by Rebekah Mays
On Friday, Brennan Manning, a beloved author, speaker, and former Franciscan friar, passed away at the age of 78.
He is best known for his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, which if you haven’t read, you should. The book’s subtitle gives you an idea of what Manning’s life was all about: “Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out.”
It’s clear from Manning’s writing that he writes for himself just as much as for others. It is clear that he too needs God’s love, which is perhaps why his proclamation of the gospel is so effective. In his memoir, All is Grace, Manning humbly describes the detours of his life:
“Prone to wander? You bet. I’ve been a priest, then an ex-priest. Husband, then ex-husband. Amazed crowds one night and lied to friends the next. Drunk for years, sober for a season, then drunk again … I’ve shattered every one of the Ten Commandments six times Tuesday. And if you believe that last sentence was for dramatic effect, it wasn’t.”
As someone who occasionally thinks my screw-ups and destructive habits are beyond God’s healing and mercy, I relish Manning’s words. And I think for this reason, his writing couldn’t be more fitting for today’s believers and skeptics. Many Christians have finally realized that moralizing doesn’t convey the gospel well, and they are now admirably fumbling through a different way, the way of love.
The Ragamuffin Gospel tries to capture this lifestyle, with Manning both admitting his shortcomings and practically singing his praise of a forgiving and accepting Creator. Over and over he encourages us to look at Jesus, the God who loves us deeply despite our flaws, perhaps even because of them. And lest this message sound familiar or trite, Manning finds ways to catch our attention, reminding us that we can’t possibly comprehend the depths and wonder of divine love.
The wise man that he is, Manning also leaves room for doubt. In one passage from The Ragamuffin Gospel that brings to mind Paul’s letter to the Romans, Manning writes, “When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty … Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” Who among us can say she is always sure, never doubting, never questioning, and never turning to material solutions that only temporarily release us from our pain?
There is nothing heretical or unorthodox about Manning’s books. His words could practically be lifted from the Bible itself, they resonate so deeply with Jesus’s teachings about forgiveness. Yet it’s sobering that the kind of radical love he speaks about isn’t easy to find in either secular or sacred communities. Some even find fault with Manning for opening the doors to the kingdom a little too wide.
It’s clear that now, as skeptics turn from religion and well-meaning but mistaken Christians strain to make the dividing lines between “us” and “them” ever more distinct, the need for the real gospel is greater than ever. Brennan Manning did his part, helping us remember what’s important: that we’re all bedraggled, helpless sinners, in desperate need of a whole lot of grace.
Rebekah Mays is a Barnard College graduate originally from Austin, Texas. She currently works and writes in New York City. You can find more of her writing on her blog Iced Spiced Chai or follow her on Twitter @smallbeks.
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