Real Men Wear Kilts: The Function of William Wallace in Wild at Heart
[Note: This is the second installment in a series on the medievalism of John Eldredge in his book Wild at Heart. For the introduction to the series, please see part one.]
Eldredge uses the figure of Wallace most overtly in two ways: For one, he cites Braveheart several times as a film to which men typically respond positively, and the Wallace character as a figure that many men wish to be like. Eldredge points to this kind of reaction to Braveheart and other typical “guy movies” (Gladiator, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Shane, to name a few other examples) as evidence of what men, deep down, really desire. For another, Eldredge uses Wallace as a figure that embodies the more aggressive, adventurous, and iconoclastic qualities exhibited by Jesus in the gospels. Eldredge suggests, essentially, that while Christ might be a gentle, Mother Theresa-type figure to the oppressed and disadvantaged, he is more like Wallace toward the pharisaic and hypocritical (22-5). Eldredge does have a point in both cases: it’s probably true that many men respond positively to films like Braveheart and wish to feel more like an action hero than a bureaucrat. Neither are men’s responses to films like Braveheart necessarily illegitimate as evidence: we can always learn a great deal about a culture from the stories its members create and to which they respond most positively. It is also true that Jesus was not always—or even fundamentally—a “nice guy.” He did exhibit qualities like aggression and anger when confronted with hypocrisy. And what, after all, is wrong with offering up a fictional character as such as an example to emulate?
The problem is that Eldredge’s use of Wallace, upon more detailed examination, goes deeper—and is much more central to his argument—than a mere exemplum or simply as evidence of the type of narrative to which men respond. One difficulty with Eldredge’s use of Braveheart (and all his other pop-culture references) is that he fails to account, I think, for the possibility that films such as Braveheart do not simply reflect masculine desires in contemporary evangelical culture, but also have a role in creating and calibrating1 those desires, a idea I shall address in more detail below. Even more important, though, is the centrality of the kind of identity the Braveheart Wallace represents to the primary project of Wild at Heart. From the beginning of the book and its first references to Wallace, Eldredge characterizes his project, and the project in which he encourages Christian men to engage, as one of recovery of a lost identity. Eldredge repeatedly characterizes that identity as something more authentic, more “real” than what men currently have, and aligns that lost identity with men’s “true nature.” [p] That nature, Eldredge argues, is specifically God-given. [p] Almost immediately, Eldredge links this lost identity with medieval Scotland and Wallace via Braveheart. Eldredge begins the passage in which he first refers directly to Wallace with the story of a friend, Craig, who, as an adult, chose to adopt the surname of his real father (who was killed in the Korean War when Craig was a young child). When Craig discovered that his father was killed in combat and that his grandfather was an early missionary to Central America, “Craig changed his name to McConnell and with it took back a much more noble identity…” (21). Eldredge goes on to suggest that, as many men are ashamed of their immediate fathers, they go deeper into their own roots, as did Craig, to find a father figure from whom they can recover a more authentic masculine identity, all the way back to the One “whose image every man bears” (22). Moving on to ask what Jesus was/is specifically as a man, Eldredge descries the typical image of the mild and gentle Jesus (“Mister Rogers with a beard”), and rejects it: “telling me to be like him feels like telling me to go limp and passive. Be nice. Be swell. Be like Mother Theresa. I’d much rather be like William Wallace” (22). It is important to notice, here, that what Eldredge is interested in recovering is not precisely a historical personage but rather a type of identity. Eldredge encourages men, via the anecdote about Craig, to make what Walter Benjamin might call a “tiger’s leap into the past,”2 skipping intervening generations until one finds an object worthy of recovery, an object that supports the new brand of identity one wishes to create. Identity, then, is in one way connected to and in another severed from historical reality. On the one hand, historicity seems matter to Eldredge: authentic identity is located in the past. On the other, one seems free to ignore any part of that past that isn’t suitable for recovery. One can be selective about what one chooses to resurrect. There is also an odd slippage, here, in exactly what Eldredge suggests we recover. That object of recovery, in this passage, starts out looking like Christ, the “one whose image we all bear” as he existed specifically as a man.
But Eldredge’s logic doesn’t leave us with simply a more masculine version of Christ in this instance. After telling “Craig’s” story of resurrecting a more “masculine” father-figure from his own history, Eldredge laments the gentle images of the Mother Theresa and Mister Rogers-like Christ that seem, to him, prevalent in Christian culture, concluding that “I’d rather be like William Wallace” (22). From there, Eldredge continues with an account of Wallace that strangely conflates the fictional account of Wallace in Braveheart with a historical account, characterizing the Scottish nobles in the late 1300’s as “typical Pharisees, bureaucrats…religious administrators,” who niggle and simper in order to hold on to land and power (23). Eldredge then contrasts Wallace’s masculine violence with the Scots nobles’ “feminine” niggling, quoting the well-known “freedom” speech from the film, and noting Wallace’s willingness to “pick a fight” rather than negotiate. From here, Eldredge moves to a discussion of Jesus, noting scriptural passages in which Jesus expresses anger in the face of religious hypocrisy, making a strange (“tiger’s leap”) connection between late medieval Scottish nobles and first-century Pharisees: “The Pharisees are like the Scottish nobles—they, too, load heavy burdens on the backs of God’s people but do not lift a finger to help them.” (24) Jesus, for Eldredge, is the one that “picks a fight” with the hypocritical Pharisees just as Wallace did with the Scottish nobility. The direction of Eldredge’s logic is important here: he does not move from the example of Christ, expressing a desire to be like Christ and suggesting that Wallace was a Christ-like figure. Rather, Eldredge begins with the figure of Wallace, expressing his own desire to be like Wallace, and then suggests that not that Wallace was Christ-like, but rather that Christ was Wallace-like. Wallace—and specifically the version of Wallace characterized in Braveheart–is the primary value. Eldredge leaves the discussion, then, less with a masculinized Christ than with a sacralized Wallace. Wallace, here, is the figure Eldredge associates most directly with the concept of recovery; the qualities embodied in Wallace are the ones Eldredge wishes to mine from the past and re-inject into a Christian concept of masculinity, re-making Jesus Christ into William Wallace’s image.
Stay tuned for Part Three: But Wallace Didn’t: The Historical Wallace and the Construction of the “Braveheart” Legend
1I derive the term “calibrating desire” from Patricia Ingham’s work,
2Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 261.