<%image(20050417-last word.jpg|51|75|last word)%> While at Borders last night, my home away from home, I couldn’t resist purchasing Brian McLaren’s new book: The Last Word and the Word After That. I read the first chapter in the store and was sucked in, reading 40 pages into it by the end of the night. There are two things that stand out in Brian’s controversial conclusion to the New Kind of Christian Trilogy that winds up by tacking the doctrine of hell. The first is . . .
1. Sweet Stylistic Surprise! Sheesh, Brian has really improved his writing style. He writes his fictional books like a true fictional author, and not a theologian desperately trying to make heady content stick to a weak story line with grade A cheese for dialogue. Gone are the Amish Jellies, corny high fives, and forlorn attempts at hip conversation. The story is warm and personal, showing a depth of thought and development of characters and detail. Instead of imagining two cheesy men bumbling down a generic path through the woods, the reader can really construct the scenes and get a taste of what the character is feeling. I confess, I am reading this book more because I care about the story than the theological point. That was not the case for A New Kind of Christian.
2. A Hell of a topic: Brian is going toe to toe with the doctrine of hell. People may not like what he has to say, and I may not agree with where he is going, but that’s not the point. We need to Open the floor for discussion about these pressing topics that have such a powerful bearing on how we view the world, share the Gospel, treat neighbors, etc. Hell is just too important to badger people away from discussing other options to our classic formulations.
Though this may change tommorrow, I am currently not convinced that one’s doctrine of hell is what’s going to make or break your relationship with Christ. If someone is pressing in to Jesus and has some issues with the doctrine of hell, they should be heard. I think it’s essential to recognize that theology has to be a process. If someone says that they have issues with hell, let’s not browbeat that person into one view but stick it out with them.
In reading some of the criticism descending upon Brian due to this book, I am also troubled at the gate-keeper mentality that is so pervasive among Christians. We guard our doctrine as if it was locked up in a case. You can look at it, but you can’t touch it. Yet our theology is something that should be used, banged up, rearranged, and then banged up some more in the forge of day to day life. If someone cannot live with the current doctrine of hell, then it’s a good thing to wrestle with it and dialogue. Sometimes I think we forget that living in relationship with Christ means that we can be normal people who have doubts, struggles, and periods of uncertainty.
For the record, I’m still playing around with an exclusivist view of hell that is inclusivist in the sense expressed by CS Lewis and Lesslie Newbigin (see The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pp. 182-183). Though I hold to the unique claim of Christ, I also expect to be surprised by who’s in heaven.