Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren is a 'conservative' evangelist, but what does that mean in the Obama era?

When the pastor of my former Catholic parish announced from the pulpit several years ago that Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life" would be the text for our Lenten studies program, I exclaimed to myself (in a whisper) Oh, no -- from Paul, Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Aquinas and Thomas Merton, we go to a TV evangelist for spiritual insight and guidance?

I had heard about Warren's book, and lumped it with other inspirational best-sellers that clog bookstore tables, right next to those on how to lose weight (in six or eight or 10 easy steps).

But while preparing some material for my parish's Lenten studies, I had to confront "The Purpose-Driven Life." The first two paragraphs forced me to rethink my stereotypes:

"It's not about you.
"The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose."

These words were the perfect antidote for our narcissism. They had, I immediately recognized, a Pauline thrust -- direct, prodding and aimed well beyond the reach of our reflected images. Warren recognized that we were the lineal descendants of the clever, self-regarding, high-maintenance Corinthians who were such a special, and recurring, challenge to Paul.

What Warren preaches -- like Paul -- is that "God is not just the starting point of your life; he is the source of it." In other words, faith is not a one-on-one negotiation between man and God , it is a surrender of man to God.

Yet Warren, again like Paul, is not saying that surrender to God means man is essentially a nobody. He writes:

"...there is a God who made you for a reason, and your life has profound meaning! We discover that meaning and purpose only when we make God the reference point of our lives. “The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us [paraphrase of Romans 12:3]. ”

Warren strikes a balance between man as the center of the universe and -- the other extreme -- a mere dot.

Some more conservative Southern Baptist religious leaders criticize Warren as a "feel good" evangelical. But Warren himself specifically rejects that notion:

"The number one goal of a hedonist is to feel good, be comfortable, and have fun."

President-elect Obama's decision to have Warren deliver the invocation at his Inaugural has enraged gay groups because Warren -- pastor of the huge Saddleback Church in Orange County, CA -- supported the successful Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriages in California.

Gays make a good point, but the Obama Inaugural team argues that the day-long event will be inclusive. The benediction will be given by the Rev. Joseph Lowery, whom the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to lead the epochal civil right march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and who today is a supporter for gay marriage. The Lesbian and Gay Band Association will, for the first time, march in the Inaugural parade.

But, in the end, obsessing about who's conservative or liberal or in-between runs counter to the new spirit that Obama has sought to kindle from the beginning. In the lexicon of labels, Rick Warren is indeed a "conservative" religious leader. But that label doesn't tell us much about Warren's spiritual message of finding purpose in our lives.

President-elect Obama -- who technically would be called a "liberal" -- speaks about purposeful lives too.

It's no coincidence.

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