Erwin McManus: The Peaceable Warrior—Part 1

Erwin Raphael McManus is an entrepreneur, filmmaker, best-selling author and lead pastor of Mosaic, an innovative and influential church of multiple locations based in the heart of Los Angeles, California.

Following a hiatus from the public eye (though he never left his church), McManus released Artisan Soul in 2014, followed in 2017 by The Last Arrow. During those quiet years, in 2014, McManus told me, “I’m done trying to wear the armor that isn’t mine.”

The Way of the Warrior: An Ancient Path to Inner Peace (WaterBrook) feels like an extension of that impulse—but better armor has been found. Grounded in an imaginative picture of an ancient warrior, McManus finds inspiration for the personal journey—one with deep implications for spiritual leaders and their congregations.

I caught up with McManus for conversation rich in laughter, honesty and earned wisdom. Here are the highlights: covering the new book, the remarkable number of people choosing faith in Jesus at Mosaic, and what it might mean for us to live toward a “good death.”

Erwin, most good books come from pain. Is that the case for The Way of the Warrior?

I think it is. I’ve had to deal with deep pain and struggle my whole life. Even as a boy, my relationship with peace was fractured. I never knew my birth father, and never felt like I fit in as I was growing up. I started to see psychiatrists from the time I was about 11. I tried to cope by inventing elaborate mythologies about myself, trying to figure out how I fit in.

Perhaps this illustrates it: I had a recurring fantasy as a boy that I had been dropped off on earth as an experiment by aliens. [Laughs] I would walk outside at night, under the stars, and scream. I would shout that I wanted them to come back and take me where I belonged. So that pain has sort of always just been there. I always struggled with who I was made to be.

But it seems you’ve stewarded that pain—it reminds me of the image of a “holy wound,” where our pain becomes of use to help heal others.

Yes, exactly. Henri Nouwen is one of the only writers I have read who really captures that concept of the “wounded healer.” Pain has become a source of a confidence and freedom that has defined a lot about me and my work.

It’s interesting. Physically speaking, I have always had a high tolerance for pain. Right now, I am talking to you with a broken jaw. I didn’t go to the doctor until the pain was so bad I could no longer even eat eggs. Same with my neck—I found out years later that I had broken it when I was 19. I had simply been living with a broken neck and had no idea that I’d been injured so severely until I went to the doctor. My vertebrae had fused long ago.

That tolerance, ironically, has helped me learn to live with pain—even begin to appreciate it. Here’s the truth I’ve learned: Greatness always lies on the other side of our pain. Whether physical pain, or the pain of failure, or the pain of honesty, or whatever—there is a gift in it.

That leads us to the central image of the book—the warrior. Tell us why that image captured you as a visual of a Christian’s inner journey.

It comes from an inner sense that to become truly human like Jesus, we enter a paradox—fighting for peace. Our fear sets the limits of our freedom. This demands we act, to grow and respond to that challenge of fear.

But I need to be clear: Much of how Christians have used images of war and warriors has been distinctly unlike Jesus. I am not talking about a fortress mentality or any sort of us-versus-them way of life. This is an inner battle. We fight for peace on the fields of our heart.

I have long been fascinated by the image of the samurai. Some of my favorite films are the samurai movies of Kurosawa. Their sense of dignity and honor means that no matter how the battle goes, whether you overcome or are overcome by what is external, you can still be undefeated. The real battle isn’t what it appears to be.

And this battle is defining the emerging generation. The key question we must ask is “What is the inner conflict here?” I pastor a church of people most of whom are in their 20s and 30s. Their generation is likely the most medicated in history—they experience crippling fear and anxiety against the backdrop of more information and riches than humanity has ever possessed before.

There is a profound conflict at the center of our present culture of fear and violence. The problem causing that conflict is really modernity—modern thought—which led us to disbelieve in the paradoxes of life and faith. If we lose those, in a deep way, we lose touch with ourselves.

It’s obvious that coming to this place has been a gradual journey for you. Can you speak to some of the waypoints?

I can try. Many young pastors ask how they can preach like me. It’s kind of them to ask, but the answer is rarely what they want to hear. You can’t preach differently until you think differently, and you can’t think differently until you live differently.

I am appalled at how many young pastors preach their hearts out with big words that they have never lived. They haven’t experienced what they are talking about. They know about what they’re preaching, but they don’t know what they are preaching. That doesn’t persuade. It doesn’t invite lasting belief.

So, the waypoints I’d point to are mainly internal. That’s where the real battle is.

Your cancer diagnosis was one of those, wasn’t it?

Without a doubt.

What happened in you during that time?

It was very interesting. It revealed what had already been done more than it made anything happen, if that makes sense. To be honest, others—my family and friends—felt the weight of it more than I did. In many ways, I felt that I died years ago, and began to find the freedom that came from that. The prospect of my very serious diagnosis—the prospect of death—confirmed the good work that had come gradually before it. I was not afraid.

I have been to some of the most dangerous places in the world—Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt—at very dangerous times. Those places reveal a stark beauty like no other.

I have been thinking a lot about what constitutes a “good death.” We don’t have a strong language for this in American culture, because we have lost so much of our language of honor. But we need to reclaim it. We need to learn again what a good death might be. That is central to the inner battle in the way of Jesus.

This brings us back to the warrior. Like the samurai, we can be undefeated, even if we “lose,” if we “fail.” The real battle isn’t what it appears to be on the outside. Like those who “beat” cancer—meaning that the disease goes into remission. Beat? I could have died from my cancer, but I still would have beaten it. I would have been undefeated by it even if my body died.

This is a beautiful and very human vision. You and I share a love for what might be called “Christian humanism”—a high, dignified view of humanity’s potential and intention in Jesus. This is an expression of that, isn’t it?

Absolutely. The Way of the Warrior speaks against the narrative that says that there’s nothing good in us. It’s a vision of growing into rich, Jesus-like humanity that allows us to see his divinity. This is foundational to Christianity.

It’s also foundational for our work in the world. We are seeing incredible response at Mosaic: thousands of new believers and baptisms in the heart of Los Angeles. And all this with a message that is undiluted. Not watered down in the least. But here’s the thing: People won’t come with you to your destination if they don’t join where you begin. I can spend 40 minutes talking about a high vision for humanity and four minutes talking about Jesus, and people rush forward to identify with Christ—because they want this. It’s an honest authenticity that is breaking into “impossible” Hollywood with real power.

That has broader cultural implications, doesn’t it?

Huge ones. I believe we’re witnessing the death of evangelical Christianity. That’s come about because it tethered itself to power and politics. Many Christians have left Jesus behind. They no longer have a vision of what it means to live into human wholeness. They have lost themselves in the process, and so, of course, that will not be attractive to anyone else. It creates all kinds of superstitious behavior, people trying to find God in a whole set of “answers” that have no correspondence at all with the actual problems that we are facing.

It strikes me that many people may feel that they are already at peace with themselves. What are the symptoms of a heart that is at war?

I’m not so sure that many people at all feel at peace with themselves. I think the reality is that most people feel very much at war. Most people, even if they won’t admit it to themselves, have reconciled themselves to thinking, I guess this is all you get. I guess this is the best there is. We are faced with a different scenario today—if a majority of people ever felt at peace with themselves, that is not this generation.

I don’t think people are sitting around thinking Wow, there’s so much peace inside me. Instead they are experiencing inner conflict and turmoil. They are struggling just to make it through the day. They’ve accessed everything they know how to access, psychology, self-help, the church. They’ve even tried what, in their mind, is a faith in God. Maybe even faith in Jesus. And they still feel like they’re drowning in a real tumultuous inner world. That’s the condition of the world that we face.

Isn’t there a pressure to delude ourselves that we’re at peace, even when we feel that conflict? A pressure to hide, to be dishonest about our experience because of its implications?

Of course. Most people who fall under that description are not really trying to fool themselves, though—they’re trying to fool everyone else. They feel as if there’s something wrong with them—they aren’t meeting the standards, not being who they are supposed to be. And if they shared that honestly with the world, what they are really struggling with, the inner turmoil they’re really dealing with, they would not be respected, valued or seen as a person worthy of time or influence.

We spend so much energy trying to camouflage our inner turmoil that we don’t have the strength, sometimes, to even make it through the day. We see this all the time in a lot of the millennial language that’s out there right now. There’s an overwhelming phenomenon of millennials who feel like they can’t even make it through simple everyday commitments. They feel an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. Paralysis. Some of that is because we’ve created a false image of what it means to be a spiritually mature person. As if once you’re spiritually mature, you don’t ever get depressed. Like you somehow never feel anxious. As if you never are disappointed with life. I think we’ve created a cultural dilemma. A lot of the emerging generation doesn’t know that it’s normal to feel bad.

[Laughs] You know? You don’t end up in a state of continual bliss in this life. Even deep spirituality in Jesus does not end the internal struggle with what it means to be human. We never escape the human dilemma.

In Part 2 of the interview, Erwin McManus talks about the freedom of honesty, the heroic courage it takes to become who we were created to be and atheists whose lives have been changed at this church through an experience with the living Christ.

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