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Book Review – Rick Warren and the Purpose that Drives Him

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Since Rick Warren’s rise to prominence, and especially since the release of The Purpose Driven Life, a lot of criticism has been levelled at the man, his ministry and his books. Some of this has been valid, fair and even necessary. As we would expect, some has been irrational, spiteful and borne of ignorance. When people accuse Rick Warren of wanting nothing more than money and riches it shows they have obviously not done their research into the man, since from all accounts nothing could be further from the truth. However, there are many believers who have serious concerns with what Warren is teaching. As one of those people, I feel I am well-versed in the primary concerns of Warren’s detractors. Thus I was interested in reading Rick Warren and the Purpose that Drives Him.

A few months ago I began to notice Richard Abanes, an author and apologist who attends Warren’s church (Saddleback Community Church) and who used to be on staff with Warren, posting defenses of The Purpose Driven Life in various online forums, including the ones at my own site. He wrote to tell me that he had written a book which would prove false many of the claims I made in my review of The Purpose Driven Life and in subsequent articles. A couple of days ago I received the long-awaited book, Rick Warren and the Purpose that Drives Him. At a mere 127 pages it took only a couple of evenings to read it. Having done that, I would like to provide a short review.

It is important to stop here and emphasize the importance of truth. As Christians we cannot allow ourselves to form opinions of a person or his ministry based on false information. The Bible gives us the responsibility of standing against what we feel is false teaching, but only in a way that is biblical. As attractive as it may seem to believe every rumor, we must seek out the truth. It is in that spirit that I approached this book – willing to be corrected if what I have believed is shown to be false.

First, allow me to provide an overview of each of the chapters.

The book begins with an introduction to The Purpose Driven Life, starting with the often-told tale of Ashley Smith who was taken captive by an accused rapist and murderer, but was released after reading him parts of the book. It continues to provide basic information about the phenomenal bestseller. The chapter contains a lament against those who criticize Warren which reveals the reason Abanes felt it was necessary to write this book. “[T]he most vocal critics of The Purpose Driven Life are not atheists or leaders of competing religions – they are Christians, some of whom are quite well-known and influential. Interestingly, many of these individuals are either former cultists or people who entire ministerial lives are devoted to rooting out the false doctrines of cults, the occult, and world religions. Although zealous and well-meaning, they have leveled a slew of false charges against Warren, decrying his book as a presentation of “New Age” beliefs and a wide assortment of heretical concepts. Even more surprising is how their groundless accusations are now being repeated by a significant number of senior pastors throughout America. Some of these pastors, in fact, have become Warren’s harshest detractors. As a result, there now exist a growing number of lay Christians who are not only accepting such criticism as true but are repeating them to others” (page 12). He goes on to provide his credentials – he knows Warren personally, is a researcher of religious systems and was given unprecedented access to Warren’s personal files and internal church documents.

Allow me to interrupt the flow of this review for only a moment. In this book, Abanes often tells us what Rick Warren really meant when he said or wrote something. The author seems to suggest, “You were wrong, I’m right.” Ultimately, though, only Rick Warren really knows what Rick Warren meant. While Abanes’ take is valuable and perhaps even right some or most of the time, in the end he can only truly speak for his opinion of what another person said. It is not usually the job of one man to defend another. It benefits the reader to be aware of this as he approaches this book. It is not a book in which Warren defends himself.

The next chapter contains an exclusive interview with Rick Warren in which Abanes attempts to ask Warren the tough questions. Unfortunately, the interview seems to fall short of being exceedingly valuable in this regard. For example, Abanes asks, “Do you advocate watering down the Gospel to cater to seekers?” Not surprisingly, Rick Warren answers with an emphatic “No!” But I don’t know of anyone who would admit to “watering down” the Gospel in order to “cater” to anyone. Even Robert Schuller would deny doing that. Here is another question. “So you do not endorse or adhere to Robert Schuller’s teachings on things like sin, salvation and pluralism?” And of course Warren does not endorse Schuller’s aberrant teachings. Abanes asks a little bit about Warren’s opinion of the Emergent church and probes his connections with Ken Blanchard and other New Age and apostate teachers, but in most cases neither the questions nor the answers are convincing or reveal anything new. That being said, it was nice to see Warren affirm the gospel and to hear his take on the problems of postmodernism.

The next three chapters serve as a brief biography of Rick Warren, his books and his ministry.

The heart of the book is in chapters four, five and six where Abanes tries to answer the charges levelled against Warren and his ministry. Abanes is a staunch defender of Warren and his Purpose Driven teachings. Much of the information he provides is helpful. He tries to clarify Warren’s position on many issues and explains his relationship with many New Age figures, such as Ken Blanchard and Robert Schuller. He provides the text from private notes sent from Rick Warren to Robert Schuller expressing concerns with Schuller’s increasingly-poor theology. He answers approximately thirty charges that have been made against Warren. Among the questions he answers are, “Not enough mention of hell?,” “Warren the Arminian?” and “Making God too safe?”. Yet strangely, he does not answer the most common concerns levelled against Warren and his books.

The single most common concern raised about Warren (at least in my experience) is his use (or misuse) of Scripture. This comes in two forms. First, Warren often quotes verses out of context or in ways that are advantageous to the point he is trying to make. He will often quote only a half of a verse if the second half does not support what he wants to say. Second, he uses poor translations and translations that say what he wants the Bible to say, rather than what God intended for it to say. There are times when this may be an honest mistake, but there are other times when it is clear that Warren has deliberately twisted a verse or taken it from its context to make it work for his purposes. Despite these two areas being of prime importance to those who are concerned with Warren’s ministry, Abanes gives this no attention whatsoever. None. Not a sentence.

Another common criticism is Warren’s prayer in the seventh chapter of The Purpose Driven Life. He leads the reader to pray, “Jesus I believe in you and I receive you” and then welcomes to the family of God anyone who prayed that little prayer sincerely. Yet this was before the person was provided any significant information about sin or repentance. It would be easy to asssume that the person was praying to receive purpose more than to receive Christ. This is a very common criticism, yet one Abanes does not address.

Those are only two examples and I could have provided more. I realize, of course, that Abanes cannot address every charge anyone has ever levelled at Warren. But it seems odd that he overlooked some of those that are most common and most serious.

There were times in reading the book when I felt unsure if Abanes even fully understood the nature of the criticisms levelled at Warren. This became obvious in his defense of Warren against charges that he is teaching New Age philosophies. I don’t believe that Rick Warren and Neil Donald Walsch are golfing buddies or that they get together on weekends to howl at the moon with their families. I don’t know that any of Warren’s critics believe that he is knowingly and deliberately a part of the New Age Movement. But this is what Abanes feels these people believe and he spends several pages proving the obvious – that Warren is not a New Ager. Yet even a person who is not a New Ager can teach things that are consistent with the New Age, and that is what Warren often seems to do. He has spoken at events with New Age leaders and has had some involved in his church. He may deny this, but it is documented fact. So while he is clearly not a member of the New Age, he seems to be, perhaps inadvertently, blurring the lines through his ministry. And this is of great concern to those who foresee a possible convergence between many Protestants and New Agers.

Enough. Suffice it to say that while Abanes does provide some helpful information, I do not feel this book offers significant information and argumentation that will change the minds of those who do not approve of Warren’s ministry. It will be easy to say that his detractors are merely hard-headed troublemakers, but an honest assessment will show that this book falls short of being a convincing apologetic for Rick Warren and all things Purpose Driven.

As I read Rick Warren and the Purpose that Drives Him I could not help but think of Jean Cretien, the long-time Prime Minister of Canada. He was a master at avoiding conflict. When the potential for conflict arose, he always seemed to come out looking clean. How did he do this? He simply denied that there was a conflict in the first place. He refused to allow himself to be driven off-course by his detractors. He was a corrupt and rotten politician, but one who survived years in the public eye, being elected time and again, by avoiding significant conflict. It seems to me that Rick Warren (and many other church and political leaders) has generally done the same. But for an ill-advised email to Lighthouse Trails Publications he has never answered the charges of his detractors. I would guess that the vast, vast majority of Christians who know of Warren and who have read The Purpose Driven Life are not aware that there is any conflict surrounding Warren and his book. It is entirely possible that Abanes’ book will actually work against Rick Warren, making people aware of a conflict about which they had, until they read this book, been entirely ignorant.

In the end I can’t help but conclude that Abanes simply does not understand the concerns people have with Warren and The Purpose Driven Life, and thus he does not answer their charges in a way that might cause them to change their minds. This book has some value and will serve to correct some of the false information regarding Rick Warren and The Purpose Driven Life. But it will not change the minds of those Abanes writes about in the first chapter. It may satisfy the casual critic who has heard these charges and is seeking clarity, but the astute researcher and student of the Bible will continue to have and to raise concerns with Rick Warren and his Purpose Driven teachings. I walk away from this book little changed. I still believe Rick Warren is a nice man and one who is genuine in his love for the Lord and his desire to do right by Him. But I also believe that he is, in many ways, inadvertently harming the church and teaching what the Bible forbids.

* I am not entirely sure when this book will be available for purchase, as I received a pre-release copy, but I believe it will ship in the next week or so.

What theology there is seems solid enough.
Well-written, short and easy to read.
This is only the second biography of Warren (though many more are sure to follow).
I’m not entirely sure who the intended audience is.
It’s not a bad book, but it’s also not very convincing.
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