The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning
[This book was provided free of charge by WaterBrook Multnomah Press in exchange for an honest review.]
Let us begin this review by talking about the praiseworthy aspects of this book, so that we might get them out of the way speedily. This is a book that is honest (honest especially in its bad points–the fact that the author is a recovering alcoholic and itinerant ragamuffin has a great deal to do with the overall approach of the book), including its shockingly proud and blasphemous statement that only those who make no pretense whatsoever of obedience are qualified to talk about God’s grace. In addition, this book very stridently, frequently, and truthfully maintains God’s love for all people, regardless of how sinful their behavior. This is a truth that is sometimes difficult to see in the merit-based religious world around us, but despite the flaws of this work, the truth it expresses does need to be remembered and acted upon. God does love us just as we are, and because He loves us, He does not want us to stay as we are (the second aspect of this truth, sadly, is one that this book does not explore at all). If there is a use to this book at all, and that is questionable, it is in reaching those who are in danger of despair over their sins in the fear that they have sinned more than God is willing to forgive, which is preposterous, but the sort of thing that people believe when they are despairing over their own flaws and weaknesses.
This book has achieved a certain amount of fame in certain circles of professed Christianity for its passionate desire to allow weak and fallen professed Christians to celebrate their brokenness and their absolute need for God’s grace while simultaneously absolving them from any desire to improve their moral condition, as it might indicate a self-righteous desire to earn salvation. This book is part of an enduring false dilemma in professed Christianity, and that is the argument between two wings of the gnostic movement. Merit-based salvation and legalism are associated with the asetic gnosticism of a Calvin or the Roman Catholic Church, with their belief in the justice of a pitiless and avenging God. Sinning so that grace may abound (something this book explicitly advocates as did Luther and Augustine) is, on the other hand, emblematic of the antonomian gnosticism of Marcion and his associates. It should be understood that we can neither earn our salvation nor does God possess infinite patience for those who honor God with their lips but whose hearts and obedience are lacking. God is loving, for which we can and should be eternally and infinitely appreciative, but God is also just. Denying either aspect of God’s nature makes God into a caricature, and is itself an aspect of heresy.
Let us make no bones about it, this book is a heretical work by an open heretic who compounds his original offense in writing this work by adding to it an appendix on “The Scandal of Grace” which absolutely revels in ad hominem attacks against those who have pointed out the heretical and unbiblical claims of this work. It is a bit ironic that a work which so steadfastly denies the justice of God should at times possess a social justice mindset that calls down justice against racism and other social evils, and that calls pro-life advocates hypocrites for not valuing the lives of open and hostile enemies. This is the sort of book that revels in its brokenness while seeking moral high ground to tear down others as well, as if the open and unrepentant sinner has moral high ground against the person of generally righteous behavior who nevertheless occasionally struggles. As a particularly venomous enemy of this sort of double standard, I found this book to be largely a continuation of an ancient argument between two branches of heretics without any resemblance to genuine biblical truth.
The licenses this book takes with the Bible are pretty stunning. Whether it involves translating scripture (including Jesus’ advice to the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more”) along with directly ignoring this advice and failing to apply it, or whether it includes making claims that directly contradict the word of scripture (such as Paul’s vehement denial that we ought to sin so that grace may abound, as he was falsely accused of proclaiming by this author and many other antinomian heretics who have twisted his words to their own destruction), or whether it includes quoting philosophers as if they were inspired authors of scripture, or whether it is selective quoting those like C.S. Lewis who proclaimed (quite rightly) that we ought to be “new men” as a result of our salvation, something this author appears not to focus on at all whatsoever, this book is rather disappointing. At best, this approach is incomplete, a look at how we are at the moment we recognize our sins and repent to God and seek His mercy through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, or when we relapse into our sin addictions and must call out for mercy again and again, rather than a look at the progressive redemption and holiness shown in the life of a Christian after answering the call for salvation, an aspect of the Christian walk this author has no interest in whatsoever. While professing the grace and love of Christ Jesus for sinful man, the author provides no “good news” about the restoration of all things to a state of righteousness and purity, an aspect that probably seems too legalistic for the author to even want to reflect upon whatsoever. In short, this book does not fail because it talks too much about the love of God. In fact, its greatest failure is that it fails to appreciate and understand the love of God enough (as a loving God does not wish for His children to remain ragamuffins forever), nor understand God’s justice at all. That such a horribly unbalanced and unscriptural work should be considered a classic work of Christianity in today’s American religious community speaks to our shame for not knowing or following God remotely well enough.