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ON THE BEST-SELLING BIBLE SELF-HELP BOOK EVER

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By C. Fred Alford

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The Montréal Review, November 2021

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Reviewing Bible-based self-help books gets old quickly, but Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, is so influential it's worth reading, if only to figure out why it's so popular.  It's not new, but nothing new comes close in popularity and influence. 

The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years.  It sold 32 million copies within its first decade.  Fifty million copies had been sold in more than 85 languages by 2020.  A survey of Christian leaders in 2005 asked which books were most influential in their lives and ministries.  The Purpose Driven Life was the most frequent response (Wiki). 

The book has an intriguing side story.  Captive (2005), a docudrama, tells the story of Ashley Smith, who was held hostage in her apartment by Brian Nichols.  Smith told reporters that during this time she read chapter 33 of The Purpose Driven Life to Nichols, which she says led Nichols to release her.  After this story was on CNN, Warren's book became Amazon's number 2 best-seller.

A self-help book?

I imagine the book has helped some people live better lives, which is more than one can say for most books.  Nevertheless, I don't like it very much, and I'll tell you why.  Some reasons are shared with other Bible-based self-help books.  Others are unique to Warren.

Warren says his is not a self-help book.

"The Bible says, “Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self."  This is not a self-help book.  It is about becoming what God created you to be. (p 23)

By the way, don't go looking for this quote in your Bible (Matthew 16:25).  Warren quotes from a number of beginner Bibles. The Message Bible, quoted here, is a highly idiomatic "simplistic translation," as Wikipedia calls it.  I'm not sure this is all bad, for it makes scripture more accessible to some.  Still, the reader should be aware.

Revelation

How do you know what God created you to be?  The answer depends on God's revelation (p 24).  Trouble is, lots of people aren't going to have a revelation.  Others are going to convince themselves they have, but it will be the wrong one, driven by greed, lust, guilt, or shame.  Most will probably choose the socially approved one, the revelation the church deems proper, such as live a Godly life, whatever that means exactly.

Revelation just isn't an answer, and Warren knows it.  His real answer is to look at your skills and talents, and examine the situation God has put you in—that is, your life.  Balance the two.  Ok, but that's not terribly helpful.

Suffering

Human suffering is almost always the biggest problem confronting belief.  Warren doesn't so much fail to address this problem as fail to give a convincing answer.    

God never does anything accidentally, and he never makes mistakes. He has a reason for everything he creates . . . . God’s motive for creating you was his love. The Bible says, “Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love.” (Ephesians 1:4) (p 27)

This doesn't work.  Too often, for too many people, there is no evidence of God's love in their lives. Unless one discounts life on this earth entirely, then one must say that some people are born into Hell.  The Hell of child abuse and starvation, or the Hell of being born into a terrible place and time.  How does a six-year-old who is separated from his mother and gassed at Auschwitz experience God's love?  How does someone born schizophrenic, or deeply autistic, experience God's love?  If people live lives overwhelmed by suffering, how can they experience God's love?

Some do; that's worth remembering.  But life on this earth must count for something. I think it counts for a lot.  Watch the BBC World News for a week, an account of war, displacement, and starvation from around the world, and then say God never makes mistakes.  More likely, God does not direct the fate of individual lives, but of course we can't know this for sure either.  What we can do is be modest, admitting that given the world as it is, it's hard to say that we are all born to experience God's love.  Warren's certainty about God's love for people whose lives are defined by fear, starvation, and death is vainglorious.  To be sure, some people who live lives like this find comfort in the idea of God's love.  But to say "God loves you" to people caught in a living Hell of starvation and child murder is presumptuous. 

To behave in a way that's lovable

You were created as a special object of God’s love!  God made you so he could love you. This is a truth to build your life on.  (p 28)

If one believes this, if one makes Kierkegaard's leap to faith, then a reasonable reading of the Bible supports this claim. Of course, you have an obligation too, once you know this: to behave in a way that's lovable.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer made a similar point about God's grace.  It's free, but you have to live up to it for the rest of your life.   There's not much of this in Warren's book.  Not even love is free.  It comes with obligations, which receive little mention in The Purpose Driven Life

If God does not exist, then all is permitted

It's a widespread fallacy: If there is no God, then nothing means anything, and all is permitted.

If there was no God, we would all be “accidents," the result of astronomical random chance in the universe. You could stop reading this book, because life would have no purpose or meaning or significance. There would be no right or wrong, and no hope beyond your brief years here on earth. (p 29)

Many of the so-called great thinkers have addressed this question.  Aristotle had an answer. A good life, a satisfying life, is one lived in proportion, not taking too much, nor giving too little.  This applies not just to money, but to other virtues such as courage (don't be reckless, but don't be a coward either).  The "golden mean" it has been called (N. Ethics, book 2).  If you live like this you will experience eudaimonia, which means satisfaction from living a good life well.  Albert Camus, generally considered an atheist, argued that the good life takes responsibility for itself, and for others.  This is the message of The Plague.

Neither of these arguments depend on God.  Both depend on a belief that only certain ways of living are truly satisfying, and in this sense are their own reward.  And what if someone believes a life of rape and robbery is satisfying.  Then he is mistaken, both about happiness and morality.  Morality concerns the rules of living together, and a morally educated person knows that living by these rules leads to the most satisfying life. 

A decent culture and society, one that doesn't idealize greed or false heroism is enormously helpful in teaching and exemplifying these rules.  So are families that stay together, or communities that step in when families fail.  God may have given us the capacity to know natural law, as it is sometimes called, but this isn't Warren's argument. 

What's wrong with this story?

At Saddleback Church, we have a group of CEOs and business owners who are trying to make as much as they can so they can give as much as they can to further the kingdom of God. (p 265)

What's wrong with this story is that it's an enticement to greed.  First, pay your workers a better than living wage, provide good health insurance, time off, and paid vacations.  Make your company an example to others.  And if you can't do this and make money, then make less money. 

Remember the Bible story about the rich man who goes up to Jesus saying he's fulfilled all the commandments. What else can he do?  Christ replies give all your money to the poor and follow me.  The rich man went away sad, for he knew he was unwilling to do this.  The story is in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 19:16–30; Mark 10:17–31; and Luke 18:18–30), so it's likely genuine.  Nowhere does Warren mention this story.  It might make his readers uncomfortable.  Instead, Warren writes about financial stewardship, whatever that is exactly.

What's the structure of the book?

I'm trying to figure out the structure of the book, for its two parts don't fit together. 

First, it's all about the individual and God.  Consider "breath prayers."  Practice saying breath prayers all through the day.  Just choose a brief sentence or phrase that can be repeated to Jesus in just one breath, such as "you are with me," or "I'm depending on you," or "I belong to you." (p 91)  Breath prayers are the centerpiece of the first hundred pages of The Purpose Driven Life.  It's all about you and your relationship to God.  It's about becoming best friends with God (pp 87-88).  I'm reminded of the practice of going on dates with God discussed by Tanya Luhrmann in When God Talks Back.  No double dates, though, just you and God.  "Desire his friendship more than anything else" says Warren (p 94).

The second part of the book is about the church.  Warren gets it remarkably wrong, arguing that "the church is so significant that Jesus died on the cross for it. 'Christ loved the church and gave his life for it.'" (p 134; Ephesians 5:25)

Christ didn't die for the church.  The church didn't exist during his lifetime.  What we call church, ecclesia (ἐκκλησία), didn't come into existence until at least three generations after Christ.  Christ was not a Christian, and Christ knew nothing of the church.  Christ was a Jew who worshiped in the synagogue.  It's all in the gospels (Luke 2:41-52).  

Warren repeats.

Nothing on earth is more valuable to God than his church. (p 161)

Warren doesn't even believe this.  He writes as if he individual Christian's relationship to God comes firstThe book would have been more integrated had he wrote about the religious community as Stanley Hauerwas does.   As it is, the church often sounds like a thing.  Sure, Warren writes about supportive relationships among the members of the church community, but without the fervor of the first part of the book.  And he does so by making non-Christians come second.

Christians come first

Warren emphasizes that fellow Christians come first (p 126).  It's not true. If you want someone to come first, then read the Bible.  The Jews come first.  As Paul puts it, "it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile."  (Romans 1:16)  Jews come first because Christ was a Jew sent to redeem his people.  See too Galatians 6:10.

"Greater love has no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13).  The Greek for friend is philon (φίλων), sometimes translated as brothers.  Christ can't have meant "fellow Christians" for Christians didn't exist at the time Christ lived.  They didn't exist until almost 100 years later.  Warren destroys the universality of the Bible's message in order to make Christians special.  For Christ, all humans were brothers and sisters.  If anyone was special, it was the downcast and the despised (Luke 6:20-21). 

Conclusion

There is something irresponsible about The Purpose Driven Life.   It's not just the use of simplified translations.  Warren lacks what Dietrich Bonhoeffer possessed: the sense of deep obligation and sacrifice that comes with God's grace, and God's love.  It just can't be the obligation of wealthy and influential church members to make more money so they can donate more to the church.

The book opens with a covenant with God, including a place to sign your name.  It reads, "With God’s help, I commit the next 40 days of my life to discovering God’s purpose for my life." (p 17)  Rick Warren's "signature" follows as your partner. 

I'd put it differently, something like "For the rest of my life I will do all I can to help the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, and all they represent today, such as the poor, displaced, and hungry."  Warren's contract is a self-improvement contract.  The contract I suggest is concerned with helping others.  Which is more important?  Read the Book of James, traditionally the brother of Jesus.

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C. Fred Alford is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he taught ancient and medieval political philosophy for thirty-eight years. He has written eighteen books on diverse subjects: psychoanalysis and politics, natural law, trauma theory, and the legacy of the Holocaust. While not a professional theologian, Alford wrote a book on Emmanuel Levinas, one on natural law, and still another addressing the book of Job.

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References

Albert Camus, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert.  Vintage Books, 1972.

Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life.  Zondervan, 2012. 

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