A good review of John and Stasi Eldredge's "Captivating..."

John Eldredge hit the big time with his book romanticizing risk called Wild at Heart. More recently, he and his wife, Stasi, have written another book for the fairer sex titled Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul. Here's a good review of Captivating by a young couple from our congregation, Joel and Chris Klein. If someone you love is being captivated by the Eldredges, you'll find the Kleins very helpful...

If you want to keep up with the Kleins' future work, here's their blog.

Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul

A Biblical Critique

By Joel and Christine Klein

Upon the success of works such as Wild at Heart and The Sacred Romance, John Eldredge has published another bestseller, this time with his wife, Stasi, as coauthor. Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul,[1] has captivated the hearts and minds of many Christian women; in fact, not only are there bible studies that have the book as their focus, but a published "Guided Journal" has now hit the market in addition to a "Keepsake" edition ($24.99) and a "Gift" edition ($14.99). The actual book was number three on the Customer's Favorite's list on Amazon.com for 2005, and in our experience we have seen several "Bible studies" where the book of study was actually Captivating, hence, the book has a wide influence today.

In this review, we seek to answer the question, does this book have a Biblically sound, positive influence on women? We believe that several of the ideas presented in Captivating are contrary to orthodox Biblical truth and are therefore dangerous.

To be fair, the book isn't all bad and there are aspects that comport with Biblical truth. John and Stasi do put forward the idea that women are distinct from men - they have different needs and desires and are different on a fundamental level.[2] This idea, which is foundationally opposed to the feminist doctrine that men and women are basically the same (apart from minor differences in plumbing, i.e. physical differences) is a very good point. The Bible is very clear that men are different from women on more than just a surface level, and this message needs to reach women in our culture.

Furthermore, God is presented in the book as being intimately involved in our lives on a day-to-day basis. This general point is definitely valid. However, despite these positive aspects, there are two primary issues in the book that need to be addressed: 1) the book presents a distorted view of God and 2) a distorted view of women. The Eldredges do not seem to be purposefully leading individuals astray from Biblical truth, but through their incautious use of Scripture and their use of non-scriptural ideas, we are inadvertently led to these conclusions.

A Distorted View of God

The Eldredges argue that all women have three desires at the core of their being: 1) to be romanced, 2) to have an adventurous life, and 3) to display beauty. One of the means the authors use to make their three points is by directing the reader's attention to certain characteristics of females and arguing that these characteristics show us what God is like. Hence, the following passage:

"The vast desire and capacity a woman has for intimate relationships tells us of God's vast desire and capacity for intimate relationships. In fact, this may be the most important thing we ever learn about God - that he yearns for relationship with us. [...] What a comfort to know that this universe we live in is relational at its core, that our God is a tenderhearted God who yearns for relationship with us. If you have any doubt about that, simply look at the message he sent us in Woman. Amazing. Not only does God long for us, but he longs to be loved by us" (28-29).

Perhaps the greatest problem in this reasoning is that it starts with us and forms conclusions about what God must be like, rather than starting with God or His Word and judging what we are like in His image.

Consider the statement, "After years of hearing the heart-cry of women, I am convinced beyond a doubt of this: God wants to be loved" (29). The basic structure of this statement is, "People are this way, therefore God is the same way." If this reasoning were applied uniformly to all human behavior, we would come to the conclusion that God is petty, murderous, sexually deviant, and fickle. Furthermore, nowhere in Scripture are we given the idea that we are to understand who God is on the basis of who we are. Rather, we are informed about who God is primarily on the basis of Scripture.

Reflect on the following introductory verses to the book of Hebrews:

"1Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3He is the radiance of the glory of God..." (Hebrews 1:1-3a)

In these verses we see that God has revealed who He is through the authors of Scripture (the prophets) and through the person of Jesus Christ, who accurately reflects who God is (the radiance of the glory of God).[3] It is true that we can come to certain conclusions about who God is from observing His creation - he is glorious, powerful, and a creator (Rom. 1:19-20) - but more specific claims about God's nature must come from Scripture. Furthermore, observations we make from creation must always agree with Scripture, and if they do not they are to be rejected as false.

For instance, the Eldredges claim of us that, "We see [God] as strong and powerful," but we should also see Him as "needing us, vulnerable to us, yearning to be desired" (29). This assertion that God needs us is contrary to all orthodox, Biblical Christian teaching. Of course, God seeks relationship with us, but He is completely self-sufficient in and of Himself. He in no wise needs us or the love that we render to Him, and that is exactly what imbues the doctrine of grace with such meaning - God condescended to us when we did not deserve His love or His attention, because we had rebelled against Him through our sin. The bottom line is that we needed (and still need) God; He does not need us. It's just as Paul said to the men of Athens,

"The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything" (Acts 17:24-25; italics ours.

Thus, God is not a contingent being, subject to the whims of his creation, and the Eldredge's are on very shaky ground when writing to women, "You are meant to fill a place in the heart of God no one and nothing else can fill" (120). This is simply unbiblical. Instead, God is a radically free, wise and powerful agent who "works all things according to the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1:11), and we might add, not our will.

Is this really that important? Is it so wrong to claim that God loves us because we are beautiful and we can offer Him something? In short, yes! It undermines one of the fundamental doctrines of the Bible, the doctrine of original sin. According to this doctrine, humans are dead in their sin (Eph. 2:1-9) as a result of the fall (Gen. 3) and we have rebelled against God wholeheartedly (Rom. 1:18-32, 3:9-19). The Bible uses very strong language about our sinful state, referring to our minds as "carnal" and "at enmity with God" (Rom. 8:7), that we possess desires that do not seek after God and that we have "together become unprofitable" (Rom. 3:10), and that the ultimate punishment for our sin is eternal separation from God. If we neglect ideas about sin (the problem) in Scripture, how are we to accurately understand the gospel (the solution)?

Another main point John and Stasi seek to make is that all women are seeking romance, and this desire is fulfilled through a passionate relationship with God. From our reading of the book, we have not come across a detailed description of how God loves us; usually, what the Eldredges leave us with is a sentimental picture of God, where He simply loves us for who we are. Instead of describing God's love for us by looking at how He demonsrated it, the Eldredges merely use words such as "fiery" and "passionate" to point to how God loves us. For instance, the following is common fare, especially for the chapter entitled Romanced: "What would it be like to experience for yourself that the truest thing about [God's] heart toward yours is not disappointment or disapproval but deep, fiery, passionate love" (113)?

The point here is that God's love for us is only through Christ, and that sentimentalizing the love of God, intimating that God loves everyone because of who they are, makes God in our image. Without being justified by faith[4] and having Christ's righteousness imparted to us we are simply not beautiful to God. This may not be as pleasant as hearing that God loves everyone with the same amount of passionate, zealous love, but it is a wholly Biblical idea.[5] It is true that after we have placed our faith in Christ's work at Calvary, God views us as sinless and is able to have intimate fellowship with us because we have been imputed Christ's righteousness, but a clear description of this doctrine evades the pages of Captivating.

The idea that God loves us romantically and sentimentally does serious damage to what God's love is actually like. Romantic love is definitely wonderful, and a very intense form of love indeed, but God's love for us takes a different form. God loves us self-sacrificially, perfectly, and His love finds its spring in the depths of His mercy and Christ's sacrifice, not in our beauty.

In this emphasis on romance the Eldredges seem to be capitalizing on the loneliness, false expectations of what human romance will be like, and broken hearts of millions of women, claiming that God can be our great romancer. In many ways, it's true that God is our romancer - God's love for us is indeed very great and we cannot know true love until we have understood his love. However, God's love is a far greater love than mere romantic love, and we primarily receive God's love through the sacrifice of Christ, and are unable to understand God's love for us without specific emphasis on Christ. Their de-emphasis on Christ is alone reason for concern.[6]

A Distorted View of Women

"Satan fell because of his beauty. Now his heart for revenge is to assault beauty. He destroys it in the natural world wherever he can. Strip mines, oil spills, fires, Chernobyl. He wreaks destruction on the glory of God in the earth like a psychopath committed to destroying great works of art. But most especially, he hates Eve. Because she is captivating, uniquely glorious, and he cannot be. She is the incarnation of the Beauty of God. More than anything else in the creation, she embodies the glory of God" (84).

It's hard to tell if the Eldredges understand the weight of a statement like, "most especially, [Satan] hates Eve." Regardless, they fail to support it Scripturally. Nowhere in the Bible do we get the faintest idea that Satan hates women any more than he hates men. Such flippant use of theological ideas is truly inexcusable.

Moreover, a very large problem that pervades the book is its erroneous view of who women should be. As the Eldredge's purpose in writing this work seems to be helping women become what God made them to be, it is ironic and telling that this is a fundamental problem in the book.

Exactly what is so problematic with the view of women that the Eldredge's take? As we have said before, much they have to say is very positive and is in accord with a Biblical worldview - that women are distinct from men and that feminism does not provide an answer for how women are to live in order to please God - but their exaggerated view of women falls far short of "gospel" truth.

For instance, the statement we previously mentioned, "More than anything else in the creation, she [woman] embodies the glory of God" (84), is in the least a horrendous overstatement and at worst heterodoxy.[7] The Eldredges don't stop here, but continue with other assertions such as "She [woman] is the crescendo, the final, astonishing work of God [...] Creation reached its zenith in me [woman]" (25). We see this as little more than an attempt to puff up the self-esteem of women and help them feel good about themselves. This myopic focus upon oneself is hardly a Biblical notion, when throughout the Bible we are encouraged to die to ourselves (Matt. 10:38, 16:24), and look to Christ, not who we are (Heb. 12:2, John 15) for our identity. There is more in common with third-wave feminism and popular psychology in the Eldredge's pandering to women's egos than there is with Scripture.

Concluding Remarks

Audiofile, an Audiobook producing organization published the following review of Captivating:

"the points [the Eldredge's] make about the nature of a woman's soul and heart are often recycled from pop psychology or are simply stereotypes they repackage as spiritual without really explaining or closely examining them. The result is often confusing."

This is coming from a non-religious (at least we think they are non-religious) organization and even they recognize that the Eldredge's are not presenting orthodox Christian views. If Audiofile, an organization outside the church, is critiquing a book as "recycled from pop psychology," which has been produced and lauded by much of the American evangelical church, what have we become?

The source of the aforementioned problems in the book seems to be a lack of careful writing, a disregard for consistency, and a frivolous use of Scripture. The Eldredges many times make clear that they believe one is only saved through the work of Christ, but as we have pointed out before, with their deflated view of God and inflated view of women, we are left with a very convoluted picture of who Christ is and who we are in Him. Did Christ save me because I am beautiful to Him? Or, did He save me out of the riches of His own love, knowing that He would be glorified through dying to save sinners? Are women really the pinnacle of the creation of God? Is there a place in God's heart that only I can fill? These questions are very serious, and they deserve careful answers, as they will affect our entire view of God and the world.

So, how are women to live according to Scripture? To answer this question fully would require us to spill a great deal more ink, but fundamentally, women are to live looking to Christ for their identity, looking to His beauty, not their own, seeking to understand the true nature of God's love for us, using all their God-given faculties to seek to understand Scripture and know Christ.[8]

In response to criticism of his earlier books, John Eldredge defends himself by writing, "Virtually every response we see is that people are drawn to a deeper worship of God and a deeper level of repentance. The actual fruit of my ministry--holier lives of men and women--is quite the opposite of what Etheridge [the critic of Eldredge's ministry] describes."

It is true that many individuals have been affected through the Eldredge's ministry, but we have to ask the question, is fruit from a ministry the ultimate test of orthodoxy and faithfulness to God? We believe firmly that fruit from a ministry is very important, but faithfulness to sound Scriptural teaching is equally valuable. If we neglect Biblical teaching and present ideas that are not in accordance with God's Word - which we believe He takes very seriously - we need correction. As James says, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (Jam. 3:1). This exhortation from James shows that God takes very seriously those who would instruct others about who He is, the atonement, and other aspects of Biblical truth. In our society doctrinal accuracy is thought unimportant in comparison with personal holiness, and we do not believe this view is God-glorifying or safe for God's people.

Consider the Mormon Church - a large and growing group of individuals radically committed to personal holiness, faithfulness to God and family, and reaching the world with their gospel. Is God pleased with this? The orthodox Christian can easily and unreservedly say, no. God is not pleased that His Son is viewed incorrectly, and we, as Bible students cannot affirm that a person who accepts Mormon teaching and has not put his/her trust in Christ alone for salvation has their sins forgiven.

Of course, the Eldredge's are not presenting wholly unorthodox views on par with Mormonism, we only seek to show that God views doctrinal fidelity as important. To many, critiquing a popular, non-theological work seems nit-picky, or even worse, just plain mean. However, it is our conviction that God esteems ideas about Him to be very important and when ideas about God are presented that fall short of what God has revealed about Himself in Scripture, we must correct the error if at all possible, being as gracious as possible, and doing so with meekness and fear.

Finally, the tragedy of the book is that it ends with a "Prayer for Freedom" that is by our estimation, solidly Biblical, emphasizing biblical justification by faith, sanctification through the power of God's Holy Spirit, and much other theology that fills the New Testament. In fact, the prayer is virtually a summary of how to be forgiven, who we are in Christ, and how we are to live as Christians: would that the Eldrege's used this consistent Biblical methodology to fill the other pages of their book.



[1] John and Stasi Eldredge, Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2005.

[2] We do not wish this difference between men and women to be interpreted as a difference in value; men are not "better" than women, merely different, and the two will naturally have dissimilar roles.

[3] Several other passages which speak to God revealing himself in scripture are Rom. 15:4, Matt. 4:4, 2 Tim. 3:15-16, Luke 24:44, 2 Pet. 1:19-21

[4] Rom. 3:28, Gal. 2:15

[5] The doctrine of the love of God is a difficult doctrine indeed. It would be impossible for us to encapsulate the love of God in such a short review, but in general, the reader should understand we do not mean to imply that God doesn't love humanity in a general sense. The main point we are trying to make is that God's love that saves individuals is different from his general love for humanity, and that both loves spring ultimately from Christ's sacricifice. For a further treatment of this subject, the reader is directed to D.A. Carson's The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway Books, 1999)

[6] Note that we have not said the Eldredges completely neglect Christ in their book - that is simply false. In several passages they mention that salvation is only through Christ's work (e.g., page 117), but the emphasis they place is largely upon God loving us for who we are, not who Christ is.

[7] Heterodoxy: A belief system that is not in agreement with the accepted beliefs of an organization, like a church or a religion. Isn't it great that we define our terms?!

[8] We cannot possibly cover all issues related to Biblical manhood and womanhood,(e.g. the nature of motherhood, biological differences between the sexes, the role of woman in the church etc.). For a further explanation of how women are to live in society and the church, we recommend Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. The book is a veritable encyclopedia on all issues related to gender, femininity and masculinity - and while the book may have flaws, we have not found a reference its equal on issues of Biblical manhood and womanhood.

Comments

My daughter brought this book home the other day. She had borrowed it from a friend so I did a quick (very quick) perusal and found pretty much what you found. The starting point seemed to be us and we work our theology out from there.

There were a few good things about the book that I could see. You mentioned a couple. I also liked the emphasis on the beauty of women. From what I read they did a pretty good job of relating what makes a woman lovely.

Thanks for the review. It provides more ground for discussion with my daughter.

al sends

Glad for the review. This book was kindly given to me awhile ago, and thankfully, I chose to set it aside.

Honestly, I get so tired of the "Jesus is my boyfriend" mentality. It DOES capitalize on so many people who are hurting who need to be directed toward God, for Who He says He is. I'm sure that this comment could be rebutted by things like, "Well, what about when it says, "Thy Lord is thy husband," etc., but I think most who read this comment in light of the review will understand what I mean.

Another review that hits the nail on the head. The Eldredges are facing in the wrong direction. We learn about ourselves from God, not about God from looking at us - the latter presents us with a God I am not willing to serve.

Kamilla

Dear Kamilla,

Is this the first comment I've ever agreed with what you´ve said? Maybe.

Now if you´ll just agree that the Fatherhood of God is the archetype, and man the copy.

Tim

Dear Tim,

I've been agreeing with Kamilla quite a bit over the last several years. She's often been a delight to read. And, I think she would agree with you on the Fatherhood of God, though I can't speak for her.

Love,

David

Oops, you´re right, David. Sorry, Kamilla; I was confusing you with someone else, who will remain nameless.

Thank you Tim and David!

I think I agree with you both about the Fatherhood of God, in the main at least. I wouldn't however, use the term "archetype", too many jungian overtones from my days as a psych major.

Kamilla

So what book would you offer as a counterpart to this book? A theologically sound book....

This review is a poor understanding of the building blocks Based in scripture that John and Stasi use in their minsitry. God created us in his image and while that image is corrupt by sin it can still reveal the things of God. For his divine nature is displayed for all of creation. To discount that message is to totally misunderstand scripture. Totally unbiblical review.

Dear Charles,

Creation does not contradict God's word in the Bible. The Eldredges think that nature teaches us that "More than anything else in the creation, she [woman] embodies the glory of God"?

But God says in 1 Corinthians 11:7, "For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man."

Just one example of the problem you seem determined not to see.

-Joseph

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