By John Eldredge
Beautiful Outlaw is a frustrating, if at times well-written and unique journey, into the life of the most famous person in the history of the world. Such a daunting task is not lost on John Eldredge, who bypasses the doctrine and gets right at the heart of Jesus, not always successfully.
Eldredge, the manly man’s author of Wild At Heart and Captivating, has written another manly, chest-thumping work. With an intriguing title and a great premise, Eldredge presents vignettes of Jesus in his earthly ministry. Eldredge is neither a theologian nor scholar, and this shows in his Hollywood-like style of dialogue and details. It all goes wrong pretty quickly.
We often project our own personality onto Jesus himself, as argued by Scot McKnight and counter-argued by N.T. Wright. This happens frequently in Beautiful Outlaw, as Eldredge’s well known personal theology takes center stage. Though he continually wants Jesus to “be himself,” we suspect this is hardly the case throughout the book. To at once claim Jesus as his own person and then label him “playful, cunning, disruptive,” and other post-millennial terms is not only contradictory but inadvertently undermines Eldredge’s point. I get what he’s trying to do, but he fails quite hard.
Eldredge also beats up the “religious,” never defining them but gut-punching them at every opportunity. It’s very vogue these days to use the Pharisee as a religious boogeyman, the equivalent of saying Nazi, and then to exclaim how not to be like them. The first few times I agreed, but the next one-hundred or so verbal smackdowns was eye-rolling. Eldredge states that categorizing people with partisan dismissal is a religious tactic, but then he himself casually dismisses the religious group and never once shows grace their way. Traditional, church-raised, Southern-value-abiding, well-intentioned, religious folk need Jesus too. It’s an immature Christian who pits two sides against each other and claims one as superior. Eldredge’s spiteful bitterness is cringe-inducing.
The main problem here is that the ideas are presented in such a way that bullies you into believing: If you don’t agree with Eldredge’s take on Jesus, you got it all wrong. While this is probably not Eldredge’s agenda, his entire presentation is forced down your throat. The last couple chapters are rife with this sort of mean spirit, and his “vivid encounters” is so off the rails of orthodoxy that I needed a shower from the New Age grime. The irritating thing is that Eldredge would ridicule me for disagreeing with him, and in fact has already done so with preemptive defenses built into his work.
If I have been too hard on him, I must confess that portions of Beautiful Outlaw are written well, with the expected poetic grandeur (and pretentiousness) of Eldredge’s previous works. The stories of Jesus’ life, while presented haphazardly with no cohesive order, are still shown in a fresh way. We really do see the humanity of Jesus shine through here, and if it weren’t for Eldredge’s overbearing aggression towards “religious” people, then the book could have really been a classic.
In particular, when Eldredge talks about Jesus as Faithful and True, I was stirred by Jesus’ all-too-honest nature: he never had to hide anything and was exactly who he said he was. No other human can make that claim. We all bury ourselves in labels and manners and conformity. This was a great view into Jesus that shows why the Christian life is about bearing Jesus’ image in sanctification.
I really expected more from Eldredge’s work. I had even purchased a second copy for a friend, excited for more intimacy with Christ. If only Eldredge could get a re-do. While there are some great portions here, we still await the insightful look into Jesus’ humanity.