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Volume 16, Issue 5: Ex Libris

The Purpose-Driven Cheese

Brendan O'Donnell

The Purpose-Driven Cheese®
reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell
Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven® Life has hung around on the bestseller lists for some umpty-hundred weeks now, proving that what we evangelicals lack as a cultural threat, we more than make up for in irrelevant spiritual Atkins-Diet® fads. Someone at Zondervan has taken pains to register the phrase Purpose-Driven®, apparently so that they get a slice of whatever market-driven® paraphernalia the Purpose-Driven® phenomenon begets. Warren plugs a whole cheekload of such Purpose-Driven® truffles throughout the book, including Purpose-Driven® devotionals, journals, something called a "Scripture-Keeper Plus," and his 1995 study in ecclesiology, The Purpose-Driven® Church. Of course many faced the inevitable Purpose-Driven® yuletide epidemic on immune systems already weakened by spending the past few Christmases praying with Jabez.

The Purpose-Driven® Life is meant to be read and implemented over forty days, a number which Warren got after studying famous Bible stories of other people's forty-day individual spiritual journeys—Noah's forty days of rain, Moses' forty days on Mt. Sinai, Jesus' forty days in the wilderness—journeys which "transformed" and "empowered" them. The same is promised to happen to anyone who squeezes into their biking shorts to undertake this forty-day journey with Rick Warren. In fact, to hold the beloved reader to the forty days, Warren has him (and a partner, for accountability) sign a covenant on page 13, which Warren has already signed himself from somewhere inside the Zondervan factory. Fortunately, I didn't have a pen handy, and neither did my accountability partner, so I breezed through in about three hours, counting breaks.
All in all, it's a rather comprehensive summary of early Twenty-First Century Modern Evangelicalism, and is built upon three seemingly invincible Modern Evangelical axioms that are getting to be as itchy and persistent as an unbalmed poison oak rash. One: there is no theological principle or spiritual weight-loss program that can't be made to rhyme with itself. At moments, Warren floods us with his poesy the way God drowned the wicked in Genesis 7. From page 213: "Don't repress it; confess it! Don't conceal it; reveal it. Revealing your feeling is the beginning of healing." With Dr. Suess dead, it's encouraging to watch Christians rushing in to fill his literary void; if only we could also approximate the late doctor's narrative coherence and attention span.
Two: there is no theological principle or spiritual weight-loss program that can't be boiled down to a trite metaphor. To wit, from page 207: "Heaven has a twenty-four hour emergency hot line . . . I call this a `microwave' prayer because it is quick and to the point." All this is to tell us that we need to pray when we face temptation, because "God is waiting to help us defeat temptation" with a dollop of piping-hot, cinnamon-sugar glazed grace, available with just one touch of His express-cook button.
Three: there is no theological principle or spiritual weight-loss program that can't be expressed as a cutesy acrostic. Do you want to find out what your ministry gifts are? Then find out on page 236 what your SHAPE (Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, Experience) is. In Warren's favor, he resisted the temptation to exhort us to "Get in SHAPE for God!" no doubt thanks to a panicky microwave prayer.
At his very worst, Warren comes across like a youth pastor with his hand on your thigh, breathing pious come-ons in your ear: "This is what God wants most from you: a relationship! . . . Can you sense God's passion for you in this verse? God deeply loves you and desires your love in return" (emphasis his). However, at his very best, Warren almost seems postmillennial and evidences an understanding of the church that ought to shame certain glass-chewing Presbyterians we know. Some of his advice is, all things considered, worthwhile to remember for workaday piety, and like all Christians who profess to love the Word, he's a latent Calvinist, even if he does his best to bury those tendencies in an avalanche of baptistic invitation-system evangeligloop.
Ultimately, though, this big ol' 64-ounce razberry-blue gush of evangelical Americana is structured by the pre-eminent heresy of our day: ". . . God designed his church specifically to help you fulfill the five purposes he has for your life." Thus, despite the book's initial insistence that "It's not about you," Warren gives us nothing more than a pious self-actualization program, in which the resurrection of the Son of God, the authority granted Him in heaven and on earth, and the church's true mission prove as readily dispensable as they are everywhere else in Evangelica, because these things get in the way of your purpose®. Warren quotes the t-shirt several times: Jesus stretches His arms out on the cross to tell you that He loves you "this much." For the modern evangelical, Jesus is as stuck on the cross as He is for a Roman Catholic. Warren doesn't mention the resurrection, whether of the Lord or of our future hope, at all. This wouldn't be so big a problem if the book didn't fancy itself as a one-stop spiritual center, effectually replacing the Biblical message with the miniscule vision Warren promotes. The book's sad pretensions to timelessness are explicit on the dust jacket, where Bruce Wilkinson prophesies that The Purpose-Driven® Life is going to be a spiritual classic treasured for years to come. If that happens, then "I love you this much" might make it into future creeds and revisions of the Prayer Book®. As Kurtz said, "The horror, the horror!"

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