Sometimes these things happen … *smile*
When Brian McLaren was “internet-trotting” having a fun time (I think) with his blog tour for his latest book. I actually missed it because I was at the Lutheran pastors retreat in Cameron (with a ministerium meeting thrown in plus I was unable to get online – more like no time!)
Oh yes .. I think it’s good to go on record that Brian has grown to become my friend (an impotant friend told me the word “Friend” is a powerful and we shouldn’t underestimate it đŸ™‚ – just in case some might wonder whether I’m a Brian McLaren groupie or Malaysian fan club chairman! *grin* –> on both counts I’m not – I was never drawn to read Brian’s book because he was hip or popular. When I first picked up his first book … it’s more of – “hey! That resonates with me!” and apart from the intuitive dimension – there weren’t many English books in the Christian market that kind of “opened up” some space for my thoughts to interact with some ideas in my mind safely without being shot down – too quickly. So, I appreciated the “intellectual” dimension where I could think about issues related to church, Christianity, evangelism, spirituality, the recent one on “hell” etc. in a not so stuffy “academic” flavour (though I do appreciate that as well – it’s just different). We all know friends don’t agree on every single detail in life – that’s assumed. But the conversations of friends who are genuinely open to share and receive from one another does allow for possibilities for encouraging constructive ways forward and gentle critic to keep us in check ..
Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Here’s what I could manage to cut and paste (for more click on the links for a wider context of the questions and comments). Thanks to all the bloggers (and those who left comments) who made this possible- take a deep breath – this is one of the longest posts I’ve put up thus far – read on if you like (I guess … I compiled it more for me *smile*):
From Andrew Jones: The Blog Post of Brian McLaren
Thanks, Andrew, for getting the ball rolling on some important dialogue.
I love Andrew’s post on “does the church believe in heaven.” I just finished a paraphrase of the Gospel of Luke, and being immersed in Luke’s gospel for several months … it was very clear that Jesus wanted his followers to be willing to risk all for him and his gospel. Confidence in heaven made them willing to risk.
Some of you may know that I’m very involved in trying to get action and protection for the people of Darfur, Sudan. To me, the test of my faith in Christ, the gospel, and heaven is whether I’m willing to risk my life for people who suffer …
Meanwhile, I recently read that among the most committed Christians, “tithing” averages under 3%.
The language of heaven and hell is intended, I believe, to push us to see that ultimate things are at stake … that we need to “wake from our slumber.”
Posted by: brian McLaren | May 9, 2005 12:29 PM
Re: Joe’s comment above – that no adult has been scared into the kingdom …
I’m sure there are exceptions to this, but I find that a scare tactic turns more adults away from God and the church than attracts them.
I wonder if this might help explain that commonly quoted statistic that hardly anyone in most churches became a Christian after the age of 14? Maybe our “scare tactics” are designed to appeal to children and not adults?
When I read Jesus in the gospels, I see him using very strong language … there’s no language stronger than hell language … but not as a scare tactic. Rather, he’s trying to wake sleeping people to the realities of choice they face at this moment.
Posted by: brian McLaren | May 9, 2005 12:35 PM
Great comments, everyone! Thanks – comments on specific questions below …
…i wonder if it is possible to address some of the issues without changing one’s view of hell (and other things). does the fruit or bad fruit of the “doctrine” necessarily condemn the “doctrine”? …how do you respond to the accusation that your “new” ideas are only responses to cultural shifts and the incompatibility of traditional christianity with postmodern sensibilities?
OK – for the first question, I try to include a character in the book – Carol – who represents exactly the option you ask about: not changing her view on hell, but being open to other new insights. Yes, I think this is possible.
For the second question, this sounds like you have read D. A. Carson’s book on the emerging church (which Andrew has blogged on here in helpful ways). Can I recommend you read David Mills’ (Cedarville College) helpful response to Dr. Carson? I think he addressed this question well and in detail. (Maybe somebody can put up a link here – if you google on “David Mills McLaren” it will come right up.)
Bottom line: my new ideas are in response to reading the Scriptures, and especially the gospels, and trying to take the Scriptures more seriously than the systematic theologies I was taught … NOT that I’m against systematic theologies, but I believe they can obscure our reading of Scripture as well as aid it.
I just finished reading “the last word and the word after that” and I am fearful of being branded here as “someone who just doesent get it.” While I agree with much of what Brian wrote about the Gospel being much more comprehensive than just filling the pews in Heaven and that the Kingdom of God is here; I am still left with the big “E” on the eyechart wondering well what do you believe happens when we die? I mean I know we can go round and round talking about how this is not the question to ask, but people do and they are concerned about it, so just wondering what you do think about this Brian.
Ryan – that’s certainly a legimitate question. The reason I didn’t go too far into my own views on this is that I thought I was doing enough in one book to raise issues and stimulate people to think on their own. I didn’t want to impose my views but rather to stimulate thinking – so people will look at the Scriptures in a fresh way.
I gave a better glimpse into my own thought on the afterlife in “The Story We Find Ourselves In.” In short, I believe we pass from this life into the presence of God, where all our sin is judged and eradicated, and what remains (I’m thinking of Paul’s phrase “gold, silver, precious stones”) constitutes the beginning of our ongoing identity. There is real possibility of tragedy – wasting one’s life, so there isn’t much to carry over beyond this life. There is also a great possibility for joy, because every cup of cold water given in love is not forgotten.
I should add that resurrection – not a disembodied state in heaven – is the Biblical vision of afterlife as I understand it. I like John Polkinghorne’s way of describing death and resurrection (quoted by N. T. Wright): at death, God uploads our software onto his hardware, and then at the resurrection, downloads our software into new hardware.
Posted by: brian McLaren | May 9, 2005 03:01 PM
Hi, everybody – I’m really frustrated because I’m supposed to be at suddenly seminary but have been trying for 40 minutes or so and can’t get checked in the hotel. Arrgh. Sorry for all those who are waiting for me to show up. Maybe we can reschedule for later in the week, after I have overcome whatever is the problem in getting in. (Apparently habbo doesn’t recognize shockwave on my computer.)
I’ll answer a couple quick questions …
1. I have a question for Brian. In your first comment you said that Jesus uses hell to push us to see that “ultimate things are at stake” – in your mind, what are the “ultimate things” that are at stake?
— Whether we waste our one and one life, or we invest it in what really matters: loving God, loving our neighbors in the way of Christ. If we waste our lives, we will have to stand before God and face this reality. I can’t think of anything more serious than that.
I also think (following NT Wright) that Jesus had a special message for his Jewish people: “you stand at risk of losing your identity as the people of God who were called “to be blessed, to be a blessing” … if you reject me, you are rejecting God.” Serious indeed!
Today … our world is in such deep trouble, and so are we individually. If we turn from Jesus and his message of God’s kingdom … what are we going to do with our lives? Buy more stuff? Trust in more weapons? Smoke more dope? I hope that gives some idea of what I think is at stake, in this life and beyond.
Posted by: brian McLaren | May 9, 2005 08:39 PM
Back to David’s question …
Let me paraphrase it.
The conventional idea of Hell is unpopular in our culture. If I’m questioning the conventional idea of Hell, does that mean I’m accommodating to our culture, watering down the gospel, etc? Even if I’m not, am I not in danger of doing so?
(Let me know if I’ve missed the meaning of the question.)
First a couple of provisos:
1. I am not questioning Scripture, Jesus, or his teaching. I am questioning the conventional understanding of them … this is an important distinction.
2. I am being very Protestant and Evangelical in this … I am going back to Scripture to test what I’ve been taught.
3. I didn’t begin questioning the conventional understanding of Hell in order to be hip, conformist to culture, etc. I began questioning because I more deeply engaged with Scripture and felt that my conventional understanding flattened and oversimplified some of the richness of Scripture and created logical and spiritual problems for me and others.
Now to your specific question … I am calling people to follow Jesus. That means calling them to repentance, sacrifice, faith, service, worship, reconciliation, character formation, spiritual transformation, commitment to the poor, willingness to suffer, courage to be misunderstood and persecuted, prayer, obedience, humility, confidence, and love for enemies. These things are not terribly in vogue in our culture.
By the way, conformity to a Christian subculture is also an issue. It was hard for abolitionists to question the conventional doctrines regarding slavery and race … sometimes we must be as concerned about conformity to the religious subculture as we are the secular culture. Many of us are more afraid of breaking step with the former than the latter.
But at the end of the day – we all stand in danger of conforming to this world. Which is why we must seek to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, having given ourselves as living sacrifices to Christ.
Does that help clarify?
Posted by: brian McLaren | May 9, 2005 08:49 PM
From Jen Lemen: to hell and back with brian mclaren (Jen even throws in a superb interview for starters! )
Hi, J.J. – I spoke a bit about the Eastern Orthodox idea of hell in A New Kind of Christian, but not extensively. In its favor, this view says “There is nowhere you can go to be separated from God’s presence.” (By the way – the oft-quoted idea that “death is separation” – is, I think, on the same level as “God helps those who helps themselves.” It’s not in the Bible, but many people think it is.)
The view raises other problems … like, “How could heaven be a pleasant place if many or most of the people walking around were in agony?”
What I really like about the view is that it focuses attention not on whether you have the right “bar code” of having said the “sinner’s prayer” or not … but rather, it focuses attention on what kind of person you are becoming here and now.
That, I think, is Jesus’ concern. The Pharisees could be highly religious – but they had become vicious people in the process. Their piety covered ugly things. Judgment (very important in my mind!) means the truth is told about what’s hiding under the skin of piety … The truth comes out; the masks and lies are torn away.
If we believe we will face this kind of judgment later, we can choose to face reality now. Pretense, hypocrisy, spiritual cosmetics don’t make sense if they’re ultimately failing, self-destructive strategies. So we choose to face the truth now … and seek to live accordingly.
That will change the direction of our lives (i.e. repentance) and set us on a course of living in harmony with our beliefs about God (i.e. faith) and as a result – we will become a different (better) kind of person than we would have otherwise been. As that happens to more and more people, the trajectory of the world’s future shifts from self-destruction to hope (kingdom of God). Jesus, I believe, came to accomplish this very thing.
Posted by: brian mclaren at May 9, 2005 08:08 AM
Hi all – here are some responses to some of your questions …
Brian, thanks for the courage and gentleness in addressing some very difficult issues in your recent writings. I think one of the major contributions you’re making is a gentler tone of voice for Christian faith dialogue.
I’d imagine it was quite challenging to do the metaphorical archeological dig for the history of hell, and your latest book might be perceived as doing too much to decouple the notion of hell as eternal conscious torment from the Gospel’s more holistic message and intent, rather than presenting an answer or prescription for how to live out the Gospel for the sake of the Kingdom.
Perhaps it’s too much to ask for in one book to do both? Or, to say it another way, might some of your readers be asking for too much, for you to both deconstruct and to construct in the span of a book?
Posted by djchuang at May 9, 2005 08:44 AM
A: DJ – thanks for your kind words, and for recognizing this limitation. It’s hard to do one thing reasonably well in a single book, much less everything! Your question encourages me … because the book I’m working on now is about the Kingdom of God – an attempt at reconstruction. I hope it will pick up where this one left off. But without addressing the hell question, I fear that changing “fine print” on the theological contract won’t make much of a difference.
Brian, Why do so many western Christians behave the way they do and focus on law rather than the great commandment? If I understand you correctly you are saying that a major factor is their undestanding of hell. But couldn’t the real problem be our understanding of what it means to believe instead? That we have never figured out what James 2:18 was saying? One of my concerns with your emphasis on hell is how it balances grace and works. Isn’t there a danger of devaluing grace?
Posted by Tom at May 9, 2005 10:14 AM
A: My friend Dallas Willard says that many of us are not only saved by grace, we’re also paralyzed by it. Grace, as I understand it, energizes us for good works, and good works have nothing to do with earning … they have to do with creativity, fruitfulness, joy, life, giving, caring. You’re right – nobody needs to go back to Pelagianism, etc. I hope nobody gets a sniff of that in my work. But I do hope that my work encourages people to see that good works aren’t a bad thing – they’re actually one of the purposes of the gospel (I don’t have a Bible with me – but maybe someone can post that beautiful verse from Titus in this regard … )
The Eastern tradition didn’t seem to become so preoccupied with a) legal metaphors for salvation ( preferring medical ones), b) original sin as an ontological blot that must be removed, c) determining who’s in and out in eternity (though it’s very clear who’s in and out in the true church for them). Their focus (as I discern it – and it’s hard for an outsider to be accurate) has been more on Christ as the healer of the cosmos … he assumes humanity and heals it, he enters history (like medicine) and heals it. We live in the outworking of that healing. No, more – we’re part of it.
Brian–really enjoyed the book, it has helped me deal with some of the fundamental baggage I’ve had for a while about hell and evangelism. I especially liked the list/categories of the scriptures dealing with hell in the book. My question is more on the practical side–how do we raise these questions in our conservative churches without being stoned. I am still working out my own views on hell and the gospel–and it is like a fresh new wind in my life, but in honesty, it’s been difficult to share this or translate it in my faith community. Any thoughts?
Posted by brian orme at May 9, 2005 10:17 AM
A: Based on my experience, I don’t recommend you raise these issues in your church … unless you feel a special calling and empowering from God to do so. First, you could hurt the church – it may not be able to handle dialogue on this. (Many of our Protestant churches have a sociological unity based on uniformity of opinion and can’t yet handle the more difficult unity based on love in diversity). Second, you could get hurt quite badly yourself – people can be quite vicious when these kinds of questions are raised! So far, nobody has used literal stones on me, but there have been some hard verbal rocks thrown, and they can leave bruises.
Instead, I’d find a few close friends with whom you can have honest dialogue and work this out with them. Then, get on with living well.
Question: I’m a pastor in the United Church of Canada, and I’ve noticed that a lot of the time, when I read about the emergent/emerging church I find myself saying “Hey, that’s us!”
As a denomination, we in the UCC:
–try to draw on to the best of the traditions and experiences that came before us.
–we try to learn from past screw-ups.
— we try not to be bound by “we’ve always done it this way”
— we strive to be inclusive, basing that theologically on the life of Jesus.
— we try to speak a relevant Word in creative and meaningful ways to a searching world.
The question: Are we emergent????
A: Sounds like it, Sue! There’s a lot of room in this conversation, and there’s a lot of work to do together, so I’m for welcoming everyone into the journey who wants to learn and contribute.
“Salvation by grace, judgement by works. There’s nothing in the Bible clearer than those two realities. Of course, you have to define salvation in Jesus’ way, not just modern Western Christianity’s.”
“I didn’t realize that being judged isn’t the same as being condemned and that being saved means a lot more than not being judged.”
In Banff you spoke of justice and mercy. Now, I see a link. I’ve always been perplexed by the legitimacy of me being a good Christian – that is, to “follow” a deity who obviously cared about the poor, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan, the ignored and overlooked – while not doing any of the same.
The notion that we will be judged by our works makes intuitive sense to me, as long as we broaden our narrow Western Christian definition of “judgement”. While recognizing that this probably falls under the “I don’t know” category, can you elaborate a little on this idea of the judgement of believers?
A: First, thanks for noticing those sentences. I felt they were pretty important when I wrote them. The biggest thing that comes to my mind is how little this subject comes up in our conventional understanding – but how real it is in the NT. Maybe somebody would like to post some of the Scriptures that speak of judgment of believers. Again – it doesn’t mean condemnation: it means giving an accurate assessment. Let me think on this some more and see if I can add something – but I expect other people in this conversation will add something better than I can.
Brian, what does that in-between space look like? Right now, I don’t get and don’t particularly want to get Jesus. But I also don’t want to go elsewhere? Where in our current Christian culture is there room for us “between people”?
(p.s. when I say I don’t particularly want to get Jesus, maybe what I mean is that I really don’t want to get the evangelical cultural Jesus. I’m so tired and sad that it just doesn’t seem worth it)
Posted by Lisa at May 9, 2005 01:39 PM
A: Lisa … I have a special place in my heart for people like you, because I think you probably get Jesus a lot more than you realize, and maybe a lot more than the rest of us. What is making your tired and sad is probably the same kind of thing that would make Jesus feel that way … and maybe those are some of the things he had in mind when he said, “Blessed are they who mourn.”
Here’s a thought: what if you were to try an experiment – assuming that God was no less with you in the in-between place than he is with anybody anywhere? And what if you were simply experiment with following Jesus in the in-betweenness – not to earn anything, not to prove anything to anybody, but just to try to live in his way … say, working with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). It would be especially good if you could do this with some other friends who felt the same way … and maybe you could all post your experiences over a month or two. I think that would be a worthwhile experiment.
Q: My unending challenge is to find ways of incorporating progressive, “emergent” thought into my teaching and theatrics, while never coming right out and saying… such and such. It must be subversive. Subversive teaching certainly makes for engaging drama, but as a spiritual lifestyle, it is painful – like a little butter spread over too much toast.
A: This wasn’t a question, but it sure was well said!
Posted by: brian mclaren at May 9, 2005 06:16 PM
Hi, all – Thanks for your interest and good discussion … Here are a couple of replies to some of the questions you raised …
I do have a couple of questions for you. The quote that Dan gets from Markus I quite like that. But if it is only all about making the world to a better place, it can seem like we are just doing what the NGO’s are doing. You can argue that they are also doing Gods work also, so is there any difference between the work of the NGO’s and the work of the church, and what would that difference be?
A: I’m comfortable saying that NGO’s are doing work that pleases God … but if they aren’t proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and the truth about Jesus, that means there’s still more to do. And of course – if we proclaim the good news of the kingdom and the truth about Jesus without doing “good works” … we’re not doing the whole job either! I think we should rejoice whenever people are doing good … and we should do what Christ has commanded us to do, which is an integral holistic mission of proclamation and demonstration.
Also, I never say it is ONLY about making the world a better place. I’m just saying that is a BIG PART of the good news and it shouldn’t be left out. An important distinction, I think you’ll agree.
An other question relates more to the whole triology. I suppose you can say that a new kind of christianity is about a more inclusive christianity. But would there in your understanding of it be a bounded set and centered set or would it only be a centered set, and how do you define the bounded set – especially regarding leadership.
A: Thomas – great questions from Denmark! I talk about bounded, centered, and dynamic sets in A Generous Orthodoxy and More Ready Than You Realize. In short … of course, there is a sense of boundaries that we must maintain. For example, a hospital needs to know who its doctors and nurses are. They can’t let just anybody come in and try to perform surgery! But the purpose of being “exclusive” regarding staff is so they can be inclusive regarding sick people who come in needing help. This is a very different kind of exclusion from an elite club, for example. I hope our churches resemble the former.
I agree that our understanding of hell and salvation must be redescribed and refound in a postmodern context. I remember an old Danish professor I once heard speaking on this topic, I think she was a bit like Ruth Mitchell in the book. She said, that the doctrine of hell especially develloped with the reformation and the enlightenment and the modern era and the extreme focus on humans. She said something like this: Who are we to think that we have more power than God and can decide for ourselves if we want to be saved or not? He didn’t ask if we wanted to be created – did he? Creation was an act of love from God not something we could choose or not – so it is with salvation as well. It’s the continuation of the evolving creation of God.
Posted by: Lasse (DK) | May 9, 2005 11:51 PM
A: Lasse – this is a very different approach from most approaches I hear, which emphasize free will. Interesting point – we have no free will in being created. God “imposes” this good gift on us. You’ve given me something to think about!
Have you ever heard of Ken Wilber (non-christian, American, post-post-modern philosopher)?
What do you think of his Integral work (“A Theory of Everything”, “One Taste”, “Sex, Ecology and Spirituality”, “Grace and Grit”, Commentary track on “The Matrix” etc.)?
Can/should there be any highly visible conversation with him and Integral?
A: Whitewave – I refer to Ken’s work in my book “A Generous Orthodoxy.” I think he’s doing important work. A friend of mine is an acquaince of his. Perhaps someday there will be some contact. I don’t agree with him in everything (that would apply to just about anybody for any of us!) … but his work has helped me in a number of ways, especially A Theory of Everything, Marriage of Sense and Soul, and Boomeritis. Jay Gary (jaygary.com) is a committed Christian who studied with Wilber and is applying Wilber’s work to Christian mission. Great fellow!
Q: Ok now I am the third person from Denmark who comments on this post (I don’t that has happened before). I am also glad to have finished the book! It actually made me think (like the two other books did).
I have had some discussions for two years a go with one of my friends (Thank God that he still is my friend (I was not really old at that time and not that mature in my Christian life)). Well I was an exclusivenist. I told him that I thought that he would end up in hell. In the last two years many things have happened with my theology. You can say that I have become more inclusive and stuff like that. Well, that was a bit of the context. After the conversation about hell my friend and me haven’t spoke much about Christianity. He got scared away (looking back in the mirror I don’t blame him). I have a difficult but beautiful responsibility to tell him about my new thoughts about Christianity. But I am not sure how (but that is my own problem). My problem is that I don’t know what to tell him. Because the Good News can’t just be that I have chanced opinions. What is the Good News for my friend – if it has nothing to do with eternal life? And what is the Good News – if he does not people in Jesus? And if he starts believing in Jesus does it mean that he has to stop smoking pot (which is one of the only things he is really enjoying)?
And what is the Good News for the people in my church, who have always believed in bringing people to Church/Heaven being their only purpose? The only thing they are doing. I don’t think it is Good News to tell them to stop doing the one thing they have done and believed in all their life.
I think I have used my space on this site for now!
Posted by: Simon (DK) | May 10, 2005 04:42 PM
A: Simon – great to hear from Denmark today! First, I wouldn’t want to swing to the opposite extreme – from an overemphasis on afterlife to an underemphasis or denial of afterlife altogether. That would be a terrible mistake. The message of the kingdom embraces people alive on earth now and those who are not now visible to us. It’s a both/and thing …
As for your friend, I would tell him this good news: life in the kingdom is available to all – including potsmokers from Denmark! God invites all of us to rethink our lives and consider joining in the life and work of the kingdom of God. (This might not be the best language to use … but that’s another story.) When we begin living in the kingdom – many things will change. He may just find that there are better things than smoking pot, just as consumerists discover there are better things than consumption, etc. But that will come in time – with the Holy Spirit’s work.
I like what the other commenter said … part of our witness is admitting when we’ve made mistakes. I think God’s grace flows when we’re humble in this way. Your humility shows through beautifully in your post.
Q: I guess my question is why reformulate the concept of hell just because some people focus on eternal in an overboard way? Couldn’t the Gospel of the Kingdom not contradict the Gospel of Salvation? Part of God’s grace is that we deserve judgement. Couldn’t it be that we send ourselves to hell not God? Jesus says if you don’t believe Me you are condemned already in your sins. “It is appointed unto man once to die and after this the judgement.” To me it already seems consistent. I don’t understand the need to reformulate. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Posted by: dh | May 10, 2005 05:24 PM
A: DH – As I said above – we shouldn’t overreact to some people’s improper balance by creating an equal and opposite improper balance, so I agree with you in principle. But the situation is more complex than it appears.
If you aren’t having problems with the conventional doctrine of hell, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you do someday have problems with it, my book may be of help to you.
Those of us who are questioning the conventional formulation aren’t doing so to be trendy or cool or compromising or reactionary, etc., but because we’re trying to be faithful to the Scriptures, and we’re concerned that the conventional doctrine doesn’t do full justice to the Scriptures.
Thanks again, everyone! Maybe Jason and I will meet some of you in Denmark next year. Warmly – Brian
Posted by: brian McLaren | May 11, 2005 02:36 AM
Hi, Adam – OK, first the confession: I don’t have an iPod. If I did, I don’t think I’d have time to download songs into it. Pathetic, I know. Maybe someday. I am a huge lover of music, though, and have just been listening with delight to my friend John Mortenson’s mostly live CD of Irish music called “Plays Well With Others.” Irish music is good for my soul. I’m also a fanatic Bruce Cockburn fan (when’s the next CD coming out?) and love just about anybody who’s a singer-songwriter … Steve Bell (who’s working on an album of Cockburn songs – but he’s a splendid songwriter himself), David Wilcox, Bob Bennett, Michael Kelly Blanchard are “old” favorites, along with Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morrisette, Jewel, Bonnie Raitt … but there are so many great new talents coming along too. I can’t keep up with them all.
Now to your first question … For me, things really started happening when I first heard the term “narrative theology.” I can’t remember where I first heard it, but it may have been Jim McClendon’s work. Anyway, N.T. Wright (for the NT) and Walter Brueggemann (for the OT) have probably helped me more than anyone in reading the Bible narratively.
When you have a sense of the Biblical narrative, you stop reading the Bible so much as a source of proof-texts for a systematic theology … and you read it more as a conversation taking place in an unfolding story. (This is really the point of “The Story We Find Ourselves In” – Book 2 in the trilogy, and in many ways, its centerpiece.)
As well, when we enter the narrative imaginatively, we start asking, “Why would Jeremiah say this? Why would Jacob do that? Why would an editor include this story in this way, in obvious tension with the way the same story was told in that other version? What was Habbakuk trying to get his readers to feel, do, think – in their specific historic/political/religious context?” That’s when things – for me, anyway – get even more interesting.
Of course, all of this brings us to look at our world – Darfur, Congo, North Korea, the Religious Right, the global economy, Bill O’Reilly, American Idol – and ask the right questions here and now. What dangers do we need to expose and confront? What sparks of hope or virtue do we need to fan? Who is suffering and forgotten? How does God want us to respond?
I hope that’s helpful. Feel free to follow up, as this is such an important question, and I may just be rambling.
Posted by: brian mclaren | May 9, 2005 08:32 AM
Just wanted to stop by once more to see if any other questions came up.
Joshua – thanks for your comment. it’s interesting … I’m less sure that we MUST have a system; I wonder if for some people in the future (as in the past) the narrative itself will carry the freight that systems carry for us in modernity. If the system is an attempt to extract from each story, poem, law, etc., a timeless statement that can be integrated with other timeless statements into a timeless system … some of us think that the desire for timelessness is itself a somewhat (not exclusively) modern thing. A narrative approach seeks timeliness more than timelessness, I think … its goals are more modest, maybe echoing Deut. 29:29. We need to know what to do to be faithful to the Lord, as our children will need … and their children, and so on.
But I suppose we humans are constantly seeking coherence and comprehensiveness, and if that’s what you mean by system, I don’t disagree at all.
Thanks, all, for good conversation here at pomomusings. Keep up the good dialogue!
Posted by: brian mclaren | May 10, 2005 10:49 PM
Hi, all –
Thanks, Jordon, for the chance to visit! For some reason, I’m unable to log in, so I’ve asked Greg to post this for me. I’ll check back later this afternoon.
OK … why evangelize?
1. Jesus told me to. That’s reason enough.
2. People are like sheep without a shepherd. They aren’t living the abundant life. If they follow Jesus, they’ll find life.
3. The world is in a mess. Without good news, it’s going to self-destruct. Jesus teaches and exemplifies the way to a better life, not only for individuals, but for the planet.
What about “weeping and gnashing of teeth?”
The possibility is real that people (and groups of people) can waste their lives, play on the wrong side, fight against God, frustrate God’s grace, get in the way, cause others to suffer, miss out on life’s best joys (like the joy of giving). One of the primary meanings of hell language is regret over wasted potential, missed opportunities. I’m NOT a universalist in the sense of saying, “Look, everybody is going to heaven, so it doesn’t matter what you believe or how you live.” I hope that my line of thinking leads to a greater sense of accountability (especially among those Christians who seem to think because they have the right beliefs it’s impossible for them to face regret for how they’ve lived their lives).
HTH – Brian
By Greg, at 8:18 AM
Hi, all – here are two more replies …
1….however, I am challenged to more tightly integrate this with other Bible basics, ie. sin, atonement, final states… otherwise I get a sense Jesus becomes reduced to a dr. phil, oprah, self-help, make-the-world-a-better-place guru.
How would you articulate the necessity for the work of Christ, beyond his teachings, and its relationship with our response and eternal states? Hope that makes sense.
By Lon, at 9:57 AM
— Good question. I try to answer this a bit in “A Generous Orthodoxy” in my chapter on “seven Jesuses.” Let me sum it like this. As a trinitarian, I believe Jesus is God incarnate. So, the kingdom of God has Jesus as its king. A king doesn’t rule by teachings alone. A king rules by presence, involvement, example, action, intervention, motivation, etc. So Jesus is absolutely essential, not just for one thing (whether his teaching, his shed blood, or whatever) … he is essential for all things that he is and does as our king. He is everything to me.
2. Bonjour Brian,
Thanks for stopping by today. You certainly force us to dig right into thinking deeper about issues.
I am really challenged by what you said about hell. Are you saying there will be NO definite demarcation between righteous and unrighteous?
— NO! I’m not saying that at all! In fact, I’m saying the very opposite! Thanks so much for asking for clarification here. I’d hate for anybody to have this misconception!
How much can we soften up Matthew 25 : “41”Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
— I don’t want to soften that up at all! But here’s what’s interesting: Matthew 25 doesn’t say, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me … for you never prayed to ask me into your heart, you never confessed me as your Lord and Savior, you never said the sinner’s prayer, you never walked the aisle, you never identified yourself as a born-again-Bible-believin’ Christian.”
–So the conventional view doesn’t really deal with this text as well as I do, I’d say!!!
Are we not to take into account all the other passages mentioning hell, eternal fire, eternal separation from the presence of God, Hades, etc.? Isn’t salvation a demarcation, made visible by a life bearing fruits of repentance?
— I took a whole book to answer this question … We need to take every one of those passages seriously. I don’t think the conventional view does so. And yes … salvation is more than fire insurance: it is being healed from a sin-sick life so that we can live a healthy, fruitful life, just as you say.
HTH everyone! More later …
By brian McLaren, at 2:01 PM
Jordan asked …
You allude to the ‘abundant life’ and that it is a reality here and now.
My difficulty with that is where?
Where do you suggest we look to find this and learn it? I know that Jesus presented it…but what does it look like now in North America in 2005?
— Jordan, this is an incredibly important question. This is what “spiritual formation” is all about … helping people be formed into the kinds of people who experience and practice and convey abundant life. This is what I’ve been learning, little by little, for about thirty years.
I think it looks like justice (seeking justice for the poor, needy, oppressed, in whatever small or large ways we can – as Mother Teresa said, little things done with great love can change the world), peace (living in reconciled relationships with others – Christians, nonChristians, atheists, Buddhists, Iraqis, everyone we can), and joy (which flows from gratitude and other spiritual disciplines) in the Holy Spirit. A lot more could be said. Maybe others can chime in on this.
Sadly, too many of our religious institutions aren’t focused on answering this important question!
By brian McLaren, at 2:05 PM
Hi, all – I just stopped by to see if there were any more comments today.
Thanks again for the good dialogue. Keep up the great work, Jordon. You’ve got a great site and a great group of people gathering here.
Shane asked …
Do you believe in Hell?
— Shane, I believe in Jesus, and I believe in everything he said, but I don’t believe that we all (myself included) accurately understand everything he said, including what he said about hell. That’s what my book tries to explore.
Do you believe in the accuracy of Luke 16:19-31?
— Yes, of course! But I wonder if you believe what this passage seems to teach – that rich people go to hell, and poor people to Abraham’s bosom? I raise that question to point out that these things aren’t as simple as many people make them sound.
Are you a universalist?
Also – someone remarked about the irony of writing a book on hell saying we’re overpreoccupied with hell. That is ironic, you’re right … but actually, the book isn’t really about hell primarily. It’s about our view of God, and our understanding of the gospel. Thanks again, everyone, for some great dialogue!
By brian mclaren, at 8:02 PM
Hi, all – thanks for the great posts. A few brief comments …
Alex, I appreciate your concern about upholding the right boundary lines. I have no right (or desire!) to change anything God has laid down as unchangeable. I have no right to change or disregard Scripture. But I think you’ll agree, we all have the responsibility to test what we hear against Scripture. That’s what I’ve tried to do regarding the conventional teaching on hell. I am trying to be more Biblical, not less – more faithful to God, not less.
Martin Luther had to do this regarding issues in his day (not that I’m comparing myself to him!). Martin Luther King Jr and Desmond Tutu had to do the same. Whether it was indulgences or racism … both were accepted and even defended as being essentially Biblical, and those who questioned them were called troublemakers, heretics, rabblerousers. These reformers questioned the conventional understandings, not against Scripture, but based on it. So please be assured – I’m not trying to change the meaning of Scripture: I’m seeking to find and understand it.
Just one example for those who haven’t read the book … why do we assume that condemn, judge, not enter the kingdom of God, and send to hell all mean the same thing? What if they mean different things? By equating them, we run the risk of misunderstanding Scripture.
So many Christians quote verses from Matthew, Mark, and Luke about hell … but they are careless when it comes to asking, “What sends you there?” They believe in a literal hell, but they don’t preach what Jesus preached would send you there; they tend to preach that not believing what they believe will send you there. Again – this isn’t an attempt to be untrue to Scripture; it’s an attempt to be true to it. In the book, I have a pretty long table listing the various consequences of various bad behaviors from the gospels … I hope this demonstrates respect for Scripture, not a cavalier attitude.
Dwight – I loved the way you put issues of judgment in relation to the relationality of God. This is a very different picture from either a) the idea (amazingly common among American Christians) that God chooses some people to be saved from hell but tacitly chooses others to be forever tormented there, or b) the idea that God hates people who sin and can not rest unless they are tormented eternally.
Ryan – your question about the idea of Satan is interesting, but I’m rusty on the historical background. Can I recommend you read Walter Wink?
Rob – I’m sorry you feel that I treat Scripture and the Christian tradition in a cavalier way. I hope you’re wrong, and I hope that if this is your opinion of me after reading two of my books, you’ll at least keep praying for me … even passive-aggressive people need prayer, you know?
Everyone – thanks for your kind words. I’ll check back later this week to see if there are more comments/questions.
This is a great group of people gathered around the table with Dwight! – Brian
Written by: brian mclaren at 2005/05/10 – 00:46
Ron – about your dog. Don’t shoot him. Just don’t let him bite the neighborhood kids or make a mess on your carpet. He’s protected you from some mean intruders in the past, and it sounds like you’ve trained him pretty well. If/when he dies, keep a picture of him; he’s part of your life!
Written by: brian mclaren at 2005/05/10 – 00:49
Brian – thanks for your honest response. Dwight and I both teach at Mars Hill Graduate School – so I think it would be a great one to look into. There are a number of other good options too – more and more ever year, as I think (thanks be to God) that more and more seminaries are breaking out of some old ruts.
Written by: brian mclaren at 2005/05/10 – 03:49
Hi, all – I just wanted to check in once more and see if there were any other questions. I’m glad I did – Sky, your post was helpful to me. I’d love to know where the first quote came from – if you have an author or reference. Strongly stated!
My sense these days is that the Western church got off track way back there somewhere (largely becoming preoccupied with “juridical” imagery, as Sky’s quote said, and losing or downplaying all the other rich Biblical images of salvation – healing, rescuing, marrying, welcoming home, etc). To find our way back to the path, we are wise to listen to our Eastern brothers and sisters. (We also need, I think, to listen to our brothers and sisters from cultures that were trampled by colonialism, but that’s another story for another time.) Maybe this is one of God’s clever uses of our schisms, a way that (as Ecclesiastes says) two are better than one … when one person (group) falls, he can be lifted up by his companion. Woe to the one who falls alone (or who won’t accept help from anyone outside his little tribe!).
Thanks again, everyobne, for good conversation. Thanks Dwight, for hosting a safe and interesting place.
Written by: brian mclaren at 2005/05/11 – 03:15
Hi, all – great questions! Here are some brief replies …
Do you think there is still an appropriate way to talk about hell without it meaning what most churches today intend it to mean. Would it still be appropriate to use it to imply God’s judgment on things that are unjust in today’s world, and things that are in need of restoration?
If not, Do we need to find a different way to talk about the need for justice in the world?
Posted by: Shane Pavlak | May 9, 2005 07:36 AM
A: Shane – great question. Here’s an analogy. We need to teach the passages of Scripture that talk about slavery. But every time we teach them, we also need to teach how they have been abused, and we need to give some narrative context so people understand what they did and didn’t mean to their original hearers. I think we need to do something similar today regarding hell. Meanwhile – yes, we need to talk much more (in my opinion) than we’ve been doing about judgment – that we all are accountable to God, and that right now counts forever.
Q: Brian – what sort of response have you had or do you expect from the Catholic community?
Posted by: Lorrie | May 9, 2005 08:00 AM
A: Lorrie – the Catholic community has a wide range of people, just as the Protestant community does. There are “religious right” Catholics, left-wingers, liberals, moderates, etc., etc. I’ve heard from a few conservative Catholics who respond very much like Protestant fundamentalists. I’ve heard from many Catholics who appreciate what I’m doing … one priest, for example, wanted to take a character from The Story We Find Ourselves In and create a parallel trilogy for Catholic folk.
In dialoguing with Reformed (Calvinist) friends, how can I discuss hell/heaven and get around their insistence on God only “saving the elect”?\
Posted by: kristen | May 9, 2005 08:39 AM
A: I think this is risky. For some reason, there seems to be a higher percentage of highly aggressive people among Calvinists (in my experience, at least.) More temperate Calvinists need to urge their brethren to become less pugilistic and more charitable, imho. But if you have Calvinist friends who are open to rethinking … I’d begin with the idea of election. I discuss this a bit in “A Generous Orthodoxy.”
Lesslie Newbigin (the great British missiologist) used to say that the greatest heresy in the history of monotheism is a misunderstanding of election – namely, that election is to elite, exclusive privilege. No, he said – election is to service and even suffering: we are chosen to serve for the benefit of others, not to the exclusion of others. We are chosen not just to be blessed (in this life, or the next), but we are blessed to be a blessing to others. All this flows from the original calling of Abraham. (See “The Open Secret” for more on this.)
This radical rethinking of the meaning and purpose of election opens the door to a lot of other ideas. N.T. Wright writes helpfully about this too.
Q: Brian, thank you so very much for all of your work, it has helped far more of us than you will ever realize. I have enjoyed certain things about each of your books, but what I really appreciate about this new one is that it is a topic almost everyone is interested in. Although I wanted to recommend the other 2 to others, not all of them would be helped by them. With this newest book, you don’t really have to explain anything about postmodernism or emergent, you can just the book out.
I recenly watched a documentary on the history channel on the history of hell,which really helped a lot to go along with your book.
As you have discussed this topic before, what seems to be the biggest or most common criticism that you have received? Thanks again.
Posted by: Benjy | May 9, 2005 09:46 AM
A: Thanks, Benjy. I saw that history channel show too – I wish it had been available when I first began my research – it was hard to find anything on the subject! The most common criticism … “Who do you think you are to question something the church has held without diversity of opinion forever?” The assumption behind the question, by the way, is flawed – there has been, from ancient times to contemporary times, a persistent “minority report” on hell. I’m not the first and won’t be the last.
Q: Brian, I think the book will indeed open up the dialogue re: hell. It’s a concept that is sorely in need of deconstruction. So, I have two questions:
As people grapple with various understandings of hell, justice, judgment, etc., how can we encourage them to embrace the inherent theological ‘tensions’ associated with these themes and avoid seeing them as being mutually exclusive?
The book’s character, Dan, (probably like most folks), tend to want things ‘nailed down’, yet scripture repeatedly seems to underline the mysteries of our faith, bidding us to trust more deeply. Learning from views other than our own goes both ways, right?
Posted by: Chris | May 9, 2005 01:10 PM
A: Great questions, Chris. I think Paul’s writings on “eating meat sacrificed to idols” (Romans 14-15, I Cor. 9-10) are very instructive. I’d begin by having people grapple with those passages (especially interesting when correlated with the Jerusalem Council in Acts). Paul doesn’t require uniformity of practice or opinion … he does require common commitment to love. (I Corinthians 13 wasn’t really written for weddings – but for churches with diversity of opinions, practices, and gifts!)
If we acknowledge this diversity and learn to hold both our opinions and our communities in love … I think we’ll be able to learn more, appreciate mystery, and maintain humility.
So far (I just finished chapter 21), this book is a lot more challenging than the others I’ve read (the first two in this series and Generous Orthodoxy, which introduced me to you). You wrote that you’d like to know the most difficult and helpful (or in some cases, both, I’ve found) things we’ve encountered in the book.
I am humbled to admit that Peter’s use of Tartarus was a shock, and I found myself wishing that I didn’t know that. ….Posted by: Eric | May 9, 2005 02:15 PM
A: Eric – ah, yes. This is the downside of education. It leads us into discomfort at times! Some describe the move from naivete to disillusionment to a new, higher, tested, wise simplicity (the second naivete). I hope you’ll find a straight path to the second naivete as you continue to pray, think, dialogue, etc.
As an analogy … I have an oft-quoted article that talks about Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. This doesn’t imply that I believe they are real historical people, right? Can the Bible writers similarly refer to stories or concepts from their times and not be expected to be affirming of their complete historicity?
my friend desertpastor asked that I stop by and say hey.
Hey. overall i’ve really liked your stuff. I must say I was surprized by Generous Orthodoxy (how much i really liked it) and a little disappointed in The Last Word.
I just really think the exchange between Neo and Dan where you have Neo explain to Dan
“But what about when Job says something about knowing that his redeemer lives and asserting that he will see God in the flesh?”
Neil replied, “I think Job is saying that he believes he’ll recover from his terrible illness and be vindicated–not as a soul in heaven but in this life, in his own body. At least that’s how I see it.”
Is so incredibly lame. And that the bad part is that EC and POMO folk will now use Neil’s answer to Dan as some sorta Dead Sea Scrolls way to explain away Hell.
You usually talk about the question being more important than the answer, and that answers arn’t all that neat. You must have forgot that pages 46 thru 50 something.
Overall you say some really good stuff. But you need to be more careful. I mean some of the folk I know treat your words like they’re inspired.
If nothing else you are making Christians think.
God knows that needed to happen.
Love you in Christ.
A: If we had time, I’d like to know why you think that Neo’s response is so lame. Be assured – I believe in resurrection! But I don’t think that is necessarily what Job was talking about. Taken in context of the whole book – he’s not very exccited about saying, “Yeah, it’s OK that I’m suffering because in heaven it will all be better.” Don’t you agree?
But listen – if you hear anybody taking my words as more than just one guy’s honest thinking – which is tentative, fallible, and never to be taken as more than that – please tell them I don’t approve!
By the way – please be assured that I’m not trying to explain away hell! I’m trying to properly understand it’s history, meaning, and use by Jesus and the apostles. An important distinction.
Posted by: brian McLaren | May 9, 2005 05:17 PM