Brennan Manning’s passing prompted this tribute-contemplation. I invite you to grab a cup of coffee, tea or glass of water. Sit and dwell with me, pondering on the significance of what happens when, despite human opinion, the Glory that God deserves is given back to Him.
‘The ragamuffin Gospel’ is an impassioned critique of churches that worship doctrine, conceal God and betray grace. He states that ‘Jesus invites sinners and not the self-righteous to his table’. This re-enforces his concern that the church can at times project a ‘watered down Grace’. Consequently, what is demanded is an allegiance to doctrine rather than an alignment to Christ. This makes for a ‘twisted gospel of grace, and results in a religious bondage which distorts the image of God’. For instance, ‘any Church that will not accept that it consists of sinful men and women, and exists for them, implicitly rejects the gospel of Grace’.
Reputation is not character. Some of the current expressions of church value appearances over against substance. They are communities defined by ‘fatal narcissism of spiritual perfectionism’. This is form of sophistry that begins with the individual Christian. Brennan Manning argues that anybody who focuses on a pious reputation over against character is wrong. This exists where ’fellowships permit no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal their sin from themselves and from their fellowship’. Here it is easy to see the pragmatic and contextual out working of Manning’s insightful comment, ‘our doing becomes the very undoing of the gospel’.
Consequently some churches become consumed with public appearance. Putting on a show becomes God. This idol turns our conformity into a way to earn salvation, rather than a doorway for discovering salvation. For example: the impossible ideal of a perfect Pastor. Someone who looks great in a suit, has the newest model car, the castle sized mortgage, the beautiful smiling husband or wife, the 2.5 well behaved scripture quoting children and an unblemished Church attendance record. Such standards are closer to the ‘strange paradoxes of the American Dream’ (King), which is only really mounted on the metaphor that, ‘castles made of sand fall…melt…and slip into the sea eventually’ (Hendrix, 1967). While modesty and self presentation is beneficial for every Christian, it does not make you a Christian nor does it necessarily reflect your salvation.
A dichotomy exists between being righteous and appearing righteous. Evidence of this is found in the ‘seeming good is better than doing good age’ (Bolt) which feeds self-righteous and Lordless (Wright) ‘isms’. Those who propagate such ideology, reject the theological Trinitarian reality that grace is a gift of acceptance from the Father, transferred to us through Son and worked out in our lives by the Spirit. God’s ‘furious love’ for humanity funds dignity, grace and mercy. This begins with the acceptance of grace, ‘for acceptance means simply to turn to God’. This is an encounter where I am no longer removed from my problems, my sin and my inability to repent because I ‘accept the reality of my human limitations’. In other words, Manning does not endorse a ‘fast-food-cheap grace’ Churchianity.
The Ragamuffin Gospel presents a relational God who reaches into the ragamuffin’s brokenness and provides rescue, ‘inviting us to be faithful to the present moment, neither retreating to the past, nor anticipating the future’. I come to accept that through grace I am dignified and worthwhile. This is the description of a loving Father caring for His children. God is not a manipulative father nor is He like the pagan gods, who demand sacrifice to appease their anger. We do not serve an angry, distant un-relational God who is unconcerned with who we and obsessed with our ‘’epic fails’’.
Manning illustrates for us that God seeks out the ragamuffin. Manning’s own ministry and his journey through alcoholism exemplify the message which ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ communicates. The message of the Ragamuffin Gospel is about a freedom that is completely reliant on a view grace which does not abandon human culpability, in the name of ‘tolerance instead of love’ (Bill ‘birdsong’ Miller). This freedom is found only in a response to grace that empowers a living relationship with Jesus Christ. This freedom stands as a warning to those who ‘accept grace in theory but deny it in practice’ .Manning writes that the ‘deadening spirit of hypocrisy lives on in people who prefer to surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus’. Being honest and expressing the need for grace and not works begins with us, the Church.
Writing on Paul’s letter the Galatians, Brennan Manning states:
‘written in the heat of the moment, the letter is a manifesto of Christian freedom. Christ’s call on your lives is a call to liberty. Freedom is the cornerstone of Christianity (see 2 Cor.3:17)…Freedom in Christ produces a healthy independence from peer pressure, people-pleasing, and the bondage of human respect. The tyranny of public opinion can manipulate our lives. What will the neighbours think? What will my friends think? What will people think? The expectations of others can exert a subtle but controlling pressure on our behaviour’.
Brennan Manning encourages Christians to let go of demands which control us, by entering into step with the Spirit and consequently a life of freedom that is accountable to God. This freedom ‘lies not in ourselves, who are by nature slaves to sin, but in the freedom of his grace setting us free in Christ by the Holy Spirit’. Christians are living in ‘the presence of God in wonder, amazed by the traces of God all around us’, not just in a building or a doctrine.
In concluding, the merit of this book is that Brennan Manning provides a reflection of the human struggle with addiction and idolatry. At times, Manning may seem a little unforgiving in his harsh critique of the institutional Church. Nevertheless what is clear is that Manning seeks to address practical atheism by reassessing doctrines and expressions of church, that have by default, replaced God. In order to achieve this Manning asserts that the Christian walk is one of risk, founded on a dignity that is grounded solely in God’s intervention on our behalf. The Ragamuffin Gospel addresses the failure to live out independently the character of Christ without Christ. As a result Manning successfully reminds us that God is in fact consistent, fierce, loving and interested in messiness of our lives.
Manning, B. 1990 The Ragamuffin Gospel, Multnomah Books, Sister, Oregon 97599, USA
Casting Crowns, 2003 American Dream: from the album Casting Crowns