Considering the wild popularity of Rick Warren, as pastor, author and leader within Evangelicalism, we know surprisingly little about the man. It would seem that he has deliberately withheld information about himself, which of course, fits the theme of his bestseller The Purpose Driven Life which is, “it’s not about you.” A Life With Purpose, subtitled “Reverend Rick Warren – The Most Inspiring Pastor of Our Time” is, as far as I know, the first published biography of Warren. It is not a strictly chronological biography, but instead is more topical. I have to admit that I felt quite skeptical as I began this book, knowing that it was written by George Mair, an author whose previous titles include, Paris Hilton: The Naked Truth, Inside Hbo: The Billion Dollar War Between Hbo, Hollywood, and the Home Video Revolution , Excelsior! : The Amazing Life of Stan Lee and Under the Rainbow: The Real Liza Minnelli. I was interested in seeing how an apparent tabloid author approached Rick Warren.
This book is surprisingly light on biographical details, primarily because such information is not widely available. I would estimate that truly biographical facts would comprise only 20 pages of the book. Mair conducted no interviews with Warren or anyone close to him. Instead, he seems to have relied primarily on secondary sources, collecting whatever details he could find in books and publications. The book contains no footnotes or list of sources cited. A Life With Purpose, then, represents less of a biography and more of a collection of the facts about Warren that are publically available. It also contains extensive commentary on the programs and books Warren has written.
Allow me to address the author’s commentary. After reading the book I am still uncertain as to the author’s religious background and beliefs. Generally when I read a biography of a Christian personality, it has been written from a professed Christian and the perspective is clear. In this case it seemed that Mair was perhaps even professing to be a believer. He lavishes praise on Warren throughout the book and often speaks positively of evangelism and other facets of Warren’s programs. However, he makes many clear doctrinal mistakes and rash oversimplifications that seem to cast doubt on his understanding of Christianity, both in history and theology. For example, the book begins with a short introduction to Christianity in America that immediately betrays the author’s ignorance. He mixes Christianity with New Age, and often oversimplifies. “Protestants experienced a divide between modern thinkers, who identified with modern Bible critics, and fundamental thinkers, who followed the Bible literally” (page 17). Later, when addressing “change vs status quo,” he writes, “But if we assume that everything, including religion, needs to be able to change in order to survive, then it becomes clear that status-quo churches are only destroying what they are so desperately trying to hold on to. Though the success of the mall church model can’t be completely equated to Rick Warren’s success at Saddleback, they share the passion for growth and change that some older churches lack. They are willing to take risks, to challenge the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” crowd” (page 122-123). He portrays traditional churches as blindly clinging to tradition, and thus to the status quo, rather than more accurately clinging to the instructions of the Bible. A final example is within the author’s commentary on Week 3 of The Purpose Driven Life. “Although God creates us all, we don’t immediately become a part of His spiritual family. We must have a second birth through baptism to truly become children of God” (page 145). This is neither a traditionally Protestant understanding of baptism, nor would it be Warren’s understanding. Beyond these concerns, the author also makes several factual mistakes and I was often left with the impression that he had filled-in details about Warren’s life where such information was missing.
Having addressed my concerns, allow me to comment on the book’s positive aspects. Mair rightly identifies Robert Schuller as being a profound influence upon Warren, and Norman Vincent Peale being a primary influence in Schuller’s life. He briefly traces the confluence of theology and psychology through Peale and Schuller and suggests that Warren has taken the models developed by those two men and brought them to new levels of popularity. Though he provides only a cursory examination of the topic, I have little doubt that many others will address this topic in detail in the future. He also examines other formative influences, such as Donald McGavran and Gilbert Bilezikian. Second, Mair did enough research that he was able to collect many facts that were previously unknown to me, and surely to many others. As such, this book does provide as much information about Warren as we are likely to know until the publication of an official biography. Finally, I enjoyed the author’s secular perspective. He lauded many of the aspects of Purpose Driven methodology that concerned Christians highlight as being more secular than sacred. Having read far too many Christian examinations of Warren’s ministry, it was interesting to read one that seemed to be written from outside the church.
While far from a perfect biography of Rick Warren, I still found this book interesting and somewhat informative. I am not convinced that the research is entirely honest, nor that the author truly understands Warren and, even more importantly, Christianity. Yet if you are interested in knowing more about Rick Warren, this is the only show in town, and for that reason I will provide a tentative recommendation, but a recommendation premised on the warnings above and founded more on my interest in the subject matter than in the quality of the publication. The book is quite short, at 210 pages (but with large font, wide spacing and many blank pages) and easy to read, despite poor editing for a major publishing company. In the end, it seems that this is a book designed to cash-in on the success of The Purpose Driven Life, but it is one that is not entirely without value.