Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Desire review

Last week I read John Eldredge's Desire: The Journey We Must Take to Find the Life God Offers, finishing it Saturday afternoon. The book is a 2007 republication under new title of the same text, first published in 2000 under the title The Journey of Desire. My last review, of Captivating, was by the same author with his wife; the books are significantly different, however. The theme of the book can be summed up from the introduction:
Desire is powerful. One of the most powerful forces in our lives.
At least, it was meant to be....
How you handle your heart's desire will in great measure determine what comes of your life. So let us take the journey together. (pp. vii, ix)

In Desire, Eldredge deals forthrightly with the condition of our heart, examining the various ways in which our hearts have been damaged and the ways in which Christ restores us. His thesis is that desire can be as powerful a force for good as it often is for evil, and that it is the corruption of our desire that causes such grievous wounds in the world - not desires in and of themselves.

The text is 212 pages long, broken into 12 chapters, each headed with quotes from a wide variety of thinkers. (The first chapter, for example, includes quotes from both Pascal and U2.) As is common in the Christian market these days, each chapter is neatly subdivided into sections, with descriptive headers on the sections. The ongoing analysis of the problems and solutions of desire are mixed with anecdotes from various sources - both those successfully using their desires to glorify God and those caught in the sinful consequences of desire unsurrendered to Christ. Chapters build on previously explained points, and the questions posed and answered in each chapter find further resolution later in the book. The book is framed with an interesting story of a sea lion stranded far from the sea as metaphor for our lives, in front of about half the chapters.

The merits of the book are as follows:

John Eldredge speaks in a friendly tone to the reader. Much of his writing here is lightly conversational; the rest is narrative and story. The mix is well-balanced, and his stories are always clearly opened and closed. More importantly, they are often profound. It's a trait that's lacking in too many Christian books these days. When books content themselves with mere illustration, rather than letting illustration come secondary to meaning, they lose a lot. Eldredge doesn't make this mistake, and so the text has not only a lot of examples but a lot of truth communicated through them.

Desire is sprinkled with numerous insightful quotes - from Pascal to MacDonald to various bands - and filtered through Eldredge's own painful loss of a close and dear friend. This latter point gives the text a warmth and emotional depth that is uncommon in the Christian "message" books I've read. Because the entire text comes with this as context, it also has an unusual weight about it. Eldredge knows what he's doing as an author; he successfully leverages this into true sympathy from the reader, and then catapults from that sympathy into agreement. This could be a problem were Eldredge feeding the reader falsehoods, but (as I'll address in a moment), it's a good thing because he isn't doing any such thing.

The organization of thought in this book was particularly well done: there was a good flow from section to section. The text draws on ideas from previous chapters while maintaining momentum, keeping from getting bogged down. Each chapter itself has a well-organized flow of thought, which helps this, and there is a good mix of anecdote and apropo quote and analysis. Even his sea-lion narrative was well-placed and well-organized. All that coalesces into what is simply a very well-written book.

This text is thoroughly centered on Biblical principles. I went in a bit skeptical, because I'd just finished reading Captivating - a book I was not terribly comfortable with theologically. I came out satisfied, though a bit mystified as to how Eldredge could be so accurate in this book, and so far off in Captivating. To be clear, Eldredge is not doing an exposition of Scripture in this text, but he never veers off from Biblical principles and truths. Indeed, of everything I've read of his, this book rang most true with me, both at a personal level and with regard to its faithfulness to the word of God.

He struck at some fundamental truths about the nature of our existence, and about desire itself, in the course of the book. Notably, he addressed and corrected the lie that desires themselves are the problem. It is our fallenness that is the problem, our aptitude to being consumed by the desire and becoming an addict. The desire itself is meant to bless and indeed to turn us to God. In what is ultimately a fairly surprising comparison, a lot of Eldredge's points here resonate strongly with some of the points made by John Piper in Desiring God: our great delight and our chief desire is to be toward God Himself. When that is true, we are free to delight in and enjoy all our other desires, because they no longer rule us: they are instead submitted to Him and His ways. Eldredge faithfully addressed the problems of addiction - and did a particularly good job of getting at the root of addiction - as well as encouraging the reader to delight in desire properly surrendered to God. In all of this, he never loses his biblical focus, and while Scripture is not quoted at length, it is referenced with some frequency; and the vast majority of other quotes are from great Christian thinkers.

There are a few minor demerits. At one point, Eldredge makes a reference to cutting away all the legalism and tradition, and his explanation could be construed as a criticism of the forms and traditions of church. Insofar as people may be tempted to hold to the forms and traditions either for their own sakes or for a sense of legalism, I agree. We must be cautious here, though: much of form is designed to turn us back to God, and while it is not sacred, we should be careful in our decisions regarding form. When he follows this with a description of his own year spent away from formal church attendance, I am concerned that readers may take this as license to abandon the fellowship of believers. He mentions this briefly but in a place of significance, but he counters by noting that he didn't step away from his accountability or his community, only from his formal church attendance. Even with that caveat, I'm slightly uncomfortable with the notion that not actively participating in the local church is ever acceptable from a Scriptural standpoint.

In the same passage, he discusses challenging someone he was counseling to stop reading her Bible for a few weeks because she was doing it out of mere duty. While I see where he was coming from, this, too, is worrisome to me. There are ways in which to cut off legalistic views of church and Bible reading without abandoning them: the issue is not a matter of how often we do things but of what our heart attitude is in doing them, and while I don't doubt that God can in the manner Eldredge suggested, the weight of Scripture would seem to indicate that it is more actively engaging with His word and with His people that we are drawn out of those fallen heart attitudes, not less.

Those being the only demerits, and taking up a relatively small section of the book (just a few pages), I am far more comfortable with this book than any others I've read of his. Indeed, given the significant good things about the book, I can recommend it with the caveat that it should be read with those few demerits in mind. There is a lot to be learned here, and this is a good place to start in exploring the issue of desire as God intended it to be. (Just don't let it be the place your exploration stops!)

- Chris

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