Review: THE LAST WORD, AND THE WORD AFTER THAT
I first began reading Brian McLaren a few years ago with Finding Faith, and just recently read and reviewed a Generous Orthodoxy - but what I've been waiting for this past year is the next and final book of the trilogy that started with A New Kind Of Christian, a book that changed the way I think about relationships and conversation first, and about my own Christianity second.
In The Last Word, And The Word After That (copyright 2005, Jossey-Bass Publishers), McLaren continues the tale of Dan and Neo - almost, because the characters and the author try to pull completely away from the Matrix coincidences before digging into what becomes the main pursuit of the book: "what the hell is hell all about?" Our story opens with Dan still embroiled in controversy at church, only it's now escalated to having him on administrative leave while the council decides if he's gone off the theological deep-end and if he's still welcome as their pastor. The accusations and misunderstandings, and Dan's hurt and confusion over just trying to be true to himself and what he feels God is doing within his own life - all of that tended to hit close to home, mirroring some conversations and email threads I've participated in over the past few years since the publication of the first book.
I'm not giving anyone a spoiler by saying this book is preoccupied with hell. The entire introduction gives that plot point away (something I think might've worked better as an afterward, but I'm not the powers-that-be), and it gets after this subject fairly early on. Opening dialogue of exclusivism, inclusivism and universalism leads into conversations with Dan's daughter, a hermaphroditic poet and Neil Oliver (Neo, without the nickname), and those conversations lead... all over the place really. My take on Dan and Neo is that they are more preoccupied with their own personal integrity and sincerity in their beliefs than in "getting it right". Ask the questions, deal with the ambiguity, and when it all breaks down and you can't make sense, then "I don't know" works pretty well (that's the title of chapter six, "I Don't Know"). In some ways, Dan's "descent into hell" probably parallels the poetry in Dante's Inferno, but really it's just a man and his friends asking questions to try to make sense out the who and what and when and how of God's mercy and justice played out in an eternal timeframe.
What does Dan discover about hell and heaven and Mesopotamian afterlife myths? I'll leave that to the reader. What I appreciate most about the book is that Dan, in the midst of his internal searching, finds people who are also searching, who are also looking for conversations and asking questions that they are scared will get them excommunicated from their local church. That's just so real, isn't it? I mean, there are people who are solid and unwavering and unquestioning, and sometimes they get in the way of those who are just asking different questions and looking for something more meaningful than before. In finding "co-conspirators", he has found friends, and he is encouraged that the questions are at least valuable in giving meaning and hope to real relationships in real community - the kingdom-life being lived together, making sense in working it out together.
Our view of salvation, of the gospel, of our own purposes here and beyond will hinge at least a little on our concept of hell and eternal punishment, and heaven and eternal bliss. I don't know that I have any more "answers" on those topics now than I did before reading the book, but I really sincerely appreciate the conversation and being able to join Dan on one more journey.
One more note: read the other two books first. McLaren wrote the book in such a way that you don't need the backstory - but you do. Trust me on this. You need to know about the Amish Jellies and watching the mating patterns of turtles in the South Pacific. These chats and coffee breaks and questions and confusions and hopefulness have served to entertain and stretch me in ways non-fiction probably wouldn't be able to touch.