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The Purpose-Driven Life
by Rick Warren
Zondervan Press, 2002

commentary by David Henderson

There must be a hundred ways to discuss The Purpose-Driven Life. Since it came out, it has become something of a publishing phenomenon, breaking all kinds of records. Its author, Rick Warren, is the founder and pastor of the huge Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. The methods used at Saddleback to create its incredible success were chronicled in Warren’s first book, The Purpose-Driven Church. Around these two volumes are a panoply of other marketing tools designed to share Warren’s formulas for growth, ecclesiastical and spiritual.

The Purpose-Driven Life seems itself to be purpose-driven. It assumes much, but it presumes more. Apparently, it has found its largest audience among small groups. That’s a good thing, since it is in the context of such sharing that the best and most productive theology gets done. There is really something here for every Christian, but it needs to be discussed among a group of questioning individuals who will evaluate its suggestions and significances, hoping to make some of them their own.

The book is divided into 40 daily readings, grouped into categories including "You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure," and "You Were Shaped for Serving God." Its format is ideal for Lent, so for my Lenten discipline this year I challenged myself to read one chapter each day, and write a short reflection to share with friends. It is this type of deliberate practice that both affirms and contradicts Warren’s understanding of theology and the Christian faith. Giving yourself time to reflect deeply about Warren’s words and discuss his conclusions with others is helpful to seeing this book clearly, with all its blemishes and beauty.

After coming to the end of both Lent and The Purpose-Driven Life’s final chapter, I did some research on how the book has been received. Many of Warren’s critics have been unkind both to the author and his intentions. I for one bet Rick Warren is a super nice guy. I’d also wager that he is not guilty of deliberately attempting to derail two millennia of Christianity. If the church he pastors has caught any of the enthusiasm and vision exhibited in this book, it must be a fine place to learn and implement the Christian faith.

Nonetheless, The Purpose-Driven Life has its problems, the first being the book’s theocentric theology. I hope groups studying the book will question this at some level. In the first sentence of the first chapter ("It’s not all about you."), Warren throws down this gauntlet. All the prophetic and ethical necessities for such a beginning aside, maybe this comment alone will cause some readers to question the theological value of a book that seems to be assuming that it can slip into God’s head and proclaim where divine attention is focused.

Among Christians with strong devotional practices, the purpose of God’s entire scheme of redemption is focused on the individual ("If I were the only person who stood in need of redemption, Jesus would still willingly have come to earth and died for me"). We teach our children to sing "Jesus Loves Me" fully knowing that such an assertion appeals boldly to their childish egocentrism. Our understanding that God is aware of every grain of sand on the beach and hair on our head still remains one of the most profound realizations for Christians of any age.

One way in which Christianity interprets theism does underscore our insignificance in the vast realm of God’s creations, and the condescension of Jesus to provide our redemption. The finest expressions of this doctrine, however, have been those that emphasize that the same God who values each one of as precious also has the immense creativity to invent a universe that leaves us in awe and convinced that we can never understand the magnitude of the divine. Only when we realize that it is all about me, can we realize that it’s really not. And only when the issue of our true insignificance is acknowledged can we finally begin to grasp how wonderful it is that we do matter to the heart of God.

Since the book is written by a Christian very much in the tradition of this theology, both wings of this paradox eventually do get adequate ventilation. However, it almost seems by accident; Warren doesn’t appear to be aware that a paradox exits, one that requires more thought than a simplistic affirmation.

This simplistic affirmation also extends to The Purpose-Driven Life’s approach to the inspiration of scripture. It strikes me as curious that an author who cites fifteen versions of the Bible occasionally ignores both context and interpretation to make his point. We are expected to agree that, because scripture has been quoted, God has spoken, even when the quotation sounds forced. When someone begins a comment with "The Bible says…" there’s no telling how scripture is going to be used, or abused. Content cannot be divorced from context without the danger of inaccurate conclusions, and Warren slips down this slope on more than one occasion.

Finally, there’s Warren’s emphasis on finality. Without trying to rob Christianity of its eternal dimension, I still can’t agree with Warren’s emphasis on the significance of events as seen from an eternal perspective. Once again, we are asked to accept the assumption that nothing temporal is of value. While scriptural support for such an assertion can be found, the broader teaching of scripture is that it is precisely because of eternity that temporal things take on significance. Here is yet another paradox of our faith, one whose implications are understood only when it is seen in all its dimensions. When we look at our life here on earth as one that matters in the world to come, that gives us one more reason to cherish our temporal existence. That does not mean that everything we do has an eternal impact, but it does mean that when we recognize the implications of The Eternal, even the details become important

Yet having said all the above, and despite its potholes, The Purpose- Driven Life is a rewarding read. Warren is not afraid to condemn human hubris and folly, or to encourage us to defer to one anther in recognition of our place as members of humanity and as believers. And though he stumbles at times, Warren is justified in attempting to discern patterns of thematic thought in scripture. The Purpose-Driven Life does have purpose. Especially when discussed by a group, the book has the potential to stimulate good discussion and spiritual growth.

Copyright @ 2004 David Henderson

David Henderson is a former Baptist minister who is now involved in mentoring small groups in the Episcopal Church.


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