McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That

This is a slightly edited version of an earlier blog.

In this blog I will interact with Brian McLaren’s helpful and provocative new book that seeks to deconstruct “hell” language as a rhetoric that sets people on edge in order to persuade them to embrace a gospel that creates a community of persons who live a life of love of God and Others for the good of the world. Overall, I could not agree more with the focus of this gospel and the sort of life God calls us to live. If one wants to narrow this book down to what it says about hell, and what his theory is about hell, go ahead — but the book has a larger topic so far as I read it. The book is about how “to do gospeling” today.

I will record a series of positive observations and some criticisms.

McLaren has exposed, though he’s not the first, the fundamental weaknesses of the evangelical gospel presentation that we have imbibed from our ancestors. In particular, he has shown that Evangelicals have futurized the gospel. Here he appeals too simply to the 5th Century and after where he sees overemphasis on heaven and hell, and he anchors the overemphasis on a variety of social and theological conditions. Still, the focus on heaven and hell of the later church is out of step with Jesus and the NT. The gospel cannot (read: should not) be turned into a mechanism whereby Christians can find a secure eternity nor should it be used to justify a lack of concern with this world. The gospel is designed to transform humans into a community of the kingdom of God. The difficulty of abandoning hell/heaven as a warrant for the gospel will not be easy, and I’m not sure it ever can be completely avoided — does not final significance count? But, still, McLaren has this point right: futurizing the gospel turns the gospel into a gasbag gospel.

McLaren has also exposed, again not the first, the spiritualization of the gospel. Again, he traces this briefly into various social conditions, but the point is the same: the gospel is not something just for our spirits or our souls, but for the entire person – heart, soul, mind, and strength – and it designed by God to create an alternative human condition – a community of faith that exhibits and works for love and justice and God’s will. In short, the kingdom of God. This, too, is very welcome.

McLaren has also clarified and called us into more rigorous Bible study and theological reflection on what “hell” means – in particular, he deconstructs it as a piece of rhetoric designed to provoke humans into consideration of what they are doing that is wrong and the fearful consequences of what this wrong-doing will do to themselves and others and our world. As far as I can see, McLaren believes in an Eternity that will correlate somehow – he’s not clear here – with how we’ve lived here and what we’ve made ourselves to be.

McLaren is especially good on the gospel. On p. 171 he, in the words of a correspondent to Dan from Chip (who is discovering the gospel Dan Poole has learned who has learned it from Neo/Neil), he contrasts those who think the fundamental gospel questions are whether or not one is certain one would be with God if one died or, secondly, if Jesus were to return. This is futurization. In contrast, Chip sees these two questions: if one was to live another 50 years, what would one want to be like or become and, secondly, if Jesus didn’t return for ten million years what would one like the world to be like? I find these questions more apposite what the Bible teaches.

McLaren is clearly shaped by a postmodernist linguistic turn that limits what we know and about what we can be certain. His quotation of Dante, on p. 174, puts this all in focus: “… many times the word comes short of fact.” In other words, try as we might, our theological articulations of truth are approximate and probings rather than some kind of transcendent truth propositions.

From the negative, I mention two (earlier I had blogged four comments, but have edited those down). I give these in the shape of questions now.

First, how do the theologies of Paul, Peter, and Hebrews fit into the holistic gospel that McLaren’s characters espouse in this novel? In all of this discussion about the gospel there is a constant need for us to check the entire NT and to play Jesus’ vision of the kingdom along with the Pauline vision of salvation (and all his terms) and Peter’s vision and Hebrews’ vision. This is what tends to happen: before long we either socialize Paul – McLaren offers a brief on justification along these lines – or we spiritualize Jesus — which is a beef for Neil and Dan Poole and then Chip (who is growing into this). Let me be frank: I do think the social justice vision of Jesus is inherent to the gospel, but I’m not sure that we are fair to the NT until we put the soteriology of Romans into play. (Sure, Dunn and Wright have tried just this, but they need to be brought into the discussion more clearly for this sort of gospel vision to gain a foothold.) In other words, I’m not sure McLaren’s ecclesiology and gospel are sufficiently sectarian to conform to the NT evidence. Which means I think Paul’s stance and surely Peter’s and Hebrews’ visions are sectarian (they are not ready for a full-scale social vision). Perhaps McLaren thinks Jesus’ vision of the gospel was actually bigger than the rest of the NT. I do not hold this view to be impossible, but I can’t think of anyone who argues for it.

It should be clear that this poses a very interesting question: has the sectarian vision of the NT been suspended? Was it suspended with the rise of Constantine? John Howard Yoder’s last book, the one on the Jewish-Christian schism, contended that the Church must sustain its sectarian status. (Which is not to say that it has to be a ghetto.) Maybe McLaren has written about this and I just haven’t seen it.

Second, why do we urbanize systemic evil? There is a tendency for those of us (and I include myself) who believe in a holistic gospel to urbanize the problems, as if the only real problems in the world are to be found in the urban areas – poverty, drugs, systemic violence, AIDS, and the like. I agree that Jesus made the poor one of his foci and I agree that the marginalized are to be given urgent attention. But, all humans are in need of God’s embracing grace and that means suburbanites and farmers in Iowa and ski resort workers and wealthy business persons as well. God’s restoring grace that regenerates cracked Eikons is designed to take all of our crackedness and to transform it – through Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost – into the community God wants to exist in order to show off his glory and grace and lead us into the perichoretic love of our blessed triune God. I find suburbanites just as full of cracks as urbanites.

Overall, what we find in McLaren is a holistic gospel and I couldn’t agree more with the direction that sort of macro-biblical thinking does for us and for what our vocation is.

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