Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Barbarian Way: A Review (Part 2)

I'm doing a little miniseries on Erwin McManus' book The Barbarian Way. In Part 1 I introduced my thoughts on the book and elaborated on what I liked about it. Now, onto what I found detrimental:

1. It is vague and therefore difficult to apply. So what actually is the barbarian way? I'm afraid after reading the book I still don't know. What does it mean to have a civilized faith vs. a barbarian faith? Does it simply mean that if I do office work rather than climb mountains that I'm civilized? Does it mean anything wild is good? Certainly the Bible would be against such a system (see places where self-control = good (Titus 2:12), and wild = bad (Isa. 56:11-12)), but I don't know if from the book I can conclude that McManus is. Throughout the book the continual emphasis is on the simplicity of the barbarian way. From the back cover:

"This is the barbarian way: to give your heart to the only One who can make you fully alive. To love Him with simplicity and intensity. To unleash the untamed faith within. To be consumed by the presence of a passionate and compassionate God. To go where He sends you, no matter what the cost."

Again, from page 6:

"This is the simplicity of the barbarian way. If you are a follower of Christ, then you are called to fight for the heart of your King. It is a life fueled by passion--a passion for God and a passion for people."

That all sounds nice, but what does it actually look like to live that way? How should my actions look different if I am living the Barbarian way? How do I give my heart to the One who can make me alive? How do I love Him? How do I unleash my faith? How do I know where God is sending me? How do I fight for His heart? What does a life fueled by passion look like?

McManus leaves these questions, the ones of any practical importance, largely unanswered. The closest I could come to some answers was helping people develop their creativity and innovation, raising your kids to be wild, and listening for the voice of God. The last of these is still vague and I fail to see how the first two are at all an application of scripture. What I found this to leave me with was a nagging tension: I now feel like I'm supposed to be more barbaric, but I have no idea how or what that would even look like.

2. McManus' use of terminology ("civilized," "barbarian") does not seem to correspond to Biblical categories and therefore ends up muddying the waters. I've got no problem with using terms the Bible doesn't use. We do this every time we speak in English. However, these terms are only helpful if they effectively communicate what the original authors of Scripture were trying to communicate in their terminology. McManus' favorite target of civilized religion besides the Christian church of today is the Judaism of Jesus' time. On page 111:

"[The Jews of Jesus' time] had become so good at religion that they had no need for God. They were so full of themselves that they had no room for God. When it came down to it, they loved their civilized religion far more than they longed to know the God who created them. " (emphasis mine)

McManus sees the civility as the fundamental problem of the Judaism of Jesus' time. He doesn't really define what he means by that, which goes back to the vagueness of (1). At this point we must ask if this is the Bible's objection to the Judaism of Jesus' time. The answer is most certainly no. The Bible's objection to the Judaism of Jesus' time was its legalism, not its civility. Jesus didn't condemn the pharisees for wearing normal clothes, he condemned them for their legalism and self-righteousness (e.g. Luke 18:11-14). Paul doesn't suggest that the Jews failed to be declared righteous because they were too civil, but because they sought righteousness by their works (Rom. 10:2-3).

Likewise for us, our problem is not that we are civilized and instead need to become barbaric, but that we seek righteousness by works because of our pride and instead need to look to Christ in humility for His righteousness, received by faith (see again Luke 18:11-14 and Romans 10:4). McManus' whole civilized/barbarian paradigm is thus not connected to actual Biblical categories and therefore only confuses and distracts us from the actual problem the Bible says we face.

3. He tends to go from narrative to normative. I won't spend much time on this, but suffice it to say this is just bad Bible study. Pretty much every scripture text he shares in his book to make his points is some story. The argument is basically "it happened this way to this guy, so you should live this way." Sometimes the text warrants this; we can certainly learn from the examples of others. However just because John the Baptist dressed crazy doesn't mean all true "barbarians" should too. For instance, he suggests that because God spoke directly to people in the Bible we should also expect the same level and frequency of communication (pg. 83). Although Biblical narratives are certainly authoritative over our lives, if he's going to make normative statements on how we are to live, he should provide at least some normative statements of scripture in support or be more careful to explain how he is going about making normative conclusions from narrative texts.

4. His emphasis on the voice of God undermines the authority of the written Word of God (preface: this is a bigger issue that I won't address the nuances of here. I'll try to restrict myself to the practical problems presented by McManus' presentation rather than a theology of the Word of God). The whole chapter "The Barbarian Tribe" is basically an argument that we are called to live the way God has made us and what God has called us to, and we find these things out by hearing the voice of God. He argues for this over against what he perceives as attempts at conformity and an emphasis only on what we should not do, not what we should do.

These arguments are ok to a point. Certainly we should not try to conform everyone into one personality type or only forbid people from doing certain things. But all conforming is not bad: God is working to conform us to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). This certainly includes some level of uniformity in our behavior (e.g. love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, cf. Gal. 5:22-23). Further, where are we to obtain guidance in what not to do and what to do? Where are we to obtain guidance in how to interpret our various feelings and passions? The Bible consistently points to itself in these matters (e.g. Ps. 119:105). So what does McManus view as the relationship between study of the Bible and hearing the voice of God? On page 84:

"To study the Bible is important, but it is not a primal evidence that you belong to God. Anyone can study the Bible, but only those who know Him can hear His voice and are taught by Him...Jesus expected that those who were His followers would hear His voice, know His voice, and follow only His voice, even as He calls us out by name and leads us on the barbarian way."

Let me make myself clear: I believe McManus thinks studying the Bible is important. My concern is one of emphasis. You see it in his quote there. Bible study is what gets the "yes, but..." treatment. I agree with his statement actually if we just look at it on the surface (certainly non-believers and even unteachable Christians can read the Bible), but my curiosity is why this mystical experience of hearing "the voice of God" has no "yes, but..." attached to it. Allow me: I believe God can speak to us outside the Bible, but I think between our sin and the influence of satan we often muff it up. The Bible is the only place we can go and know what we are reading is true. McManus of all people with his emphasis on the war we're in should know this. However he provides no practical advice on how to discern the voice of God. The practical outworking of his teaching is something like this: "Go ahead, study the Bible, that's nice, but really listen for God's voice, and whatever you sense He is telling you to do, do it!" There is no value placed on searching the scriptures (Acts 17:11) or testing everything and holding onto what is good (1 Thess. 5:21). It is for this reason I would even caution against calling such senses the "voice of God."

I fear in the barbarian way the Bible takes a backseat to our own senses. This is fairly explicit on page 14:

"If He has won your heart, then to follow your heart will always lead you to follow the heart of God."

One has to wonder from quotes like these if Proverbs 3:5-6, 14:12 remain true for a believer, or really whether the believer has any sin remaining that could deceive him or her (Jer. 17:9, Heb. 3:13, 1 Jn. 1:8).

5. Sin and grace (i.e. the gospel) are utterly absent from the book. This is one of the most glaring problems with the whole book. I agree that we are called to suffer and to fight as part of the war between the kingdoms of God and satan, but here's the problem: I fail to do so. I know I should move into suffering, but I want comfort. I know I should be courageous, but I'm a coward. McManus has no problem condemning the church for such things, but he never seems to deal with the sin in the heart of each individual that causes it, and therefore he never applies God's grace to it. All McManus has to say to me is basically: "try harder." Unleash the untamed faith, stop being so civilized, etc. Is this really my only hope? Is this really all McManus has for me when faced with the reality of my failure? I'm afraid I can't find anything else in his book. There were a few times when I felt like I was going to hear the gospel from McManus, like on page 32:

"So what is this good news? The refined and civilized version goes something like this:...if you'll simply believe in Jesus, you'll be saved from the torment of hellfire, then go to heaven when you die." This is actually a true statement of the Biblical gospel, but I would tend to agree with McManus that it's reductionistic. His alternative (still page 32):

"The call of Jesus is far more barbaric than either of these. It is a call to live in this world as citizens of an entirely different kingdom."

How is that good news? I don't hear any news in that statement. Certainly the call to repent is part of the gospel, but the gospel primarily contains news of something that's happened (e.g. Jesus lived a perfect life, Jesus died for your sins, Jesus rose again). Where is the grace in this message? I don't see it, it just sounds like repackaged moralism to me: instead of "obey these rules," it's "live barbarically." Neither consists of news and both point to something we do as the crux of the gospel. Thankfully, later in the book he does talk about the death of Jesus and the gospel (pg. 112, 115, 116). That said, he's never really clear on the content of the gospel. He mostly concludes that it is a demonstration of God's love (Amen!) and an example of barbaric living. Jesus certainly is not less than an example to us, but He's more than that: He's the savior. If we only have an example of love and barbaric living, we still haven't really dealt with our failure to live up to that example.

McManus does not seem to acknowledge our personal failure to live up to Jesus' example (sin), and therefore does not clearly present the grace of God in the gospel. This leaves me either discouraged in my failure or motivated in my own self-righteousness to go be a barbarian!

6. The promises of God are utterly absent from the book. This is related to (5) so I'll keep it short. The good things McManus is calling us to do are entirely counter to our nature: suffering and war against evil. He's calling us into uncertainty and risk. What hope do I have moving into these things? Is the answer simply "there's nothing you can stand on, but this is what God wants us to do, so go do it."? That's not the way the Bible presents it. The Bible says God is in control and working all of our suffering for good, conforming us into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:28-29). The Bible says such trials refine us (1 Pet. 1:6-7), cause us to share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13), produce steadfastness (Jas. 1:3), and grow us in hope (Rom. 5:3-5). These are promises we can stand on in the midst of our risk and uncertainty, but they are strangely absent from McManus' book. This does not come as a major surprise since McManus doesn't seem to believe such suffering and war are counter to our nature: he instead presents it as really what the untamed faith inside of us wants to do (pg. 82). If we already want to be wild and suffer and go to war, we don't really need faith in the promises of God to stand on (or the gospel for that matter), we just need to be exhorted. As in (5), an ignorance of sin leads to mere exhortation without the accompanying grace and promises the Bible offers.

7. His approach in general lacks humility. This is more an objection of style than of content. In like 18:9-14 when Jesus shares the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector the pharisee thanks God that he's not like the tax collector while the tax collector simply says "be merciful to me, a sinner." The tax collector goes away justified, the pharisee did not. Notice the tax collector did not say "God, I thank you that I am not like the pharisee." This is the perspective I find in the way McManus writes this book. He presents civilized religion as the bad guy and then basically talks about how his whole life he's been living another way, the right way, the barbarian way. He talks about how he did this right in his approach to his relationship with God (pg. 11), his "community" (pg. 102-105), and his parenting (pg. 117-119). The whole book is pervaded with how wrong the rest of the church is (e.g. pg. 17) but seems to lack any humble admission of McManus' own contribution to the wongs of the church. Paul definitely told others to follow his example as well (1 Cor. 11:1), but at the same time he acknowledged that he had not arrived (Phil. 3:12) and actually identified himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). I don't know Erwin McManus personally; he may very well be a humble man. But in this book at least the problem seems to originate "out there" rather than in his own heart.

While McManus offers a few helpful and challenging insights, the book has far too many negatives for me to recommend it to anyone. Although McManus rightly calls Christians to suffering and war against evil, he does so in a vague, extra or un-biblical manner that lacks humility and neglects key aspects of the gospel. I now have some understanding as to why Phil Johnson, Justin Taylor, and others have leveled such criticisms against McManus. The question still in my mind is why friends I respect like the book. I don't think it's because they like vague generalities and extra or un-biblical content or because they dislike humility and the gospel. So what is the reason? Part 3...

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