Unfinished Book Review: Waking the Dead

Back in November or so I decided it was time to try reading a popular Christian book of recent times.  I decided I’d start with something by John Eldredge as I’ve got two of his books on my shelf.  Wild at Heart is the book I picked up first but I’m not crazy about books that are written for a particular gender… the generalizations that all-too-easily set in aren’t my cup of tea.  So I swapped it out for his 2003 book Waking the Dead, and honestly still wasn’t terribly impressed.  When two months had passed and I was still only half-way through I decided it was probably time to call it quits.  So, although I cannot write a complete book review, I can write an “Unfinished” book review, describing what I read and why I’m not interested in continuing.

The premise of this book is encapsulated in its full title and subtitle: WAKING THE DEAD, the Glory of a Heart Fully Alive.  It also centers on a quote from Saint Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  It’s a great quote, though its translation could be more precise, and its context clarified.

[Christ] revealed God to men and made him visible in many ways to prevent man from being totally separated from God and so cease to be. Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation gives life to all who live upon the earth, much more does the manifestation of the Father through the Word give life to those who see God.

Thankfully, though Eldredge works from the imprecise translation, he searches the Scriptures to explain the quote, and thus doesn’t stray too far from what the quote is supposed to mean.

His central thesis in this book is arguing that the heart is good, against the traditional assertion that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9).  He argues that the new spirit and new heart given to us in the New Covenant is good, beautiful, and godly (Ezekiel 36:26, et al).  His wrestling with the Scriptures, both in explaining his point and in defending it against the expected rebuttals, seems reasonable enough, but it just never sat well with me.  The explanation the book offers seems to be that I’m just too steeped in the negative mentality common to classical Protestantism (to say nothing of catholic stereotypes!) and need to embrace the Scriptural truth that my heart is fundamentally good.

So then I dithered for another two months, unsure of how to explain why I couldn’t finish this book, knowing that something was amiss but at a loss for the necessary words.  Finally, while preaching through 1 Corinthians 15 in February, the biblical basis for my objection to Waking the Dead availed itself.  It’s all about language and terminology.

Throughout the Bible, different words are used in different ways: heart, soul, will, mind, spirit.  Popular use of these words often don’t match their biblical use.  And even within the Bible, especially across different translations, these terms aren’t always used the same way.  Eldredge pretty consistently sticks with the language of the heart being the seat of decision-making, essentially combining the modern/popular concepts of heart (emotion) and mind (rational thought).  This is consistent with the Hebrew term nephesh which is often referred to as the “soul” or “psyche” in Greek.  In 1 Corinthians the psyche is what rules natural (and sinful) man, just as any other animal creature, whereas the new life in Christ that leads to a resurrection of eternal life is the gift of an enlivened pneuma or spirit.  The “new heart” promised through Ezekiel and others is accompanied with (or perhaps clarified by) a “new spirit.”

In short, when man is spiritually dead, the nephesh/psyche/soul that governs him is helplessly disordered and unable to move one’s life in a God-ward direction.  Spiritual life comes with “regeneration” or “second birth from above” in which the Holy Spirit enlivens our dead pneuma/spirit which is then able to re-order the nephesh/psyche/soul according to holy desire and purpose.

At his best, that is what Eldredge is trying to describe: the new life in Christ thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit. But his insistence upon using the term “heart” most of the time oversimplifies the biblical terminology and threatens to prevent the reader from a full and proper comprehension of the human condition.  He runs the risk of an error of over-optimism in the sanctification of the human person.

With that premise so muddled, it proved too difficult for me to move on to the second half of the book that dealt with various ways that God strengthens and enlivens the “heart”.  And the preview he gave of those topics – walking with God, receiving his intimate counsel, experiencing deep restoration, fighting in spiritual warfare – despite how earnestly and seriously he writes of them, look suspiciously stereotypical to me of the sort of Big Box Generic Brand Pop-Evangelicalism that doesn’t know about the grace of God in the sacraments and pursues instead an overly-individualistic relationship with God as the primary sacrament (means of grace) in the Christian life.

I mean, it’s good to rile people up into concerted action to take the Christian life more seriously.  But if you don’t equip them with the Sacraments and don’t connect them to the apostolic ministry of the Church, then no matter how many Bible verses you throw at them you’re going to do them a disservice and leave them hanging.

Perhaps now that I’ve figured out Eldredge’s terminology problem I can try reading this book again sometime with better understanding and patience.  But for now I’m going to let it rest and move on.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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