Angels with an Incredible Capacity for Beer: A 1986 Interview with Brennan Manning

Before The Babylon Bee, there was The Wittenburg Door, a satirical Christian journal with some serious […]

Ethan Richardson / 5.19.16

Before The Babylon Bee, there was The Wittenburg Door, a satirical Christian journal with some serious humor–a cartoon called “Dogs Who Know the Lord”, fake news headlines, a Theologian of the Year (with winners like Xena Warrior Princess and Mister T)–all pointed in cornball fashion at the Church and its bizarre inner- and outer-workings. Our mentor and spirit-guide Robert Farrar Capon was, in fact, a “Keeper of the Door”–he started a column series he called “Pietro and Madeleine,” a theological love story (of sorts). But The Door, as it later became known, also did some very serious interviews. In these interviews, they were both just playing around, and definitely not just playing around. For a small-circuit Christian humor mag, they landed some big names: Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, Henri Nouwen, John Stott. But they also crossed the bridge into stranger waters: they interviewed Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, Orson Scott Card, and yes, even the Rev. Jerry Falwell. It’s all pretty impressive. They must have been having fun. They lasted over 40 years. 

I recently stumbled upon a stack of old Doors in my in-law’s basement. At random I pulled out the October-November 1986 issue, within which I found the most amazing interview with Grace Commander in Chief Numero Uno, Brennan Manning. One can only hope The Mockingbird ages the way these have. Here’s the last little bit (ht RH): 


The Wittenburg Door: You suggested that self-consciousness is the original sin. That is an interesting idea. How do we go about extricating ourselves from self-consciousness?

Brennan Manning: I can’t free myself. I have to be set free. There is incredible spiritual depth and wisdom in the sixth and seventh steps of the Alcoholic Anonymous program. Step 6 says “Made a list of all my character defects and became entirely ready to have God remove them.” Step 7 says “Humbly asked Him to remove my shortcomings.” The entire process of spiritual growth and internal purification goes like this: 1) Make a list; 2) Be ready; 3) Ask God to do something; and 4) Wait. The rest is up to God. I do the inventory and wait for God to do the rest. The role of the Holy Spirit is to form Christ in us. I give Him my presence and let Him make the changes in me that I can’t make myself.

Door: That sounds a bit mystical. Aren’t there certain things we can change ourselves?

Manning: I would say that every attempt to change myself is motivated either by self-hatred or guilt in some form. A woman goes on a binge and eats 24 croissants, a hot fudge sundae, and a pint of Haagen Daas.  The next morning she wakes up, realizes her clothes are too tight and immediately goes on the Rotation Diet. The motivation for changing herself is guilt, self-condemnation, and self-hatred. As a result, the diet only lasts for a few days. The only lasting freedom from self-consciousness comes from a profound awareness that God loves me as I am and not as I should be, that He loves me beyone [sic] worthiness and unworthiness, beyond 5ceb7968-c841-4250-ab0d-dd505ce1106cfidelity and infidelity; that He loves me in the morning sun and the evening rain without caution, regret, boundry [sic], limit or breaking point; that no matter what I do, He can’t stop loving me. When I am really in conscious communion with the reality of the wild, passionate, relentless, stubborn, pursuing, tender love of God in Jesus Christ for me, then it’s not that I have to or I got to or I must or I should or I ought; suddenly, I want to change because I know how deeply I’m loved. I have a good little friend, a 55-year-old nun named Mary Michael O’Shaughnessy who has a doctorate in theology. She has a banner hanging on her wall that says, “Today I will not ‘should’ on myself.” One of the wonderful results of my consciousness of God’s staggering love for me as I am is the freedom not to be who I should be or who others want me to be. I can be who I really am. And who I am is a bundle of paradoxes and contradictions: I believe and I doubt, I trust and I get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty if I don’t feel guilty. Aristotle said we are rational animals. I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer. It is the real me that God loves. I don’t have to be anyone else. For 20 years, I tried to be Brother Teresa. I tried to be Francis of Assisi. I had to be a carbon copy of some great saint rather than the original God intended me to be. My 70-year-old spiritual director, Larry Hine, gave me a word of the Lord that he heard from an old, black, evangelical preacher in Georgia: “Be who you is, because if you ain’t who you is, you is who you ain’t.” That’s it, isn’t it?…


From their photo column, “Not Quite Argus Posters”

Door: It comes right down to trust, doesn’t it? Do we really trust God and what He wants to do with us?

Manning: It has to do with our image of God. The single  most important need today is the healing of our image of God. So many of us have images of God that fill us with fear, anxiety, and apprehension. But Paul says in Romans, “The Spirit you’ve received is not a Spirit of slavery leading you to fear, but a Spirit of adoption that allows you to cry out ‘Abba! [Daddy!] Father!’. It is true that we make our images of God. It is even truer that our images of God make us. A woman came to see a priest and she said, “Would you come and pray with my daddy? He’s dying of cancer and he wants to die at home.” The priest went to the house and, when he walked into the man’s room, he saw the man lying on the bed with an empty chair beside the bed. The priest asked the man if someone had been visiting. The man replied, “Oh, let me tell you about that chair. I’ve never told anyone about this–not even my daughter. I hope you don’t think I am wierd [sic], but all my life I have never known how to pray. I’ve read books on prayer, heard talks on prayer, but nothing ever worked. Then, a friend told me that prayer was like a conversation with Jesus. He suggested that I put a chair in front of me, imagine Jesus sitting in the chair, and talk to him. Since that day, I’ve never had any difficulty praying. I hope you don’t think I am off-the-wall.” The priest assured the man that there was nothing weird about praying to Jesus in a chair. The priest anointed the man and left. Two days later, the daughter called to say that her father had just died. The priest asked, “Did he die peacefully?” She replied, I left him at 2:00 this afternoon. He had a smile on his face when I walked out the door. He even told me one of his corny jokes. When I returned at 3:30, he was dead. One curious thing, though–his head was resting not on the bed, but on an empty chair beside his bed.” To this man, Jesus was an intimate friend, and so he died with his friend. All changes, all growth, all improvements in the quality of our lives flow out of our vision of God. And when our vision of God is one of a God of relentless tenderness, we ultimately become tender ourselves.

78de604c-7551-4a16-a3c5-35f4e4e24839Door: We must admit, we have been deeply moved by your vision of God.

Manning: In April of 1975, I was a full-fledged alcoholic. I was drinking a quart of vodka a day. I was overwhelmed by loneliness and failure in ministry. I woke up April 1, 1975 in a doorway on Commercial Boulevard, 100 yards off the beach in Fort Lauderdale. I was in an alcoholic fog with vomit all over my sweater, staring down at my bare feet, wondering what happened to my shoes, not knowing a wino had stolen them during the night. An attractive woman passed by with her 4-year-old son. The boy broke loose from his mother’s grip, ran over and stared down at me. His mother came up quickly behind him, cupped her hand over his eyes and said, “Don’t look at that filth. He’s just pure filth.” And then she spit on me. Eleven years ago that was Brennan Manning. I can speak about the relentless tenderness of Jesus because my life has been a celebration of His love to keeps no score of wrongs, a celebration of His infinite patience, His unbearable forgiveness, and His tender love for me. For the last 11 years, I have been tramping throughout the United States proclaiming the good news of God’s unconditional love and the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives.