Brennan Manning. The Ragamuffin Gospel: Special Anniversary Edition. Multnomah, 2015. See here to buy the book. (I think that is the edition I am reviewing here, though there was nothing by Michael W. Smith in the book that I read, plus Fil Anderson wrote the Afterword, not the Introduction.)
I first heard of Brennan Manning in 2013, right after he passed away. People posted quotes of his that were meaningful to them. I learned more about him when I watched the movie Ragamuffin, which was about Christian musician Rich Mullins. In a powerful scene, Rich and his friend are listening to a sermon by Brennan Manning about how God loves us as we are, not as we should be. After hearing that, Rich Mullins broke down in tears.
The Ragamuffin Gospel essentially proclaims the message of that sermon: that God loves us as we are, broken and all. That does not mean that God is okay with whatever we do. Manning contends that the Gospel is life-changing: it calls us to love. When we recognize that we are broken people who need God’s grace, we drop the pretense and are merciful to others. Plus, God’s unconditional love for us gives us space to grow.
One could make the point that a lot of Christian books say that sort of thing. But this book had an eloquence and a thoughtfulness about it, so it was far than banal. There are passages that I can quote that illustrate the message of the book, but I would like to quote an insightful passage about forgiveness, and how God’s forgiveness contrasts with ours:
“When Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic, some scribes thought to themselves, ‘Who but God can forgive sins?’ (Mark 2:7). How enlightened they were in their blindness! Only God knows how to pardon. Our clumsy human attempts at forgiveness often create more problems than they solve. In condescending fashion we crush and humiliate the sinner with our unbearable largesse. He may feel forgiven but utterly bereft of reassurance, consolation, and encouragement. Only God knows how to pardon and put all four together. The prodigal’s father said, in effect, ‘Hush, child. I don’t need to know where you’ve been or what you’ve been up to.” (Pages 173-174)
The book was like drinking a glass of cold water when thirsty. Yet, there were parts that rubbed me the wrong way. The leader of the recovery group that Brennan was in sounded to me like a jerk, which contrasted with the book’s usual understanding, compassionate tone. The book also would have been better had it explored more how we can move past grudges and bitterness. It seemed to presume that accepting God’s grace would provide us with a more merciful perspective towards others, but that does not always work like clockwork. Manning himself recognized in at least one place of the book that the concept of grace has become rather banal or trite in Christianity, so we need to experience it from a fresh perspective.
As Manning says in “The Scandal of Grace: Twenty-Five Years Later,” he was accused of being selective with the biblical texts, focusing on the grace passages rather than the passages about sin and judgment. Overall, I would say that is a fair criticism. At the same time, it should be highlighted that Manning interacted with Gospel passages that include God’s judgment, such as the Parable of the Talents. Manning observed that Jesus often presented accepting the Kingdom message as a matter of importance and urgency. Manning did not interpret that in reference to fear of hell, at least not explicitly, but rather in terms of the importance of our own spiritual health. Still, his interaction with those passages was noteworthy, as it elevated his “Ragamuffin Gospel” beyond being some feel-good message to being a message of profound importance. All of that said, Manning does well to highlight the grace passages of the New Testament: Jesus reaching out to sinners, and cases in which divine forgiveness seemed to precede repentance (i.e., John 8:11). At the very least, Christians can agree that God is the one who makes the first move.
The Notes at the end were excellent because Manning recommended books on spirituality that he found helpful, and his enthusiasm for those books was contagious!
This “Special Anniversary Edition” contains a Preface by John Blase, a testimony by Rich Mullins, and an Afterword by Fil Anderson. Anderson’s Afterword was notable because it highlighted Manning’s accessibility to people who needed help, notwithstanding his busy schedule, as well as his struggles in the final year of his life.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Blogging for Books. My review is honest!