The Barbarian Way

Erwin McManus



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The Barbarian Way is McManus' call to Christians away from the "domestication" of so much Christianity and to a life in which we act in total commitment to God's will and command, resisting the urge to be settled and respectable. He calls us to be "mushroom eaters" who are willing to risk being poisoned rather than people who watch the innovative so we can follow when we know it's safe.

As I tried to capture McManus' point, I decided that he was Tozer with a Romantic twist. Let me explain.

First of all, there's nothing new about calling Christians to a life of complete submission to God. Indeed, that's the very heart of my own Wesleyan tradition. "Would you be willing to go as a missionary to Africa if God called you?" Tozer used the example of Abraham to push the fact that we must be willing to sacrifice any and everything for God. If God asks you to sacrifice Isaac, you must be willing.

Again, this is hardly a new or provocative idea. I found myself wondering what Christians McManus is around, when this is such a basic principle of Christianity. He must be around a lot of rich and nominal Christians, I thought to myself. Is it because he ministers in urban California?

The most distinctive aspect of McManus' version of this message, however, is the "Romantic" twist. By Romantic I don't mean "lovey-dovey" as in modern parlance but I refer to the Zeitgeist of the late 1700's and early 1800's. The ideal Romantic artist was edgy and a loner. This person stayed to themselves and lived on the fine line between genius and insanity.

God's will in McManus' book is this irrational and whimsical thing that is highly individualistic and spontaneous. He treats God's will as most typically bizarre and absurd. It is mysterious and Kierkegaardian, something we cannot hope to understand.

Is this true? Sometimes. This brings me to my evaluation of the book. Christian leaders have a tendency to picture "genuine" spirituality in their own image. I know a pastor who is a contemplative thinker who spends countless hours in prayer and study in preparation for his sermons. This is truly his strength. But he has a tendency to think all pastors should be just like him.

McManus is the same. There are of course times when God seems to behave irrationally and require strange things of us. But God is not like this all the time. God can think too. I dare say we're on very dangerous ground if we dismiss countless Christians out there who see God as a God of truth and not just a God of roller coasters.

Similarly, McManus has a predictable edge of hostility to about 1500 years of church history when creed and liturgy reigned supreme. While I don't think he is all wrong to see the dangers of empty ritualism, I have a picture in my mind of a Roman Catholic woman who lingered in the burial chamber of Jesus weeping profusely and repeatedly kissing the burial spot. Such incredible passion she showed for what Jesus did for her! Yet I guarantee you that McManus would consider her way of worshipping on a Sunday morning "domesticated."

In short, McManus creates a false alternative in his contrast between the "barbarian way" and the "domesticated way." The same God that called John the Baptist to eat locusts and wild honey also inspired 1 Timothy with its structured roles of "elder" and "deacon" and its "deposit of sound teaching." We need both. We would be incredibly deprived without some Erwin McManuses out there. But the church would burn out if we didn't have some "oldies, but goodies" too.

It is no surprise that McManus finds it hard to arrive at any real understanding of the church using this model. He feebly tries to speak of "clans" of barbarians, but admits that the image doesn't work very well. His picture of the barbarian is the picture of a loner. His biblical interpretations are, as usual, mirror readings of his own cultural and personality "dictionary." For example, while the New Testament sees individuals as members of groups, he sees groups as collections of individuals.

And I have to wonder if McManus' book doesn't reflect to some extent how distant God's will has seemed to become to some in our generation. The distance is reflected in the mysteriousness of God's will. But McManus clearly does believe that God speaks.

From what I understand, this book is appealing to those who are just now emerging in the church. If it inspires you to innovate for God, go for it. It probably is exactly the kind of motivational message that inspires youth.

My appeal is to remember that this is only one side to the coin. You as an individual may do great things for God the barbarian way. But passion is like a flash that burns bright and then burns out. You need some of the rest of us too to help you recoup until the next flash.