Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Ragamuffin Gospel – Brennan Manning

© 1990, 2000, 2005 Multnomah Books, Colorado Springs

Brennan Manning has a bag full of luggage in his background. He is a veteran of the Korean War, a former Franciscan priest, and much-respected author and speaker in many Christian circles. He’s also a battling alcoholic and an embattled preacher of the Word. He’s embattled because of the movement that rose out of the book we’re reviewing today. It has become a classic of modern Christian literature; it touched the hearts of several Christian artists—to name a couple, Michael W. Smith (who contributed a Foreward to this new edition) and the late Rich Mullins who was so inspired by the book that he formed the “Ragamuffin Band.”

With that background, I’ve wanted to get hold of a copy of this book and read it for quite some time. And I’m glad I did. I can see the draw to this teaching book, but I also found some of it a bit disconcerting. As a matter of fact, as with anything that one reads, I found parts of the book with which I could not agree.

The author is thoughtful and well-read as well as a superb communicator. He points out the need for God’s grace in the life of everyone, reminding readers that our unworthiness is not at issue (after all we’re all ragamuffins, even if we don’t think we are), but His love and mercy. In this, Manning has a wonderful grip on the concept of Grace. So much so to the point that he shares in a more recent response to the original 1990 book that one Roman Catholic scholar accused him of “out-Luthering” Luther (see p. 212).

Even so, the reading of the book becomes a little lop-sided. Not knowing any more of Manning’s faith walk than I do, I understand that the Love of God (through Christ) rushes at him through the lens of telescopic need. And I would also argue right along with Manning that we need to swim longer in the deep end of the Love of God pool. However, the view of God’s righteousness, justice, and even His wrath gets crowded out and even talked down, bringing readers to a touchy feel-good approach to the Throne that flatlines faith. (In response to this let me add that this Lovefest reaction is natural for people who see nothing from the community of Christian faith but red-faced condemnation).

A couple of other issues that I have (personal issues because of my background juxtaposed to the author’s) with the book are the Church teachings that move beyond the discussion of personal response to God and His love, and with which my faith calls me to disagree (commentary about the Eucharist and the ideology of Trans-substantiation – look it up – that are common in some Christian communities, for example). He also leans heavily on a “getting away” type of Christian life that tends to say that spiritual growth only happens when we are by ourselves. (To which end the new edition includes not only the essay “The Scandal of Grace: Fifteen Years Later” but also “19 Mercies: a Spiritual Retreat” which can guide the reader into some excellent devotional reading and reflection.) Admittedly, we all need times of retreat and reflection, but not at the exclusion of community. Relationship with Christ includes relationship with His Bride, His Body—the church.

The question that always arises at the end of the day in reviewing books is: would you recommend this book? Sure. It is probably the best response to the God is out to get us teaching that so saturates our church culture today. The follow-up question is: to whom would you recommend this book? That is a bit more tricky to answer. Certainly it is worth the minister’s time to read—especially pastors who work closely with the teenage culture. Young people are bombarded with feelings and physiological issues that scream “You’re worthless; you’re nothing.” And people who work with them need to constantly be able to remind those young people that there is a God who loves them (loves them so much in fact that He became a man to show them how much He loves them). I’d also recommend the book to people (and preachers in particular) who have bought into the idea that God is up in the Heaven’s looking for reasons to zap people and send them to Hell. Perhaps we can find some balance in the reading.

I give Manning three and one-half stars for this book. I’d even edge toward four because, after all, it is a classic.

—Benjamin Potter, February 14, 2012

[Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.]

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