The gospel according to Brennan Manning

By Steve Beard

He was the most beloved alcoholic within Christendom, a sinner who whispered grace through a megaphone, a ragtag saint who poked at your soul with eloquence until you began to catch the drift of God’s ridiculous, unreasonable, and insatiable love for men and women, boys and girls.

Brennan Manning (April 27, 1934 – April 12, 2013) was author of innumerable books, including The Ragamuffin Gospel, Abba’s Child, and the Signature of Jesus. Those volumes can be found dogeared and marked up and stained with tears on the shelves and bedstands of United Methodists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, evangelicals, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals. It was great news for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt out. In tribute to his ministry as an evangelist of grace, we remember him with some of his best known statements of faith.

• “The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.”

• “I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery. ”

• “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. When the religious views of others interpose between us and the primary experience of Jesus as the Christ, we become unconvicted and unpersuasive travel agents handing out brochures to places we have never visited.”

• “The Christ within who is our hope of glory is not a matter of theological debate or philosophical speculation. He is not a hobby, a part-time project, a good theme for a book, or a last resort when all human effort fails. He is our life, the most real fact about us. He is the power and wisdom of God dwelling within us.”

• “Accepting the reality of our sinfulness means accepting our authentic self. Judas could not face his shadow; Peter could. The latter befriended the impostor within; the former raged against him.”

• “To ignore, repress, or dismiss our feelings is to fail to listen to the stirrings of the Spirit within our emotional life. Jesus listened. In John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus was moved with the deepest emotions (11:33)… The gospel portrait of the beloved Child of Abba is that of a man exquisitely attuned to His emotions and uninhibited in expressing them. The Son of Man did not scorn or reject feelings as fickle and unreliable. They were sensitive antennae to which He listened carefully and through which He perceived the will of His Father for congruent speech and action.”

• “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God… It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this but actually they are disdaining God’s ‘crooked but straight path.’ It is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.”

Brennan Manning, in the arms of your Abba, may you rest in peace.

Zombies are us, theorize faith writers

By Terry Mattingly

The Knoxville News Sentinel 

It seems to happen whenever Steve Beard hangs out with friends — especially folks who don’t go to church — talking about movies, television and whatever else is on their minds.

“It may take five minutes or it may take as long as 10, but sooner or later you’re going to run into some kind zombie comment,” said Beard, editor of Good News, a magazine for United Methodist evangelicals. He is also known for writing about faith and popular culture.

“Someone will say something like, ‘When the zombie apocalypse occurs, we need to make sure we’re all at so-and-so’s house so we can stick together.’ It’s all a wink-and-a-nod kind of deal, but the point is that this whole zombie thing has become a part of the language of our time.”

Tales of the living dead began in Western Africa and Haiti, and these movies have been around as long as Hollywood has been making B-grade flicks. However, the modern zombie era began with filmmaker George A. Romero’s classic “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, which led to his “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead.” Other directors followed suit, with hits such as “28 Days Later,” ‘’Zombieland,” ‘’The Evil Dead” and “Shaun of the Dead.” Next up, Brad Pitt in the epic “World War Z,” due June 21, which could turn into a multimovie franchise.

In bookstores, classic-literature lovers will encounter a series of postmodern volumes clustered under the title “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Also, video-game fans have purchased more than 50 million copies of the “Resident Evil” series, and these games have inspired countless others.

But anyone who is interested in the worldview — if not the theology — of zombie life must come to grips with the cable-television parables offered in the AMC series “The Walking Dead.” This phenomenon, said Beard, has become so influential that it cannot be ignored by clergy, especially those interested in the kinds of spiritual questions that haunt people who avoid church pews.

Truth is, “The Walking Dead” is not “about zombies. It’s a show about people who are trying to figure out the difference between mere survival and truly living,” he stressed in a telephone interview.

“How do you decide what is right and what is wrong? How do you stay sane, in a world that has gone crazy? … Where is God in all of this? That’s the unspoken question.”

In his classic book “Gospel of the Living Dead,” religious-studies scholar Kim Paffenroth of Iona College argued that Romero’s zombie movies borrowed from one of the key insights found in Dante’s “Inferno” — that hell’s worst torments are those humanity creates on its own, such as boredom, loneliness, materialism and, ultimately, separation from God.

As a final touch of primal spirituality, Romero — who was raised Catholic — added cannibalism to the zombie myth.

‘’Zombies partially eat the living. But they actually only eat a small amount, thereby leaving the rest of the person intact to become a zombie, get up, and attack and kill more people, who then likewise become zombies,” argues Paffenroth. Thus, the “whole theme of cannibalism seems added for its symbolism, showing what humans would degenerate into in their more primitive, zombie state.”

The point, he added, is that “we, humans, not just zombies, prey on each other, depend on each other for our pathetic and parasitic existence, and thrive on each (other’s) misery.”

This is why, said Beard, far too many women and men seem to be staggering through life today like listless shoppers wandering in shopping malls, their eyes locked on their smartphones instead of the faces of loved ones. Far too often their lives are packed with stuff, but empty of meaning.

Romero and his artistic disciples keep asking a brutal question: This is living?

“One of the big questions in zombie stories is the whole ‘Do zombies have souls?’ thing,” said Beard. “But that kind of question only leads to more and more questions, which is what we keep seeing in ‘The Walking Dead’ and other zombie stories. …

“If zombies no longer have souls, what does it mean for a human being to be soulless? If you have a soul, how do you hang onto it? Why does it seem that so many people today seem to have lost their souls?”

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at tmattingly@cccu.org or www.tmatt.net.