Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Warren on the Purpose-Driven Life: A Short Historical Write-Up

The following ended up sounding more negative than I intended, since I really did like the book and thought it served FBC well years ago when the church went through it:

Rick Warren is undoubtedly one of the United States’ most influential pastors and one of the public faces of mainstream Evangelicalism. He and his church have had a huge impact on congregations across the country – and now across the world – through their ministries, in particular through the book The Purpose Driven Life and the small group curriculum/church extravaganza that it is designed to be paired with. The main goal of the book is to engage people in the task of living out God’s purposes for them on this earth in place of some other purpose or purposes that might be pursued instead. It aims to inculcate a sense of direction and of purpose that can be lived into and used to order the various priorities, desires, and goals one might have in day-to-day living that vie for volitional control within one’s mind or will. An orderly, energized, focused life is the ideal goal to be imperfectly pursued in a process of spiritual self-formation.

There are, of course, criticisms one could make of the book. It definitely is not meant to address every person in every circumstance where they might be at and does not show any awareness how particular uses of language may alienate some female readers, as it has in fact done in at least some instances. Nor does it do a perfect job with its use of (often very paraphrastic translations of) Scripture, though at least some of that can be chalked up to audience and format, which does not allow an in depth exegesis of particular verses in their contexts and a subsequent exposition based on this. At least from a critical view, of course, some of the uses of the Scriptures do not really support or say what he is using them to support or say. In Warren’s defense, however, it is hard to find a pastor who does not fall into this from time to time, particularly when speaking on such a popular level. There are certainly pastors who are also very good exegetes, but they are a minority and I do not think we should expect pastors to all be so (though that would be very nice indeed), since not all are given such gifts or talents. It does do a good job of portraying the sort of unsophisticated use of the Scriptures that we can work to improve and show by both example and explicit teaching how to go beyond.

As a kind of how-to manual for self-formation, of course, people are likely to criticize it for not being something else they would rather have. Such books, for instance, always have the danger of being too self-focused, a danger that Warren admirably does in fact try to ameliorate with his constant call to focus on God and others and to live as a member of a community of faith, though this is admittedly at times lost in a focus on one’s own self-interests (the rewards one can get, for instance, from God for being faithful). This, of course, is just a symptom of American Christians’ often not-so-successful struggle to get out of the bonds of individualism and self-focus that are practically bred into Americans and into their perceptions of religion and the Christian life. We want to know how something will benefit us and how it relates to us and focus on ourselves as the center and focus of our own spirituality or religious path. Religion is a consumer affair, like everything else in our culture.

This brings me to one of my biggest pet peeves about this book and about American (and much other) Christianity as well, which is the focus in parts on “going to heaven” when we die as if that was the great hope for Christians. Rather than the cosmic vision of the bodily resurrection of God’s people and the concomitant restoration of all of creation, the earth and the physical universe included, such as one finds in places like Romans 8 and in pieces all throughout the New Testament, we are given a limp, bland, self-centered picture of getting to go as a single solitary individual to a disembodied heaven away from the earth when I die. Christian eschatology has nearly dropped out of the picture, replaced with a kind of Platonist placebo. Such views, however, are common in the individualistic churches we find here in the West. “Going to heaven”, where this is understood as personal, individualistic persistence as a disembodied spirit in an immaterial realm separated from the physical universe, is seen as the great hope and goal of the Christian faith. This has usurped the classical and biblical view of our great hope as being the renewal of all things, including the resurrection of our own bodies, the hallowing of the physical, and heaven descended to earth. The cosmic, physical, redemptive gospel has become a personal, immaterial, escapist fantasy. This almost Gnostic flight from the historically and physically-oriented view of our destiny is something we ought to continue to work to correct in our churches.

The individualism of the book, particularly as it has infected its eschatology, is the main think I would correct in this book as I find it most irksome. The book as a whole, however, has much to say to many people, whether or not it falls short in all the ways listed here – what book does not fall short in many ways or fail to do everything one might want it to do? It offers hope and direction for a more real and deep relationship with God, realizing one’s divine purpose in life, and fleeing from self-serving goals and externally- or self-imposed purposes in favor of the purposes of our life that have been ordained by God, who is the center and anchor of all things.

No comments: