Book Review: Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge

Last week I posted my response to Chapter 12 of Beautiful Outlaw as part of the daily blog tour, as well as referred to chapter 10 in last week’s choir devotional so today I want to give a general review of the book.

Let me start by giving the disclaimer that John Eldredge is one of my favorite authors – for many reasons.  Having said that, though I do caution people when I share his books.  While I find it difficult to find specific parts of his books that I disagree with, I do read his words carefully and make sure they line up with scripture.  Eldredge is one of those people who is, quite frankly, very controversial in the church.  Many of the more conservative pastors and authors out there have some serious disagreements with his theology as presented in his books.  I, for one, though have found that when read in context I find very little to disagree with.

What one must understand when reading Eldredge, at least in my opinion, is that he bases much of what he writes and teachers on his own interpretation of how God has worked in his own personal life – ie, his experiences.  Now to be fair, Eldredge always uses scripture to back-up what he says, but I believe it is dangerous to use personal experience and psychology to read the scripture.  Beautiful Outlaw is the perfect example of this.  The first 11 chapters focus on different characteristics of Christ’s character – characteristics that, while they are not necessarily anti-scriptural, requiring a reading-in to the scripture.  Do I think Jesus had a sense of humor?  Absolutely.  Do I think he laughed and played practical jokes?  Sure.  Do I find support for that in scripture?  No, not really.  Am I going to base a theology or view of Jesus on what I think about Jesus?  Not in this case – at least not to the point that I feel Eldredge does.

The second area I struggle with Eldredge – and I wish he’d just come right out and address this for everyone – is his view (or lack-there-of) of the Church.  Eldredge’s books – including Beautiful Outlaw – attack the “religious” experience at every chance he gets.  Too often “religious” can be read as “church.”  We know from his writings that Eldredge left the church for a year – and I don’t have a problem with that – and we know from past interviews that he is the member of a house church (or at least was several years ago).  Again, to be fair, here are two posts from Eldredge on his views on the Church: Finding Church and a FAQ from Ransomed Heart’s website.  Do I agree with Eldredge that the church has a lot of problems?  Absolutely and without question.  But I guess I’m just one of those people more inclined to stay in the church and fight to make it better instead of leaving to find (or create) something different.  He writes on his site about how churches around the globe generally follow the house-church format, except here in the US (and I assume he actually means in the developed world), but I don’t see how that can be a reason to put down the organized church.  If for no other purpose, organized church – for better or worse – helps provide a system of accountability for individual congregations.  Am I one who subscribes to a specific denomination?  No – but I do believe it important for a church to maintain membership with some sort of organization, denomination, or network of churches so that it does have some outside accountability.  I also know that throughout scripture we read that the Church is the Bride of Christ.  For the past several years it seems to be in vogue to bash the church – and I just have a hard time doing that considering the church is Jesus’ bride.  Does the church (global and local) have problems?  Yes – but, again, I feel it only right to try and work on those problems to fix them, not run away.  Ultimately, though, I think this is a perfect example of how Eldredge’s views have been a result of his experiences through life (see point #1 above).

Finally, and this is a touchy one, I struggle anytime I read or hear anyone say they have received a message directly from God.  Don’t get me wrong – I believe God speaks directly to people today and there are specific instances I can look back on in my life where I believe I heard God speak to me.  So it’s not that I don’t believe it happens; it’s just that I believe we need to be careful when we say, “God told me.”  Why?  Because if anyone disagrees with us (with good or bad reason) then we are actually telling them, “If you disagree you aren’t disagreeing with me – you’re disagreeing with God.”  And that’s a dangerous place to be.  Again, this ties in with struggle #1 – just because God tells Eldredge something (or me something for that matter) doesn’t make it something to be applied to everyone.

Take music for example – there are those out there who can never set foot in a bar because of the lifestyle they used to live and the fact that if they go back in they run a very high chance of slipping back into sin.  And God may tell those people, “Do not go into a bar – if you do it is a sin.”  But then there are other people who have the same background and same struggles that have been overcome and God says to them, “Go into the bar and witness – you’re the one with whom they can connect.”  The point here is that if the first person takes that message from God and then transfers it to everyone else they are invalidating the message the second person has received (and vice versa).

Does God speak to us individually?  Absolutely.  Has he spoken to me in very direct words?  Yes.  Have those words changed my life?  Of course.  But will I take them and put them forth for others as a requirement?  No.  I don’t put them on the same level as scripture, but all too often when I hear people say, “God told me” they seem to elevate it to a command for everyone.  Again, to be fair, I’m not sure Eldredge has actually done that – it’s just that it is so easy to interpret his writings as such.  He specifically points out in the book that every message we believe we get from God must be measured against scripture and, if it doesn’t fit with scripture we know it is not from God.  So he’s right – I just wish he would have devoted a little more time to helping the reader understand how to do that (I guess that’s what his previous book, Walking with God, was for, though :))

Now before I close and you think that I absolutely despised the book let me say I think it’s one of the best books on the life and character of Christ I have ever read – and it challenged me (more than any other book on Jesus) to dig into the gospels and study Jesus more, to spend more time with him in prayer getting to know him, and to really think about who Jesus is.  So in that sense it can’t be a bad book <grin>!  Read the first 11 chapters as one man’s opinion on who Jesus was – and if you disagree with something don’t worry about it.  In all honesty, if you just start reading at chapter 12 and read to the end you’ll have read the heart of what there is to read.  As I mentioned in my earlier review, chapters 1-11 seem at times disjointed and I struggled to find a common theme.  But once I came upon chapter 12 I just couldn’t put the book down – I almost wish he has started with chapters 12 & 13 and then inserted 1-11 before going on to finish the book.  They provided the big-picture for what those individual chapters was trying to communicate.

My thoughts in short?  Read this book.  But read it with a firm grasp of your own beliefs and understanding of Christ.  Allow the book to challenge your beliefs, and then examine the book’s claims and your own beliefs in light of scripture.  I honestly think you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything in the book as anti-scriptural, and you may even find some of your own beliefs are in conflict with scripture.  Just be careful not to read too much into what he says.  As someone who’s read all of his books over the past few years it’s easier to understand what he writes in light of his past experiences – but there are no prerequisites required (though after reading it you may want to go and read some of his other stuff).

I’ll give this book 5/5 stars because it is worth every minute you invest in it (didn’t expect that when you read my first three paragraphs, did you?)  Yes, I received a free copy from the publisher in return for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.


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