Book Review: The Barbarian Way

Mark Archibald reviews Erwin McManus, The Barbarian Way, Community and Worship (Nelson Books, 2005).

Most of us need to read this book.

For many of us, our experiences with church and faith can be defined by the word “safe”. In The Barbarian Way, Erwin McManus pushes us away from safety and domestication to a life of wild trust and abandon.

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Much of this writing is based on the life, ministry, doubts and faith of John the Baptist. McManus is present-day John the Baptist in writing us this book. McManus lives like the barbarians he describes in this book.  He lives on the moment, on the edge, and experimentally.

In a romanticized mindset, I wish that I, too, could live like McManus. I know, however, that that’s not me. I know anytime I have tried to live in the manner that McManus describes from his own life, the results have been reckless and more destructive than helpful. If I pattern my life after McManus, the results will be at best inconsistent; at worst divisive and damaging.

This will be the biggest barrier for people reading this book – reading the examples from Erwin’s life and saying, “I can’t possibly do that”. There will be those of us who will read parts of this book – the time he gave his son permission to jump off their roof, for example – and throw out the entire message.

Avoid this temptation! Erwin McManus is the John the Baptist voice that most of us need to heed and hear. While we may not live in the manner he emulates, most of us need to take those steps away from the security that is predictable religion, and step towards the Jesus that taught unsafe, uncommon, unreligious things. This book is the voice in the wilderness we need to hear.

This short book is an easy-to-read 141 pages, but it is at the same time a difficult read. Difficult because it hits close to home for those of us who have let faith become too tame and too safe. These words were a punch in the gut on page 59:

Jesus lived in a time when Judaism had been domesticated, institutionalized, and civilized; it was only a hollow shell of what God intended. John didn’t fit into the organized religion of his time because God didn’t fit either. Jesus Himself, the Messiah of Israel, remained an outsider even to His death.

We are left with the haunting question: have I/we made Jesus an outsider of the faith He founded?

Amazingly, this safety we think that will just make us complacent does far more than that – it actually makes us hostile to God. “We discover the painful reality that even God’s people, when we become civilized, are more than willing to crucify God. When we choose a civilized faith, God becomes, at the very least, an irritant and, at worst, an enemy to our faith.” (p. 112)

Erwin reminds us that when we make church and Jesus too safe, we drive away the best and brightest among us. “This may be the most extraordinary mark of the Spirit of God within the heart of humanity: the freedom to live out dreams greater than ourselves. Yet if we were honest with ourselves, the church would be the last place most people would go to have their dreams nurtured, developed and unleashed”. (p.102) Ouch.

As much as most of us need to read this book, and as much as most of us need this John-the-Baptist-styled kick in the rear end, there are probably those of us out there who should not read this book. People that already tend toward chaos, recklessness and extreme spontaneity don’t need this fuel added to their barely-contained fire. There are people that I know to whom I would say “This book is not for you” based on their current practice of faith.

However, to those already-barbarians McManus does offer this easy-to-miss yet vital principle: “One barbarian wandering through civilization can be discarded as nothing more than an oddity. But when members of the barbarian tribe line up across the battlefield, side by side, something amazing begins to happen…Whenever barbarians of Christ pass through civilization, the oppressed and forgotten are soon found dancing in the streets.” (p.134) We have all seen solo barbarians create havoc, thinking they are doing good. But barbarians running side by side together? That may be a sight many of us have yet to see. May we see it soon and see it often.

The encouragement is clear from The Barbarian Way: step away from the complacency and safety we trend towards and truly abandon yourselves to the Kingdom of God. The warning is even clearer: “Two thousand years ago God started a revolt against the religion he started. So don’t ever put it past God to cause a groundswell movement against churches and Christian institutions that bear His name.” (p. 114)

Mark Archibald
Pastor of Spiritual Formation
First Baptist Church, Lethbridge AB

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One thought on “Book Review: The Barbarian Way

  1. Mark, thanks so much for your review of this challenging book! May the wind of the Spirit fill our sails with dreams greater than ourselves and courage to follow the Spirit into them! Shannon

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