I recently finished reading John Eldredge's book Beautiful Outlaw. You know, I'm always discerning new material through my dual Catholic/Evangelical lens. Lots of great material in the book. Life changing material. It's hard to read a book by John Eldredge and not have it affect how you pray, how you think about reality, how you see life. This book was no different. Please forgive me now as I speak out of both sides of my mouth, but the truth is this: I am internally conflicted.
Part of me was disturbed by the relationship/religious dichotomy which Eldredge inherits from his Evangelical culture. When people make that distinction, the hairs on my back bristle and I get defensive. After all, part of me says, the word "religion" is rooted in the Biblical language of covenant. In the Latin, the word "religion" means "to bind." It refers to any oath taken which creates permanent relational rights and obligations, such as marriage. Or, any sacrament. Religion should not be opposed to relationship, anymore than commitment should be opposed to love. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote about religion as the virtue of giving worship that is due to God. I find myself wanting to quote James 1:27, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."
On the other hand, as I raise myself up as smarter than John Eldredge, I also become uncomfortable with my own smug self-righteousness at quoting scripture and tradition. Eldredge takes straight aim at the "religious spirit." I think such a spirit exists. I have renounced it in my own life and immediately experienced a lifting of some sort of oppressive regime away from me. What's the difference between a self-righteous catholic and a self-righteous evangelical? The catholic also knows how to quote tradition (and most of them do not know how to self-righteously quote scripture). In some ways, I am worse than the rest, because I can leverage ammunition from both scripture and tradition. From the perspective of self-righteousness, its hard to distinguish between using the Bible (and Tradition) as a sledgehammer and encountering Jesus as the Word of God, which makes this sin of pride one of the most sinister of them all, because it does not leave behind any guilt. However, a tell-tale sign is that one no longer feels connected to Jesus. "I'm right!" Yes, but when was the last time you felt yourself connected to Jesus? "That's emotionalism!" Are you sure it's not just pride? "On the contrary, if I were to deny the truth, then I would be guilty of false humility, which is just pride." And back and forth the internal conversation goes. It's painful to admit that I am having a cognitive argument about being right apart from any sense of a connection with Jesus.
The core of John Eldredge's book is Jesus. He wants to call attention to what the real Jesus is like and how so many in the church preach a counterfeit Jesus. And when John says "church," he is not singling out the Catholic Church. Oh, no. He is also taking direct aim at his own Evangelical culture. And so, he spends a chapter on each of the following qualities of Jesus: playful, fierce intention, extravagant generosity, disruptive honesty, scandalous freedom, cunning, humility, trueness, and beautiful. I would encourage anyone to read Beautiful Outlaw in order to grasp John Eldredge's picture of the real Jesus. I think he is right on the money most of the time, even if he does take it over the top in some of his negative comments toward Catholicism.
Why, John, do you seem to have such an axe to grind against the Catholic Church? Well, he answers that question in his book. Eldredge writes, "My mom went to Catholic school; it made her walk away from church and God. The fruit of that seems pretty clear" (p. 169). I think Catholics need to cut Eldredge some slack, because the experience he describes here is all too common. I think Catholics would do well not to respond to another negative emotional experience with an apologetic debate. So, I'm basically saying in hypocritical fashion, do as I say, and not as I just did above, like when I got all hot to trot over his relationship/religious dichotomy.
What about the person who feels the call to religious life? As in, a calling to be a priest, religious sister, or religious brother? In this sense, religion takes on a positive connotation of making a mature gift of self to Jesus and following Him in a permanent and radical way. John Eldredge completely misses this aspect of "religion" in his book.
I'm painfully aware of my internal contradictions some of which which I have laid bare in his blog post. However, I expect this window to disappear as God's healing continues to integrate me into the way he saw me before the foundation of the world. "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from his body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:24-25)
I look forward to seeing how the Holy Spirit is going to renew his Church and bring His people back together. It is the work of the Lord and I will enjoy the ride, and how the Lord works out my own internal conflicts in the very life of the Church, bringing His healing to us all.