What else is it we are seeking from the Woman with the Golden Hair? What is that ache we are trying to assuage with her? Mercy, comfort, beauty, ecstasy -- in a word, God. I'm serious. What we are looking for is God. --John Eldredge, Wild at HeartEldredge, as I've said, echoes Bly's suggestion that the man who constantly chases the Golden-Haired Woman needs to go see about himself, first. This I will agree with. He goes a step further, though, and says that the man needs to withdraw from the woman. This sounds like it says the same thing, but it doesn't, not really. Having read this in light of Fiat Lex's comment that Eldredge's interpretation of the Biblical creation myth reduces the woman to a spectator in the struggle between Adam and god, it takes on a more, shall we say, insidious appearance. It's why I keep going back to Berger when re-evaluating this book I once so loved, I guess. Before we leave women behind and head in to real man territory I think we need to take a look at three inherent problems of the Christian self-help book genre. Now, Christian publishers would probably take issue with that phrasing. It's a "Christian Living" book, a book about the life of a Christian. Self-help is for those evil regular bookstores. Also, I think self-help would imply that Christians either (a.) need help or (b.) are capable of helping themselves without their good buddy Jesus. I'll leave that to people who care about such distinctions, though. Either way, three problems: 1. Excessive use of the personal story. We hear a lot about John Eldredge in Wild at Heart. We hear a little about men John Eldredge has worked with. This is not scientific. See, if you're writing a book about people and you're a psychologist and you fill it with stories that say, "I am like this. The people I work with are also like this," then you're doing an extremely bad job. Let's say you decide to submit a column to a fashion magazine on the hot trends today and say, "I and everyone I can see is wearing a McDonald's shirt. This is the hot new look for '09." The fashion magazine will laugh at you, even if you think you're right, just because you're a McDonald's employee and you're writing your column during a slow period at work when there are no customers in the store. This leads to the next problem. 2. Overgeneralization. You know how there are those TV show promos that let you know that "everyone's talking about" last week's episode? Have you ever noticed how no one is ever actually talking about last week's episode? This is an attempt to create (a usually unwarranted) buzz. Combine excessive use of the personal story with overgeneralization and you've got a book about how everyone in the world is exactly like you. Now take those two and combine with the third. 3. Authoritarianism. Eldredge has a degree in some sort of psychology. He wrote a book. What else do you need to know about his ability to tell you what's what? Not to overgeneralize, but this is a problem with most, if not all Christian self-help books. It goes back to that one size fits all attitude of what people are and who they should be. Therefore, the reasoning goes, if I search for validation in the Golden-Haired Woman, every other man does, too. If I realized that my search for validation in the Golden-Haired Woman is actually my search for god, so it goes for everyone else. And, by the way, you need to listen to me because I wrote the damn book. There's a chicken and egg problem with every Christian self-help book. I have to draw a line here between Christian self-help and the general Christian Living category, since it's too big and generalized to have any real meaning. Christian Living contains Wild at Heart, Every Man's Battle, and Too Busy Not to Pray, which are self-help. But it also contains books like Phil Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace?, one of the few Christian books I once loved and still respect, and Max Lucado's line of schmaltzy, uplifting crap. Basically, if it's Christian, non-fiction, and isn't a devotional guide, a book about how to run a ministry, or some crap about Christian "science" or "spiritual warfare," it gets lumped in to the Christian Living category. Anyway, chicken and egg in Christian self-help. Right. It's almost impossible to discern where the writer's bias comes from. Wild at Heart is, bascially, a misogynistic text. However, since it's Biblically based self-help, I don't know if Eldredge brought his misogyny to the text or read the Bible, thought, "Hey, this is the way the world is because the Bible says so," and brought a Biblical misogyny to the text. There's also the problem of misogyny as isogesis or exegesis. Does the reader bring it to the Bible or take it from the Bible? Drop back a level and it's a question of the writers and editors of the particular translation used and so on and so forth back to some poor schmuck two thousand years ago who was just trying to write a book. We must, I feel, tread lightly. It's one thing with LaHaye and Jenkins of Left Behind, since they created a fictional universe in to which they poured their ideals and can be rightly excoriated for it. It's one thing for the guys who wrote Every Man's Battle, since they seem to be pretty overt assholes. Eldredge, however, is a more complicated writer to analyze. He seems like a genuinely well meaning but misguided individual. This is complicated greatly by the fact that his advice is generally fairly sound and the structural difficulties are more foundational than anything else, but then peppered with the generally good ideas are some astoundingly horrifying thoughts.
Because so many of us turned to the woman for our sense of masculinity, we must walk away from her as well. I do not mean leave your wife. I mean you stop looking for her to validate you, stop trying to make her come through for you, stop trying to get your answer from her. [Emphasis Eldridge's]This is good advice. It's fundamentally a different way of approaching the concept of the woman making the man something v. the woman seeing something in the man that he himself has a hard time seeing. I have a problem with the use of the phrase "walk away from her," though. The fact that it requires and emphatic, "Don't leave your wife," should, really, be a warning sign. We need to jump forward a page, past a mishmash of initiation rites and quotes pulled from Bly, to this little gem:
What I am saying is that the masculine journey always takes a man away from the woman, in order that he may come back to her with his question answered. A man does not go to a woman to get his strength, he goes to her to offer it. [Wait. It gets better.] You do not need the woman to be a great man, and as a great man you do not need the woman. As Augustine said, "Let my soul praise you for all these beauties, but let it not attach itself to them by the trap of love," the trap of addiction because we've taken our soul to her for validation. [Italics his, bold mine.]Following this mind-boggling, bright, multi-colored fuck you moment, Eldredge then puts in the quote I started this entry with about how the search for the Golden-Haired Woman is actually the search for god. So let us sit and reason together. There is a deep misogyny in Christianity built on a simple structural problem. The Jewish patriarchs were, generally, the sorts of guys who had multiple wives. Jesus was single. Paul was single and advised everyone else to be single, too. Guys like Augustine and Origen were, I'm pretty sure, single. Women are, in short, an afterthought in classical Christianity. The Bible and the church histories are filled with stories of the great men who shaped the world. So it should come as no surprise that the default assumption would be that great men don't need women, that men who do need women are, necessarily, weak, and, taking that a step further, that women just get in the way. Not only that, but notice how Augustine equates love of beauty with a trap, then Eldredge equates that same love with addiction. Since we don't have the context of Augustine's quote I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. Love of beauty for its own sake can be a trap. Eldredge gets no such slack. I don't remember why this came up, but I was once talking to a girl -- who I may or may not have been dating at the time -- and in a moment of bombast said that I thought I would never get married. "Yeah you will," she told me, "You're not good enough on your own." I disagreed with her then. I also thought Wild at Heart was a great book back then. She was right. I was wrong. Eldredge is dead wrong. Greatness is not an inherently masculine trait. Strength isn't, either. It's not something that the man finds on his hero's journey, then takes back to the silly, weak woman who has been sitting around in her silly weakness waiting for the man to give her strength. Men and women generally have different kinds of strength, or at least different ways of manifesting strength. It is that combination of strengths working together that makes for greatness. It's why mammals have a tendency to pair bond, to gather together in families, tribes, cities, and nations. Eldredge here deviates from a general understanding of human history and basic mammalian biology to make an unsupported, deeply misogynistic claim. Again, though, the question must be asked. Is that a result of his thinking itself, or is it his thinking as informed by a book that makes god in to the groom and all humanity the bride and makes it clear that in the god/person dynamic god's the one with all the strength and all the person can offer is abject surrender and worship? So in the spirit of this little detour, before I go out in to the wilds of adventure and battle, first we're going to take a walk through a garden with Bly and Eldredge. Then we're going to answer the eternal question: if the Golden-Haired Woman is such a big deal, why did Bly devote the first half of the golden hair chapter of Iron John: A Book About Men to a story about a golden-haired boy?