I am reposting this 2011 review because the Kindle Edition is free through Oct 20, 2015.
Takeaway: In the end, all really is Grace.
Spiritual biography and autobiography has a tendency to push the lesson before the story. That is not all bad. Since Augustine’s Confessions, Christians have learned much from those that have gone before us. There are problems when the biography/autobiography verge into hagiography, showing only the good and never the bad. There is equally problems with the tell-all conversion stories that seem to revel too much in the pre-conversion life and too little in the post conversion reality. All is Grace does a good job of balancing the real, the history and the lesson.
Manning has had a hard life. This will be his last book. His ill health has meant that he has not been capable of speaking and writing over the past couple years and this book was only completed with the help of John Blase. This is the third such last book I have read this year. John Stott’s Radical Disciple, Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor: A Memoir (probably not his last book, but still in a similar vein of concluding his public ministry) and now Brennan Manning’s All is Grace. All three are very different, but are quite reflective of the lives that each have lived and the types of ministry they were called to serve. Stott’s book was more theological and pastoral, prodding us to continue on. Peterson’s book was reflective, asking us to look and see if we are adopting too much of the attitudes of the world instead of acting like the servant. Manning’s is another call to understand grace by looking at his own life that was marked by both great grace, and great need of grace.
I have read several books by Manning, but this memoir provides some historical structure that does much to give context to his other books. Brennan was born to a difficult family, marked by a lack of love and caring and a prevalence of alcohol. Manning was drinking heavily by age 16. But he also was a talented writer and started college young. He dropped out of college, joined the Marines right before the end of the Korean War. He became a war correspondent, went back to school to become a journalist, dropped out of college again, became a Franciscan, left the Franciscans to become a Little Brother, came back to the Franciscans and served as a college chaplain, participated in a experimental community like the Little Brothers in the US, again became a college chaplain. Each time it was about 2 years before he moved on to the next thing. By the last he was a clear alcoholic and was forced to seek treatment. After some treatment and some success with the treatment he started a new career as a Evangelist speaking about grace and forgiveness as a recovering alcoholic priest. But the alcohol never really was far away. Some alcoholics are able to live full lives, clean for the rest of their lives. Manning was not.
He met, fell in love with and eventually dropped out of the priesthood to marry Rosalyn. Over the 7 years before they married and the 18 years of their marriage, he says there were many good, many bad and many ugly scenes. He tells us this not as a tell all, but gently and clearly admitting to his own sins of selfishness and alcoholism. Eventually they were divorced. Throughout their 18 years of marriage, and since, Manning has been a popular speaker and writer, primarily in the Evangelical Christian world. But he still had problems of sin, selfishness, hurt and alcohol.
In many ways, this book reminds me of Lyle Dorsett’s wonderful biography of AW Tozer. Tozer was a blessing to the church, a wonderful writer and speaker, but a lousy father and husband. As Christians if we believe in grace, stories like Tozer’s and Manning’s are powerful statements. But just as they are statements to the power of grace, they are equally testaments to the strength of sin and the continual need for grace, not just at the point of salvation, but continually throughout our lives. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the need for grace after conversion. They want their Christian heroes to be perfect and sanctified. And while that is clearly God’s desire for us as well, God chooses to work through broken people anyway. Scripture, and Christian history, is littered with the stories of less than perfect people being used by God for great things, even while they were far from great themselves.
It was interesting in the comments of Tim Challies’ review of Dorsett’s book on Tozer, many people wanted to dispute Dorsett’s biography, charging that the story of Tozer was mis-construed. That the memories of Tozer’s wife, children and friends were somehow less capable than their own understanding of Tozer that they had gleaned only through reading his books. They refused to believe that someone that had been a blessing to them could be less than what they had imagined.
Early in the book, Manning says he wants to answer the questions that he knows will be asked, “How could a man that seemed so intimate with God and Jesus’ message and ministry of love and grace struggle so much with addiction, self-hatred, loneliness, and marriage?” The book eventually answers “These things happen.” It is not an answer that many want to hear, but it is real.
Manning’s story is both sad and hopeful. He is aware of his sinfulness and is hopeful, not because he has overcome, but is hopeful because he has come to know Christ’s grace. This is a message I need to hear. I want to live a good life, but the older I get the more I have to admit to my weakness and sinfulness. It is not about the affirmation of theological truths. If I had to choose (which thankfully we do not) I would rather have Manning’s personal understanding of grace and a loving God than a proper theological understanding. Manning has tried, and quite often failed, to live up to what Christ wants for him. But he has been an example to many what we really should be after, Christ’s grace. Throughout the book there is also a sense of resignation, sadness. At this point, Manning knows his weakness, maybe not enough that he could over come them, but he knows them. Alcohol is no longer the issue, not because of will or grace but because he is an invalid. Soon, he will no longer be an invalid and soon he will no longer have to struggle with his sin and alcoholism.
This audiobook was provide by christianaudio.com for purposes of review.