Pilgrim’s Progress or The Last Word?

I’m not quite done with McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That but I’ve come to a point where I want to put some of his book in perspective. Two observations tonight.

First, a smaller one but one that needs to be said. McLaren’s essential stance in this latest novel (or whatever one calls a book where we’ve got two fellas sorting out their theology) is rhetorical. That is, he’s trying to get a conversation going about hell and heaven and the shape of the gospel in the light of the “old model” and the “new kind of Christianity model.” He’s accomplished this. I’m not done with the book, and I’m not quite sure if McLaren stands with Neo or Dan, and I don’t think it matters right now, but he’s got lots of people thinking about this topic. So, he’s done what he set out to do. Bravo for him because this is a significant topic, and it brings to light an untold number of theological issues and stances. I’m not saying McLaren’s views are embedded in this novel, but what I am saying is that the function of the book is to get the conversation rolling.

Very few author actually generate this much conversation; those who try to do that and pull it off are extremely rare. Most successful books take publishers a bit by surprise.

Second, and more important. What McLaren is reacting to and moving away from can be seen in what is probably the second most read Christian book in history — behind the Bible. That is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Many of the younger generation have perhaps not read this classic, but folks of my age and ilk have. Our pastors and parents spoke of those characters — like Talkative and Pliable and Mr. Money-Love — as if they were sitting in the pews behind us and creeping up on us so they could cart us off to the Land of the Apostates.

Here’s why I think Bunyan is a good foil for McLaren: the entirety of The Pilgrim’s Progress is the journey of one Christian from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, and nothing, and I mean nothing, dare get in his way. The book is about getting to heaven, and what it takes to get there, and about the threat of hell, and how easy it is to get there. There is a constant threat of apostasy and hell-fire and damnation for what seems to many today as little more than a “moral slip” or a “careless habit.” Rigor is a word that comes to mind about the book, and what haunts the book from beginning to end and what drives the book constantly is the threat of hell and the reward of heaven for those who persevere. Increasingly, the current generation wants little to do with this emphasis.

This is what McLaren’s “new kind of Christianity” is reacting to; and over against this McLaren is proposing that we start all over again and seek to understand what the gospel and the Christian faith — nay, the work of God in the world — are all about.

I’ve been a fan of Bunyan since my high school days. As a senior I toted him to my first hour study hall the entire fall and read through it. I was a bit unnerved by his overemphasis on perseverance — as I was reared among the eternal security sorts and what made one secure was asking Jesus into your heart. But, I got over it and made it a constant source for years. Just this last year I read it again. I still love it.

But, McLaren has the goose by the neck on this one. Bunyan’s classic is a classic in part because it is extreme in emphasis on the threat of hell and because it expresses what may be called the Puritan gospel. But, anyone who wants to sort things out, as McLaren does, on the basis of what Jesus taught will run into conflict with dear old Bunyan. Jesus talked about the kingdom, and what he meant was not “heaven after you die” but “the manifestation of the will of God on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, kingdom for Jesus is a perfect balance of the here and now with the by and by. Bunyan never got that balance, and (I confess) that I thank him for it — he reminds of Final Accountability and provides the Ultimate Warrant with a graphic story that we also find ourselves in.

In addition, with Bunyan we have Individualism in its extreme form. Bunyan has a friend or two with him, and they have all kinds of nice conversations, but by and large there is almost a complete neglect of anything like a genuine community or an ecclesiology. Some will carp with me about this, but my own read of Bunyan is that fellowship is “a place to be refreshed on the way to the Celestial City” rather than the community that is exhibiting the embracing grace of God in this world as an alternative community. Christian’s friends in The Pilgrim’s Progress had better keep pace with him or they’ll be left behind — and maybe eternally.

McLaren’s new kind of Christianity is redressing these imbalances. The gospel, for McLaren, is about kingdom in the here and now and it is about a community wherein that kingdom vision has its way.

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  • Scot/Dr. McKnight…I’ve been tracking your blog since you’ve stared it and I want to thank you for your gracious, thoughtful reflections. They inspire me to think deep, write well, and extend grace to all.I appreciate what you’re saying about BMc’s book. I think this exactly what he’s trying to do… get the conversaton going and address the extremes. Sometimes one must state something extreme to balance the extremism (to which we are all prone toward).I fear that too many will read this book as Brian’s or Emergent’s “last word”… but it’s more like the first word that desires conversation.Much of the critique against emergent seems to get so personal, so fast. Why do I hear so much anger and emotion over the conversation?Thanks again. God’s peace…

  • I appreciate your point, Scot. To see the “imbalance” in the book as a “counterbalance” to get a conversation started is a helpful way to read the book.

  • Scot,Thank you for the great thoughts. I linked to your post here:http://willzhead.typepad.com/willzhead/2005/05/scot_mcknight_o.html

  • Scot, if McLaren does anything well, he is really good at getting people talking. I’d love to hear your take on this. McLaren as conversation starter can be seen as someone who is trying to get a faulty faith thinking about truth, or to get orthodox faith doubting their orthodoxy. I value the conversation, but I see how people are super-defensive about it. How would you respond to them?Thanks.Stevewww.stevekmccoy.comwww.stevekmccoy.com/sbc

  • Steve, your comment is as provocative as McLaren himself. Thoughts:I have come to this conversation through a different door. I’m not particularly obsessed with postmodernism and its epistemology, though I do think I’ve learned quite a bit from postmodernist historiographers. Which means this: historical Jesus studies are limited in usefulness; they are limited because the Gospels are the “story” the Church tells about Jesus, whether that story can be proven by historians or not. Second, I have not come to the conversation through the ecclesiological issues — though my Anabaptism definitely leads me time and time again to resonate with so much of the Emergent folk on starting all over again, and radical commitment, and anti-worldliness complemented by embracing and reaching our world in its own terms.Third, I come to this more theologically than anything else. I have been working on the “gospel” for a long, long time and constantly kibitzing with pastors and preachers to “broaden their gospel”. All of a sudden, I see the same emphases in the Emergent movement and I say “I belong in this conversation.”So, now to McLaren. I think you have the goose by the neck here: McLaren is a provocateur who wants to disturb the complacent, ill-defined traditional faith of evangelicals. He and Wallis are both, you may know, former Plymouth Brethren and they are both fighting the same fight and pushing for the same holistic gospel.Which means he is doing “both” of what you say: trying to get faulty faith (the evangelicalism he knows) to think about truth (in a chastened form) and trying to get the “orthodox” (read: traditional evangelical faith) to doubt that (ill-defined) orthodoxy.I’m not so sure McLaren deals that often with orthodoxy in its classical senses. Yes, he affirms the creeds and all that, but the emphasis of his writing is not “this is what we have always believed” but “this is what we currently believe that is all confused and confusing.”Thanks brother for asking me to respond to this one.

  • Steve Argue, Nice website there.Thanks for the remarks.

  • Scott,I have appreciated your blog for the past few weeks now. Thanks for writing!I like what you are saying, and I agree that for a long time the emphasis has been on getting to heaven, more than knowing Jesus and belonging to his Kingdom. We need to make the correction today. But I think Bunyan, and the Puritans in general, have a more complicated view of salvation and church than you suggest here. And I believe part of the difficulty in understanding puritan thought is the battle/conversation they found themselves in.The puritan era was, in my estimation, the end of the Reformation. Carrying on with Calvin’s theology, and being frustrated with the Church of England’s worship and practices, they sought a pure theology of worship. Therefore their writings reflected that emphasis more than many other issues. Theirs was an emphasis on gathered worship over gathered community. It needed to be at the time. Also, their culture was Constantinian, and they found themselves needing to address the nature of conversion and the individual’s walk with Christ because most presumed to be converted when in fact they were not (Eternity became a real issue). Church was important to most. The community of faith was present, expansive, and mandatory in some of the American Colonies. So they found themselves perfecting the doctrine of conversion, the spiritual experiences of man pre and post conversion, and the ways to counsel the seeker.In the end their soteriology was very individualistic, but at the time it had to be. So I am not sure it is fair to pit Bunyan against McLaren since they were having different conversations, addressing different problems. I would suggest that we use the puritans today where their conversation is relevant, and McLaren today where his conversation is relevant.Just my thoughts. Thanks for writing man. I have really enjoyed it.

  • Sorry Scott for the double post, and the lack of ID. I am a local pastor here in northern IL.

  • Joe,Thanks for your comment. Informed and helpful to me. Perhaps it is easiest to say two or three things:First, I’m pitting McLaren against his putative “discussion partners” and he doesn’t mention them and so I invent one. I can’t think of any shaping of the Christian life that is more individualistic than Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It is what he set out to do.Second, I’m sure you are accurate about Puritans having an ecclesiology and the like. My comment is less about Puritans than it is about the sort of thing McLaren finds distasteful in the Evangelical sub-culture, and probably no book has had more influence (though it is sadly waning now) than Pilgrim’s Progress.Third, because their focus was (as you say too) individualistic, the impact was on conversion as individualistic. It is that heritage that McLaren is fighting against.Brother Joe, the more I think with you on this one the more I think Bunyan is the foil for McLaren.I know most don’t see that my mom and dad swiped a “t” from my first name.Can I ask where in Northern Illinois?

  • Excellent comparison of Mclaren and Bunyan.

  • Scot,I am the pastor of a new church in Elburn (44 miles west of Chicago). We planted a few years ago and constituted last June. Thanks for asking.

  • Scot,Thanks for your insight! This was an “ahh” moment for me, because I have been reading McLaren for a few months (as well as attending his church a bit) and was wondering what fundementally he reacting to. I am a political scientist by nature and was taught that systems of thought emerge in reaction to something (e.g communism/conservatism reacting to classic liberalism [not political]).Unfortunately, I am a “young evangelical” so I have not yet read “Pilgrim’s Progress”. You have inspired me to read it in an effort to more fully understand these “emergent” thoughts.-jeremy