Appearing before a small group of journalists at a Pew Forum conference in May, bestselling preacher Rick Warren (The Purpose-Driven Life) presents himself as a working pastor with no aspirations to be a celebrity, who just happened to write a historic book: “When you write the best-selling book in the world for the last three years, that changes your life,” he confides in passing. He gets “a lot of invitations to speak” and turns down many. He has chosen to address our small group “because I only speak to influencers…. I read all of your stuff all the time,” he says in a hyperbolic appeal to our vanity. “Thank you for helping me grow.”
Of course, Warren himself exerts immeasurable influence, as pastor of a mega-church (Saddleback Church in Orange County, California) and author of the pre-eminent religious self-help book and its spinoffs, including The Purpose-Driven Church, Daily Inspiration for the Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Life Journal (consisting largely of blank pages with inspirational prompts). Warren has been fairly characterized as the leader of a “purpose-driven movement” (for a sense of its scope, check out RickWarren.com). Ten percent of America’s churches have engaged in “40 Days of Purpose” programs, Warren notes, which have “spread” to secular organizations, including sports teams and major corporations such as Ford, Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola, not to mention the military. According to the New York Times, a recent Air Force-sponsored “Spiritual Fitness Conference” offered US-based chaplains workshops based on the book.
The appeal of Warren’s simple, inspirational message (God loves us and has a purpose for us all) is impressive, but the proliferation of seminars, workshops and sequels based on a bestselling book is hardly unprecedented. Warren’s success follows the trajectory enjoyed in recent years by other inspirational, religious or spiritual self-help authors, like Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williams, John Bradshaw and Robert Bly. What distinguishes these mega-successes from books in the same genre that enjoy respectable sales at best is often not content but timing, marketing and luck (if not God’s will).
Warren and his supporters would likely disagree; in their view, what distinguishes him from other inspirational writers is his rejection of self-centeredness and the ethic of self-gratification (as well as his heralded decision to donate 90 percent of his royalties to the charitable work of his foundations and ministries). “This is not a self-help book,” Warren announces in the opening chapter of The Purpose-Driven Life, because it eschews belief in the primacy of the self and exhorts us to seek help and a sense of purpose from God: To discern your God-given purpose, study the Bible and focus on your relationship with Jesus. “If you don’t have such a relationship, I will later explain how to begin one,” Warren assures you.
His articles of faith and his anthropomorphic vision of God as Benevolent Despot are familiar: God loves us all and wants to be loved back. “God smiles when we love him supremely.” God also wants to be trusted, obeyed “wholeheartedly,” praised and thanked “continually.” He does not want to be challenged: “The Bible says, ‘What right have you, a human being, to cross-examine God?'” The usual incentives and disincentives prevail: Accept Jesus, on his terms, and be saved; reject him and suffer eternal damnation. Warren’s tone isn’t stern or scary: He focuses on the promise of salvation rather than its alternative, although he stresses that life is short.