I attended Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit this year at a satellite location here in Omaha. There was a lot to receive, some things to redeem, and others to reject. Today, Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic in Los Angeles, closed out the Summit with his talk about Christians being culture creators and creative story tellers.

He exceptionally articulated the fact that because God is a creator, Christians are also called to be creative and enter into the redemption that God is working in the world. He told about the time he led Soledad O’Brien to Christ while describing a documentary he was making about the longings and desires every person has. McManus is clearly an innovator, very intelligent (despite barely graduating high school), and no doubt loves Jesus.

The text that McManus spoke from, and formed his argument around, was Ecclesiastes 1:1-11.  Aside from the first ten minutes McManus sounded like a (fairly) orthodox Christian, albeit using post-modern vocabulary.  In those first 10 minutes, however, his use and interpretation of the text was irresponsible, troubling and dangerous at best.

After telling the audience that Ecclesiastes is his favorite book in the Bible, he read the first eleven verses and said that he has been convinced for a while that “Solomon is wrong.” Wrong about what? Wrong that “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (v. 9). McManus described a time he spoke with his wife and she humorously said, “You are going to hell…Don’t tell anyone you think that.” McManus said he waited a “long time” to tell anyone. He also said, “I don’t believe the Bible’s wrong…I believe Solomon is wrong!”  He stated, “Solomon said that animals and men are the same. Do you think that’s true? I don’t.”

McManus went on to argue, as you can imagine, that there are new things in the world. He mentioned various stories in the Old Testament where God did something new, the fact that every person is made unique, the incarnation, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and countless other “new” things. He’s right. New things happen all the time.

But McManus is also wrong. He’s wrong because Solomon is not wrong. It’s not just dangerous that McManus took Ecclesiastes 1 completely out of context (as scary as that is, especially with Ecclesiastes!). What’s more is that he said, “Solomon is wrong.” He told 180,000 people that a biblical author, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, actually got it wrong. Solomon said there’s nothing new. He’s wrong. I don’t believe him. Let me tell you how the world actually is. If McManus is free to do that (and convince people to do likewise), who is to say that he cannot twist any other passage?

What was Solomon’s point in saying that everything is meaningless and there is nothing new in Ecclesiastes 1? Did he literally mean there is no purpose in live and that literally nothing new ever happens? Moreover, has any respected biblical scholar or pastor ever assumed that’s what he meant?  No and no.

Ecclesiastes is a book of repentance. Solomon wrote it after a long life wasted on sex, drugs, and rock and roll, B.C. style. He was the richest, wisest, sexiest, strongest, and most famous man in the known world. But he turned from the Lord and so nothing was fulfilling to him. His fall is recorded in 1 Kings 11:1-8. Solomon “did evil in the sight of the LORD” (v. 6) and did not remain faithful to Yahweh. He had “hewed out cisterns…that can hold no water” (see Jer. 2:13).  He looked for ultimate satisfaction, just as McManus said every human does, in things other than God himself. Women, money, and fame were never meant to deliver ultimate satisfaction.

Ecclesiastes chronicles Solomon’s journey back to God before his death. The book ends with this: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14). That gives us a small peek into how the rest of the book should be interpreted and applied.

When Solomon says, therefore, that “All is vanity,” and that “there is nothing new under the sun,” he does not mean that God does not do miracles or that he cannot “bring into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). Solomon also does not mean that human beings are not creative agents who partner with God in his redemptive work by creating beauty in this world through relationships, culture, and art. Would a man whose father was the most accomplished musician and poet in the history of the world say that humans don’t create new things?

What then does Solomon mean? He means that living a life apart from God’s commands (see 12:13) is a big waste of time! Living far from God only brings emptiness to life that leaves a person attempting to fill their void in life with truly boring things. Things like drink, food, sex, money, power, pornography, video games, sports, gambling, children’s soccer games, internet, cell phones, books, family, diet and exercise, body image, cars, status, power, and a thousand others. A life lived for anything other than God and his glory brings misery and ultimate meaninglessness. That life produces what seems to be purposeless existence. “I lived for women and fame and wisdom and money and everything else you could try,” Solomon says. “It was all vain.”

What is not vain? When does creativity and renewal and beauty and majesty appear? It appears when we “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). Any Jewish person hearing this text would think of Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Jesus said this was the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37). Jesus even said that this commandment, and “the second greatest” commandment, sum up “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40). Ultimately, we fear and obey Jesus Christ, who is the exact imprint of God’s nature, the image of the invisible God, and God himself (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15; John 1:1), and we love other people because they are made in the image of God. We fear and obey Jesus, not to simply avoid meaninglessness and escape hell, but because he has saved us from our sin, reconciled us to God, given us rest, and rescued us from the wrath to come. This the the gospel: We are accepted by God through Christ, therefore we obey.

Solomon tells us that a life lived apart from fearing God and obeying him will be meaningless, uncreative, and boring.  Solomon experienced exactly what C.S. Lewis wrote thousands of years later, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Solomon was far to easily pleased. Apart from God’s grace, so are you and me.

McManus was right to say that we are born in the image of God and we are to create beauty in every sphere of life and do it for the glory of God. He had that quite right. At the end of his talk, I was waiting for him to give the real “twist” and say, “Actually, Solomon isn’t wrong. In God’s story, there is true beauty and creativity. When you write your own story, filled with your own pleasures, there is nothing new that will come of that. The final outcome of that will always be misery.” But he did not.

McManus is wrong because Solomon is not wrong. If Solomon is wrong about life, then the Bible itself is wrong. If that is the case, then our faith is null and void and all the beauty we see and create is actually an illusion, a product of random chance, not of God’s sovereign and purposeful design. Therefore, I will go so far to say that no one has been “righter” than Solomon, who experienced firsthand the emptiness and deadness of life outside of God’s loving reign. Thankfully, he repented, which most people do not do.

The Imago Dei has indeed been marred by sin. We are a segmented fraction of our true potential. God is re-creating what is marred, and he will finish his good work (see Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:2; Rev. 21:5).

All who are being made new–by grace through faith–start now in partnering with God to help, in a small way, to make everything else new, including this world.  That will never happen if you are lost in a slum satisfied with mud sandwich. There’s no beauty, no renewal, no art, no creativity there. There’s only meaningless. And that’s where Solomon was. Until he repented.

Let us go and do likewise.

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11 thoughts on “Thoughts on Erwin McManus’s Talk at the Global Leadership Summit

  1. Crazy thing is your “exegesis” of the text is EXACTLY what Erwin was getting at today.

    You said it,
    “Did he [Solomon] literally mean there is no purpose in life and that literally nothing new ever happens?” NO!!! (If it’s not to be taken literally then it means it’s not literal right?)

    “Moreover, has any respected biblical scholar or pastor ever assumed that’s what he meant?” Your answer was no, but that was because of your qualifier “respected biblical scholar or pastor.”

    Erwin said today how he went all over and heard pastors, preachers and the like basically butcher the meaning of this passage–assuming that in fact Solomon did mean what he said. Otherwise Solomon would have been wrong. And no one would dare go out on a limb and say that. Thus they would leave people helpless and hopeless to the possibilities of embarking upon anything new; not to even mention being used by God to bring about anything new for the future.

    Are we to go around teaching people that life is meaningless? Should we go around teaching people that they shouldn’t aspire to be used by the almighty Creator to create something new? Or should we teach that there’s a way for life to have meaning and for new things to be created, and then show them this way? Is it not wrong and criminal even, to teach people that life is meaningless and that nothing new can ever happen and that was been will always be, when God tells us through the Apostle Paul that He, God, makes us into a new creation, new creatures? Or should teach people in fact that it is not true that what’s always been will always be? That there are in fact new things happening under the sun (son)? That life can have meaning?

    I ask again, haven’t people for years butchered that text and left people feeling hopeless that there’s no possibility of anything new happening under the sun? Without giving them an alternative? Luring them into a life of apathy and mediocrity?

    Was Solomon’s statement that there is nothing new under the sun, apart from God, true/right/correct? Undeniably YES!!! Funny thing is, that’s not what Solomon said in the text. He didn’t include the qualifier “apart from God.” So then, was Solomon’s statement that there is nothing new under the sun true/right/correct? Or was it wrong?

  2. Perrin, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    What I am arguing for, and what Erwin said, is not the same. Ecclesiastes is a book that shows how life lived for satisfaction in things (some even good things!) is a wasted life. All is vain if God is not treasured above all else. Did he talk about Jesus making people a new creation? Of course! Do I affirm that and that God makes things new? Of course! The problem is that Erwin flat out said that Solomon was wrong and left it at that.

    If Erwin would have come back at the end with a twist and said, “But you know what? Solomon actually isn’t wrong. He’s very right. Life is meaningless and there is nothing new…when life is lived in a mud-pie eating slum. That’s your own selfish, boring, old hat story. You see, outside of God’s story there is no redemption and life and creativity. There is no re-creation. There is only the stench of death.”

    But he never said that. He never said, “Solomon actually isn’t wrong.” And that’s the problem. The problem is that Christian “pastor” said a biblical author is wrong. He left 180,000 people open to the possibility that if you see something that doesn’t coincide with your particular persuasion, you can say they’re wrong and interpret the text anyway you want. That is extremely dangerous.

  3. I’m with you on this. What bothers me most is that WCA has such a gleaming reputation for excellence in so many areas. Why not in Scriptural exposition??

    Mcmanus is very gifted in so many areas, but the way he treated the text reveals an ignorance in principles of “rightly dividing the Word.” Did he consider context or genre? It seems that he did not.

    I am more comfortable with secular managers speaking at the LS than with pastors who can create confusion re: Scriptural inspiration.

  4. Yes. Our church was a host church. I enjoyed this year more than last.

    I was also impressed with Bill Hybels’ admission that his ministry is unique, in sort of a *bad* way. Appreciated that he recognized the Jeremiah’s of the Christian world, who remain faithful, even though they will hardly be known this side of the Judgment Seat. I never thought I would hear that from him, and I am glad he took the time to recognize it.

  5. I continue to beg to differ. Erwin did consider genre and context. That’s the way he came to the conclusion he did. He just didn’t tell you that. Is that “criminal?” I don’t think so. But I can understand why some would think so.

    But answer me these questions, since you haven’t answered ANY of my other questions. With true or false please. No qualifiers, no explanations. Just true or false.

    1. Is the statement there is nothing new under the sun a true or false statement?

    2. Did Erwin not explain that there’s a way, through Jesus for us to experience and create something new?

    3. Does Solomon not explain later in Ecclesiates that there is an alternative to the meaningless life?

  6. Perrin,

    I’ve already answered all three of those questions in my original post.

    And as Lance already alluded to, Erwin made no such explicit statement that Solomon explained there is an alternative, completely ignoring genre and context. I watched intently, waiting for Erwin to put in the “twist” ending saying, “Solomon is actually right, there is an alternative to a meaningless life,” but he did not say that. He gave the alternative, but left Solomon under the bus he threw him under in the first 10 minutes.

  7. James,

    Thanks for clearing this up. When I heard it originally, I laughed at his wife’s comment, but his way of interpreting it bothered me. It was like wearing your t-shirt inside out but not knowing how to fix it. If we don’t fix it, everyone will be wearing their t-shirts in that new creative way because after all, E.M. did it, and he was at L.S.

  8. I found this article late in the game. Better late than never, I guess. Great piece, James. You are spot on. I used to attend Erwin’s church. You did not get it wrong…he means what he says, “Solomon was/is wrong.” I believe Solomon was/is right, however. (Is that a clear enough of an answer for you Perrin?)

    McManus has some very strange theology that he uses sparingly to his advantage (gains popularity with the disenfranchised) and likes to try and stir things up. Not for the sake of driving home biblical truths, more because it gains attention like a t-shirt being worn inside-out (thanks for that analogy Mindi).

    Strange how Perrin is able to discern that Erwin in fact did, “…consider genre and context. That’s the way he came to the conclusion he did. He just didn’t tell you that.” That is the Mosaic sycophant factor kicking in. Erwin has his minions trolling the internet to challenge anyone that questions his t-shirt wearing habits.

    Until people begin requesting their money back from events like this, because they do not like paying for heresy to be publicly broadcast, the Erwin’s of the world will have free reign. I’m just saying.

  9. Excellent critique….i have heard Erwin hundreds of times and am sad to see how the world has enticed him….sometimes we dislike the passages and persons in the bible that reflects are inner core.

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