The Last Word and the Word After That (by Brian McLaren)

Having read and been very challenged by the first two books in Brian McLaren's 'creative non-fiction' trilogy ('A new kind of Christian' and 'The story we find ourselves in') I bought the final one in December, and have just finished reading it.


'The last word and the word after that' contains some highly controversial questions and discussions, and yet at the same time I found it both challenging personally and oddly reassuring.

In his slightly strange 'creative non-fiction' style, McLaren gently introduces doubts about the conservative evangelical viewpoint of hell. This starts in the first chapter, when Dan - a pastor, currently on paid leave from his church - has a call from his student daughter Jess who is expressing some serious doubts about her faith.  She says the kind of thing that many of us have puzzled about over the years. How can God, who loves us, send even the worst of sinners to eternal torment; let alone our ordinary, likeable friends and relatives who just don't happen to be believers?

This starts a series of conversations Dan has with his Jamaican friend Neil (who no longer wishes to be known as Neo) and a host of others who are at different places along the same kind of questioning, emergent church road. There are some fascinating insights into church history, showing Jesus's talk about 'Gehenna' and fires of judgement in the context of the time, and looking at how different church leaders have interpreted and understood theories about life after death over the centuries.

I'm not sure if McLaren himself takes a clear viewpoint on this issue, which is perhaps why he introduces a whole host of different characters, who discuss the history and theology of hell from a variety of perspectives. There are many references to Scripture, which can easily be checked, and quotations from some of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th century: notably CS Lewis, NT Wright,  Lesslie Newbigin, and even John Stott.

I found it quite challenging intellectually in places, and also extremely thought-provoking. I did like the fact that, even within the fictional shell, there's room for disagreement. At one point Dan bemoans the fact that if he figures out how to help his daughter Jess in her understanding, he will upset his wife Carol, who continues in a fairly conservative exclusivist viewpoint.

From a fiction point of view it's quite thin: the characters are not particularly well-developed, the dialogue sometimes a bit forced, and more often than not takes the form of lengthy monologues. But I still like that better than more directive teaching, and on this particular topic, where many possibilities are being explored, it works well to have variations on the theme in the words of different people.

The end of the first part of the book was a bit sudden and not very realistic - the church comes to a policy about Dan, and suddenly everything is sorted out.  However, the second part of the book is perhaps the most important. Putting aside temporarily, the ideas about hell, Dan is introduced to Neo's 'knowing community': a small group of hand-picked people who learn together, asking each other significant questions each year about their faith, their feelings and their future plans. The emphasis is on caring for and supporting each other in their dreams, with complete freedom to be themselves.

Whatever the truth - or otherwise - of hell, many excellent points are made about the importance of living for Christ, of caring about justice on earth, of showing love and kindness to all.  I gather that in McLaren's world too many Christians come across as angry and judgemental, almost seeming to rejoice in the idea of the condemnation of the unsaved. While people of that persuasion would probably consider this book heretical, it's important that those of us who tend towards the more inclusivist viewpoints should not judge or condemn those who are more conservative in their views.

There is powerful, sometimes overwhelming writing in this book, leaving open as many questions as it answers. As a novel it's not great; the fiction part is, as with the other books in the trilogy, fairly lightweight; it's a vehicle for the theology and history than anything else. Yet, somehow it works and leads to a very readable book. It's not necessary to have read the others in the trilogy, although it may make more sense of the storyline to have done so.

Very highly recommended.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 25th January 2013

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