Last spring, Hugh Hewitt, the host of the appropriately named radio talk broadcast, The Hugh Hewitt Show, speculated on the air that because The New York Times had not reviewed Rick Warren's best seller, The Purpose-Driven Life, the newspaper's editors were guilty of bias against evangelicals. How else to explain the paper of record's neglect of such an overwhelmingly important book? As Hewitt explained on The Weekly Standard's website, "The news weeklies and the major book reviews convict themselves of the worst sort of prejudice when they refuse to recognize a phenomenon of this magnitude."
Hewitt's explanation is by no means airtight but it does help to put Warren's book in perspective. The talk show host's comments, in fact, raise two important questions: First, what would a reviewer for the Times do with this book? Second, what accounts for the book's popularity? Answers to these questions turn out to yield important measures of Warren's amazingly popular book.
The average book reviewer for The New York Times would likely be a non-Christian. Even if he or she were a believer, reviews for the Times need to be accessible to its non-Christian readers. The readership of the Times means that the newspaper is primarily an organ of the American public, a body that is religiously mixed. Reviewing Warren's book then could be likened to reviewing the Bible in the Times. Asking a nonbeliever to review an explicitly religious book is not impossible, but it is uncomfortable.
No matter how popular Warren's book, then, his audience in The Purpose-Driven Life is not the general American public but Christians, and specifically evangelical Protestants. This is clear from the preface where Warren gives advice on how to use the book. He expects readers to devote forty days, one day for each of the forty chapters. He also observes that forty days comprise a period that God often used to prepare his greatest servants (e.g., Noah, Moses, Jesus). Read this way, Warren assures, "The next 40 days will transform your life" (p. 10). (Imagine a secular reviewer claiming the book failed because the reviewer's life had not been changed.) The book also comes with a covenant page on which readers may sign their names (along with a partner) over Rick Warren's own signature in order to discover God's purpose. This is no ordinary book, at least in conception and sales.
Yet, the transformation promised seems upon reading the book to be remarkably abstract. The Purpose-Driven Life is the evangelical equivalent of the golf technique book. Golfers spend most of their lives looking for that one "swing thought"-such as "keep your left elbow straight," or "shift your weight to the ball of the right foot during your backswing," or "let the club do the work,"-that will enable them to hit the ball long and straight all the time (except around the green). Warren's book gives Christians what amounts to a different swing thought for forty days running. It is not clear what Christians are supposed to do after the forty days. But it is clear that carrying around forty different swing thoughts would harm even the best of golf swings. The analogy also works for the Christian life. So how does the reader of Warren's book take this collection of how-to tips and channel them into a purpose-driven life? The author leaves the impression that the decision and willpower implicit in signing the covenant with Warren is as important to a transformed life as any of the life tips conveyed in the book.
Some of the "points to ponder" are hardly objectionable. For instance, Day 3 gives readers this: "Living on purpose is the path to peace." Day 18 advises: "I need others in my life." Day 30 says: "I was shaped for serving God." These are all true but hardly life changing. In fact, when tallied up, most of the points amount to truisms that most readers would readily encounter either from listening to their pastor or reading any best-selling Christian book. The five overarching themes that give shape to these daily points to ponder run as follows: "You were planned for God's pleasure"; "You were formed for God's family"; "You were created to become like Christ"; "You were shaped for serving God"; and "You were made for a mission." The subject of these purpose statements is telling" They are all you.
Indeed, the greatest objection to the book is that it gives little substance on the why's and wherefore's of the Christian religion before moving on to the how-to's of the Christian life. For instance, in Day 11, "Becoming Best Friends With God," Warren starts with the "intimate" friendship that Adam and Eve enjoyed with God, then passes briefly over how the Fall ended that friendship, thus making Christ's redemptive work necessary. Warren writes, "Jesus changed the situation. When he paid for our sins on the cross, the veil in the temple that symbolized our separation from God was split from top to bottom, indicating that direct access to God was once again available" (p. 86). This is all true. But it is hardly the whole story. And by explaining the history-changing work of Christ in the context of being best friends with God, Warren trivializes the profundity of the gospel. In fact, his book reflects an unwillingness to consider how the deep and mysterious truths of Christian doctrine actually contribute to the transformation of lives. To understand as Martin Luther did the sufficiency of Christ is to know the only adequate basis for serving God and loving neighbors.
But as ordinary as its content is, The Purpose-Driven Life's author is not an ordinary minister. And this is key to answering the question about why the book is so popular. Thanks to his numerically successful congregation, Saddleback Valley Community Church, and his first best seller, The Purpose-Driven Church (1995), Warren is an evangelical celebrity, thus tempting publishers such as Zondervan to open the marketing vault to launch and publicize his books. Here is how a story on the Forbes magazine website described the kind of media blitz that stars like Warren attract:
When it came time to launch his book ...Warren used Pastors.com to invite churches to participate in a "40 Days of Purpose" event.... The 40-day-long event attracted 1,562 churches and was kicked off with a simulcast broadcast to all those churches. Some 267 radio stations ran a "40 days campaign" during the same time period. And a CD of "Songs for a Purpose-Driven Life" featuring well-known Christian artists was also released. From the start, the books and CDs were distributed in mass-market retailers such as Wal-Mart ... Costco ... Barnes & Noble ... and Borders. It quickly became a New York Times best seller and has already sold 5.8 million copies, outselling Billy Graham and making it one of the most successful book promotions in Christian publishing history.In other words, this is more than a book: It is a marketing phenomenon. Anyone who doubts this need only turn to the last two pages of The Purpose-Driven Life, which are advertisements from the publisher for The Purpose-Driven Life Journal, The Purpose-Driven Life Scripture Keeper Plus, and, not to be forgotten, The Purpose-Driven Church.
Despite the hype, the effects of The Purpose-Driven Life will likely be that of many a diet plan. Readers with the best of intentions will try to implement Warren's advice, and some may even regard changes in their lives as life-transforming. Would that these same readers would attend to the truly transforming words of Scripture, both read and preached each week, the very means that Christ himself promised to use to change his own people from those dead in trespasses and sin into those alive in him.
Darryl G. Hart is Director of Fellowship Programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (Wilmington, Delaware) and author of several books including, John Williamson Nevin: High Church Calvinist (P&R, 2005) and A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Ivan R. Dee, 2006).
Issue: "Forgiven, Forgiving" March/April 2004 Vol. 13 No. 2 Page number(s): 45-46
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