Reviewing Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge
The ideas posited in John Eldredge’s Beautiful Outlaw represent a pair of glasses. Glasses that, when worn, will inevitably color your reading of Scripture–certainly, the gospels. The argument for these glasses is mostly made from context. That is, it’s more “reading between the lines” of Scripture than reading the lines themselves, but the suppositions are rarely out of line. It aims to change your perspective, and is persuasive not only because I found myself wanting the sections describing Jesus’s personality to be accurate. Plenty of good stuff to chew on here.
(referring to Matthew 17:24-27) “This is a mighty strange little story. Why in the world does Jesus send Peter off on a quest right out of an Irish fairly tale? … We’re talking about a few dollars here. What is with the fishing trip? If you remove the actual personality of Jesus from the scene–and insert that religious, ethereal, ghost-like personality gazing off into realms unknown, the image of Christ conjured up by so many paintings and Sunday School art–you wind up with some pretty bizarre interpretations. … But with his personality front and center, these stories take on a richness we have missed.” – John Eldredge, Beautiful Outlaw
“You must understand an important distinction–there is Christianity, and then there is church culture. They are not the same. Often they are far from the same. The personality conveyed through much of Christian culture is not the personality of Jesus but of the people in charge of that particular franchise. … When you are confronted with something from Christian culture, ask yourself, ‘Is this true of the personality of the God of the wind and the desert, the God of sunshine and the open sea? This will dispel truckloads of religious nonsense.” – John Eldredge, Beautiful Outlaw
“Here’s the test–if you can’t take your church culture and language and drop it in the middle of a bar or a bus, and have it make winsome sense to the people there, then it’s not from Jesus. Because that is exactly what he could do. That’s what made him the real deal.” – John Eldredge, Beautiful Outlaw
“People loved to be with Jesus, just be with him in normal life–walking down the road, having dinner, talking on the beach. If your spirituality doesn’t “fit” into normal life, it is religious.” – John Eldredge, Beautiful Outlaw
Eldredge makes a case for a more personal, human, passionate, even playful Jesus than has typically been taught in our Sunday School classes. One particular story that I enjoyed entertaining is his imagining of Luke 24:13-19, when Jesus walks the Emmaus Road with two of His disciples, after He has been resurrected. The two disciples don’t recognize Jesus, and they are depressed because, as far as they knew, he was dead and not coming back. Jesus asks why they’re depressed and they respond, “Do you not know the things that happened?” Jesus innocently asks, “What things?” They continue walking together, Jesus hiding his identity and even acting as if he was going farther once they reach the village. The disciples have to beg Him to stay with them. Shortly afterwards, when breaking bread, their “eyes are opened” and they see Him as Jesus. Then He disappears.
Throughout this story, Eldredge paints a picture of a just-resurrected Savior, who is joyful, energetic, and even playful, knowing the horror of the crucifixion is behind Him. The argument is a case made from context, as the Bible is generally written without any reference to wry smiles, sideways glances, eyebrow raises, or playful glints in the eye. In the aforementioned Matthew 17 passage, did Jesus turn and wink to the other disciples after giving Peter that “strange” instruction to pull the coin out of the fish’s mouth? Was Jesus being playful, his conversation with the Canaanite woman simply banter in the fifteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel?
Indeed, in several of the examples Eldredge uses, I do find myself wanting his interpretation to be true, depicting Jesus as the embodiment of all the best of human emotions, all wrapped up in one perfect man. 100% man and 100% God. A lively, joyful, patiently loving, extravagantly generous, boundary shattering God-man unrestrained by sin, fiercely committed to His Father’s will. A Man who, having run out of wine at a party, creates a simply enormous amount of the stuff to take the party into the night. A Man enjoying an early morning fish fry with his friends (disciples). A life-changing perfect role model for man, but with the unyielding perfect purposefulness of God. Doesn’t that sound like someone you would love to know? As Eldredge is quick to point out, we can today.
It would be pointless to do a similar personality study on, say, king David. Or Paul. Or Peter. Or Elijah. We know all these men had faults, and often have no way to know if the Bible condones the behavior. (Let’s all be sarcastic like Elijah). But an analysis of the personality of a perfect God-man? That’s a different story. Is it not enough to simply do the things that Jesus told us (action), but also to have those actions come from the heart to do them in the same way (personality)?
All this might seem like too much conjecture and subjectivity to bother with. If we granted personality a seat at the interpretation table, how would we infer which passages are meant ironically, playfully, or literally? Well, as Eldredge argues, there have been some strange doctrines created based on “difficult” passages, which are perhaps more easily explained if personality is allowed into the conversation.
Let’s try this on for thought. What are the character traits that we are supposed to see in a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit? Paul tells us in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Now imagine Jesus, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, the perfect Person overflowing with all of these traits, tempered by a perfect sense of justice and righteous anger. How would He interact with people? How would He respond to people? Would He “have fun” with people? Let’s remember that Jesus–being fully God–was also a person. It seems that this perspective on Jesus’ humanity can indeed coincide with a view to His divine power, authority, and magnificence that evokes pure worship and awe.
Now, it’s certainly wise to avoid going overboard with this as it relates to Biblical interpretation. It’s safe to say that God knew what He was doing in inspiring men to write Biblical passages rich with objective truth that–unlike specific social cues, sarcasm, or playfulness–are less easily misunderstood across cultures. I do think that Eldridge is on to something though. We can imagine the love in Jesus’ voice when He called Mary in John 20:16, the compassion as He interacted with those He healed, the joy in His heart when he exulted in the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21), as well as scores of other examples. It’s clear that a stoic, emotionless, joyless life in the gospel is not the example that Jesus set.
The other topic in Eldredge’s crosshairs here is religion. Specifically, the stifling, tradition-focused, by-the-book type of religion. The type of religion that starts on Sunday morning at 8:00 AM and ends at 9:30 AM, not to return until the following Sunday. The type of religion that is filled with unnecessary jargon and needlessly flowery language that obscures the joy of living with Jesus. The type of religion that claims one thing on Sundays but lives another. As Eldredge says, “If your spirituality doesn’t ‘fit’ into normal life, it is religious.” This portion of the book rung especially true for your reviewer, not as a slight against the church but against the attitudes that sometimes are found therein. The passion with which Eldredge writes is palpable, with a yearning for the reader to experience that personal walk with God.
In sum, I highly recommend this book to those with a discerning eye, as the main topics of the book are absolutely worth considering. Sure, there are a few examples used that may be more of a stretch than others, and a few personal anecdotes that may raise an eyebrow. (Jesus in a pirate hat?) And we need to be very careful in letting a book outside of Scripture color our reading beyond what was originally intended. With that said, I’ll still be reading this again, sooner rather than later. A perspective shifting book which has found a spot in my library.