge in opening of this two-part series about his new book Beautiful Outlaw. Jump back to our opening story to learn more about Eldredge, including: links to his Ransomed Heart website, our ReadTheSpirit overview of his new book—plus a Christmas-themed excerpt you’ll enjoy from Beautiful Outlaw. In that opening, we reported that this writer is, indeed, edgy. His fans rave about him. And, he is clearly not everyone’s cup of Christian tea. Eldredge’s critics are not limited to evangelical rivals. A longtime ReadTheSpirit colleague, veteran religion news reporter Bill Tammeus from Kansas City, took strong issue with some aspects of Beautiful Outlaw, for example.
Today, in our interview, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with John about his relationship with other evangelicals, with his critics and with the remarkably enthusiastic friends of his Ransomed Heart programs.
HIGHLIGHTS OF INTERVIEW
WITH JOHN ELDREDGE
ON RANSOMED HEART
AND BEAUTIFUL OUTLAW
DAVID: You represent a remarkable phenomenon in evangelical publishing. Most top evangelical authors either are pastors or traditionally trained Bible scholars. You’re not a pastor. You don’t run a church. And, you’re not a trained Bible scholar like an N.T. Wright. Neither are you a journalist like Philip Yancey or many of the Guidepost writers. Nevertheless, you’ve written a whole lot of very popular books. You rack up huge numbers of Amazon raves. So, let’s start with a pretty basic question for our readers, who may be discovering you for the first time: Who are you?
JOHN: I’m 51. I live in Colorado Springs, Colorado. My wife Stasi and I have three sons.
DAVID: How do you identify yourself religiously? What’s your affiliation?
JOHN: (laughs) I don’t know how to answer that! (laughs again) Of course, I’m Christian. I probably would describe myself as an evangelical Christian. I’m Protestant. Those are probably the broadest categories I could give you in response to that question. I really think of myself more as a friend of Jesus. I don’t have denominational affiliations.
DAVID: And you’re not ordained clergyperson. You’re not a pastor, right?
JOHN: No, my graduate degree is in counseling. Professionally, I’m a writer and a speaker. I don’t pastor. I’m not a preacher. I don’t have a church that I lead. We do have an organization—Ransomed Heart—that puts on conferences and that’s our joy and our delight. Primarily, we do this in Colorado but we also do them around the world. I’d say that I’m a counselor, a writer and a speaker.
WHY C.S. LEWIS AND INKLINGS REMAIN SO POPULAR
DAVID: For our readers who are just discovering you as a writer, tell us who you like to read. Who inspires you as a writer?
JOHN: Who do I read? Well, C.S. Lewis once described himself as a dinosaur. I feel a little bit like that, too. I don’t read many contemporary books. I tend to read further back in Christian history. I read the ancient desert fathers. One of my all-time favorites is the Scottish writer George MacDonald.
DAVID: Reading your books, I gather you’re a fan of all the Inklings. Do you read the lesser-known Inklings, like Charles Williams?
JOHN: Yes, of course, I love the Inklings, although Lewis clearly is my favorite. And I also love G.K. Chesterton. In his book Orthodoxy, for example, Chesterton writes that there is a unity of Christian faith that runs down through the ages, through Catholic and Protestant—and I would say also through evangelical and Pentecostal movements. A unity of the faith is there, running through all of those movements, if we know where to look for it. That was Lewis’ argument, too.
Also, like Lewis, I am trying to drive readers to a personal experience of God. Chesterton tended to argue more for a cultural and theological understanding of Jesus and Christianity. I like Lewis’ attention to the personal experience. That’s where I want to take readers.
DAVID: Clearly, you connect with readers in a big way. Just look at the tidal waves of Amazon reviews promoting your new books—that kind of personal support is amazing. How do you do that?
JOHN: Well, we have a passionate following out there, especially among people who have taken part in our Ransomed Heart programs. That’s a devoted following of people whose lives have been changed by these programs. So, when a new book is coming out, we let people know about it. We also distribute copies of the book to people who have been to our conferences and retreats and other events. Most people describe these as life-changing experiences. They return home with their hearts restored. Many people are set free from addictions or their marriages are restored. These are big changes in their lives. After that kind of experience, they think of themselves as friends who want to help others. So, it’s not surprising that when a new book comes out and we spread the word—and we spread copies of the book to many of the people who have come through Ransomed Heart—well, they respond enthusiastically.
RANSOMED HEARTS AND BURNING MAN?
DAVID: Now, this may sound like a strange comparison, but, as a journalist, I have covered the Burning Man festival twice, over the years, for newspapers. While Burning Man is dedicated to a completely free-form expression of one’s spirit—and your ministry is a strongly evangelical expression of Christianity—there is a similarity of organization here. You keep your core planning group small and intimate, much like the founders of Burning Man. And you don’t try to control or brand the work that you do. Like Burning Man, you encourage people to carry Ransomed Heart home with them and spin off their own local groups, right?
JOHN: That’s right. We host about six Wild at Heart events a year, for example, and men come out to camp in the mountains with us and have a four-day experience. But we decided to give away this message. Although we might do six or eight Wild at Heart events here and abroad in a year, there are hundreds of Wild at Heart events taking place all over the U.S. and around the world that we are not leading. These are local events led by people who find our message so powerful that they want to teach it to others. I’ve heard about events coming up in Colombia, Kazakhstan and other countries around the world. From Maine to Texas and from East to West in the U.S., you can find local events taking place.
CRITICS WEIGH IN ON JOHN ELDREDGE
DAVID: As I’ve already said, readers can jump to Amazon to read hundreds of rave reviews. But we also are linking, with this interview, to a critical review of your new book by veteran religion writer Bill Tammeus, a journalist who is well respected among his peers. And Bill is not alone in criticizing your work. You’ve been described sometimes as “too wild,” as a kind of loose cannon. And, because you’re not in the typical club of evangelical writers—in other words, you’re not a pastor or a classically trained Bible scholar—it’s easy to take issue with some of the things you write. How do you respond to all of that?
JOHN: One reason some evangelicals have trouble with my writing is that I make a big deal out of the human heart. I think the human heart is essential in what we’re trying to do. There are branches of Christianity that say the human heart is dangerous—that the human heart is a thoroughly unreliable instrument. If we awaken the heart, we’re in dangerous territory, they say. Some conservative brands of Christianity say that life is all about discipline and trying to kill our own humanity. I say: That doesn’t work at all. We don’t want to kill our humanity; we want to restore our lives by allowing Jesus to fill our lives.
DAVID: Describe this heart work a little more.
JOHN: The restoration of the human heart is absolutely essential in our lives. It’s essential for healthy relationships and spirituality. Our hearts are wounded and we need to focus on healing those wounds. We need to find the true desires of our hearts—our passions, our hopes, our fears and our dreams—and pay attention to restoring our lives based on what’s there in our hearts. My critics say that’s an objectionable thing to try to do. Awakening the heart is a problem, they say.
Another point of contention with my critics is that I really believe we need to reach a level of intimacy with God so that we’ve got a conversational relationship between the individual and God. I teach people that there can be friendship and daily conversation with God. Some folks within Christianity think that kind of intimacy and friendly conversation with God is problematic.
ENVISIONING JESUS AS A ‘CUNNING’ LEADER
DAVID: Well, what you’re talking about now, I think, is right at the core of what you’re trying to express in this new book Beautiful Outlaw. The book is a quick read; it’s a dramatic read; it’s a provocative read. You’re trying to sketch in broad strokes why Jesus was such a deeply troubling figure in the world 2,000 years ago, right? And, you’re saying that getting to know Jesus today still is dangerous.
For example, one of the more provocative characteristics you emphasize in Jesus life is: cunning. That word—cunning—is intentionally jarring in your book. As I was reading that section, I thought of the church that John Wesley designed in London. All around the interior edge of the big balcony in his church, Wesley had artisans fashion a row of white-and-gold serpents and doves. A snake entwines with each of the serpents, forming a striking circular logo. But ask a church group today to describe Jesus, and I bet you won’t find anyone using this term: cunning.
JOHN: Yes, good example. Jesus is a very cunning person in the Gospels in the way he navigates his interactions with so many people. Jesus is brilliant. He’s not a Do Gooder who simply winds up dead, in the end, because he can’t help it. Jesus knows precisely when he wants to confront something or someone—and when he wants to flee. Particularly when he is in dialogue with his opponents, he has this marvelous ability to navigate potential potholes and cul de sacs. He’s stunning to watch in action. And he doesn’t just act like this and hope we’ll notice. As Wesley recognized, Jesus actually spells it out for us. Jesus tells us to be as innocent as doves and as cunning as serpents.
You’re right. Most people in most churches wouldn’t list cunning as a top quality of Jesus, but then there’s a staggering level of naiveté in contemporary Christianity. We see Jesus as a nice guy. The fact that he was so shrewd, even cunning, is forgotten. When we soften Jesus like this into a sort of simple Do Gooder, then we forget that in this world we really are in a great struggle between good and evil. We begin to think that our purpose is just to find a little good to do in life, help out some neighbors and that’s the way to live like Jesus. No, that’s not how Jesus saw the world.
What you just described about these images in Wesley’s church—now, there’s a guy who understood the sharp challenges Christians face in the world. Think of what’s happening in Burma right now. That’s the world in which we live—a very dangerous place where we have to be shrewd to navigate. Now, let me be careful to say: I’m not telling people to be cunning in an attempt to manipulate or deceive people. I’m not talking about something sinister. Instead, I’m talking about being shrewd in this dangerous world in which we live—like Jesus taught us—in order to love, in order to do real good in the world, in order to bring redemption.
ELDREDGE: ‘BABY JESUS HAD POOPY DIAPERS’
DAVID: I also should point out that we’re discussing just one point here in an entire book. So let me bring up another section of your book, one on Christmas. You actually wrote a piece online that was headlined “Baby Jesus Had Poopy Diapers.” You were pointing out—as you also do in the book—that Jesus coming into the world as an infant was a dramatic, daring, messy and potentially deadly risk. Even in Jesus’ infancy, the world was ruled by a ruthless empire and his whole family situation was not as gorgeously beautiful as Christmas cards depict.
JOHN: The classic Christmas card art, which is drawn from some of the more famous Nativity paintings of Christ, usually shows the baby Jesus as a mini-grown up. We see an adult consciousness in these images. Halos glow! His hands raise in benediction even as an infant. He’s Superbaby! And, in effect, this wipes out the Incarnation. The human realities—blood, sweat, tears and stuff like diapers—get sanitized into something beautiful for the coffee table.
ELDREDGE: WHAT DOES JESUS WANT US TO DO?
DAVID: We will publish a little excerpt from that short Nativity portion of your book. But let me conclude our interview with what I’m hoping is a big-picture question. In the end, when we meet this edgy Jesus in your new book—what does this Jesus want us to do?
JOHN: That’s a great question and it’s also impossible to boil down into a single answer. But let me say a couple of things. I have to start with what’s right there in the Torah: Jesus wants us to start by loving God. And this relates to the point we’ve been discussing already. You can’t love God when God is this creepy, distant, sanitized religious cartoon. You’ve got to find a real relationship and real devotion. To love God, I tell people that we must love Christ in order to love the Father. Falling in love with God is the single most orienting thing that can happen to a human being.
After that, a lot of things begin to fall into place because, secondly, God wants us to allow His life to fill ours. A lot of Christian teachers will tell you that the goal is to imitate Jesus and, of course, that’s a classic in Christianity, the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. I quote from his book. It’s a right concept: the Imitation of Christ. However, it’s more than just imitating, as we think about imitation today. We’ve all heard people say: Just ask yourself “What would Jesus do?” But that’s actually a crushing experience. It’s terribly disheartening because it’s impossible to live like that by sheer discipline.
Here’s what we need: We actually have to receive His life into ours. So, first, love God and, second, let His life fill ours. That’s the transforming experience. This is the power by which we overcome evil and our addictions and we restore our marriage that’s been falling apart and restore other relationships. Think about this for moment: Think about all your attempts at being kind to that obnoxious neighbor or co-worker who makes your life feel like hell. Your best attempts at restoring a relationship in that kind of situation are going to collapse quickly if you’re doing it out of a sheer feeling of discipline that you’ve got to imitate what Jesus would do. No, I’m talking in this book about something that’s a whole different orientation: I’m talking about allowing Jesus to fill your life and allow a complete restoration in your life. Try that and you’ll find so much of life beginning to fall into place.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.