Rick Warren's "Purpose-Driven Life"

This review of Purpose-Driven Life was my first ever look at what can be termed "Christian self-help" literature. I never bothered with such material in depth before, as each time I ever tried to read one to see what it was about, it became comparable to digesting milk. I never read such a book for more than a quarter of its length, and I will have to report honestly that Warren's book was no exception.

I do not mean this as a slight. Undoubtedly Warren's book has helped many people, but that it has done so is perhaps more of a commentary on the sad state of the church than it is anything else. Amazon reviews fairly tell the story, divided between people who are practically gushing over how Purpose-Driven Life set them straight, while others object vociferously to how lacking in spiritual maturity it is.

For my part I am closer to the latter group. I found Warren's commentary repetitive after only a few chapters; it seems likely that this is a result of the desire to stretch the material into a symbolic 40-day program. Moreover the advice he gives -- which amounts to "God has a purpose for you" -- is the sort of thing your average Israelite in the Ancient Near East would have taken for granted. Is it not a sad commentary that we need to be reminded of this simple and basic truth 40 different ways by Warren's text?

As an apologist with a scholarly bent I was also disturbed by key factual and contextual errors. Warren's text is geared towards our modern, individualistic society. He uses mostly modern paraphrase translations like the Living Bible, with orientations that would turn an anthropologist pale.

Warren seems to be aware that our individualism is partly responsible for our difficulties; the advice he gives to dive headfirst into the body of Christ and its service is sound -- but he does not see (or note) that the two orientations are basically at odds with each other. The ancients were collectivists who would never have asked such "self-centered questions" as, "What do I want to be?" Warren rightly answers that our identity is found in God, but without framing this in terms of the mutation of individualism, Warren's answer only addresses the major symptom while leaving the germ that causes the disease untouched.

Another example of anachronism that made me groan: Warren says that Cain's "guilt disconnected him from God's presence..." [28] As we have noted several times from Malina and Rohrbaugh, specialists in the anthropology of the Biblical era, "the introspective, guilt-oriented outlook of industrialized societies did not exist" at this time, and, "It is because the ancient Mediterranean world was a highly collectivistic, agrarian society that guilt was virtually unknown. Reading it into ANY biblical text is a serious mistake." I wish I could say that this is merely a minor error, but it isn't, because guilt-oriented theologies govern our churches, and statements like these by Warren only serve to perpetuate the error.

I applaud Warren's effort to instill purpose in the lives of our people, and for pointing to the only possible place -- the Throne of Grace -- to get it. That is why this book receives a recommendation for babes in Christ who crave spiritual milk. But readers should be cautioned that their purpose-driven journey should not end here, or they will ironically end up frustrating their own purposes for picking up Warren's book in the first place.