The gnawing hunger of an empty soul

Is anyone familiar with Erwin McManus’ Soul Cravings? A friend of mine recently asked me to read it and let him know if I saw any problems with it. Apparently an acquaintance has expressed very strong criticisms of the book, and he wanted to know what I thought. This wouldn’t normally be the kind of book on my reading list, but I read it anyway (albeit rather quickly). And, I have to say that although I disagreed in places (as usual), I didn’t see anything worth labelling as heresy (which is apparently what this other guy has done). So, now I’m wondering if I just completely missed something.

If you haven’t read the book, here’s a quick break down. The basic premise of the book is that we all have these deep cravings – he focuses on the desire for intimacy, destiny, and meaning – and these desires can only be satisfied by God. Because they’re our deepest desires, we’re continually trying to satisfy them with things other than God, but that ultimately leads to despair and emptiness. So, his encouragement throughout is to seek God as the only one who can satisfy our deepest longings.

As it stands, then, the basic argument is pretty innocuous. People have been making this argument for a very long time, and I see little in McManus’ version that is all that different. So, I’m left wondering, where is the heresy in all this? If you have any experience with this book, or with McManus in general, please feel free to clue me in.

Of course, I wouldn’t say that the book is entirely flawless. What book ever is? Apart from some minor quibbles, my biggest criticism is the way that he talks about the “institutional” church. Like many today, he has very little good to say about “religion,” and he appears to lump most churches in this category. For him, religion is basically a power play by the elite to  maintain control of the people (Nietzsche and Marx would be so proud). Thus, rather than directing us toward God, religion serves to drive us away from God (Barth and Bonhoeffer would be so proud). While I’m very sensitive to these arguments about the potential hazards of “religion,” McManus made no effort to balance this with a proper appreciation for the fundamental importance of the church and its inherently institutional framework. It’s a short step from criticizing “religion” to rejecting the church, and McManus’ presentation is insufficiently nuanced to help us navigate the difference.

I’d also be a little more careful than McManus to prevent the search for God from devolving into an inquiry into my inner experiences. He does address this in the book, so he’s aware that an emphasis on “soul cravings” could easily become hyper-spiritualized navel-gazing. But, it still has tendencies in this direction. He says almost nothing about finding the truth in God’s Word or God’s people. He encourages everyone at the end of the book to “seek” God, but he provides little guidance for how one should do this. And, given the emphasis throughout on inner experiences, it would be easy for someone to conclude that the search involves an individualistic journey within.

With these two reservations, the book still doesn’t seem to warrant the harsh condemnation that my friend heard from another source. So, again, if you have any thoughts, I’d appreciate hearing them.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on July 11, 2010, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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