The McLaren Trilogy

I finished the third installment of the New Kind of Christian trilogy last night. Over the past five years my thinking and theology has undergone major renovation, and alot of it has to do with my reading of these books by McLaren. Much of my thinking has been influenced by McLaren’s work; however, it has been a really weird experience. Instead of me worshipping every word McLaren writes, it’s more like most of what he writes I think to myself, “Yeah, that’s what I’ve been thinking, only he states it alot better than I.” It seems as though, that’s alot of what is happening in emergent circles. These books are written to reflect the way that emergent theology is . . . well . . . emerging. Conversations, blogs, seminars, emails have all been contributing to an amazing network of friends, comrades, and thinkers who are on a somewhat scary path as we begin questioning some of the most sacred teachings in our longstanding tradition.

Dan Poole, the central figure of the trilogy and no doubt a quasi-representative of McLaren’s journey himself, enters the third book pondering the topic of hell. Thoughout the book the characters hint at the fact, and in the postscript where McLaren offers personal notes, it is pointed out that there is a striking lack of writing on the subject of hell, making this final book in the trilogy particularly provocative.

For me, it is a welcome subject to ponder as my world was rocked in college when a professor posed a question that I continue to wrestle with today, “What if the devil isn’t real? What if Jesus simply took a contemporary image that the Jews were familiar with – an image not necessarily from the Torah, but instead imported from their surrounding pagan culture, and used it to make his point?” It’s not that Jesus was saying the devil is real by using it, but instead uses the contemporary image of Satan in first century Palestine and teaches in light of that. The very notion that something so essential to the teaching I had known all my life could be wrong led me to doubt the idea for a long time, but I couldn’t shake it. The reality was, I didn’t have a good answer. The reality is, I still don’t have a good answer. McLaren addresses similar questions. Questions that theology has not answered sufficiently, and the questions revolve around the topic of hell.

At the heart is the question, “How could a God that is love damn people to an eternity of hell, fire, punishment, and torment?” Throughout the book McLaren addresses the fact that the church’s understanding of hell has played a significant role in the way it has addressed war (see previous post), race relations, ecology, evangelism, social justice, and just about every other issue. His contention is that we have focused so much on what will happen to our (and everyone else’s) souls when we die, that we have had little care for them in the here and now. A great quote at the end of the book comes from Desmond Tutu of South African fame who said that the Europeans came having the Bible to the Africans who had the land and asked them to close their eyes to pray; when they opened their eyes the Africans had the Bible, but the Europeans had their land. I think McLaren is on to something very, very critical!

I don’t have the book with me right now, but here are a few of the piercing comments that will stick with me for awhile (in no particular order):

* As I read through the book, I was struck that what McLaren was proposing was nothing more that a works based righteousness . . . social justice here on earth so that when the time for reward comes, we’ve worked hard enough to get what we deserve (obviously opposed to the Gospel); however, he anticipates this question and leaves us with this quip: “Salvation by grace; JUDGEMENT BY WORKS” – my emphasis put on something I have not thought of before.

* Our driving question in the mission of our churches has been, “If you were to die in a few days, where would you spend eternity?” That question is not good enough. It is cheap and easy. It frees us of all responsibilities in the here and now. The new question may be, “If Jesus does not return for 100 million years, what kind of world do we want this to be?” Wow, I found that powerful, and gives me motivation to move forward in serving the poor and reaching the lost.

* There is so much to be learned from liberation (and feminist) theology. McLaren is right on the money in pointing out that the WASPs have been in control for too long to realize the (negative) impact that our theology has had. We need to surround ourselves with diversity in order to see how our theology and practice effects EVERYONE . . . not just those who look and act like us.

* One of the reasons I enjoy reading McLaren so much, and the reason I think he is so difficult to find fault with, is because, in the end, he really offers few answers. It’s hard to fault someone when they offer few or no definitive answers . . . and maybe that’s a point in and of itself. For too long we have striven to be definitive, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt, when that’s not the point. The point is praxis, not cognition. I’ve really backed off a little with our teens recently in getting them to “know the Bible.” I think that happened because Clark’s birth has made me think about how we want to raise him. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t give a rip if he knows the 12 apostles, or the 10 commandments, or the 66 books of the Bible or even the latest theory of atonement (I was hoping he’d have that down by age 6, but we’ll see) . . . because none of that crap matters. It really doesn’t. The church has emphasized “belief” for too long. Jesus came and blasted the Pharisees for their emphasis on belief. The problem was they believed too much . . . and didnt’ DO anything. Our churches today don’t DO enough. We rely on the institution to take care of it. I want Clark to be a different person than everyone else. If he were to give his life, I would hope that it would be DOING something, not saying something.

When we begin to realize that the point of the Gospel is not Hell, then maybe we’ll start getting serious about things. We don’t need to be afraid everyone is going to spend eternity in hell to get active about evangelizing! We need to be afraid that the systemic problems of hatred, greed, injustice, and sexual obsession is going to destroy everyone.

“Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

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3 thoughts on “The McLaren Trilogy

  1. I like reading McLaren, too. Always makes me think. But sometimes the fact that he offers few answers bothers me. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a stand, and it seems like he’s wimping out.I’ve changed my view on hell over the past few years. I still believe that Satan is real, but I think hell will simply be a literal death (annihilation). Those who are not granted eternal LIFE will cease to exist. Edward Fudge works it all out in his book “The Fire That Consumes.” Check it out Here.–

  2. I’m not bothered by not taking a stand . . . I think he stands firm where he needs to, but forces us to wrestle with things we’ve taken on the surface. I think the annihilation route is a little safer way to go with hell than our usual obsession in our country in fire, sulfur, and burning. Whatever you believe about the subject, I think you can give the fact that we’ve been too literal with all that stuff. I think Jesus might say to us that we’ve missed the point with all that fire language. The point of hell is that there is separation with God. That’s difficult language to put into the human perspective we all live in. Fire . . . no way worse than that . . . eternal darkness . . . piece of cake compared to hell . . . damnation, sulfur . . . it all is just to make the point that separation of God is the worst thing you can imagine. What I really got from McLaren is this comparison of hell. We’ll all face God (no arguments there, every knee will bow, that whole thing), but hell may not being cast away from God into some kind of some eternal punishment, maybe there’s a worst kind of punishment. The worst thing I can ever imagine in my life would be telling my wife or my mom and dad, or anyone that I love that I have lied to them their whole lives, I’ve cheated on them, prostituted myself, acted on impulses that would have killed them inside if I ever knew . . . is that not what hell will be like . . . face to facae with God . . . after prostituting ourselves like Gomer? That is far worse than any hell I’ve seen in comic books or read in Jonathan Edwards.

  3. This is a ‘late’ post.. but I was just reading through your blog today. I certainly agree that we have ‘missed the boat’ on some things, especially the belief that knowing facts is the way to God. But I disagree that knowing such things as Bible verses, the apostles’ names, the books of the Bible, etc. is ‘crap’. That is taking the idea to the opposite extreme. These things should not be the main focus. God said the main thing is to love him and to love our neighbors. But to call these other things ‘crap’? I really disagree with that. Jill Slater

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