Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life (PDL) is a publishing phenomenon by anyone’s standards. Publishers Weekly called it “the bestselling hardback in American History.” I have a mixed reaction, however, to its popularity. Some of the ideas in PDL are very good. However, in my mind the book’s serious flaws outweigh the good things; when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.
PDL throws a blizzard of verses at its readers, mostly drawn from a variety of broad paraphrases like the Message Bible and the Living Bible. The cumulative effect of this proof-texting approach is ultimately misleading and harmful. Let me illustrate how this approach can go terribly wrong. Imagine that a verse in the Bible speaks of a “great battle.” A modern paraphrase wants to jazz it up and make it more powerful, so it translates the phrase “great battle” as “the mother of all battles.” Now imagine an author comes along and quotes the translation: “The Bible often uses the imagery of motherhood, as for example in the verse which speaks of ‘the mother of all battles.’” Do you see the problem? This fictional author quotes “the Bible” by quoting this paraphrase and then makes his argument based on the part the translator added for effect.
PDL, through the use of misleading proof-texting, does a great disservice to the millions of Christians reading the book. Even worse, though, is the theological confusion that permeates the book. PDL often shifts the emphasis from choosing eternal life to improving my experience here and now—not “I will find eternal life” but “I will find my true self and how to really live”; not “I will be justified before God and be saved” but “I will make God happy.” The Purpose-Driven Life has some good things to say, but it has not said the most important thing: that the fundamental purpose of my life in this world is to choose life over death. At stake in how I live my life is not whether I have a more or less fulfilling experience as a Christian but whether, in spite of my weaknesses and sin, I persevere in being a disciple of Jesus and so find eternal life.