The Promise Driven Life: How Christianity Has Failed

Posted: January 17, 2014 in Christianity, Livin' in the USA, Philosophy, Religion
Tags: , , , , , ,

leadby Earl Lee, author of Libraries in the Age of Mediocrity and Raptured; Earl also wrote the scholarly foreword to The Jungle: The Uncensored Original Edition and co-authored the original story on which Kathy De Grave based The Hour of Lead


Some of you may have already guessed that this is a commentary on mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. I first learned about this book after hearing about Ashley Smith and her claim to have used the book to “convert” escaped murderer Brian Nichols to Christianity. After being taken captive by Nichols, Ashley befriended him and convinced Nichols to rethink his life, using The Purpose Driven Life as a tool. Many Christians were inspired by her story.

We now know that after Brian Nichols took Ashley Smith hostage, he saw a report of his crimes on television, looked up, and asked God to forgive him. The following morning she cooked breakfast for Nichols, after which he let her
leave to go see her daughter. Smith immediately called 911, and the FBI, ATF, and the local SWAT team then surrounded her apartment. Nichols eventually surrendered peacefully.

Later, Ashley Smith wrote a book, Unlikely Angel: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Hostage Hero, about her ordeal. In it, we learned that she used another tool besides The Purpose Driven Life to win Nichols’ trust–meth. She shared her stash of “ice” with him. This fact was not widely reported in the press, or at least it was not as widely reported as the uplifting account of how she claimed Nichols for Christianity. Nor did most members of the press (none that I’m aware of) note that she did not convince Nichols to surrender, but instead betrayed his trust, called the police, and collected the reward for turning him in (presumably more than 30 pieces of silver).

If nothing else, the story of Ashley Smith shows us how easy it is to claim to be committed to Christian values while acting entirely in your own self-interest. We can only imagine what Kierkegaard would have said about all this. In his quaintly 19th-century ideal of “True Christianity,” one is expected to suffer and make sacrifices, not collect a reward and cut a lucrative book deal.

Ashley Smith represents a version of Christianity very much at odds with the idea of self-sacrifice, a new version that many Americans, and especially New Age Christians, adhere to. To them the idea of suffering and sacrifice is crude and old fashioned. Instead of sacrifice, these Christians are into self-help, usually, one suspects, turning to religion as a form of self-medication. They want to feel good about themselves without (horrors!) self-sacrifice, in fact, without any discomfort; and they want to be rewarded for their faith—not for their good works, which are all too often conspicuously lacking.

Rick Warren’s books have sold millions of copies. His company is issuing dozens of new Purpose-Driven Life titles, in much the same manner as the publishers of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books did in the 1990s and early 2000s. They’re catering to essentially the same market: hollow, hopelessly lost people willing to buy anything that promises comfort. Warren’s franchise has now generated both The Purpose-Driven Life for Commuters (can God help you find a seat on the subway?), and The Purpose-Driven Life Deluxe Journal (leather bound, to record your holiest thoughts). Now there’s even The Purpose Driven Life Scripture-Keeper Plus (which, I assume, includes a plastic container to keep your scripture fresh, crisp, and with that new-car smell). For the on-the-go believer, there is apparently even a camouflage edition, so you can enjoy the book while communing with nature or hiding in the woods from the minions of the Antichrist. Warren has even gone so far as to trademark the phrase “Purpose-Driven Life,” so he can now sue anyone who encroaches on his domain. How Christian.

But my purpose here is not to trash Rick Warren and his smiley-face version of Christianity. The “Purpose-Driven” phenomenon is noteworthy only because of what it exemplifies: a growing trend among Christians to espouse a fine set of values–love, truth, and compassion–but without acting on them.

Of course, the Christian Church has had a “hypocrisy gap” for a long, long time. But in an age when news travels across the globe in a fraction of a second, it has become harder and harder to ignore the messy reality that the vast majority of Christians are not very Christlike. Sadly, it seems that 99% of Christians do not begin to understand or act on the values espoused in the New Testament. In fact, they seem to have turned their backs on it.

At “best,” New Age (and Prosperity Gospel) Christians immerse themselves in a feel-good, self-centered fantasy world that demands nothing of them. At worst, most fundamentalist churches abandoned the ideals of the New Testament long ago, and instead embraced the old fire and brimstone, “wrath of God” viciousness of the Old Testament. For them, Jehovah has replaced Jesus. Violence, vengeance, and wrath have replaced love, truth, and compassion.

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  1. luchte says:

    Awesome book which I read in high school – changed everything…


  2. “At worst, most fundamentalist churches abandoned the ideals of the New Testament long ago, and instead embraced the old fire and brimstone, ‘wrath of God’ viciousness of the Old Testament.”

    I take exception to this, because the old fire and brimstone message is certainly not from the Old Testament at all, since hell is conspicuously absent from the Old Testament. Well, the phrase fire and brimstone actually comes from God raining fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, but still it doesn’t mean in the Old Testament what you imply, namely eternity in hell as a default status.

    “For them, Jehovah has replaced Jesus.”

    In heterodox Christianity they have always been one and the same.

    “Violence, vengeance, and wrath have replaced love, truth, and compassion.”

    In a certain way these are no so separable. Compassion on one group often requires wrath on another. Compassion on the victim requires wrath on the rapist. To show “compassion” to the rapist is to slight the victim. So I don’t think you’ve thought this through.

    But where we can agree is that the message of so much of modern Protestantism is focuses on the idea of human sinfulness, magnified and exaggerated, this idea that we are totally depraved, and this emphasis on our faults (which aren’t nearly as big as they like to make them) results in people who don’t even try to live decent lives.


    • I think I typed “In ORTHOdox Christianity they have always been one and the same.” I don’t know how it came out “heretodox.” Would you mind fixing that if you post the comment?


  3. Earl Lee says:

    IT would take too long to spell out all the problems with Warren’s version of Christianity. Suffice it to say that Robert Price’s The Reason Driven Life covers this quite well, and from the perspective of a former fundamentalist.


  4. perspectivethink says:

    In my old blog, I wrote about how many of these “self-help gurus” (and not just Christian ones) took advantage of people by playing on their sympathies towards theistic beliefs, money, material need, and survival among other things. This system of “earning a living” through monetized profit makes it possible for these “gurus” to get away with such a thing. Mr. Warren isn’t the only one. There is TD Jakes, Anthony Robbins, Joyce Meyer, Bob Proctor (he’s more money than theism), and others.

    While watching a documentary called “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay, a woman named Doreen Virtue said something to the effect of “You can’t be inspired by someone who is poor”. I’m quite positive she meant “poor” in the economic sense. However, I thought about all of the “poor” people in the world who have less than anyone in Middle Class America and are much happier and live more fulfilling lives. They also likely don’t have any concept of capitalism or monetized worship to a deity.

    The point isn’t to demonize and hate people like Warren or anyone who does this for a “living”. The point is to recognize where the problem lies and changing the condition so that such things don’t need to happen. As long as monetized profit, fractional reserve banking, and subservience to any power other than one’s own ability is recognized, Warren and people of the same ilk will continue to do this.

    I wrote a piece entitled Motivation and Change that reflects on some of what the article talks about. It doesn’t address Christianity but it does address motivating people for profit.


  5. […] perspectivethink on The Promise Driven Life: How C… […]


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