Book Review: Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge

John Eldredge's latest title, "Beautiful Outlaw" is his first since switching publishers. After a longtime association with Thomas Nelson, he's now writing for Faithwords, home of the great Billy Coffey . [Disclaimer: I was given a copy of the book for review purposes] The subject of "Beautiful Outlaw" is none other than Jesus Christ Himself. Eldredge feels that many (most?) Christians have a distorted, incomplete, or one-dimensional view of Jesus, and he feels so strongly about this that he wants to set the record straight for all believers.

My take on this book is mostly positive. It's well-written, engaging, and anything but boring. The reader will be enlightened and encouraged to love Jesus more, because once you know Him, you can't do otherwise.

Eldredge takes many familiar stories about Jesus and expounds on them in an informative and inspiring way. I am praying my way through this book, asking God to reveal Himself to me, and, while I think there's more to be revealed, this book has done wonders so far in the two weeks since I received it.

Longtime Eldredge readers will find many ideas familiar. At various times while reading "Beautiful Outlaw", I was reminded of "Wild at Heart, "Epic", and "Waking the Dead", among others.  But this book stands on its own. It's not a rehash of the same old ideas.

Now, the concern I have: There is a common thread among many books I've read over the past decade or so, despite coming from authors with very different perspectives. It's amazing that writers as diverse as Mark Driscoll, Donald Miller, John Eldredge, Matthew Paul Turner and Frances Chan, among others, find common ground. But in this case, they do.

Here it is: those writers, and many others, deliver messages which contain--although conveyed in different ways--the idea that  "most of Christianity is getting some major things wrong, and I'm here to set it straight. If Christians will see things as I present them  here, then the Church will finally be what it should be."

Of course, that's not an exact quote from anyone; it's my paraphrase. But here's Eldredge's own words from a recent promotional email about "Beautiful Outlaw":

"Jesus is beautiful and the church is a train wreck. What I mean is, the religious fog that has so long veiled Jesus is one tough veil to cut through. Even among our friends and those who love Jesus there is this sense of 'Really? Really? Can this be true? Can Jesus be this good? Why haven't I heard this before?' "

In a way, I can't argue with Eldredge (or the other authors mentioned above) on this point. I've been a believer for 35 years, and have seen more distortions, false beliefs, harmful mindsets, groupthink, and general untruthfulness than I can list for you here. I think back to what I was taught, and what I have taught others, and I can only shake my head and pray that God will undo the damage already caused.  There are some ideas out there, shared among Christians, which badly need to be addressed.

That said, there's a right way and a wrong way to do so.  I think Frances Chan has it most right: he simply says, without bashing others who disagree "let's open our bibles, and see what God says about this topic with as little bias as we can." He remains respectful of those with whom he disagrees even as he says specifically why they get it wrong. Chan's heart is for the Church to be as good as it can possibly be.

Eldredge, too, has a heart to see Christians see Jesus correctly, but in doing so, he insults most Christians who have differing perspectives. To hear Eldredge tell it, most Christians have not been walking with Jesus well for decades, possibly even most of Church history. They haven't even come close. See this video clip for an example.  He minces no words.

Sometimes, incorrect perspectives do harm, and they should be pointed out. But there are times in "Beautiful Outlaw" when he goes a little too far. For example, the first chapter has a section titled "The Poison of Religion", then refers to some beliefs, such as Jesus being primarily a peacekeeper, as "nonsense".  Well, it is and it isn't. If someone thinks Jesus is only a peacekeeper and nothing else, then Eldredge is right to call him out. But who really thinks that Jesus is only about one and only one thing?  This paragraph, which is near the very beginning of the book, sets the tone for the rest of it: he's dismissive of any who see this, or other topics, differently.

Because of my diverse church experience, I have come to the conclusion that most denominations, while flawed, carry with them an expression of God that He has ordained for them to have. Pentecostals worship God in ways that make non-charismatics uncomfortable, but most likely we will all worship God in heaven in ways we currently think to be undignified. Presbyterians may come across as "the Frozen Chosen", but their adherence to, an insistence on, correct doctrine is valuable and necessary. The Social Justice types are often deemed by conservatives as too light on sin, but their caring for the marginalized who struggle with sins, poverty, and addictions are reflective of a merciful God. The fundamentalists who are derided for their unwavering commitment to preaching about God's wrath, and judgment, are proclaiming a message that Jesus Himself proclaimed in several occasions.

The bottom line is that just as a bouquet looks best when it's represented by different flowers of varying colors, so also is the Church beautiful because of its diversity.  God gives different characteristics and passions to different believers; passions for causes which are important to Him. He doesn't give any one person--or denomination--the full load. Why can't we look at the Church, flawed as it is, and celebrate the different variations? Why not give God credit for being able to work through His church despite our shortcomings?

Too many Christians take their "thing" and try too hard to make it everyone else's "thing."  By doing this, and by disrespecting those who see Jesus from different perspectives, we set ourselves up to be used by Satan (the word "devil" means "one who divides") to harm the cause of unity among Christians.

John Eldredge is onto something here: people lose out when they miss the personality of Jesus, or only focus on one part of His personality. Eldredge absolutely should share that message. But I wish he would have shared that without spending so much time focusing on how much other Christians don't get it right. In doing so, he's lifting himself up as the one who has the answers everyone has been searching for.

“Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, let not a rich man boast of his riches, let not a mighty man boast of his might, but let him who boasts, boast of this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the God who exercises lovingkindness and righteousness on the earth for I delight in these things.” Jeremiah 9:23-24

Bottom line: "Beautiful Outlaw" contains a very helpful message, and I recommend the book. I only wish Eldredge would have toned down, or left out completely, his attacks on those who have presented different perspectives about Jesus to us over the years. We're all on the same team, John.

Comments

Scot McKnight does an interesting study with his students before teaching a class. He surveys the students on what they think Jesus is like. Interspersed in the study are questions about the personality of the students. The results overwhelmingly point to the students believing that Jesus is like them.
...

The publishing switch is interesting. I have an inappropriate desire to understand it.
Dwight Bain said…
Started reading "Beautiful Outlaw" yesterday and while I really agreed with some of Eldredge's insights... I couldn't put my finger on the discomfort. Really liked your review, especially the last line. We really are on the same team. Well spoken.
gentrybn said…
Just finished reading this book, which was given to me by a newer Christian who thought it was amazing. On the plus side, the writer does a good job of pushing the envelope on thinking about Jesus and who He really is and His personality and humanity. On the negative side, in my view he has focused so much on the "man" Jesus that he actually puts down and derides those who worship the "God" Jesus. Jesus is both and I feel the writer is very lop-sided in his perspective. I also felt the author took some extreme liberties with various Bible verses as "examples" of the personality he was trying to stress for Jesus. Lastly the author uses examples of guided imagery for "emotional healing' that I would consider New Age and not appropriate practice for a Christian. At best its just imagination and at worst it could open a person to demonic influence. The writing itself is ok and has some interesting stories, but overall I would say stick to reading the Bible. It has even better stories and you wont have to decipher which parts are Godly and which come from human flesh. To me this is the current "Jesus is your friend" teaching, which while true, is a distortion of the total character of God, whom we are instructed to FEAR. Jesus is our friend (man) and we fear Him as God. Both are true. Any teaching that neglects one for the other is incorrect.
Dan said…
I've been reading the book and really like it. I think you are also on to something in your assessment of the diversity of church. ( with the exception of the Social Justice types. There's nothing socially just about the legalization of infanticide) I might suggest that the thing you can't put your finger on, because I've had the same problem, is that Eldredge "poisons the well" for those who might disagree in some way. Your argument is lost ahead of time because to disagree is to be religious.

Other than that, I think it is a great book and I would highly recommend it. I can say that it's had the same effect on me as you say that it has had on you.
Matt Blosser said…
I think his view of the Trinity is flimsy at best and modalism at worst. He has almost no discussion around the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Where is the encouragement to love and experience the Bride of Christ? I think his outright derision of Christ's disciples convicts him of the very arrogance he is railing against throughout the book. He speaks of reverence and fear of the Lord as unhelpful and keeps Christ only at a distance, which I (and the Bible couldn't disagree more with. I couldn't put my finger on why I just felt like arguing with him at first either. But the more I read, the more frustrated I became. I am convinced that his view that the "experience of Christ" is of paramount importance, is mystical and unbiblical. I would not recommend this book. To use my friends words, it is "reactive boyish theologizing". I'm sorry, John, I don't believe I have missed Christ, his personality, or his love for me. If my reaction is harsh, its because I believe he has harshly criticized many Christians' life changing relationship with their Savior, and needs to be defended.
Matt Blosser said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…
I think his view of the Trinity is flimsy at best and modalism at worst. He has almost no discussion around the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Where is the encouragement to love and experience the Bride of Christ? I think his outright derision of Christ's disciples convicts him of the very arrogance he is railing against throughout the book. He speaks of reverence and fear of the Lord as unhelpful and keeps Christ only at a distance, which I (and the Bible couldn't disagree more with. I couldn't put my finger on why I just felt like arguing with him at first either. But the more I read, the more frustrated I became. I am convinced that his view that the "experience of Christ" is of paramount importance, is mystical and unbiblical. I would not recommend this book. To use my friends words, it is "reactive boyish theologizing". I'm sorry, John, I don't believe I have missed Christ, his personality, or his love for me. If my reaction is harsh, its because I believe he has harshly criticized many Christians' life changing relationship with their Savior, and needs to be defended.
Anonymous said…
I just finished this book and found it to be a phenomenal presentation of the gospel. My walk with the living God is far richer already.
Don said…
I too felt that the author was way too generous in his interpretation of the personality of Jesus, for example, regarding the playfulness of Jesus. I'm not saying Jesus had no sense of humour, but in the book, there are a lot long bows drawn and dots convolutedly joined that make me suspect that John Eldredge is, perhaps unconsciously, trying to massage Jesus into his own view of the universe.

If there was irony or humour in the "even dogs get to eat the crumbs" gospel incident, I cant believe the Holy Spirit would not have inspired a smiley face defuser to the passage, given the strong point John is seeking to make.

Another thing that really disturbs me is the 'its not about rule keeping' chapter, where he uses an example of not stopping at a stop sign in a carpark when its 2am and no one around for miles. To not stop, says John, is keeping in the spirit of the law (not the letter)...ie., the sign's there for when someone else will get hurt, not when the carpark is (supposedly) vacant.

But...where does a Christian draw the line on this?

Any behaviour that could potentially cause an unsaved person to besmirch Jesus to any degree, should not even be on a Christian's radar if they are abiding in Christ (opps, I mean Jesus). It wouldn't be on the Holy' Spirit's.

You don't risk a loved One's reputation(sorry about the capital 'o' John)) to prove or make your point, do you ?
Don

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