Left Behind may get left behind. And it now seems Jabez doesn't know enough about expanding ministry borders. The runaway bestseller in the country is The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California. And that fact, along with the mega-sales of these other books, gives us an insight into the culture we are trying to reach.
Let's put this in perspective with the latest bestseller. Since October 2002, The Purpose-Driven Life has sold nearly 13 million copies. It outsold the Harry Potter series in 2003. Actually, make that Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code combined. Only when you then add the sales of The South Beach Diet to those books do you get close to matching the sales of The Purpose-Driven Life.
What is going on here? Good marketing plays a role. Zondervan, the publisher, has targeted the number of shoppers who frequent Wal-Mart and warehouse stores. Group purchases have been another key. According to Warren's church, more than 6,000 churches in 80 denominations and 12 countries have used the book as a primary text for "40 Days of Purpose" Sunday school classes and weekday Bible studies.
We think the main thing going on is this: People are tired of focusing on themselves, and they are looking for meaning elsewhere. Some people faulted the Left Behind series and The Prayer of Jabez as playing to Americans' perpetual self-interest, at least spiritual self-interest (get saved and expand your borders). Maybe, but that's a narrow reading of such books. No fair-minded reader can fault The Purpose-Driven Life on such grounds.
Life is not about you, says Warren. It's not about your bliss or your self-actualization. It's about God and finding your life purpose in him. Warren summarizes Christian theology by emphasizing five broad purposes that God has for us: living for God's pleasure, becoming part of his family, becoming more Christlike, serving God and others, and sharing the message.
And whereas many Christian books marketed for a secular audience soft-pedal their grounding in biblical revelation, Warren glories it in, nearly bragging about the hundreds of biblical references scattered throughout the book.
Which brings us to the book's shortcomings. Warren repeatedly yanks individual verses from their context to make his points. He relies too much on paraphrases. And he manages to pretty much ignore the atoning work of Christ. (Then again, he does introduce the centrality of Christ in chapter one, a marked improvement over other popular Christian bestsellers of the past like Robert Schuller's books on possibility thinking.) Nor is there much about confession of sin or repentance—though one could make a case that the entire book is about repentance.
But Warren's book is intended to be merely a start, to help narcissistic Americans stop their spiritual navel-gazing. We Americans remain faddish, yes, and many will read Warren's book to find the secret to happiness. But the success of this book, and other blatantly evangelical bestsellers, tells us two things about the world we want to reach for Christ. First, secularism doesn't satisfy. Second, we don't have to adapt our message to every jot and tittle of modernity to gain a hearing.
As Dale Buss put it in The Wall Street Journal, "Whatever the limitations of The Purpose-Driven Life, it accomplishes a great deal by simply bucking everything modern—by urging us to turn our focus above rather than within."
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