Prophet of Purpose:
The Life of Rick Warren by Jeffery L. Sheler
Doubleday Religion, 336 pp.
or a man who is arguably the most famous religious leader in the world after the pope and the Dalai Lama, evangelical preacher Rick Warren remains a surprising enigma. Is he just a kinder, gentler, Hawaiian-shirt-clad version of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson? Or is he the face of a new evangelicalism that represents a break from the Religious Right? Is he the nonpartisan above-the-fray leader who delivered the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration? Or is he the conservative activist who inserted himself into the debate over Proposition 8 (the California ballot measure rejecting gay marriage) and courts influence with Republican politicians?
It’s hard to know what to make of the megachurch pastor and best-selling author, in large part because Warren’s message and image change based on his audience. Given his ever-rising profile as friend of presidents and global AIDS policy advocate, a book that tried to explain and pin down Warren would be a welcome resource. Fortunately, veteran religion journalist Jeffery L. Sheler has just written Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren with plenty of fresh information about the man. Unfortunately, the book is a frustratingly incomplete account that never truly grapples with Warren and the role he has assumed in American culture and politics.
What Sheler does do is provide a well-written story of Rick Warren’s life—from five-year-old Ricky’s baptism, to his teen years (during which Rick dreamed of becoming either a rock musician or a politician), on through the long slow struggle to build a church from a handful of friends gathered in a living room to a congregation of more than 25,000. Sheler draws on hours of interviews with Warren, as well as close access to family members and friends. The result is an uncritical biography that will doubtless appeal to many of the more than 30 million people who bought Warren’s blockbuster book The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?
In a sense, Sheler has written a religious version of Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, the classic campaign book that sought to explain what kind of man thinks he not only could be but should be president. In Warren’s case, the question is what kind of man believes that he can build a megachurch from scratch, write best-selling books, and—in his latest and most audacious effort—mobilize volunteers from churches around the world to combat everything from poverty to sex trafficking.
The answer is: the kind of man who would give you a heart attack if you spent too much time around him. Warren has a history of taking gigantic leaps of faith based on hunches or what he discerns is God’s will for him. In the most famous example, Warren was a twenty-six-year-old pastor with no congregation when he declared in 1980 that he would build and lead a church of 20,000 members that would be located on at least fifty acres of land in Orange County. For Rick Warren, no ambition ever seems too daunting.
That same kind of grand vision appears in Warren’s personal life as well. He met his wife, Kay, when they both attended California Baptist University, the only Southern Baptist school on the West Coast. At the time, Kay was dating Rick’s best friend, and had barely registered on Rick’s radar. But one day, he felt God telling him that Kay was the woman he was going to marry. So Rick waited until she and his friend broke up, asked her out, and then proposed. Kay, not having heard that same voice of God, was less enthusiastic. But she prayed about it and felt God telling her that she should say yes and feelings for Rick would follow. They didn’t—not in the beginning, at least—but the two were married anyway.
Warren has always relied on the force of his personality and an outsized confidence to convince others to join him in achieving his visions. Over the course of seven years, he and the members of Saddleback Church pursued several multimillion-dollar tracts of land in Orange County on which to build a permanent church complex. Year after year, Warren led his congregants through fund-raising drives, telling them they had to “prepare for a miracle.” Some congregants took on second jobs to contribute, while others sold their homes and moved into smaller houses. Never backing down from the scale of his goal, Warren eventually raised the millions of dollars from church members, enough to buy the land and begin construction.
The building of his megachurch occupies the first fifteen years of Warren’s ministry, so it makes sense that Sheler devotes significant space to the effort. But Warren’s relentless focus on achieving the goal he set out for himself makes for jarring reading, as if there were no other cause worth summoning a miracle for, nothing else for which to rally the resources of church members except their own church institution. It’s a narrow, inward-looking orientation at odds with Warren’s current reputation as an advocate for global social justice.
Warren experienced two major events that helped mold him into the figure he is now. The first was the 2002 publication of The Purpose Driven Life, which sold 25 million copies in the first three years and made Warren an overnight celebrity. He was already well known in the evangelical world for his church-building skill. As far back as high school, Warren had attracted attention for developing materials teaching other students how to establish Christian youth clubs at their schools. He led conferences and trainings for other pastors, and his previous book, The Purpose Driven Church, sold more than a million copies, an unheard-of feat for a book that was essentially a manual for church leaders.
But the appearance of The Purpose Driven Life on the best-seller lists made Warren a mainstream star as well. Soon he was appearing on Larry King Live, fielding speaking invitations from the Aspen Institute and the Davos World Economic Forum, and joining the Council on Foreign Relations. The attention was heady; before long, Warren was referring to himself as a “statesman” and listing his professional credits on his Web site as “pastor, author, global strategist, innovator, and philanthropist.” He put together a team of staff members to focus on “strategic outreach” and connect him with power players, particularly in Washington.
Warren tells Sheler that around the same time, in 2003, he had an epiphany that he wasn’t doing anything with his ministry to help the poor. Like many megachurches, Saddleback provided services galore for its members, including marriage counseling and job training. But the church did very little for the surrounding community and virtually nothing for the poorest in the larger society. To Warren’s credit, he embraced the idea of applying the vast resources of his church members to social causes. Just a few years later, thousands of Saddleback members have taken part in short-term mission trips abroad, and each week approximately 9,500 congregants participate in service projects around Orange County.
At this point, it would be helpful to get some indication from Sheler of whether these two sides of Warren—mover-and-shaker and tough-on-poverty pastor—are both authentic parts of the same whole. But Sheler doesn’t interview any critics of Warren, nor does he share any insights as an intelligent longtime observer of the evangelical world. So we are left to discover the real Rick Warren on our own.
Like a man with a pathological need to be liked, Warren has a habit of shading his comments to agree with whomever he’s speaking to at a given moment. The practice may come from his pastoral experience, but even more from a desire to prove that he’s not one of “those” evangelicals. He’s California casual. He has an easy laugh. He hugs people. A lot. As Sheler describes him, “Here was an evangelical leader—a Southern Baptist, no less—who simply did not fit the stereotype of the dour Religious Right activist or of the money-grubbing TV preacher that so often seemed to dominate media portraits of evangelical Christians and their leaders.”
As a result, when he’s talking to Larry King, Warren mentions his gay friends and says he “never once even gave an endorsement in the two years Prop 8 was going.” And when he’s talking to Sean Hannity, Warren voices his agreement when the Fox News Channel host advocates assassinating the president of Iran. When he speaks with scientists, Warren assures them that he believes in a biblically informed theory of evolution. But when he talks to the intelligent design devotees at the Discovery Institute, they leave with the impression that he believes in intelligent design instead.
When it comes to gay marriage, Warren dearly wants to be a Southern Baptist who believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but also a man whose gay friends understand he’s not intolerant. It is that conflicting impulse that got him into hot water last year after the California ballot proposition banning gay marriage passed. Eight days before election day, Warren was very clear in an online video message to his congregation: “Let me say this really clearly: We support Proposition 8. If you believe what the Bible says about marriage, you need to support Proposition 8.”
After the election, Warren spoke to Beliefnet’s Steven Waldman about his support for the initiative and went even further, telling Waldman, “I’m opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.” Waldman responded by asking, “Do you think those are equivalent to gays getting married?” “Oh, I do,” answered Warren.
Critics pointed to those comments when Warren was asked to offer the invocation at Obama’s inauguration, with the harshest accusing him of being an “anti-gay bigot” and “a vicious homophobe.” Many gay-rights advocates demanded that Obama rescind his invitation and leave Warren out of the swearing-in ceremony. Warren complained that he was being unfairly attacked, protesting to Christianity Today that “I never said a word about [Prop 8] until the eight days before the election, and then I did make a video for my own people when they asked, ‘How should we vote on this?’ It was a pastor talking to his own people.” The problem with that defense, however, is that Warren didn’t just talk to “his own people.” He posted the video on his church’s heavily trafficked Web site, where all the world could see it.
Warren clearly believes he is the heir to Billy Graham’s role as national pastor. He told Sheler about receiving a package from Graham a week before Obama’s inauguration. “Inside, carefully wrapped, was a charcoal-colored Homburg hat made of crisp fur felt with a stiff narrow brim and a satin band … Tucked inside was a note from Billy Graham. ‘This is the hat I wore at all the inaugurations,’ wrote Graham, who had prayed at four of the events, more than any other modern churchman. ‘It’s your turn, Rick. It’s your hat now.’”
Despite the embarrassing release of audiotapes that revealed Graham making anti-Semitic comments in a conversation with Richard Nixon, Graham has managed to remain a widely admired religious leader because he was largely seen as free from political entanglements and agendas. Warren is still learning—sometimes painfully—how to navigate his new role as a celebrity pastor whose even offhand comments can reach an audience of millions. But we will have to wait for another book to tell us whether he learned anything from the experience, and what we should make of the nation’s most prominent pastor.