It Could Be Dangerous to Play It Safe


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!

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13 Comments

Filed under Reflections

13 responses to “It Could Be Dangerous to Play It Safe

  1. Edmund Metheny

    Chris,

    Good post, as always!

    One comment, however (made with the proviso that I have not read the book, and am going on only the citations you gave). Regarding the statement –

    “…Christianity over the last two thousand years has moved from a tribe of renegades to a religion of conformists.”

    I think that this actually understates the case. The church was already moving from being a tribe of renegades (or actually numerous tribes of renegades) to a religion of conformists by the 2nd century AD when heresy hunters such as Irenaeus were penning works such as “Adversus Hereses”. Once Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of Rome it was pretty much all over, and Christianity has been largely a tool of enforced conformity ever since (though admittedly punctuated by periodic attempts at reform).

    • I’ve heard it said before that the worst thing that could happen to Christianity was to become a state religion.

      • I wholeheartedly agree. I’m no fan of Constantine nor of the Church’s willingness to be co-opted into the Roman regime. There were certainly alluringly good benefits like protection, property rights, and stability. But the downsides, I believe, have far outweighed the benefits. Christendom has been an atrocity to Jesus’ gospel, and I’m grateful to finally see it crumbling apart.

    • Edmund, you’re on to something here that I can resonate with, especially with Constantine and the Roman regime’s co-opting of the church into an official state religion bringing about the rise of Christendom. Having said that, I think that within any faith community and system, there needs to some kind of core of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, a dogma (in the classical sense of the word), if you will, that delineates what is in and out. Otherwise, there would be no cohesiveness to the community. One only needs to look to the earliest writings of the New Testament to see a core of faith and practices that begin to accomplish this very thing.

      The tricky part, however, is how to handle things or people outside this core, and that, I think, is a process that will be forever messy. We’ll get that right sometimes, and fail miserably at it at other times. Another tricky part (and at the heart of the book and my blog post) is how to keep this core of orthodoxy and orthopraxy from being too static, closed, or oppressive in any way. When these questions are coupled with unbridled power, the result is Christendom nurturing a domesticated, “civilized”, Borg of a church.

      One other thought to add which also piggybacks on some things Sophie had said: there has never been a “garden of Eden” time for the church when Christians got it perfectly right. We tend to look at things pre-Constantine as kind of a paradise lost. But it wasn’t! All we have to do is look at Acts, the writings of Paul, or even the disciples’ interactions with Jesus to see that Jesus’ followers have always struggled to get it right. There were always divisions, wrong attitudes, spiritual blindness/deafness, and more that always needed work. The way of Jesus is a hard thing to take on, especially in community with other people who also struggle to get it right!

      • Edmund Metheny

        @Chris – I look at the writings of the New Testament and I see a great diversity of opinion among the gospel writers – and I love that so much!

        I have just finished reading “The Gospel of Judas”. It is a great read, about the discovery of one of the most important core documents to be discovered since Nag Hammadi. The story of how the document was discovered, its various travails before being translated, and a comparison of the views of Judas found in the differing orthodox gospels (as well as other heterodox materials) was quite gripping – a real page turner.

        One of the interesting things discussed in the book is the authorial voices of the writers of the gospels, and the regrettable tendency for modern Christians to compress the four gospels into one “megagospel” that smooths over the differing details and the differing points of view of the original writers. The four gospel writers did not, in fact, share a single orthodox view of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – there was no specific orthodoxy at the time they wrote, that was a concept that didn’t really get rolling until the first century.

      • Edmund, you touch on a much under-appreciated point about the Bible, namely its great diversity of voices that seem to have an ongoing discussion and even debate with each other. Many scholars suggest, for example, that James might have been pushing against Paul. These tensions have led to some consternation among many Christians. Martin Luther, himself a great admirer of Paul, wrote James off as “an epistle of straw.” (So much for biblical innerency from Luther’s point of view!)

        Personally, I have been fascinated by comparative studies of the four gospels and equally turned off by some peoples’ efforts to amalgamate them into one “megagospel”, as you put it. I’ve preached about the four gospels in a sermon series and equate them to four distinctly different portraits of Jesus. If four artists were to paint the same person or landscape, chances are their interpretive outputs would be very, very different.

        As for the gospel of Judas, there are a number of these kinds of gospels, most written in the late 2nd, 3rd, or 4th centuries AD. Most of them were written by the Gnostic community and tend to be more a curiosity than an actual gospel account, i.e. sayings of Jesus or strange accountings of a more mystical, otherworldly kind of Jesus (very much in keeping with a Gnostic point of view.) I think they’re valuable historical accounts, shedding light on alternative communities of Christians. Do they add anything to the church’s understanding of Jesus? Not really.

        The four canonized gospels are there for a reason, namely early widespread acceptance by the entire Christian community, their early dating, and their apostolic origins (with the curious exception of Luke, who was given credence probably because of his close association with Paul.) I don’t think the canonization process was as political and controversial as it was popularly portrayed to be by wonderfully scholarly works like The DaVinci Code. (Lots of sarcasm there!) And I believe most of the canon was safely assembled before even Constantine arrived on the scene.

    • Edmund Metheny

      I do want to add, just for clarification from the “evil atheist” perspective, that despite the fact that I think that organized religion has been a force for control, coercion, and conformity for most of its history, I in no way want to suggest that there were not also dedicated, smart, brave, and compassionate individuals within Christiandom who fought the good fight as well.

      • Well Edmund, it’s always “evil” with a smile and lots of sincerity. :-) I was going to say something of the same, but forgot– that yes, there have been some incredible, sincere, highly effective Christians who have made a huge, huge difference, and countless more we’ll never even know about.

        From the “holier-than-thou Christian” perspective, I also see many, many non-Christians who have fought the good fight as well, often in a way that challenges the Christian community to do much better than we do. I count you among that number, actually. I think it’s God’s way of “raising up the stones” when we fail to be who we’re supposed to be and also God inviting people within his plans just as God has invited me.

  2. Chris,
    I love it. That’s the way I felt when I was still able to stay within the Church.

    • And I grieve that the church has been such that you felt unwelcomed and out of place to feel and live that way! As you know, Sophie, you’re not alone, not by a long shot.

  3. How do you shake up the moderate churchgoing masses?

    • Oh boy, Jetson… If I knew the the answer to that, I’d write the book and comfortably retire! Somehow, I think the most authentic answer is found by emphasizing the you in that question. How do you or how do I shake up the moderate churchgoing masses? The answer to that question lies in discovering and being true to that role.

      Some folks are internal reformers, loyal to the institution in which the masses reside but shaking up the presumptions and structures of the institution with a way of thinking and living which is more authentic to who Jesus is. (That would be a John Wesley type.)

      Some folks are external reformers, striking out from the institution of the masses to create something new as both an authentic expression and a witness to the institution. (That would be an Erwin McManus type.)

      Then there are those who reject the whole thing and yet speak and live in a way that serves as a healthy challenge to the masses and the internal/external reformers. Their voice and witness is deeply valuable to the masses and the reformers, assuming they would listen. (From what I’ve read, that sounds like you.)

      • “From what I’ve read, that sounds like you.”

        Ha! What does an atheist look like?!?

        I will tell you this. I have a lot more to learn, but atheism has done something to me that I’ll bet pastors the world over only dream of for their flocks; I know far more about the Bible than I have ever known in my almost 50 years alive!

        And to add a bit more, I’m not done learning yet. If there is a god, and this god wants me to know about it, and to accept it, I am most certainly ready and willing to hear what it has to say. And at the risk of derailing this fine topic you created, I would only add that I absolutely refuse to lie about my beliefs. If God stops by to say hello to me, you can bet cold hard cash that I will believe (a little miracle wouldn’t hurt either.)

        You know, shake-ups in Christianity, if you stop and think about it, have been happening since Jesus died! I can’t say that any particular version got it more or less right than any other, but I can’t argue that it didn’t revive belief for many people, and give them something that made them feel more comfortable (I still don’t understand Catholicism for the life of me.)

        And in the end, none of us knows the mind of God, therefore we can only try to understand our own purpose, and recognize that Jesus was on to something important, and for some reason, we still can’t agree on what that was (in my heathen opinion, of course.) One thing he was not, was a bigot, or a hater, or a Republican! ( I couldn’t resist)

        So, take this from an atheist who has completed all of the sacraments of Catholicism, before God no less; if moderate believers can be shown that the message of Jesus did not include any such thing as “being in the club”, so to speak, and that being human is more important than claiming to know God, perhaps we will start to see less bigotry and hatred of those around us who we think are breaking all of the rules we can’t even agree on!

        For what it’s worth;

        I am not a sinner, I am a human being. I make mistakes, I hurt, I love, I cry, I volunteer. I help, I wonder, I stare into space in awe. I laugh, I joke, I judge, I sometimes lie. I don’t know exactly why I am here, but I love it! I am a human being. I cannot be anything more than that, and I am never to proud to admit when I am wrong. I could be wrong about God. But I will not lie about what I believe to be true, based on everything that I have seen and experienced and learned.

        And some Christians know that I will burn in a lake of fire for all eternity. If that is my fate, according to their god, I accept it without fear.

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