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christless-christianityChristless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church outlines what its author, Michael Horton, believes to be a fundamental shift in American Christianity.

Pinpointing cause, consequence and remedy, Horton tackles both Pelagian and Gnostic tendencies within American Christianity and culture. For Horton, America is pulling away from Christocentricity in its social activism and its proclamation of The Gospel.

In its place is what American sociologist, Christian Smith identifies as, ‘Moral Therapeutic Deism’. The basic message of which ‘is that God is nice and we are nice, so we should all be nice.’ (p.42).

Christless Christianity is a critique of both liberal Protestant, emerging and Conservative (American Evangelical) Christianity. (Think of the latter as the body corporate and the former two as the body collective.) Even though the body collective still considers itself beyond institutional Christianity, both are institutional and both have a hand in promoting ‘moral therapeutic deism’.

In Horton’s view, both corporate and collective have downgraded the Christian faith and what it means to be Christian. His criticism begins with a lengthy discourse on Joel Osteen, which then takes on the ‘therapeutic narcissism’ (p.72) of “God is a genie” consumerism (p.68), the “seeker sensitive” mega church phenomenon and the “personal Jesus” of American Evangelicalism. His second criticism flows into a less aggressive admonishment of liberal Protestants, Brian McLaren and the emerging church.

‘‘For many Americans reared on the “Christian America’’ hype of the religious right, “emerging church” movements may seem like a major shift, but [it’s just a change in Parties]’ (p.116) For all of the Emergent Church movement’s incisive critiques of the megachurch model, the emphasis still falls on measuring the level of our zeal and activity rather than on immersing people in the greatest story ever told’ (p.119)

According to Horton, the body corporate is guilty of replacing the proclamation of the Good News with just good advice. Positive psychology is king.Consequently, the understanding of what it means to follow Christ is diminished into slogans and ‘works-righteousness’ (p.123). It has taken the place of good exegesis, deed (sacrament) and the correct teaching of The Word (preaching).

Whereas the body collective, in its rejection of both Pentecostal and American Evangelical consumerist institutionalism, progressive “Christian” (liberal protestant) and Emerging churches, aren’t free of guilt. In many ways they’ve replaced Jesus as the Gospel with the social gospel. Theology is surrendered into the service of an ideology.

 ‘In many ways mirroring the Religious Right’s confusion of Christ’s kingdom of grace with his coming kingdom in glory and the latter with a political agenda already defined by a political party, the Religious Left seems just as prone to enlist Jesus as a mascot for programs of national and global redemption.’ (p.114)

As Horton states,

 ‘Loving and serving our neighbour is the law, it’s not the Gospel (p.123) […]‘There exists today a false distinction between law and love, whereas the biblical distinction is between law and grace – the law tells us what God expects of us; the Gospel tells us what God has done for us (p.125).’

In today’s terms, this is equal to the theological statement, “God is love” being replaced with the term “love is love”; Good, grace, holiness and righteousness are interchangeably used with niceness and tolerance. “Love is all you need” and being nice become seen as the prerequisites that an individual can use to buy into God’s good graces. Jesus as free gift and His embodiment as ‘grace in the flesh’[ii] is ejected.

 “Just love God and people” is not the Gospel; it is precisely that holy demand of the law that we have grievously failed to keep. Our love toward God and neighbour is the essence of the law; God’s love toward us in Jesus Christ is the essence of the Gospel; 1 Jn.4:10’ (p.136)

Horton’s description of the basic message of Moral Therapeutic Deism, shares similarities with late feminist and political scientist, Jean Bethke Elshtain who in her book of the same year, ‘War On Terror (Just War Theory)’ warned of the dangers attached to reducing the depth of Christianity to an “ethic of universal niceness” (source). From which we don’t see Christian doctrine, but instead a Machiavellian politick, where appearances become more important than substance.

‘’Seeker friendly” filters tune out that which is deemed non-offensive and tune into whatever wins popular applause. As a result, the Gospel and the mission of the Church are obscured. The uniqueness of Christ is undermined. The Christological centricity, along with the centripetal and centrifugal nature of Christianity-as-mission is then effectively negated.

‘To the extent that churches in America today feel compelled to accommodate their message and methods to these dominant forms of spirituality they lend credence to the thesis that Christianity is not news based on historical events just another form of therapy’ (p.180)

Horton labels this as the takeover of Christian doctrine by self-salvation, Pelagians and special inner revelation; self-deification, Gnostics. Christians are encouraged to ‘feed themselves’; to rest their faith in an inner ‘voice (p.59); to buy into any spiritual’ (p.179) experience where they can attain ‘self-salvation’ (p.42).

The act of grateful obedience, in response to the Divine judgement and mercy that delivers humanity from sin in Jesus Christ is jettisoned.

In sum, ‘Christless Christianity‘ takes a stand against corruption. In doing this, Horton pushes back against Pelagian and Gnostic influenced trends that see Jesus as the Gospel, replaced with the social gospel, and  the ‘preaching the Gospel replaced with preaching just good advice’ (p.202).

Horton makes no apologies for charging straight into the behemoth of Christian compromise for corporate or collective benefit. It is no secret that the left and right divide permeates the church as much as is does the state. In his critique, Horton calls out both, arguing that they are as guilty as each other in preaching an alternative Gospel. The only remedy for which is resistance and reformation.

Horton’s critique is relevant. It’s sharp and appropriate. Christ cannot be divorced from Himself, nor can He be separated from those He represents:

‘…being grafted in Christ, we are delivered from this miserable thraldom; not that we immediately cease entirely to sin, but that we become at last victorious in the contest.’ [iii]

Come the second reformation.


Notes:

[i] Horton, M. 2008 Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, Baker Books Baker Book Publishing

[ii] Attributed to John Webster

[iii] Calvin, J. Commentary On Romans (Romans 6)

Disclaimer: I purchased the book and received no payment of any kind for offering this review.

gresham-1923-rl2016


Sources:

Machen. J.G. 1923 Christianity & Liberalism

Murrell, B. 2006 The Sun Sword Trilogy: Quest for the Sun Gem,  Random House (p.207)

Sin Shake Sin , 2015 Lunatics & Slaves from the Lunatics & Slaves

milada-vigerova-prayer-unsplashPrayer books are too often under read. Where this applies in my own life is ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ and the ‘Moravian Liturgy/Hymnal’. I have both, yet rarely look at them. It’s something I’m attempting to remedy.

My reasons for not throwing myself into them includes a wariness of anything that might enable empty ritual, lifeless chanting or thoughtless routine. All three of which are in some way, shape or form negatively attached to liturgical call and response [order of service instructions], and scripted prayer.

Taking into account that the foundations of my own Christian journey, which begins in Catholic, and ends in reformed Pentecostal and Evangelical-Anglican Churches, I don’t see this aversion as a simple bias. Pentecostal worship tends to also lend itself to repetition. Plus, many a musically gifted Pentecostal brother and sister can turn two minutes worth of words and chords, into ten minutes of singing the same line over and over again.

I’m with lay preacher, A.W. Tozer, who said:

‘I cannot speak for you, but I want to be among those who worship. I do not want just to be part of some great ecclesiastical machine where the Pastor turns the crank and the machine runs […] Can true worship be engineered and manipulated? […]  Engineers do many a great things in their fields, but no mere human force or direction can work the mysteries of God among men. If there is no wonder, no experience of mystery, our efforts to worship will be futile. There will be no worship without the Spirit’ [i]

I don’t want to be part of a detached mechanical process where we try to push the superstitious buttons so as to get God to “show up.” Repetition in this sense, is not only pointless, it’s pagan. We cannot conjure up God as if we have some special power over Him. Though He chooses to receive even sighs as prayer, He is not at our beck and call. We cannot please Him by our performance at church any more than we can impress him by our church attendance records.

For starters, ‘to exist in the Church means to exist by and in the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ […] to be in the Church is to believe’ (Barth, 1942:291) [ii]; Jesus: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20, ESV).

In other words: God is there and is willing to be there.

This means that there is a place for liturgy and scripted prayer, just as there is a place for that ten minute extension of a two-minute song.

There is a place for these. When the storm comes, the trained, not the charming, the most entertaining or talented, get the job done. When we’re left speechless, when our mind goes blank, reflexes kick in and that prayer we made an effort to learn by heart is recalled word for word. The repeated words of that worship song are remembered, bringing light into an otherwise dark moment.

The principle is simple. Repetition encourages talent. It sharpens skill. The untrained rescuer poses a danger to others as well as to themselves; the soldier, pilot or sailor acts on that training with great skill because over 90% of their time was dedicated to “boring” drills. The musician recalls notes with precision because of training that involved repetition.

Whilst I’m wary of liturgy and scripted prayer, I need to remind myself that the mechanisms which produce a “zombified” empty ritual, wrongly called worship, is not the full story.

The feasts of Israel, beginning with Passover, are designed to recall-with-precision God’s declaration and liberation of slaves from Egypt. This was to proclaim Good News, the news that recalls ‘God will be our God and we will be His people”. Christmas and Easter, in their purer forms, are repeated annually for much the same reasons. There is a richness in liturgy and scripted prayer that can be mined and utilised for the betterment of an embattled world.

moravian-prayer

If, in our just recoil away from empty repetition, we jettison liturgy and scripted prayer, we jettison its usefulness. If that happens we’re left the poorer for having done so.

Happy Reformation day!


Sources:

[i] Tozer, A.W 2009, Whatever Happened to Worship? Authentic Media (pp.11, 60-61)

[ii] Barth, K. 1942 The Passing & the Coming of Man, CD II/2 Hendrickson Publishers (p.291)

Image credit: Milada Vigerova Photography. ‘Prayer’ (Sourced from: Unsplash.com)

In the previous post, I introduced my topic and briefly outlined the context from which I write. Part two will conclude with a format that follows along IMG_20130506_165144similar lines.

‘The Naked Christian’ presents itself as a critical incident report that follows the protocols of theological reflection. What could be rightly termed as ”Borlase’s lament”, presents a convincing case for dropping self-serving prefixes such as ‘on-fire, post-evangelical, born-again and instead be content to simply be a Christian’ (pp.26-27). Therefore, ‘The Naked Christian’ is NOT a rant about the church. Alternatively, Borlase takes to task those expressions of church which are dangerously close to being, ‘too heavenly minded to do any earthly good’ (p.166). He cautiously walks between the polarising extremes of ‘the small-minded paranoia associated with the selfishly negative, and the free flowing DIY spirituality connected with the mindlessly positive’ (pp.137, 166 & 173).

Now, before you begin to think that I am recruiting you for membership in the Craig Borlase fan club, allow me to delicately lay out before you two significant limitations to his conclusions.

Firstly, although Borlase rightly identifies the churches’ problems with overreaction and indifference, some of the relevant-at-the-time material within ‘The Naked Christian’ is now not as relevant.  Take for example, the positive impact social media has had on the churches ability to connect with people both publically and privately, in their homes and work et.al. This answers part of the problems identified by Borlase, surrounding the churches tendency to place ritual-over-relationship. (The caveat here is of course that there is also a case, for how this makes ‘The Naked Christian’ even more relevant. I just think that in this particular area the positive, by far, out-ways the negative).

Another limitation related to this is that Borlase highlights what he calls, Jesus’ ‘radical acceptance’ (p.118) and ‘inclusion of all’ (p.151). Borlase gives only small consideration to the fact that, quite often the events were accompanied by people motivated to reverse their lifestyle. The New Testament records that the people who came into contact with Jesus were literally, never the same again. For example: Peter, Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus and Paul.

The problem this highlights for the church today is that Jesus confronted sin on a relational level. This lead to the admonishment ‘go and sin no more’. He provided and communicated an alternative way out. How can the Church do this effectively, when a large portion of Western society today views disagreement as disrespect? Which is closely associated with the tendency to ridicule the church into submission and silence it, through accusations of bigotry and hate speech. How does the church engage as Borlase describes, when it is deliberately being forced (now sometimes legally) to disengage?

Secondly, ‘The Naked Christian’ tends to downplay the importance of solitude and periods of isolation that are useful for nurturing faith. Ergo spiritual disciplines are not addressed. Having said this, it is important to note that Borlase does acknowledge the importance of order. For instance: ‘with no structure in place there would be a real threat of directionless wandering’ (p.164).However, he does not elaborate on how spiritual disciplines, such as solitude, fit within his critique of the church.Sometimes distancing ourselves from a particular context or relationship is necessary and beneficial.

The strength of Borlase’s work is that it is a theological quest ‘for balance’ (p.167). The definition of a ‘Naked Christian’ is an ‘authentic’ (p.64) Christ-follower who advocates a thinking faith, over against an ‘airhead Christianity…that preferences emotion over understanding’ (pp.154 & 159). Speaking from his own experience, Borlase seeks to raise awareness about the ‘good vs. bad logic that wrongfully underpins our ideas of Church vs. world’ (p.137, emphasis mine); or in other words the false dichotomy between secular and sacred (p.110).

Borlase is right to do this because it counters the dehumanizing, results-over-relationship culture that hinges on the buy and sell transactional nature of relationship. This is something which should rightly be an anathema to the church. For example: the church should ‘treat people as loved by God instead of targets (numbers) for Christian mission’ (p.85). In order to do this Borlase encourages the Church to bring ‘the world into focus’ (p.109)…stating that

Christianity is about relationship not ritual’ (pp.137 & 166)…‘If we run away at the first sign of bad feelings, if we have failed to equip ourselves with a knowledge of God and if we only value the big spiritual event, then we run the risk of missing out on some absolutely vital parts of our relationship with God’ (pp.163-165).

This is reflected in what Karl Barth means when he speaks of the ‘bourgeois’. What he meant was (predominantly white) middle class Christianity (Gorringe 1999, p.8)[2]. This works for a valid explanation of my own broad experience of the Australian Church. IMG_20130505_223258I attended a Catholic primary school, was baptised in a Pentecostal church, attended an ecumenical Christian secondary school and was married in the same Anglican Church I was christened in. As a teenager I was forced by my, loving but, recently divorced mother to attend every Sunday service, shifting between two wealthy charismatic Churches. I was a volunteer announcer at a Christian radio station that prided itself on only playing ‘Christian music’, along with managing a Christian bookstore, and now I’m studying a double degree at an ecumenical tertiary college.

All these paradigms of ecclesia have shown me that every ‘metaphor’ (Jensen & Wilhite 2010, Loc.276) of church has strengths and limitations[3]. Therefore I am sympathetic to the statement that ‘the church is yet to be defined’ (Jenson & Wilhite 2010, Loc.322) beyond being an ‘invisible (mystical) and visible reality (institutional, sacramental, herald and servant’ (2010, loc.722).

When serious thinkers like Karl Barth speak of a ‘bourgeois’ Christianity the subtext conceals a witty caveat. It is a warning against becoming a ‘narcissistic subculture…or so culturally relevant that we no longer have anything to say to the culture. Instead of having a transforming influence on it, we run the risk of fusing with it’ (Morgenthaler 1995, p.137).

This has largely been my experience of the church. For the most part it has been a negative one and resembles the song ‘I’ve been everywhere man’. For example: I was a Protestant in the Catholic paradigm, come from a welfare dependant family who were Anglican, yet were attending a wealthy charismatic Pentecostal Church. I was a deeply troubled teen constantly wrestling with trying to reconcile the Christianity I was seeing with the Christianity I was hearing about from within my ecumenical, secondary Christian school milieu.

In sum, I was an accidental prodigal who didn’t fit the criteria, and was part of the ‘odd and vulnerable, showing their scars and wounds to a watching church’ (Borlase 2001, p.131), who seemed unwilling to invite participation without demanding doctrinal assimilation. My fumbling attempts to live out of my confession that Jesus Christ is Lord of my life made me unwanted. This led to those Christians I was in contact with not taking my salvation seriously, simply because I wasn’t at the latest conference, wearing the latest slogan or showing off a ‘spiritual six-pack’ (p.132). Borlase is right to ask: what would happen if ‘the life of the church gathered, was brought into contact with the life of the church scattered’ (p.49 emphasis mine)?

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Throughout 2002, God used this book to turn my anger and frustration with His church, into understanding and compassion. Throughout the many years since this has transformed my negative experiences into a love for authentic church as being, not just doing. We are called into the church by Jesus the Christ as being and doing. We are not called to play the role of church by seeming to be doing.

My intention here has been to share how this book has impacted my faith. It has done so by encouraging me to see that the church is much bigger than we can be trapped into think it is. What makes this book special is that Borlase challenged my embedded theology. It encouraged me to not only ‘test everything…but to hold fast to what is good’ (1 Thess.5:21).

In a similar way, Borlase’s message motivates the church by encouraging us to move beyond  ‘smug complacency’ (p.89 – the ”meh” culture), disappointment, offense and despair. He points us towards responsible action, devoid of Christianese and its dangerously decontextualized cousin, who appears briefly from behind closed doors[4] in order to safely evangelise, solely in the form of slogans, bumper stickers and memes. The good news is that Jesus is not bound by doors closed for fear of retribution, rejection and ridicule (Jn.20). Neither should we be.

The church cannot hide from the world and its temptations because ‘the Church…is the world conscious of its need’  (Karl Barth cited by Gorringe,1999 Karl Barth: Against Hegemony p.63)[5].

Bibliography

Borlase, C. 2001 The Naked Christian, Hodder and Stoughton London
Cash, J, No earthly good Johnny Cash: Personal Files Available @ iTunes and Amazon
Gorringe, T.J. 1999 Karl Barth: Against Hegemony Oxford University Press Inc. New York NY, USA
Jenson, M & Wilhite, D 2010 the Church: A guide for the perplexed T & T Clark International London
Morganthaler, S. 1995 Worship Evangelism: inviting unbelievers into the presence of God, Zondervan Publishing house Grand Rapids, MI, USA

If you are interested in reading some other works from Craig Borlase, I  recommend ‘God’s gravity’ and highly recommend ‘William Seymour’.


[1] Quote is attributed to Brene Brown, 2010,  ‘the gifts of imperfection’ Hazelden
[2] Bourgeois is defined as self-reliance, religion for example: ‘Humanity itself is comfortably established, life was based upon a firm foundation, economically and politically solid and secured by reliable moral principles. This bourgeois character and its piety is strongly orientated ethically and hence is determined by human conduct. Humanity knows what is good and righteous and can achieve it by his own unaided efforts’ (Keller, 1933).
[3] Keller is right to say that ‘Barthianism is a picture of our religious situation inasmuch as it portrays the dissatisfaction of the church with itself, the self-contradiction which results as soon as it orientates itself by its God-given commission and not by its cultural requirements’ (Keller 1933, pp.37-38)
[4] Terry Crist, ‘Learning the language of Babylon’
[5] Jensen and Wilhite make the statement that ‘separation is foreign to the church’ (2010, loc.2433)… ‘It seems the acme of enmity to distinguish the church from the world…To call ourselves the church, then call everyone else the world suggests that `we’ are better than `they’. It is a subtle form of self-justification’ (2010, loc.2241)…’The church exists for the world’ (2010, loc.2253)…the world is not only `them’; it is also (and first) `us’. Nor can the church’s word of antagonism be a final one. The church is finally for the world not against it, because its King under whose reign it lives is finally for the world (2010, Loc.2268).(Rom.5:8)

Some years ago I picked up a book entitled ‘The Naked Christian’ by IMG_20130505_223258British author, Craig Borlase. That was 2002. Since then I have completed close to 12 years of middle management in Christian retailing, and I have nearly, more than qualified for a double degree in ministry and theology. Why is this important? It is important because it help’s to lay out the context from which I speak. I cannot in any small way, minimise the significant point of impact that this book had on me at that period of time in my life, and despite the intense learning curves since, still has. Over the next few days, I plan to explore this in more detail, for now here is an introduction.

Within ‘The Naked Christian’, Borlase critiques the social contracts that bind us to a transactional-consumerist nature of relationship.  This is based on his own experiences with the results-over-relationship priorities that such social contracts inform. Borlase considers ‘balance to be the imperative of focus’ (p.111) and overall his work achieves that. It is a balanced and helpful discourse concerning worship, ecclesiology, evangelism and mission. His purpose is to bring into ‘focus’ (p.109) ‘two extremes’ within the Christian church which he considers as ‘short-sighted’ (pp.109) and ‘long-sighted’ (p.119). The former are those Christians who have retreated from the world through fear of having their faith  contaminated by the world (p.113). The latter are those who have seemingly surrendered themselves to a highly commercialist culture (p.116), and by default have watered down the Gospel to fit in with the whimsical ‘trends’ (p.125) of the world.

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Sadly, this applies to some expressions of the church in Australia. Such a modus operandi permeates the socio-economic expectations and ecclesiastic tribalism found in some fashionable expressions of church (p.123). For instance, Borlase is right to assert that the ‘church suffers under the pressure to entertain, and before long the service becomes more about keeping bums on seats than about keeping eyes on God’ (p.15). Sounds too harsh? perhaps. Yet, however we view this, it is difficult to ignore the nasty facets of church practice which Borlase has painstakingly highlighted, for instance:

When we reduce Christianity to looking fluffy we do God wrong (p.122)…When we buy into the line that looking our best is important it can only be a short step to believing that it is only when we look our best that we are truly loved. Carrying a little extra weight? Sorry, you’ll never be happy. Unable to afford the right label? Tough luck, your cool rating just took a dip. Whichever way you look at it, this line of thinking is totally in opposition to God’s way of doing things’.

‘Yes, it’s nice to feel nice, but how sad a state is it when we infect God’s word with the dark heart of conditional self-worth and mindless materialism? Those are two flavours that most certainly have no place in the faith…when Church becomes a fashion show, when looking in the mirror comes in front of the Sunday morning ritual of looking for the Bible, church itself gets affected…we need to watch out for the desire to bend too much in an effort to be relevant…Of course Christianity can be cool, vibrant, artistically challenging and inspiring. But doing things just for those reasons is  as ridiculous a motive as they come’ (pp.124-125, reproduced with permission from the author).

In no uncertain terms, if this book had not been written, my walk withinIMG_20130505_224615 the church would have dramatically taken a turn for the worse. I’d had enough of the pretence of church. Such as: the empty rituals, hollow prayers, and the smiles, lies and hi-fives triumphalism that went with them. I was exhausted with the labels, disorientated by witnessing the repeated Spiritual show called ”manifestations”, that suggested God picked the same people every Sunday as a reward for their piety. I was fed up with having my tithing and church attendance record being used as the yardstick, that measured my commitment to Christ, and  Christ’s commitment to me. Little did I know it then, but I was being led out of the Churchian ‘cycle of exclusivity and isolation’ (p.44), that is upheld by the false divide between secular and sacred. In short, Borlase introduced me to what authentic church can look like, and helped me to see the Triune God who gives his church permission to both sigh and breathe.

‘What this world needs, is not another one hit wonder with an axe to grind, another two bit politician peddling lies. Another three ring circus society. What this world needs is not another sign waving super saint that’s better than you. Another ear pleasing candy man afraid of the truth. Another prophet in an Armani suit’ ‘

(Casting Crowns, ‘what this world needs’ 2007, Altar and the door)

To be continued….

Source:

Borlase. C, 2001 ‘The Naked Christian: getting real with God’ Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.

Pat Archbold’s lament.

April 22, 2013 — 2 Comments
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Me. April#walkinthepark

The blog-roll-newsfeed was on fire today. Credit goes to Sis, René Breuel and Sunshine Mary for pointing me in this direction. In 2011 and 2012 Pat Archbold wrote laments that are difficult to find fault with.

As an online gamer (the casual, yet committed variety), I hear a lot of what Pat discusses, expressed by men, in what is a predominantly male arena. The church needs to engage with this topic and minister to it without leaning too heavily on an ideology to do so. Pat’s laments are a good starting point for those of you who are interested.


For the ladies (2011):

”Our problem is that society doesn’t value innocence anymore, real  or  imagined.  Nobody aspires to innocence anymore.  Nobody wants to be  thought of as innocent, the good girl.  They want to be hot, not  pretty. I still hope that pretty comes back, although I think it not likely any time  soon… Girls, please, bring back the pretty”. – Pat Archbold…read more.

For the Gents (2012):

”I have a simple, yet effective rule of thumb for how men should act.  I  would never look at a woman or say anything about a woman that I would not do or  say in front of my wife.   To do otherwise would bring shame upon her and  me” – Pat Archbold…read more.

My personal, and somewhat biased, response:

With daughters fast approaching ”that age”, this is a subject close to my heart (and theology). At the risk of sounding more like the pretentious Mr.Collins than Mr.Darcy, I say,  ”here, here…we love the epoch, we are obsessed with it’s art and it’s historical significance, so why not, let’s also retrieve some of the Austinesk social deportments as well!”

Cover of "The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good New...

Cover via Amazon

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’[1]. This re-enforces his concern that the church can at times project a ‘watered down Grace’[2]. 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’[3]. 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’[4].

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’[5]. 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’[6]. 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’[7].

Consequently some churches become consumed with public appearance[8]. 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[9].

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’[10] for humanity funds dignity, grace and mercy. This begins with the acceptance of grace, ‘for acceptance means simply to turn to God’[11]. 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’[12]. 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’[13]. 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’ [14].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’[15]. 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[16])…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’[17].

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’[18]. Christians are living in ‘the presence of God in wonder, amazed by the traces of God all around us’[19], 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.

Brennan Manning

Author: Brennan Manning (Photo credit: Jordon).  1934-2013

Manning, B. 1990 The Ragamuffin Gospel, Multnomah Books, Sister, Oregon 97599, USA

Casting Crowns, 2003 American Dream: from the album Casting Crowns


[1] Manning, B. 1990, The Ragamuffin Gospel p.7, Authentic Classics, Multnomah books, Sis. OR.
[2] Ibid, p.6
[3] Ibid, p.1
[4] Ibid, p.13
[5] Ibid, p.34
[6] Ibid, p.107 & p.115
[7] Ibid, p.39
[8] Ibid, ‘publicity’ p.1
[9] For example: Facebook memes that encourage us to ‘share if you’re saved’ or like ‘ if you want to be’. As if our spiritual status is determined by how many times we shared or liked such drivel.
[10] Ibid, p.19
[11] Ibid, p.24
[12] Ibid, p.31
[13] Ibid, p.35
[14] Ibid, p.117
[15] Ibid, p.110
[16] 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (ESV)
[17] ibid, pp.120-121
[18] ibid, p.129
[19] Ibid, p.72