Growing up, my mother would call me a bull in a china shop. I used to bristle at that. These days, however, I’m beginning to claim that dubious title as a badge of honor, most especially in the all-too-civilized, predictable, highly controlled world of the Christian faith and church.
To a large degree, I’ve always felt like an outsider to established Christianity, and that’s because my formative years were spent on the outside. But even now, 18 years later and an ordained pastor, significant parts of me have refused to be domesticated within the institutional church. That has been both liberating and painful. Ultimately though, the constant struggle and lesson learned have always pushed me to be myself. It only harms myself and the people I serve whenever I slavishly attempt to fit within the oppressive expectation-molds of religious people and religious institutions.
I’m glad I’m not alone in this struggle and that there are brave women and men who have enough love for Jesus and the courage to call a spade a spade. The spade is this: over the last 1,700 years, most all of Christianity and the church has become a civilized institution built on control, tight structures, complete conformity, formalized religious practice that resists any form of deviation, safe and predictable outcomes, and an ingrained reluctance to engage, love, or respect anyone or anything outside of itself.
Recently, a good friend of mine suggested a firebomb of a book written by Erwin Raphael McManus called The Barbarian Way: Unleash the Untamed Faith Within. When he told me what the book was about, I was hesitant to pick it up. It sounded it would give voice to many of the thoughts and struggles I’ve had trying to be a disciple of Jesus within the institutional church. Did I really want to be ruined that way? Could I bear to face the consequences of listening to and obeying the Holy Spirit if God decided to speak to me through this book?
Well, I ended up buying and reading The Barbarian Way. It’s a little, short, muscular read that pulls no punches and is filled from cover to cover with a call to passionately, sacrificially love and follow Jesus Christ no matter the cost, realizing that doing so will make us barbarians in a civilized church and religion. And McManus was also clear about the peril of following Jesus, considering that living as a child of the kingdom of God puts us in direct conflict with the kingdoms of darkness and evil in this world.
Warning: this is not a nice, politically correct book. If you have touchy theological, ecclesiological (church), or even language and imagery sensibilities, McManus will most definitely offend you. But perhaps you need to be offended. Oops… sorry… that wasn’t too politically correct, either!
Here are a couple of samples from The Barbarian Way that stood out to me:
…Christianity over the last two thousand years has moved from a tribe of renegades to a religion of conformists. Those who choose to follow Jesus become participants in an insurrection. To claim we believe is simply not enough. The call of Jesus is one that demands action. (5)
There may not be a more dangerous weapon for violence or oppression than religion. It seems counterintuitive, but when human beings create religions, we use them to control others through their guilt and shame. True religion always moves us to serve others and to give our lives to see those oppressed find freedom. (47)
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. Although the barbarian may not be formally trained, she is always God-taught. 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. (84)
It is true that the enemy will essentially leave you alone if you are domesticated. He will not waste his energy destroying a civilized religion. If anything, he uses his energy to promote such activity. Religion can be one of the surest places to keep us from God. When our faith recomes refined, it is no longer dangerous to the dark kingdom.
Barbarians, on the other hand, are not to be trusted. They respect no borders that are established by powers or principalities. They have but one King, one Lord, and one mission. They are insolent enough to crash the gates of hell. For the sake of others, they are willing to risk their own lives and thrust themselves into the midst of peril. (128)
Pretty audacious stuff, isn’t it? Like I’ve said, this book is not for everyone. Is it flawless? Far from it. But if you at all consider yourself a Christian, I dare you to read it. Even if the imagery he uses does not resonate with you– and not all of it did with me, either– there is much here to challenge and awaken our faith to be truly alive, daring, and willing to love God with all our being, love our neighbors as ourselves, and to do whatever it takes to live out this “barbarian” invitation of God.
As for me, McManus has pushed me to be less fearful and a little less careful. I don’t think this means being obnoxious or going out of my way to be reckless. But it does mean letting go of my fear of people and institutions in order to listen to and fear God. Am I just a little anxious over the consequences? You bet I am. But if it means being fully alive with God’s purpose, God’s love, and God’s presence, then nothing else could compare. I’ll be a despised barbarian any day for that!