The Barbarian Way by Erwin R. McManus

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Having gone to college during the hay days of the hippie movement and the Jesus Freak Revolution, I find that books like The Barbarian Way cause me a definite sense of déjà vu. In the 1960s and 70s, the Establishment was the great enemy to young mavericks (McManus would call them barbarians) and, since the church represented the Establishment, it too was seen as evil. The church needed to be dismantled, along with the rest of society, and restructured according to the then-emerging barbarian blueprint. I will let my readers decide if society in general, or the church of God in particular, is superior today as a result (you probably can guess my answer).

In the wake of the barbarian raid of the 1960s came new Christian leaders who offered creative and “improved” methods for reviving the evangelical church. Robert Girard wrote Brethren, Hang Loose; David Mains provided a new paradigm with the Circle Church in Chicago and the “church renewal” movement was in full force. All of these things have faded with time, but they spawned offspring which live today. For one, the seeker-sensitive church was given birth and that led the march to further doctrinal dilution and even the undermining of the gospel itself. The emerging church movement (of which McManus is a leader) is more recent. It has taken up where the seeker-sensitive church left off and is headed for old-fashioned liberalism.

This brings us back to McManus’ little book which has received kudos in many circles. In reality there is not much to analyze here. The book is long on inspiration and virtually non-existent on substance. It is in essence a 140 page pep rally. There is nothing wrong with pep rallies; we all need to be encouraged and challenged to step up to the opportunities afforded us by Christ. But McManus seriously overplays his hand. He is highly critical of any who do not accept his “barbarian way,” calling them domesticated, civilized Christians (p. 12) and equating them to the Pharisees and Judaism of the first century (pp. 15, 59, 114) . What McManus and his ilk miss is that Jesus never condemned the Jews for their religious system (God set most of it in place) nor for their complacency (their religious enthusiasm is everywhere evident). He condemned the Pharisees for invalidating the Word of God with their own agenda (Matthew 15:1-9) and the people for following that agenda. This would be the exact concern Jesus would have with the barbarian way. McManus and friends have great enthusiasm for their agenda—but is it God’s agenda? From The Barbarian Way it would be almost impossible to tell. McManus does not share his views on the gospel, Scripture or any doctrine of importance. He never provides details of the message or life that we are to share with others. We are simply to follow Christ (whatever that might mean) and live as savages—without rules or boundaries, except the boundary of love.

Perhaps the best example of the barbarian way that McManus supplies is found in an illustration he gives about rhinos. Rhinos, he informs us, can run at thirty miles an hour but can only see thirty feet in front of them. The term used for a number of rhinos running at full speed is appropriately called a crash. Now, most people recognize rhinos as huge, dim-witted creatures that mindlessly charge and destroy anything in their path. They do not create, they annihilate. I have never heard a parent tell his child that he hopes she will grow up and have the characteristics of a rhino—e.g. stupid, destructive, self-centered, angry. But McManus sees the rhino as the barbarian’s mascot and prime example. Speaking of the mannerisms of rhinos McManus writes, “That’s what happens when we become barbarians and shake free of domestication and civility. The church becomes a crash” (p. 138).

This is truly amazing—yet totally consistent with what McManus is promoting. The barbarian way is that of highly motivated, over-the-top entrepreneurs, each madly pursuing his vision of what God would have. To the barbarian there are no rules, all traditions and rituals are boring and must be demolished, and there is no indication, at least that I could find, that even the Bible should define or set boundaries for barbarians. What McManus is propagating is for Christians to charge full speed ahead giving no thought about what they might trample or destroy in the process.

One more note of interest: McManus opens and closes The Barbarian Way with an example of the Old Testament judge Jephthah (Judges 11:1-3). He is apparently the perfect picture of a barbarian, the likes of which we should follow. While Jephthah was a wild man, a mighty warrior and one who drew “worthless” men to his cause (11:3), there is no indication in Scripture that Jephthah actually walked with God. More importantly, in true barbarian fashion, Jephthah made a rash vow promising to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house upon his return from a victorious battle with Ammon. As you recall, it was his only daughter who walked through that door and Jephthah the barbarian, in complete contradiction to the expressed will of God (cp. Leviticus 18:21), actually sacrificed her (Judges 11:29-40). Is this really the kind of hero we should emulate? Maybe the barbarian way is even better represented by contradicting his wife and telling his son to jump off the roof (pp. 117-119) or of men at his church retreat stripping naked to play tug-a-war (pp. 131-133). Indeed these examples are barbaric—but they are not godly.

Paul spoke of a similar people when he said of the Jews, “For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (Romans 10:2). This is the true barbarian way: a zeal untamed by the truth of the Word. It is not the pathway to which the Christian is called.

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