A Purpose Driven Book Review

I won’t go into it now, but as a result of a series of odd events, I decided that at some point I needed to read a book by Rick Warren. I had picked up a copy of his Purpose Driven Life at a used bookstore, and despite the fact that California evangelical megachurch land is not my home territory, I decided to venture in.

And, I have to say, I was really surprised at how good it was. This thing has had monster sales in the evangelical world — and here my bigotries come out to play, like a box full of three-week-old puppies let loose in the garage — and as everyone knows, monster book sales in the evangelical world mean that the object that is selling briskly must be a eighteen-wheeled shipment of shinola.

Well, not this book. This book deserves to have sold every copy that sold. And if it was read and did no good, it was simply that the reader wasn’t paying attention, or took a dim view of obedience. Warren begins by laying down the foundation of God-centeredness. On that bedrock, he builds out the five purposes of each person’s life. They are to be worship, ministry, evangelism, fellowship, and discipleship. The book has forty chapters total, each one of manageable size, developing each one of those five categories. Speaking as a pastor, I have to say that I know a lot of Reformed types who think they are past all this when they actually are not, and who would really be edified by what Warren has to say here.

It should go without saying that in reviewing this book, I am not signing off on anything Rick Warren may have said or done elsewhere. I am not as well-versed as I should be on the hate blogs, so I don’t want to praise anything on the index prohibitorum . . .

But I did have to get past a couple things. First, there is some Christianese, but not so much that it can’t be navigated. When Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross, it was not to say that He loved us this much. Things like that do come up in the book, and it is possible to stumble over them. I would encourage anybody from our circles who reads this book to take that kind of thing in stride, to take a few smooths with the roughs, as Wodehouse’s Anatole did. I have had the experience, more than once, of going into a pop evangelical setting where the surface culture was kind of fluffed out in this way, and expecting, as many of my fellow Tishbites would, the fluff to go all the way down. But I have been surprised, more than once, to find faithful Christians who love Jesus, and who are as hard as nails in the right ways. I don’t get the cutesy decorations in the foyer, but we were not put into this world for pleasure alone. Many of the readers of this blog came out of churches that were fluff all the way down, and so they are understandably jumpy. But this book, coming back to the point, contains real substance.

The second thing I stumbled over, and this is going to sound bad, is all the Scripture references. Warren is clearly saturated in Scripture, and he quotes it all the time. But he quotes from an array of translations, many of them from what I call the Hey, Guys school of translation. “From Paul, to my BFFs in Ephesus. Hey, guys . . .” Okay, I am exaggerating some.

But this has the effect of setting up a weird contrast, where Warren’s prose was a good deal more sober and dignified than the biblical passages he was citing to make his point. Going from Warren to the apostle Paul, it felt like I was going from a conversation with the senior pastor down to the assistant youth minister with his hat on wrong. That took some getting used to.

There was an upside to this, though. A second aspect of his Scripture citations was that I would read a Scripture quotation, and because all his references were contained in the end notes, I have absolutely no idea where in the Bible that came from. Given the latitude of translation breeziness, it could have been Ezekiel, it could have been Ephesians, who knows? So that was weird. But Warren has an appendix explaining why he used all those translations, and this part of it had a good effect on me. I had to stare at it to really see what it was saying, and that can lead to some good follow-up study. A good example was his use of Acts 13:36, NASB. Warren says, “we often miss the full impact of familiar Bible verses, not because of poor translating, but simply because they have become so familiar.”

So, there you go. Now you know. I have read a book by Rick Warren and I have returned, not with tales of harrowing survival, but with a odd expression on my face. That was pretty good.

Theology That Bites Back



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  • http://centralitychurchasheville.org/ Stephen B

    Thank you for doing this. I appreciate it.

  • Rob Steele

    What a hoot!  Fifth paragraph, second sentence needs a “not” after the “but”.

  • Douglas Wilson

    Rob, thanks. Fixed it.

  • jigawatt

    It’s been a while since I read PDL, but one of the things I remember being frustrated about was the lack of clarity on the gospel.

  • Ron Revard

    If I remember correctly, Pastor Warren begins with his best shot, “It’s not about you.” Or as we say in Arkansas, “It ain’t about you.”

  • http://www.campamerican.com Camp Director

    My recollection of this book was that 1) It told me that it wasn’t about me and then, later, demonstrated why it really was about me 2) required multiple Bible versions and paraphrases to get just the right “meaning” that Warren was trying to convey 3) Quoted from such theological luminaries as Groucho Marx to delve deeply into theological “truth.”  
    I wasn’t all that impressed with it.

  • Mark B. Hanson

    My complaint about the book at the time was not with the book itself, but with the “program” that surrounded it, as seems true with all of Rick Warren’s books. Partly just my bias against “spiritual technology” – an “everyone must think / act this way” approach to church leadership.

  • Joel Kirkendall

    Doug, did you read a chapter a day for 40 days?

  • D.C. Moody

    Oh, no!  Someone’s hijacked your blog!  They posted something in approval of Rich Warren’s Purpose Driven Life!
    Heh.  Just kidding.  I thought the book was good, except that he did not really mention sin nor make sinners come to terms with their dastardly behavior.

  • J.B. Waters

    Mr. Wilson, I was browsing a used bookstore recently that had a very large selection and a variety of categories. Since you mentioned picking this book up in a used book store I thought it would be helpful for me and perhaps others next time I find myself browsing a used book store, if you might suggest 5-10 books commonly found in a used book store that would be worth picking up.

  • Jonathan

    I felt the same way when I read the book quite a while along. Came in somewhat skeptical, pleasantly surprised.

  • http://bibchr.blogspot.com Dan Phillips

    Great. Now every time I say, “Doug Wilson liked The World-Tilting Gospel,” They’ll say “Yeah, and he liked PDL, too,” and I’ll have no reply.

  • Moor

    I regularly use the opening line of that book as a counterpoint to the dominant cultural message of our day.  That is, in a book titled “The Purpose Driven Life”, which one could ostensibly begin reading with the idea that he or she is about to find out how to maximize their self-interest, the opening line reads: “It’s not about you.”  That little line was worth the price of the book to me.  (of course, one could simply pick it up at the used book store, read the opening line and put it back down…)

  • Scott Limkeman

    Curious if you came across this Doug; my mom read the book a while back and really liked a lot of what he had to say, but she had some problems with the verses he chose to support what he was saying. She told me that he would often use verses out of context to support true doctrine, but that he ought to have used different verses which could also support his points without making them say something they weren’t really getting at in their context. Is that something you came across at all?

  • http://afellowtruthseeker.blogspot.com/ Timothy Dukeman

    Mr. Wilson, I like a lot of what you said here (as always), but I’m curious about some of the things in the book that weren’t mentioned in the review.

    1. This quote, which gets brought up every time I hear someone discuss the book:
    ““The last thing many believers need is to go to another Bible study. They already know far more than they are putting into practice” (p.231). 

    2. Warren consistently quotes only half of a verse. As someone who understands the importance of reading in context (especially since your own words are often taken out of context), what do you make of this?

    3.  This quote: “One way is to use ‘breath prayers’ throughout the day, as many Christians [actually Catholic mystics] have done for centuries. You choose a brief sentence or a simple phrase that can be repeated to Jesus in one breath: “You are with me.” “I receive your grace.” “I’m depending on you.” “I want to know you.” “I want to know you.” “I belong to you.” “Help me trust you.” “Pray it as often as possible so it is rooted deep in your heart.” (p. 89).
    4. What are your thoughts on the important issues raised in Tim Challies’ review? Here is a link.

    Finally, I was wondering if you’d be willing to review Warren’s book “The Purpose-Driven Church”, which has been far more influential, since it has been read  and practiced by millions of pastors around the country.

  • TJ

    Your arrogance is insulting to the grace of God.

  • Jon

    I too was perusing a copy of this book not too long ago and came to the same conclusion. It was well-written, doctrinally-grounded, and correct in its application.  It speaks to the uniqueness and destiny of the believer in Christ.  Nothing superficial here, though one might wish its style and tone were a bit more sophisticated.  But then its accessability would be limited.

  • Tim Wiggiins

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m going to echo some of what’s already been posted. I remember reading PDL a few years back. I liked the general concept of the book and the encouragement to lead a life that has purpose. But it seemed like Rick Warren took liberty with some of the translations he used so that sometimes I wondered if he was accurately reflecting what the verse really was saying in its original form.

  • Jon

    Tim, it’s unsettling to have read a passage or book of the Bible a hundred times only to realize we missed something vital.  This can happen with any translation.  I wish more information about audience and intent and thigns like that were readily accessible.