(Repost — Earl Lee) The Promise Driven Life: How Christianity Has Failed

Posted: February 26, 2015 in Christianity, Humor, Livin' in the USA, Religion
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My good friend Earl Lee died on February 19. He was smart, funny, kind, and generous.  The world is a much poorer place for his loss. I’m re-posting pieces by him this week; this is the fifth in the series, and shows a light but biting side of Earl’s writing.

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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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This post originally appeared in Earl’s blog Libraries in the Age of Mediocrity.

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