Life can get really messy. Even for Christians.
Consider the life of Brennan Manning. Brennan grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and then as a young man served as a Marine during the Korean War. After the Marines, Brennan was pretty lost. He was looking for something more in his life. That “something” was Jesus. After a few years of searching, he entered a Catholic seminary and eventually joined the Franciscan order as a priest. He did a bunch things as a priest: he joined a community committed to live with and work among the poor in Spain, he did campus ministry among college students, and even worked on the shrimp boats with another group of priests in Alabama, reaching out to fishermen who had fallen away from the church.
Tragically, Brennan held onto a terrible and dark secret the entire time. He was an alcoholic. Here he was talking to people about Jesus during the day, and then he would go back to his room and drink himself into oblivion all night.
Yet somehow, Brennan got in touch with the message of grace. He called grace the Signature of Jesus. He finally got treatment for his alcoholism and discovered that his Abba Father truly loved him tenderly. He ran into conflict with his Catholic order over the celibacy issue, as he had fallen in love with a woman and they eventually married. Beginning in the 1980’s, he was a gifted speaker and writer, and he ended up talking at a lot of retreats for Protestant churches and ministries since he was no longer welcome among many of the Catholic faithful. I had the privilege of hearing him speak several times. When he spoke about forgiveness, you knew that this was not simply just some intellectual trip. He knew it experientially that God granted mercy towards him exactly at the point where he knew he did not deserve it. Like the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14, Brennan was broken. God was gracious and merciful.
In 1990, Brennan wrote his most popular and powerful book, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out. Brennan Manning became a household name among many conservative evangelical Christians, from singer-songwriter Rich Mullins to Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message version of the Bible. His words have been a breath of fresh air to many:
“My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
“The Word we study has to be the Word we pray. My personal experience of the relentless tenderness of God came not from exegetes, theologians, and spiritual writers, but from sitting still in the presence of the living Word and beseeching Him to help me understand with my head and heart His written Word. Sheer scholarship alone cannot reveal to us the gospel of grace. We must never allow the authority of books, institutions, or leaders to replace the authority of *knowing* Jesus Christ personally and directly.”
“The story goes that a public sinner was excommunicated and forbidden entry to the church. He took his woes to God. ‘They won’t let me in, Lord, because I am a sinner.’………..’What are you complaining about?’ said God. ‘They won’t let Me in either.”
What many people do not know is that in the following years while he traveled from church to church, preaching to packed meetings about the message of grace, he was going back to his hotel room after his speaking engagement and drinking himself into a stupor and passing out. When he was home with his family, it got to the point where sometimes he would go off for days, attacked by his alcoholic demons. Eventually, it destroyed his marriage. After the divorce, he was able to write a final book, All Is Grace, recounting the continued brokenness he fell into, and then reflecting on God’s unconditional grace in the midst of a really messy life of sin and failure.
Over the last decade, Brennan suffered a series of debilitating health problems for several years: stroke, neurological issues, and almost total blindness. As a near final wallop, his home in New Jersey was severely damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Finally, in April, 2013, Brennan Manning died.
Why mention Brennan Manning on a blog dedicated to the study of Christian apologetics? Well, when it comes to a proper, orthodox handling of Scripture, Brennan Manning was sometimes a bit careless. His evangelical critics accused of him of still being too Catholic (His Catholic critics accused him of being too Protestant!) When I read his books, I would often cringe when he favorably quoted some other author that I knew was completely out to lunch theologically. He was not the best expositor of the Bible. Sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, he has been accused of all sorts of false teachings: from universalism, the idea that eventually everyone will be saved in the end, to promoting the spirituality of the New Age Movement. Sometimes in his effort to emphasize the Grace of God, Brennan would allow that to overstep the Truth of God.
So, if you are looking for good solid Bible teaching to help you work through the systematic development of a well-grounded theology, I would not start with Brennan Manning. But as I see it, Brennan got the core element of the Gospel, the Grace of God, right on the money. We can have the most pristine, well-formulated understanding of the Bible and still miss God’s unfathomable Grace. We can have all of the right answers to give to people in an apologetics discussion, but if we do not experience the answers that we give others in a way that demonstrates the love and mercy of Christ, then it is simply an academic, intellectual discussion with no life changing power. So while Brennan had quite a number of faults, he clearly got that part right. Have you known the relentless tenderness of Jesus? It is a lesson every apologist for the Gospel needs to learn and experience.
Brennan Manning’s story, in the way only he could tell it: