BRENNAN MANNING is the reason we’re talking with Greg Garrett this week. Since ReadTheSpirit online magazine was founded in 2007, Greg Garrett has been a frequent guest, talking about each of his new books with Editor David Crumm. But, The Prodigal: A Ragamuffin Story is unique among Greg’s long list of titles. In the months before Brennan Manning’s death on April 27, 2013, Greg collaborated with Brennan to fulfill a final wish: to write a novel embodying Brennan’s central theme about Grace.
Brennan has such a huge following that, in the weeks since this novel was finally released, the book has racked up 25 reader reviews in Amazon, 24 of them raving about the book with 4- and 5-star reviews. That’s a remarkable outpouring of affection. In a preface to one of Manning’s earlier books, the popular musician and worship leader Michael W. Smith tries to describe Manning’s huge appeal. Smith uses words like “refreshing” and “life-changing,” “dangerous” and “transformative.”
Brennan’s chosen term was “Ragamuffin,” which he used to describe his own deeply troubled life. Grace means that God loves us, even when we are at our most troubled in life, he argued. We don’t earn God’s love. God loves each and every person, even Ragamuffins, all the time.
The journalist and best-selling author Philip Yancey knew Manning and loved his joyful compassion and his utter honesty about his many failings. In trying to capture Manning’s appeal, Yancey quotes Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
David Crumm talks with Greg Garrett about his new book, written with Brennan Manning before his death …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH
GREG GARRETT ABOUT BENNAN MANNING
AND ‘THE PRODIGAL’
DAVID: Most of our readers will recognize Brennan Manning’s name and maybe the term, “Ragamuffin,” but—truth be told—a lot of readers won’t know much more about him. So, let’s start with a little background: Brennan Manning was born in New York City in the depths of the Great Depression. He served as a U.S. Marine in Korea. He was ordained as a Franciscan priest in 1963 to work with the poor. He also was an alcoholic. He destroyed many relationships in his life. And eventually, he became a worldwide sensation for preaching a message that—even in the darkest depths of our lives—God never stops loving us. Is that a fair summary?
GREG: Yes. We could say: If you wrote Brennan Manning as a character in a novel, people would have trouble believing he was real.
DAVID: Be careful there. You actually cast a Brennan Manning kind of character in this new novel you wrote with him, The Prodigal. So, tell our readers more about Brennan’s life.
GREG: Brennan was a muscular Christian in the sense that he was putting faith into action in all sorts of places and all sorts of ways. Often his faith was lived out in manual labor. He worked as a dishwasher; he worked around the docks in New Orleans; at one point, he lived in a cave in the desert. All his life, he battled with his alcoholism. He left the priesthood to get married and even that relationship didn’t work out. Central to his understanding of his own life and his understanding of God was that, in our strength, we are failures. But, with God’s help we can be something closer to what God wants us to be. The inspirational message that people took away from his talks and sermons and books was that we are loved, we are forgiven.
Many readers know that I’m a recovering fundamentalist myself, so I understand why Brennan’s message is such a breath of fresh air to so many people who live with guilt every day. One of Brennan’s central teachings is that God loves us even when we are at our most un-loveable. That doesn’t mean God wants us to remain doing un-loveable things, but God loves us even as imperfect people—even, as Brennan describes it—as Ragamuffins. That’s the radical love and forgiveness and grace that informs everything Brennan wrote and taught. And it informs this new novel—his final book—as well.
WRITING A NOVEL LIKE PEN PALS
DAVID: I’m sure readers will want to know how you collaborated on this novel. You live in Austin, Texas, and Brennan lived in New Jersey for the final phase of his life. How did this work?
GREG: Brennan knew he was in decline and the end was coming, so he had two last wishes. First, he wanted to leave a memoir and he did that with a co-author in 2011 in a book called, All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir.
Then, his final wish was to write a novel. People who have followed his work over the years know how much importance he placed on telling stories. He understood that, while many people will read and respond to nonfiction, there is an incredible power to move people through fiction. We share the same literary agency and, as Brennan became more feeble, his agent and my agent talked about this project. They wanted someone who wasn’t traditionally known as a “Christian novelist.” My name came up pretty quickly, I’m told. I have written novels, which we might describe as literary novels. So, the agents got us together and we started this process in the spring of 2012.
We began moving back and forth with ideas, very fast, and the process was simpler than I had imagined. At that point, he already was in long-term care in New Jersey. So, we wrote this novels as pen pals. He’d have an idea and I’d receive that. Then, I’d add to the ideas and we’d go back and forth.
DAVID: One way this new novel is described is with the question: What happens the day after The Prodigal returns? And we’re talking here about the world-famous “prodigal son” from Jesus’ parable about the selfish, wayward young man who flees from his family home and makes a complete mess of his life. Then, surprisingly, in the depths of his despair, the young man’s father welcomes him home. The prodigal’s brother resents this, because this faithful brother stayed at home and did all the hard work while the prodigal was out partying. Nevertheless, the father insists on welcoming him home with open arms.
GREG: That story had been foundational throughout Brennan’s writing and teaching and I think I said something, in one of our early exchanges, like this: The place where the prodigal story starts to get interesting for me is what happens on the second day. How do you come back from your mistakes? How do you begin to make things right? How do you begin to live in a different way? These are questions Brennan always wrote and taught about. They became the core of the novel.
WHO WOULD YOU CAST IN THE MOVIE VERSION?
DAVID: I don’t want to spoil the novel by revealing too many details in this interview, but in the opening pages of the novel we learn that the Rev. Jack Chisholm, the celebrated pastor of a megachurch in Seattle, has been caught in a terrible lapse of judgment. His drinking and his affair with a woman are caught by witnesses on social media and this firestorm engulfs him very rapidly. He has been estranged from his own father and he hasn’t returned to his little hometown in many years. But, as he’s becoming almost suicidal, his father shows up and welcomes him home. Tell us a little more about the plot, but we won’t spoil any of the surprises, OK?
GREG: Sure. What we can say is that Jack falls from grace in a very big way, as you’ve just described. He’s not a serial cheater, but he does have an affair. When it all becomes public, he loses his family, he loses his church, he loses his book contract. He tries to drink himself to death in Mexico. Then, his father invites him to come home. It’s the prodigal story with some changes. The brother, who stayed at home in the original story, is now a sister in this novel, for example.
DAVID: Within Jack’s fall and his gradual climb toward reconciliation is also a dramatic change in Jack’s understanding of the Christian faith, right?
GREG: Jack is famous as a preacher for this kind of neo-Calvinist theology that says God is not very fond of you, and that you don’t deserve to have God be fond of you. It’s a damaging theology. His catchphrase is, “We have got to do better.” He’s basically teaching that we can somehow earn our way into God’s favor.
I didn’t model him after any specific megachurch pastor, but I can tell you that there are a lot of people out there who are like Jack in some ways.
DAVID: Readers won’t have any trouble recognizing Jack as a realistic figure among today’s religious elite, a kind of composite of a number of big names.
So we don’t spoil the plot developments in the book, let’s describe this story by actually casting this book as a movie, OK? When I finished this novel, I thought right away: Oh, someone is going to make a movie of this! So, let’s say Hollywood rolls out a big budget and a producer could have his pick of actors.
Who would play Jack Chisholm, the central character?
GREG: It needs to be a person who can project both self-confidence and brokenness. I’ve really liked Bradley Cooper’s work recently. At his core, Jack is an absolutely broken person and his own theology has grown out of his own self loathing. Bradley Cooper has shown us in movies like Silver Linings Playbook that he can portray someone who we care about, yet who can wind up doing some terrible things, and who still can have the potential for change.
DAVID: So, Bradley Cooper stars as Jack Chisholm in your ideal movie version. Then, who plays Jack’s father.
GREG: Robert Duvall. Now, I know that he’s a kind of predictable “go to” choice for that kind of role. But we need a strong actor for the father who, for years, has been this kind of forbidding, scary character. Yet, this father is coming to the end of his life and he’s trying to find a better way to live, as well.
DAVID: Jack’s older sister? Who plays the stay-at-home sibling who was so dutiful that she resents Jack’s return? I’m thinking Holly Hunter.
GREG: Well, that could work, although the sister is in her 30s, or maybe as old as her 40s, and Holly Hunter is now in her 50s. You’ve got the idea, though: a Holly Hunter kind of actress.
DAVID: And the small town preacher in your book—who plays him? He’s really the Brennan Manning voice in the novel.
GREG: Hmmm, Father Frank. Who could play Father Frank? He’s a character in his ‘60s. I was thinking of someone like Jeff Bridges, especially the kind of Jeff Bridges role in that movie about the aging country singer, Crazy Heart. In the novel, Father Frank is someone who, like Henri Nouwen or Brennan Manning, can turn his own brokenness into the core of his ministry.
DAVID: Yes, I like that idea of Bridges in that role! I’m beginning to “see” this story in a new light now that we’ve cast the stars in the movie. Maybe it will help readers to glimpse the really compelling nature of this story—without spoiling details.
I want to ask one last question that I’m sure readers will ponder: Did Brennan Manning live long enough to read the final novel?
GREG: I finished my work, as his collaborator, in March. And, because we worked as pen pals, I wasn’t there beside him in those final weeks and I’m not sure if he read the entire novel. He certainly went back and forth with me on the versions up until the end.
DAVID: Well, I’m glad to see it’s being received in such a warm way by his many fans.
GREG: I did hear from HarperCollins that booksellers blew through the first printing of The Prodigal and they’ve already had to run a second printing.
There are a lot of people who loved Brennan and this book does have the special appeal of being his first novel—and his last book—all in one. I’m hearing, already, from clergy who are asking their entire congregations to read this in preparation for talking about this as a congregation.
I feel very good, today, that Brennan and I were able to finish this project before he died.
CARE TO READ MORE GREG GARRETT?
READ GREG GARRETT’S ONGOING COLUMNS Greg writes regularly within the Patheos website. The link here takes you to Greg’s index page for recent columns.
VISIT GREG ON FACEBOOK He’s already got nearly 2,000 friends, but there’s room for you, too, especially if you’re involved in ongoing discussion of Greg’s books and you want to follow his new releases.
‘THE OTHER JESUS‘ If you like Greg’s approach to faith in today’s interview and in The Prodigal novel, you’ll definitely want this 2011 book. The link takes you to our 2011 interview with Greg about moving from a religion of fear to a faith in the love of God.
‘THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO U2‘ Early in his career, Greg Garrett was a rock journalist for a time and this book on the band U2 provides a great doorway for congregations to discuss the significance of U2’s music and activism.
‘HOLY SUPERHEROES!‘ We’re linking, here, to Greg’s most recent piece for ReadTheSpirit on comic books. A life-long fan of comics, Greg literally wrote The Book on the religious themes in comics. This 2011 piece reflects on some recent super-hero movies and also describes Greg’s book, as well.
‘IS HARRY POTTER “CHRISTIAN”? That was the provocative question we put to Greg in 2010, when a new Harry Potter blockbuster was opening. Once again, Greg wrote The Book on how congregations can spark inspiring discussions about the J.K. Rowling novels and movies.