McLaren, founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Washington-Baltimore area, builds off his award-winning book A New Kind of Christian to offer a relevant interpretive word for a postmodern culture.
Reading the prequel is not necessary to understand this latest work. Though written as a fictional novel (he terms it a “creative essay or dialogical essay”), McLaren says the conversations and characters are drawn from real-life events and people.
The story picks up some 18 months after the events of the first book when the Jamaican-born iconoclast Neo (Dr. Neal Edward Oliver) contacts his friend Dan Poole, a pastor of a community church in the D.C. area. Neo (whose nickname comes from his initials) helped bring Dan back from the edge of burnout in New Christian.
Neo asks Dan to help a friend, Dr. Kerry Ellison, a biologist whom Neo met in the GalÃ¡pagos Islands at the Charles Darwin Research Center. Kerry’s cancer has resurfaced with a vengeance, and she is flying to the National Institutes of Health for treatment. Dan’s family adopts Kerry, who relates the “story” Neo had begun sharing with her in the Islands.
Kerry, the daughter of a mainline pastor, had been influenced by the conservative yet passionate faith of a youth intern. But his rigid theology didn’t hold up in college. She abandoned her faith and pursued science, earning a doctorate in extinction and the recovery of endangered species.
After a failed marriage, a crisis with her son, radical surgery and three years of cancer treatment, Kerry joined the staff of the Darwin center. In the Islands she met Neo, now a chaplain and tour guide, whose background in science becomes a bridge to Kerry’s world. She finds herself intrigued by Neo’s unorthodox yet deeply spiritual approach to faith and inquires about its source.
Without quoting scripture, Neo unfolds the Christian story in a series of seven “episodes”: creation, crisis, calling, conversation, Christ, community and consummation. It is this larger story of God’s purposes that constitutes “the story we find ourselves in,” suggests Neo. This story gives us “in-formation”—it “forms us inwardly with truth and meaning,” he explains.
Neo spends a great deal of time on episode one, creation, and attempts to bridge the scientific view of evolution with a spiritual interpretation he calls “a story of emergence.” McLaren’s attempt to give faith a voice that combines both mystery and relevance to everyday life is admirable and creative—and sure to spark controversy among those who need a more literal interpretation of the biblical narrative.
Each episode builds off Neo’s conversation begun with Kerry in the Islands. More of the story unfolds as she undergoes cancer treatment. Kerry’s son, Kincaid, also becomes drawn in as Dan uses this “story” to offer a word of hope in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a real-life event woven into the storyline.
For the most part, the conversations seem natural, though the dialogue about atonement theories seems a bit didactic. Still, the treatment of the biblical narrative is insightful and engaging—and seems the kind of approach that is needed to engage spiritual seekers of the 21st century.
Dan’s conversation with Kincaid, for instance, provides a wonderfully fresh model of relationship evangelism. The book itself could provide the same, and McLaren offers a simple format for a small-group study.
As it unfolds, the “story” not only embraces Kerry and her son, but it begins to reshape Dan’s theology and practice as a pastor. His new way of being Christian, however, doesn’t quite square with his own church, suggesting the tension that postmodern ministry brings to those who require more doctrinal “truth” and clear-cut answers than Neo’s “story” offers.
As the book concludes, one already sees the seeds sprouting for a third volume. And perhaps that is the point McLaren wants to make most: that the story we find ourselves in is a never-ending story full of relevance and meaning for every generation.
Michael Tutterow is senior pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C.
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