I’ve been thinking about a comprehensive-type review for a while, but I’m such a perfectionist that if I don’t get something written the fire will die out and likely nothing will be written, so I decided to get a start on the thing with this initial blog. Hopefully more will follow (spoiler alert: if you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to be tipped off by some of what it’s about, then stop reading and go check Facebook or something).
My soul has been tossed to an fro as I read Manning’s memoirs. At one moment I’ve been greatly encouraged as I hear about Abba Father meeting him at various points of pain throughout his life; at other moments I’ve felt exasperated and disappointed to hear that alcoholism still claimed much of Brennan’s heart and mind. Almost like experiencing the heartbreak of watching one of your heroes lapse into moral failure (the Scriptures are pretty clear about drunkenness being a level of sinfulness not to be allowed in the life of the believer – Lk 21:34; Rom 13:13; Gal 5:21; 1 Tim 3:3; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 4:3, to name a few)
Though I’d like to go into more detail about my theories about why Brennan’s life may have turned out this way, I want to focus on something more basic here, something more autobiographical. Why does this book cause so much turmoil for me?
Initially I thought the revelation that Manning has always been given to drink (and not episodes from which he recovered, which his books led me to believe) didn’t compromise his “ragamuffin message,” but actually accentuated it. His life is a standing testimony of God’s grace to great sinners. Part of me still thinks this. Maybe what is offended most in me (and others) is our own perfectionistic selves, our religious versions of our false/old self that puts conditions on everything like the older brother of the prodigal. I find modern evangelicalism almost sickeningly perfectionistic and works focused (one of the reasons we need the ragamuffin gospel).
Another part of me, though, is terrified that this actually discredits the ragamuffin gospel in some way. Not in terms of “brokenness that is beyond the grace of God,” for there is no such thing. But I’ve always assumed (from biblical study) that the more one is exposed to the radical and free love of God, the more one is transformed. If one is not transformed, it causes me to question the reality of what is being taught & experienced. But how much “change” is enough to validate a teaching, a life? What if the love Brennan preached about doesn’t exist?
This is what I fear - that the lack of significant, deep healing in Brennan’s life (as evidenced by his continuing addiction) is somehow indicative that the love of God is not so unconditional, not so free as Manning led me to believe through lectures & books. But who am I to decide how much change in Brennan’s life is “enough” to validate his message? All I can do is turn to the Scriptures here (maybe more on this later too).
Manning is one of the few authors/speakers that I count one of my choice heroes. I’ve read almost everything he’s written, and have found that he talks about aspects of the gospel that modern evangelicals desperately need to hear (I think he actually brings in a “Lutheran” type spirituality, but that is another blog). During my own dark night of the soul, I would not have made it without the likes of Brennan Manning, Larry Crabb, John Eldredge and Eugene Peterson. When my misery was due in part to my lack of categories for what I was experiencing, these brothers came alongside me and introduced me to another world where you can embrace mystery, brokenness and confusion and not have to compromise what is true. This Christianity thing is more about a relationship than a set of beliefs or “things to do.”
I know a bit about addiction; enough to know that you don’t mess around with it, because it destroys human lives in ways that few things can. You have to get radical with it, go after it with all the resources you can get your hands on, and you can’t do it alone. It’s very difficult for me to imagine a deeply spiritual man and a man still giving in to addiction at the same time, but that is what Brennan appears to be. Maybe I need more new categories. That’s likely. I think what is most likely is that I need a fresh encounter with Abba Father, who is not so obsessed with making sense of these things for me. I can’t answer for Brennan’s life, only for my own. Brennan’s failure does not negate the objective truth of what he taught (as far as it lines up with Scripture). I have to hold on to that.
As Brennan has taught me over the last 10 years (a frequent practice to the point that it is intrinsic to my own breathing), “Abba, I belong to You.” The Abba of Jesus is real. Brennan’s life (and mine) has to find its wholeness in his great vast heart for sinners. There are plenty of things in my life that bring shame and not glory to God; do these things make him “not good,” or “not true”? Fortunately not. The Scriptures verify what Brennan has said about God’s heart, what he is like, and that is what I have to fall back on now.