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The Purpose Driven Life (2002) by Rick Warren

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This book has had a world wide influence, even though it may be better known in Stockton, California than Stockton-on-Tees, England. It’s a purpose driven book, written by a purpose driven Baptist minister, who goes to great lengths to assert that what he’s written is in fact an ‘anti-self help book’. This is true, for while most motivational manuals insist that ‘God helps those who help themselves’; this one takes the diametrically opposite stance and insists that people are only helped when they give up their personal struggles and place their total trust in God. You can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, says Pastor Warren, ignoring the widespread belief that the Protestant work ethic was the foundation stone of the American nation. True fulfilment only comes through the mercy and guidance of God. That’s the basic thesis of the book, which advises readers to prepare themselves for eternity, rather than indulge in a headlong pursuit of the ephemeral pleasures of the ‘here and now’.

This then is a God-centred book, with ten to twenty direct references to ‘God’ on every page. Atheists, and followers of Eastern religions, should be warned that these references are not to the God of the Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians or Jews, but to the God as revealed through the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Even then, it’s not the Catholic God or the Lutheran God, but the deity revealed to the son of a California Baptist minister, who was himself trained in a Baptist theological college.  (Baptism by total immersion is recommended, but not obligatory.) To get the best out of the book you need to be a backslider with a Christian education and a heavy burden or guilt at your failure to follow the faith of your fathers and forefathers. When you read the forty daily ‘sermons’ you must  be ready to put your rational mind into neutral, shun any temptation to criticise or carp, and simply worship and obey. To avoid spiritual indigestion, it’s advisable to abide by the author’s recommendation and absorb no more than one lesson at a time. I tried to cover the book in large chunks and felt at times as if I was locked in a telephone kiosk listening to the spiel of a frenetic market trader.

However the book has been phenomenally successful, so is clearly meeting a need. It was on the New York Times best seller list for one of the longest periods in history, and within five years of its launch had sold thirty million copies.  Some self-books are boosted by an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show. This one was helped when an American hostage, held captive by a psychopathic murderer, claimed that she’d managed to calm her jailor by reading him the 32nd chapter of Warren’s book, which begins with a Danish proverb: ‘What you are is God’s gift to you; what your do with yourself is your gift to God.’ This remarkable transformation gained widespread media coverage on her release, chiefly because she failed to mention that she’d also managed to pacify her captor by dosing him with methamphetamine.

Pastor Warren is clearly a charismatic character, who started preaching in a tent and went on to build the Saddleback Church, in Lake Forest  California which is the eighth largest church in the USA with a seating capacity of 3,500. Through his writings and preaching he is believed to have been responsible for the conversion of millions. He is equally popular with his fellow priests across the globe, 400,000 of whom have attended his seminars and conferences.

His reputation has suffered slightly in recent years, largely because he’s chosen to enter the political arena, where he’s now one of the foremost of the movers and shakers. In 2004 Time magazine named him one of the ’15 World Leaders Who Mattered Most’, and two years later Newsweek paid him a similar compliment, saying he was one of ’15 People Who Make America Great.’ Such was his reputation that before the last presidential election he was able to stage a forum at his church to which he invited the two prime candidates to debate their rival programmes. This was the first time that John McCain and Barack Obama, had made a joint public appearance, a confrontation which was broadcast live on national television. In return for this media opportunity Obama asked Warren to give the invocation at his presidential inauguration, which caused a national outcry because of his known views on abortion and same-sex marriages. However there can be no doubt about Warren’s integrity, for in 2005, he acknowledged the vast income he’d received from his book sales, and returned twenty-five years of salary to the Saddleback Church. Today he gives away ninety per cent of his income, living on the remaining tenth, a process he refers to as ‘reverse tithing.’

However, I was somewhat disturbed to see the press photos taken when President George Bush presented him with the International Medal of Peace for his humanitarian work in tackling global poverty and disease. These showed him to be distinctly portly, which one does not expect of a health ambassador. Nevertheless, if people are suffering from the endemic life style diseases of the Twenty-First century – tension, frustration, loneliness, anxiety, a sense of futility and spiritual impoverishment – I’d far rather they took the remedies of Big Rick than those of Big Pharma. But then I’m prejudiced, for my father was an evangelical Baptist lay preacher and would have agreed with every line and precept in Warren’s book.

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