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Robert W. Kellemen
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In "The Last Word and the Word After That," Brian McLaren completes his "New Kind of Christian" trilogy. Since McLaren describes his writing as "creative non-fiction" readers of this review are hereby warned--if you don't want to know how his narrative ends, stop reading now. I'd hate to spoil the plot for you. . .
"The Last Word" arrived today after lunch. I fully intended to return to my sabbatical Church history research, but couldn't resist reading the back jacket, then skimming the book, then reading the introduction. The next thing I knew, the afternoon was over and so was the book. In other words, agree with him or not, McLaren can write. His narrative is compelling and gripping.
I found myself hunting for tissues when reading about Pastor Dan, his wife Carol, and the spiritual abuse that they suffered at the hands of their church board. I also found myself hunting for scissors at the biased portrayal of those who believe in a literal hell (more on this to come). And I found myself searching in vain for any closure to the discussion (I know, that's his point and his style, but still . . .).
If you want permission to think deeply about God, life, judgment, grace, and doctrine, then "The Last Word" will be a breath of fresh air. If you want to be given the research and resources necessary to intelligently ponder the doctrine of hell, then "The Last Word" will leave you wanting.
McLaren clarifies that his book is not truly about hell, but about what kind of God we believe in and what kind of purposes this God has for His creation. Still, for the first half of the book, his characters explore the doctrine of final judgment. Through their journey, McLaren provides a fair introduction to the more commonly held views about the final judgment, as well as introducing his own provocative perspective.
McLaren offers the caveat at the beginning of the book that "The Last Word" will purposefully under-represents the "traditional" view of hell as literal and eternal. Unfortunately, it not only under-represents it, it tends to misrepresent it. Three main characters hold to the traditional view. Carol represents the, "I don't want to think too deeply about it; I just want to love God" characterization. Gil epitomizes the, "I'm a cruel fundamentalist, ignorant Bible-thumper" depiction. Chip portrays the, "I'm a recovering fundamentalist; please be gentle with me while I find my brain and soul" caricature. The reader is left to assume that for the past 2000 years of Church history no thinking, loving Christian has ever held the "traditional" view of hell.
Other characters, presented with much more color-with mind and soul, life and personality-offer a composite view of what the final judgment might really be about. In the eyes of these favored characters, "hell" is not a literal place of eternal torment, but a motivational warning about a coming final judgment in which every human being stands stark naked before God to give an account of how well or how poorly she or he loved God and others and thus contributed or not to fulfilling God's shalom kingdom purpose of reconciliation. Though the intricacies of this view are difficult to summarize, at times they seem to border on a mingling of justification by works and justification by faith. After all, McLaren says that he is "post-Protestant."
Though I, and much of Church history (majority and minority report), happen to disagree with Neo's proposal about the nature of hell, one of his insights represents brilliant philosophy, accurate theology, and practical spirituality. Neo explains that when we do stand before God, because God is timeless, His judgment of us will be based upon and integrate together every nano-second of our existence. Assuming this is to be applied to Christians who are judged, not regarding entrance into heaven, but for rewards, it is a potent caution against a believer who might think, "I can wait until near the end of my life, reform, and then God will judge that mature, final me." No. God's evaluation of our Christian pilgrimage covers the entire journey. It is required of us that we walk faithfully and lovingly (though not sinlessly) day by day, even second by second.
The second half of "The Last Word" offers "The Word After That" which reads and feels like a separate book altogether. McLaren somewhat abruptly shifts from eschatology (the "doctrine" of the last times, especially of the final judgment) to ecclesiology (the "doctrine" of the Church). His characters speak of and participate in "deep ecclesiology."
One of the greatest gifts in the entire book is found here as McLaren shares the "five queries" that his spiritual formation group ponders together. They are well worth repeating: "How is your soul? How have you seen God at work in and through your life since we last met? What are you struggling with? What are you grateful for? What God-given dream are you nurturing?" As one of his characters would say, "That dog will hunt!"
This section also includes two questions worth repeating. They are questions that arise when we look at salvation not only as individual, but corporate: "If you were to live for another fifty years, what kind of person would you like to become-and how will you become that kind of person? If Jesus doesn't return for ten thousand years or ten million years, what kind of world do we want to create?" As another of his characters would say, "That'll preach!"
Overall, for a narrative of the story of life on planet Earth, McLaren's story-line sometimes rings a little Pollyanna. Do all, or even most, church conflicts end so perfectly for the "good guys"? I understand that McLaren's final vision for history moves toward reconciliation, but in this life?
By this tidy ending, and by what happens to and is said about "the good guys" and "the bad guys," an implication seeps out: "Anyone who disagrees with the outcomes of these theological probings is a witch-hunting, Pharisaical, hyper-fundamentalist, harsh, heretic-burning, unloving, unthinking, arrogant loser." That can feel a little like reverse spiritual correctness. As with the doctrine of final judgment, is it possible that thinking, loving Christians could actually disagree with the thought processes of the book in a thinking and loving way?
The same overly positive story-telling can be found throughout the trilogy in how people respond to Neo. As some "seeker" reviewers have noted about the first two books in this series, they would love to dialogue with Neo and don't think that they would "cave" so fast, or be nearly so enthralled.
Again, there seems to be a message here, a point being made by how people fawn over Neo. "This new kind of Christian stuff is incredible. It is so intelligent, so sensitive, and so unique. Brilliant. One in a billion." That doesn't quite convey the epistemological humility that post-modernism relishes.
So what do I REALLY think? Is McLaren a breath of fresh air and a post-modern Reformer? Or is he a little leaven and a post-modern heretic. Or something in between? Or neither? Or both?"
In the genre and spirit of "The Last Word and the Word After That," I'm not telling. Develop your own interpretation. Construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct your own view of McLaren and "The Last Word and the Word After That." That's certainly what Brian would want you to do. It's also what the Bible calls each of us to be-Be Bereans who use God's Word to evaluate human words, including "The Last Word and the Word After That."
Reviewer: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of "Soul Physicians," "Spiritual Friends," "Biblical Psychology," "Martin Luther's Pastoral Counseling," and "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction."