Saturday, May 21, 2005

Erwin Raphael McManus’ The Barbarian Way: Unleash the Untamed Faith Within (Thomas Nelson, $16.99, 144 pages) is an antidote to the lack of testosterone in churches where domesticated Christians, the author writes, “are far too willing to abdicate the battle for the soul of the world.” Mr. McManus, the lead pastor of Mosaic, a Los Angeles church, has come out with a testament for “barbaric Christians,” people who seek Christianity’s original power and aren’t afraid to pay the price it takes to get it.

This short book is basically Promise Keepers meets Braveheart: an impassioned argument against a civilizing faith that mutes and domesticates. In its view, Jesus and His disciples understood sacrifice, radical lifestyles and presumably “barbaric” faith, which is how they changed the world.

Believers who wish to follow their steps can choose what he calls the “barbarian way,” a fulfilling, if unpredictable way to live out one’s Christianity. It’s the way of the cross and those who try it, he claims, “may find very few who stand by you to provide comfort and strength and strangely enough, you may find far too many trying to reason with you that God would never require so much of anyone.”

Christian “barbarians” have a natural, transcendant relationship with the Creator of the universe, Mr. McManus writes, and they find it possible — even natural — to hear God’s voice and guidance more often than not. Accurately discerning the voice of the Lord is a precious gift the Almighty does not surrender willingly, he says, but to the persistent go the spoils.

The book begins stronger than it ends, and it is definitely not for the those who are content with genteel and refined religion. But it’s a good read for people who are dissatisfied with the low standards required by most churches and will do whatever it takes to get closer to God.

• • •

David Foster, pastor of Bellevue Community Church near Nashville, has come out with a sleeper of a book, Accept No Mediocre Life: Living Beyond Labels, Libels and Limitations (Warner Faith, $19.99, 236 pages) that packs in a lot of wisdom about excelling in life. People who get anywhere in life are those who have a vision, he writes, and here’s how to get to that place.

First, stay committed to your commitments. Second, face problems and fears with resolve. Third, avoid distractions. Fourth, find people who will encourage, not undermine. Fifth, treat time as life and be ruthless about staying on the message that your life is meant to convey. Also, know your business, be the first to act intelligently, earn a reputation for reliability and take the time to retool.

There are all sorts of commonsense nuggets in this Christian book that goes far beyond the well-known “40 Days of Purpose” mantra so common in American churches. This book tells how to make a difference and why the pain and suffering involved will be worth it. God does have an antidote to fear and futility, he writes, but it’s not easily won.

There’s lots of how-to books in the Christian marketplace, so finding a gem takes some culling. In an era where families are separated and even church relationships are shallow, here’s a book with the kind of good advice that you wish your friends and family could give you.

• • •

Elizabeth Zelensky’s and Lela Gilbert’s Windows to Heaven: Introducing Icons to Protestants and Catholics (Brazos, $12.99, 144 pages) is the most recent of several books that try to mainstream this most mysterious facet of Orthodoxy: the otherworldly icons that can be found in any Orthodox church or cathedral. Mrs. Zelensky, a visiting assistant professor at Georgetown University, is Russian Orthodox; Mrs. Gilbert is Protestant.

The book offers fresh and unusual explanations of familiar icons such as Andrei Rublev’s vision of the Holy Trinity, although it leaves out the details that inspired this masterpiece. Still, it combines spiritual insight and useful art history facts to explain why the Orthodox are so transfixed by this famous icon.

It also explains why the Vladimir Theotokos icon, so unattractive to western eyes, means so much to the Russians. It was carried into the Battle of Borodino in 1812 and credited with aiding with the defeat of Napoleon, who had invaded Russia.

Although the book is geared toward clarifying for Protestants the religious significance of icons, there are certain doctrines, such as the veneration of the Virgin Mary and her assumption, that will be rejected by Protestants. What will be clearer is the book’s vision of uncreated light; how the beauty of that light is the seal and sign of the Creator, and how icons, for Orthodox believers, provide a keyhole glimpse into the nature of eternity.

• • •

In Jesus: An Intimate Portrait of the Man, His Land and His People (Bethany House, $19.99, 363 pages), Leith Anderson, a Minnesota author and pastor, offers a novelistic rendition of Christ’s life and times that brilliantly connects the dots in terms of the life of Jesus Christ in familiar 21st century terms. Because the writers of the four Gospels didn’t always marshal events in chronological order, readers over the past 2,000 years often have a rough time figuring out how this extraordinary life played out.

The book is filled with pithy observations. “This conversation was going nowhere,” Mr. Anderson writes of one of Jesus’ frequent arguments with his rabbinical opponents. The author’s account of how a mundane visit by Jesus into what is modern-day Jordan unwittingly ended up as a three-day “healing marathon” gives the Gospels a spice so often quenched by various Bible translations.

Mr. Anderson is able to reconstruct many of the episodes of Jesus’ life so that he can identify what part of Jerusalem they occurred in, how the crowds reacted, what were the bewildered reactions of Jesus’ disciples and what may have been going on in Jesus’ head at the time. He also reconciles Matthew’s and Luke’s renditions of Jesus’ childhood in a way that makes sense, and offers some insights into Jesus’ 40 days in the Judean desert and subsequent temptation by Satan that helpfully outline the exact moral dilemma Jesus faced.

The author makes a few assumptions that aren’t supported by the Bible, such as declaring that Jesus as an 11-year-old witnessed the mass crucifixions in Sepphoris, a city four miles from Nazareth. The last few chapters seem just a bit rushed and an explanation of why the disciples found it hard to recognize the risen Christ would have been welcome. But these are small items in the light of a book that does more than a presentable job in putting a human face on the Son of God.

Julia Duin is chief religion writer at The Washington Times.

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