Sunday, April 10, 2005

My Rick Warren Story

A couple years back I was in Barnes & Noble bookstore and I saw a display for The Purpose Driven Life. And I picked up a copy, having heard the last 10 seconds of an NPR interview with Rick Warren and I saw the "New York Times bestseller" on the cover. I only heard enough to figure it was some sort of self-help book on the order of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I'd liked Mr. Covey's book and figured this would be more of the same. I brought it home and put it on the stack of books I feel guilty about not reading that sits next to my bed.

Months went by and a girl from my high school church youth group recommended the book. This caused a raised eyebrow. That's a religious book? After high school, I went to Cedarville College which is a conservative Christian college and she had gone on to Calvin College which was--well--more liberal than Wheaton! (If you don't know what I mean, ask a Bob Jones graduate to explain.) I'd heard that she'd left the fundie Baptists (GARBC) that I identify with and joined an American Baptist Convention church and she is now a pastor's wife in an ABC church. (Ask your nearest Bob Jones graduate to explain what "going liberal" means.)

So, I picked up The Purpose-Driven Life. My first surprise was on the back cover. Zondervan published it. Wow, crypto-evangelical marketing. The book wasn't just a rah-rah boost your sales potential self-help book.

As I read it I went slowly nuts. The book did all sorts of things that offended my fundamentalist sensitivities. It quoted the Dali Lami and Gandi and all the pagans that the world cites as its moral sources. It played Bible version roulette and all the Bible references were exiled to afternotes in the back where it would be inconvenient to look up and check. I figured Mr. Warren was playing fast and loose with the Bible and was obviously liberal. Nevertheless, despite the packaging I found the content good and a sound presentation of gospel truth was clearly stated therein.

I thanked my high school friend for the recommendation and felt better that she hadn't gone so liberal that she'd abandoned the gospel. (More on American Baptist Evangelicals in another post.)

A couple months later I was preparing a Sunday school class on the subject of "Willow Creek" mega-churches and I picked up Rick Warren's book, The Purpose-Driven Church. I was expecting something completely different. Instead of telling church leaders how to tickle ears, Mr. Warren emphasized truth and no dilution of the gospel message. He talked about how to make church accessible to Joe Random Pagan (without such crudities as describing the seeker as a Pagan).

But what struck me about The Purpose-Driven Church was the language in which it was written. Instead of having all those goofball worldly wisemen cited as moral sources, he stuck to a single translation of the Bible and he put the references inline with the text when he supported each point with scripture. It dawned upon me that Rick Warren wrote the books in two different languages.

(No doubt, a thousand years from now higher critics will use this to substantiate a documentary hypothesis that there was no single Rick Warren, but that there were two guys writing under that name. If JEDP doesn't mean anything to you, this parenthetical won't, either.)

The book targeted to someone who may not be a lifetime Baptist was written using idioms and memes accessible to that audience. The book targeted to church leadership was written in a format they would find most accessible. In each case, the different audience takes different knowledge sources as credible, and the citations reflect that. I'm a lifetime Baptist, you can quote John Bunyan or the Apostle Paul, and I'll take it ask gospel (though I may ask for chapter and verse). I imagine some of my non-Baptist friends may not subscribe to verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture. Rick Warren finds voices that are credible to the audience and uses their words to support his case, just as the Apostle Paul cited Athenian poets when he preached on Mars Hill.

Then I read a link that an Episcopal friend sent me from this guy in Australia (Mike Frost)--a Baptist who talked about "contextualizing" the gospel to the local culture. Mr. Frost's thesis is that contemporary culture is so post-Christian that the gospel message needs to be translated into terms and memes that someone in the general culture can understand and accurately evaluate.

The lesson I took from this was that my communication strategy was akin to pre-Vatican II Catholicism's use of Latin. I had snickered at the oddness of a Latin Mass given to a non-Latin speaking audience, but I was doing the same thing speaking in this weird dialect known as Evangelical. My communication strategy was as incomperhensible to my non-Baptist friends as Latin.

That's when I drank the Purpose-Driven koolaid. I've changed churches and now attend one of those "Saddleback-style" megachurches where I can safely invite my non-Baptist friends, confident that what they hear on Sunday morning will be spoken in their language. I suppose my fundie friends think I've gone liberal.


Dale said...

Almighty God, Have Mercy Upon Steve. Amen.

John said...

Thanks, Steve. I needed a good laugh this morning AND a good prick of my conscience.