Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Purpose-Driven Pastor

Robert Price answers Rick Warren, in The Reason-Driven Life.

We are all seekers for purpose and meaning. But what happens if someone has the answer? We react, naturally, with a good bit of suspicion and skepticism. For we know instinctively that this search is not only difficult and unlikely to yield definitive answers, but also highly personal. Those peddling pat answers and coookie-cutter solutions may have confidence, but rarely have true answers.

So it is with Rich Warren and his book The Purpose-Driven Life. This has been a fundamentalist staple now for one and a half decades, with sales to rival the Bible itself. "You Were Planned for God's Pleasure." Wow! But what pleasures God? Well, now that we are done with sacrificing chickens and committing genocide, it seems that God is most pleasured by people joining fundamentalist churches like Rick Warren's, imagining they are abasing themselves before God, while lording it over all the sorry sinners who haven't gotten the message. Then they are sent out to spread the word and get more people to join up. Warren's ultimate message is to be a drone for the church: "You Were Made for a Mission". As Robert Price quotes:
'World-class Christians are the only fully alive people on the planet.' The outrageous arrogance of this insane boast never seems to dawn on him. Eric Hoffer has Warren pegged: 'The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is that the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himslef as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen shall perish.'

But Robert Price isn't just taking pot-shots. He is a post-fundamentalist, biblical scholar, and church-goer, as well as an atheist. He has great respect and love for the Bible, enabling a critique that makes Warren's literalism and pretensions to a biblical foundation ludicrous. Time and again, citations that seem so pat are exposed as far more complex, even contradictory, both among themselves, and to the points Warren is making. Warren quotes: "He is a God who is passionate about his relationship with you" Exodus 34:14. But his source is a custom version of the Bible for Warren's fundamentalists. The real translation is " The LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God", which lies among a discussion of how the Israelites should storm and desecrate the shrines of other religions.
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Likewise, Warren cites "What pleases the LORD more: burnt offerings and sacrifices, or obedience to his voice? It is better to obey than to sacrifice." 1 Samuel 15:22. The language here is accurate, but this is no invitation to tea and scones, or to a Saddleback encounter group. The obedience demanded in this passage is genocide against the Amalek. One wonders whether this is a god that Warren's parishoners have any knowledge of or desire to get to know. The fact is that the Bible is a cobbled-together melange of historical and poetic texts, riven with inconsistencies, cross-purposes, and moral evil. To believe that one can take it literally, as Warren does, (most hilariously with the Noah story), is intellectually dishonest and incoherent.

And that is the fundamental lesson, in this age of fake news. The internet was hardly the first method of purveying falsehoods. Historians such as Homer and Herodotus never let truth get in the way of a good story, and standards were no higher among the many ancient story tellers and scribes who contributed to the Bible. They all had agendas, as does Rick Warren. Their narratives often begin in fact, and then veer into myth and fantasy, as most evident in the book of Revelations. The whole Jesus story is so full of archtypes and "purpose-driven" fables that it is impossible at this point to separate anything out that might have had to do with an actual person.

No, the Bible is an amazing cultural document, from our brutish and benighted, yet hopeful, forebears. It documents substantial moral and intellectual progress on its pages, in its transition towards a more or less pacifist dispensation (though whether that was by choice, or by Roman force is another matter). We have continued that progress in the modern age by, ironically, leaving its fervid fantasies behind and basing our intellectual life on the firmer foundations of empiricism and humanistic empathy. Fundmentalists work double-time to "prove" that their literal views of God and the Bible are true, but they are doomed to failure. That general intellectual failure is seen both in their amazingly corrupt bargain with Donald Trump and the revanchist Republicans, and in the declining numbers of parishoners in the pews. The decline of religion has been far slower than many had imagined, given that its intellectual foundations have been defunct for centuries, but is ever so slowly coming to pass, however purposeful its pastors.

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