Book Review: Soul Cravings: An Exploration of the Human Spirit, by Erwin McManus


Dear Mr. McManus,

I just finished reading your book Soul Cravings, which I first heard about in a podcast interview you did. You said in the interview that Soul Cravings is different from all your other books, in that it’s directly written to non-Christians. I’m continually looking for books that present the gospel clearly. I was glad to hear of another.

You also mentioned in the interview that your book didn’t have page numbers, because today’s generation isn’t linear or propositional, but abstract and relational. Now, I admit that did make me chuckle a bit. I have degrees from two avowedly secular universities, and, for all the time I spent in their libraries, I never once found a book without page numbers. (Sometimes I wonder if we evangelicals can be so fascinated with being relevant, we out-relevant the culture!) Still, your comment intrigued me, so I purchased the book.

Well, as I said, I’ve just finished reading it. One of the first things that struck me is your heart for non-Christians. You remind me of the woman in Jesus’ parable who finds the lost coin and then invites all her friends to celebrate. This book is like her invitation. It’s evident that you have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and you want others to know such goodness. How encouraging. Thank you.

I also thought you did an excellent job of personally identifying with non-Christians. Your language is down to earth. Your illustrations are familiar to what human’s generally experience. Your tone is sympathetic and kind. Let me put it like this: it feels like you get into a non-Christian’s brain, emotional outlook, and worldview assumptions, you look around the universe with him, and then attempt to point him in a better direction—toward God. Your ability to do this, I thought, was Christ-like, even “incarnational,” as some use that term these days. It challenged me to think more carefully about, yes, the voice I adopt when speaking to non-Christians, but more than that, the posture of my heart. Does my heart remember how much, as a fallen human being, I share in common with my non-Christian neighbors? Or have I, in Pharisaical fashion, placed myself in a higher, self-justifying category of some sort? Thank you for your example.

In all of this, your book was both earnest and personal, and without being narcissistic. I haven’t read any of your other books, and I’ve never heard any of your sermons. But if you are anything like the voice of the man narrating this book, I can see why a lot of younger individuals in the ministry want to learn from you. You strike me as personable, affirming, and understanding. I trust that, were I to spend time with you face to face, I would find myself humbled, encouraged, and challenged. You clearly have a lot to teach the evangelical church about relating to people in the world around us.

For all these reasons, it makes me genuinely sad that I would not give your book to give a non-Christian. I’m not saying that God couldn’t use it to get a conversation started. He can use anything of course, and the positive qualities of your book could very well work in that direction. But the book itself leaves so much unsaid, to state it as charitably as I can, that what the person would gain from your book itself is not Christianity or the gospel of Jesus Christ.

To state it a little more starkly, I finished the book and immediately went to your church’s website to see if I could find some sort of doctrinal affirmation, and was genuinely surprised to find your church’s affirmation of the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. The “applied theology” of your book falls significantly short of the basics affirmed in this document.

Start with the book’s starting point—finding God through the soul’s cravings. You never mention Augustine, but a couple of times I wondered if your whole purpose was to give a book-length treatment to his oft quoted phrase, “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” That’s a beautiful and profound sentiment. Our hearts will have no rest apart from God.

Here’s your version of this: “I am absolutely convinced of one thing: God has placed cravings within your soul that will drive you insane or drive you to him. Your soul longs for God; you just may not know it yet” (I can’t really cite a page number, of course!). Your book is then divided between three broad categories that characterize our souls’ most essential cravings—intimacy, destiny, and meaning. We all seek intimacy, purpose, and truth, which we will only find in God.

If the human soul could truly be said to long for God, your course of travel would make sense. You write,

Jesus said that the kingdom of God is within us. .  . . It seems what he is implying is that we have a better chance of finding God in the universe within us than in the one that surrounds us. And it is on this path that I invited you to walk with me. I invite you to engage in an exploration of the human spirit, to journey deep inside yourself and search out the mystery of the universe that exists with you.

For as New Agey as that sounds, I think you simply mean to say that reflecting upon the cravings inside of us will demonstrate that we were made for God, kind of like C. S. Lewis’ comment in Mere Christianity about the analogy between our physical appetites and spiritual appetites. Each points to something that quenches it.

I think I know what Lewis is getting at. I certainly know what Augustine is getting at. The problem is, it’s patently untrue that all human beings are all really seeking God, as you put it. Mr. McManus, please, find me one verse in the entire Bible—just one!—that says human beings in the flesh are seeking God. It says just the opposite. It says that we hate God (at least the true one) and God’s rule. It says that we want to be God. And it says that our hearts are literally enslaved to opposing him. Augustine was right when said that our hearts are never at rest apart from God. But that doesn’t mean our hearts seek him. When Jesus speaks of God’s kingdom in our hearts, he’s talking about what must be established, not what is established.

With this fundamentally flawed starting point, the doctrines of man, sin, the cross, and salvation I found in the book, amazingly, were died-in-the-wool, nineteenth-century liberal Christianity. Think Schleiermacher and his “God-consciousness” as it relates to “self-consciousness” (decidedly different from Calvin’s connection of the knowledge of God and man, which is based in revelation).

About our longing for love, you write, “We run from God because we long to be loved and we have convinced ourselves that the One who is most loving could not and would not embrace us. We run from the One our souls crave.”

About our longing for destiny and purpose, you write, “When we stop believing the world can become a better place, when we stop caring about the lives and conditions of others, we lose a part of ourselves.”

About our longing for meaning and truth, you describe the man who told you that he saw no need for God, to which you responded to him, “You must have really been hurt at some time in your life.”

According to your book, we just need to be convinced that God loves us. We just need to believe he has a good plan for our lives. We just can’t let the turkeys get us down. The problem with the human condition, finally, is a lack of knowledge, or knowing something, or getting it. “Don’t you see, buddy? God loves you. I mean he really, really loves you.”

In your book, the problem from which we need to be saved is not the heart’s willful opposition to God. In fact, in what I take to be your understandable attempt to sympathize with non-Christians, you pooh-pooh all such talk: “For the past two thousand years, Christianity, along with pretty much every other world religion, has made the primary focus the sinful nature of us all. In some ways I think this has led to a not-so-subtle self-hatred.” Okay, I don’t want to make sin the “primary focus” of Christianity either. But isn’t it the primary problem?

You do present something like a doctrine of conversion, and a conversion that leads us away from certain sins—”from greed to altruism,” “from indifference to compassion,” “from hate to love,” “from apathy to activism.” But your overall call to conversion sounds like you’re trying to persuade a shy turtle that it’s safe to poke its head outside the shell, rather than to call the warring rebel to lay down his arms against the king. It’s the conversion of after-school specials: “C’mon, Jimmy, the other kids at school really do like you. You really can participate in the school play, if you would just believe in yourself.”

To put this in more highfalutin terms, your doctrine of man, sin, and conversion remind me much too much of a counter-Enlightenment Romantic’s. Remember Rousseau’s noble savage, now enslaved and conformed by civilization? Or Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality”? Or Emerson’s refusing to march to the beat of any other drummer? Or Whitman’s “Song of Myself”? I loved that stuff in college. Leaves of Grass was my Bible. I’m serious. I looked for joy in some sort of poetic and rational intersection of my soul’s longings, nature, beauty, and “God.” What that yielded was hedonism, and not of the John Piper variety.

According to the Bible, the soul’s cravings are warped. This is the fundamental error of your book. In your book, our soul’s cravings are not even neutral, as Pelagius would have them. They’re good, and to be trusted. It’s almost like we all just need to “wake up” to what our souls are really saying, and how God is their fulfillment. I’m reminded of Thoreau’s line about “the mass of men living lives of quiet desperation,” or another line of his about never having met someone “fully awake.” These may sound like trenchant observations on Thoreau’s part, and in some ways they are. But he’s also misdiagnosing the real problem, which is not that we need to wake up. It’s that we secretly hate God as God, because we want to do what we want to do. The craving for intimacy, for instance, is fine. The problem is, we demand intimacy on our terms and for self-glory, willfully opposing God’s terms and God’s glory. This is why Jesus had to say, not “Seek first intimacy,” but “Seek first the kingdom [or rule] of God.”

Given your book’s optimistic anthropology, it’s not surprising that the only doctrine of the cross you present is pure Abelardianism, which, of course, the liberals of the German Enlightenment eventually picked up. God’s work on the cross awakens us to the fact that, wow, God really is loving! Here are your only two references to the cross in the entire book (at least of the references which you own as yours).

On a cross, Jesus of Nazareth hung naked and beaten for love. Talk about rejection. It would be easy to conclude that God made a fool of himself. What was he thinking to die for love? He gambled everything on the power of love. That love was more powerful than hate. That love was more powerful than death. What was he thinking to die for us, to give himself for you and for me, knowing we might just kiss him in the face and then walk away. Love’s crazy like that.

To trust in God, you have to know that he loves you without condition. This is the beauty of Jesus’ death on the cross. It is God’s declaration of love for you. His love embraces you wherever you are on your journey, and he does not leave you there.

In other words, beholding God’s grand expression of love on the cross should change us as it shows us how loving God really is. Well, that’s true to a point. But you still haven’t told the non-believer what exactly he’s beholding on the cross. He is, in fact, beholding the Son of God taking upon himself the wrath of God for the sins of all who repent and believe. That picture is amazing. But it’s more. It’s actually doing something, like paying for sin.

Are you beginning to see why I was surprised to find an affirmation of the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message? It affirms original sin, God’s holiness and wrath, penal substitution, and a strong conception of repentance in conversion. I trust that you affirm those things. But I fear that your practice, at least in this book, rests on an altogether different theology. By calling me to look for God in my heart’s longings for intimacy, destiny, and meaning, you’re calling me back to all the old idols of my college years. You’re calling me back to a worldview embedded in today’s secular culture. You’re calling me, in the language of Feuerbach, to project my own subjective essence into the world outside myself and to objectify it as God (cf. Is. 44:13-17; Ps. 115:4-8).

Mr. McManus, I’m still waiting for someone with all your creative gifts of communication, cultural sensitivity, love for non-Christians, and joy in your salvation to write a book for non-Christians that gets the gospel right. Will you?

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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