Moralistic Therapeutic Deism & The Ragamuffin Gospel

Jen Bradbury
Aug 15 · 5 min read

I love to read. Among the books I love, there are a select few that have had a profound impact on my life and faith. Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel is one of them.

More than anything else, The Ragamuffin Gospel is a treatise on grace that blends theology with personal narrative and compelling storytelling. It reminds all who read it of God's unfailing love.

I first read The Ragamuffin Gospel years ago, as part of a small group at an evangelical church. In that context, Manning's exposition of grace provided me with a much needed contrast to the dominant message taught there: Good Christians should

- Have a daily quiet time.
- Pray constantly.
- Never miss a week of church.
- Devour Scripture and read the Bible at least once a year.
- Avoid temptations of all kinds.
- Mentally take inventory of all you've done wrong & repent. 

In contrast, The Ragamuffin Gospel helped me really begin to grasp that God's love is free – unconditional and independent of anything I do or don't do. It helped me discover what it actually means to be free in Christ. It also helped teach me the value of community.

Because of how much this book impacted my faith journey, I was excited to read and discuss it with one of my students this year. Since, however, she's grown up in a church that emphasizes grace, I was unsure how deeply this book would impact her.  

It turns out that regardless of how often you talk about it, grace is always compelling. Grace never grows tiring. Instead, grace always wins; It convicts people and in the process, changes them.

Yet, even so, grace – because it's abstract and also so very different from anything else in our American culture – is insanely difficult to understand. For this reason, as a youth worker, I appreciated Manning's emphasis on grace as well as the way his stories make this difficult theological concept easier to understand.

As was also the case my first time reading this book, this time around my favorite chapter was Paste Jewelry and Sawdust Hot Dogs. In it, Manning wrestles with the idea of counterfeit grace and reminds us that “Many of us pretend to believe we are sinners. Consequently, all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven. As a result, our whole spiritual life is pseudo-repentance and pseudo-bliss.”

The first time I read these words, they convicted me of my need to acknowledge my brokenness and in so doing, truly experience forgiveness. These words also convicted me of the importance of doing this in community.

This time around, these words still convicted me. Only now they reminded me of the presence of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) in our culture and it's detrimental effects on our faith.

The National Study of Youth and Religion found MTD has very little to do with Christ and is instead a “de facto dominant religion”. According to it's lead researcher, Christian Smith, MTD's major tenets include the fact that “a God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth; God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions; The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself; God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem; And good people go to heaven when they die.”

If you ask me, though Manning wrote The Ragamuffin Gospel years before the phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism was even coined, his chapter on counterfeit grace describes it's impact on the church perfectly. If, according to MTD, the central goal of life is happiness and God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, then of course it makes sense that rather than admit our brokenness and seek genuine healing, we instead are content to “pretend to believe we are sinners... who pretend to believe we have been forgiven.”

How much we miss when that becomes the story of our faith.

Thankfully, The Ragamuffin Gospel helps us rewrite our story of faith. It helps us see that faith and life can be better than what we have now, not by our own doing, but by God's doing. It helps us embrace both the mystery and the reality of grace and live into the many ways that grace really does transform.