Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life; What On Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002)
The cover of my copy of this book boasts "over ten million copies sold." Wrong. After 81 weeks on the best seller list of the New York Times, the correct figure is over 17 million, with no signs of slowing down. That puts it way ahead of The Prayer of Jabez (over 9 million), but way behind the Left Behind series which at my last look had surpassed 60 million copies sold for the twelve-volume series.
What drives these stratospheric sales figures? Written at a fifth grade reading level, this is not good literature by any measure. Warren can clearly turn a phrase, but there is a measure of purple prose here, too (eg, "hope to cope," or "clam up or blow up"). Do you like italics and exclamation points?! On every page?! Theologically, its virtue of simplification often meanders into the superficial, the trite and the trivial. Do you really believe that after forty days of following one alliterated grocery list after another that you will be radically transformed (the four D's of temptation, or the five R's of the Bible, and so on)? Is it so clear that life has five main purposes, not three or six or sixty, and that they all—how did you guess?—begin with M? No, I hope not. And the purpose-driven calendars, videos, flash cards, journals, and sequel titles, do they not all hint of at least a little huckstering, if not by Warren then by Zondervan?
I think the film 13 Conversations About One Thing points to the success of Warren's message. The normal person in the street longs to believe that their life is not an accident of chance. His sub-title taps into a rich vein of healthy existential reflection—why am I here? If we want to get fancy, try the first paragraph of Saint Augustine's Confessions: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee." Warren unapologetically assures us, rightly, that this is so. He reminds us that our opportunities to learn to love God, be loved by Him, and to love our neighbor are not unlimited. Our lives have a terminus, and somehow across the years we form the person we become by the sum total of our incremental decisions. There is thus a sense of urgency. Entering God's life of gracious love will not happen automatically, either. We have choices to make, and Warren rightly challenges us. For example, do not think you can watch three hours of television and read three minutes of Scripture each day and expect Christian maturity (p. 188).
As a beginning point, Warren is good with the big picture. But for the length of the average Christian journey, with all its questions, mystery, texture, and nuance, for the detailed specifics you will need more than forty days, enthusiastic phrases, alliterated to-do lists, and a catchy title. If you limit yourself to these you will prove the truth of the beer commercial: tastes great, but less filling.