I’m not quite done with McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That but I’ve come to a point where I want to put some of his book in perspective. Two observations tonight.
First, a smaller one but one that needs to be said. McLaren’s essential stance in this latest novel (or whatever one calls a book where we’ve got two fellas sorting out their theology) is rhetorical. That is, he’s trying to get a conversation going about hell and heaven and the shape of the gospel in the light of the “old model” and the “new kind of Christianity model.” He’s accomplished this. I’m not done with the book, and I’m not quite sure if McLaren stands with Neo or Dan, and I don’t think it matters right now, but he’s got lots of people thinking about this topic. So, he’s done what he set out to do. Bravo for him because this is a significant topic, and it brings to light an untold number of theological issues and stances. I’m not saying McLaren’s views are embedded in this novel, but what I am saying is that the function of the book is to get the conversation rolling.
Very few author actually generate this much conversation; those who try to do that and pull it off are extremely rare. Most successful books take publishers a bit by surprise.
Second, and more important. What McLaren is reacting to and moving away from can be seen in what is probably the second most read Christian book in history — behind the Bible. That is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Many of the younger generation have perhaps not read this classic, but folks of my age and ilk have. Our pastors and parents spoke of those characters — like Talkative and Pliable and Mr. Money-Love — as if they were sitting in the pews behind us and creeping up on us so they could cart us off to the Land of the Apostates.
Here’s why I think Bunyan is a good foil for McLaren: the entirety of The Pilgrim’s Progress is the journey of one Christian from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, and nothing, and I mean nothing, dare get in his way. The book is about getting to heaven, and what it takes to get there, and about the threat of hell, and how easy it is to get there. There is a constant threat of apostasy and hell-fire and damnation for what seems to many today as little more than a “moral slip” or a “careless habit.” Rigor is a word that comes to mind about the book, and what haunts the book from beginning to end and what drives the book constantly is the threat of hell and the reward of heaven for those who persevere. Increasingly, the current generation wants little to do with this emphasis.
This is what McLaren’s “new kind of Christianity” is reacting to; and over against this McLaren is proposing that we start all over again and seek to understand what the gospel and the Christian faith — nay, the work of God in the world — are all about.
I’ve been a fan of Bunyan since my high school days. As a senior I toted him to my first hour study hall the entire fall and read through it. I was a bit unnerved by his overemphasis on perseverance — as I was reared among the eternal security sorts and what made one secure was asking Jesus into your heart. But, I got over it and made it a constant source for years. Just this last year I read it again. I still love it.
But, McLaren has the goose by the neck on this one. Bunyan’s classic is a classic in part because it is extreme in emphasis on the threat of hell and because it expresses what may be called the Puritan gospel. But, anyone who wants to sort things out, as McLaren does, on the basis of what Jesus taught will run into conflict with dear old Bunyan. Jesus talked about the kingdom, and what he meant was not “heaven after you die” but “the manifestation of the will of God on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, kingdom for Jesus is a perfect balance of the here and now with the by and by. Bunyan never got that balance, and (I confess) that I thank him for it — he reminds of Final Accountability and provides the Ultimate Warrant with a graphic story that we also find ourselves in.
In addition, with Bunyan we have Individualism in its extreme form. Bunyan has a friend or two with him, and they have all kinds of nice conversations, but by and large there is almost a complete neglect of anything like a genuine community or an ecclesiology. Some will carp with me about this, but my own read of Bunyan is that fellowship is “a place to be refreshed on the way to the Celestial City” rather than the community that is exhibiting the embracing grace of God in this world as an alternative community. Christian’s friends in The Pilgrim’s Progress had better keep pace with him or they’ll be left behind — and maybe eternally.
McLaren’s new kind of Christianity is redressing these imbalances. The gospel, for McLaren, is about kingdom in the here and now and it is about a community wherein that kingdom vision has its way.