Rick Warren is no innovator. He's just another pastor who treats Christianity like big business... and business is good.
Enter the office of Rick Warren and you'll see an interesting mantra alongside his requisite Bible trappings. It doesn't advocate forgiveness or claim Moses as its author, yet it speaks to the very heart of what Warren's sprawling evangelical empire is about:
What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?
The "doctrine" is the brainchild of Peter F. Drucker, a strategy guru who coached fledgling pastors on management techniques through his Leadership Network. "I still go sit at the feet of Peter Drucker on a regular basis," Warren said in a 2005 interview with Fortune Magazine (Drucker passed away later that year). "He honed into me hundreds of one-liners and taught me that growth always comes from the outside – from people who are not now using your product, or listening to your message, or using your services."
A solid way to approach a personal relationship with God, right? I always appreciate it when a religion is viewed as a product or service to be provided to a customer. It's hardly surprising, however; religions of all shapes and sizes are routinely operated as business ventures (Scientology chief among them) and conversion could glibly be viewed as little more than a successful marketing venture. It's just rarely so obvious.
If you think this approach to Christianity is more faith than focus group, consider Forbes Magazine's endorsement of Warren's best-selling tome The Purpose Driven Life as "the best book on entrepreneurship, management, and leadership in print." Even the methods used to sell the book to the great unwashed formed the basis of "PyroMarketing," a book that so thoroughly deconstructs Warren's meteoric rise on the bestseller's list that Warren pressured the publisher "to censor all references to his book, because he was concerned that it would make people think his phenomenal success was driven primarily by network marketing techniques."
So where does Jesus factors into Purpose Driven Life? I don't know personally. I haven't read it, nor will I.
I've been to Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. I can't deny that it's an impressive campus, but it reminds me of Jesus's adventures at the Temple. I'm struck with a "den of thieves" vibe whenever I see Bible study aids, donation requests and audio recordings of past lectures for sale. I'll wager even the moneychangers and merchants of sacrificial animals thought they were doing their part for Judaism, too. But commercialism is just that.
Religion isn't supposed to be a business. It's a covenant with God and you either follow the beliefs or you don't. I understand that it's human nature to exact a reward for services rendered but Christianity has fallen into a need for mass-market appeal. With Rick Warren featured in Newsweek, Time and U.S. News and World Report as the face of modern Christianity, big business has conquered grass roots evangelism.
But how does this make Rick Warren a hypocrite? If he's upfront about his application of business methodology in growing a church, how is that a moral failure on his end?
The answer to that lies in Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a ridiculous real-time strategy game in which you can command legions of Christians in post-rapture New York City with the goal of converting every blighted soul... or killing them. There is no other alternative. (For the occultists among us, you can also play as the Antichrist as he commands UN Peacekeepers and demons to murder fundamentalists.)
It's an embarassing array of violence and religious supremism, one that's caught the ire of practically every religious affiliation out there, including Christians. Based on the Left Behind series of books, it showcases Christians as holy warriors who, instead of loving their neighbor in the End Times, brutally murder them when they express ambivalence at signing up for the next Crusade. While there's no explicit blood, the body count racks up pretty fast. Corpses don't disappear and your only penalty for offing someone is the loss of a Spirit point (rapture someone and you'll gain it back, though). Shoot nurses in the head or round up people with tactical weapons that would make Tom Clancy blush and you've got a feel-good stocking stuffer (release date: right before Christmas, naturally) Christian parents would love to give to trigger-happy children.
With so many different flavors of Christianity out there it seems ridiculous to glorify such an extreme viewpoint, especially when you consider how Western media has demonized followers of Islam for similar acts of violence. Yet Rick Warren indirectly did just that. Until Jonathan Hutson of Talk to Action exposed the game's violent theocratic storyline, Warren's close advisor and Purpose Driven cohort Mark Carver served on the board of the company developing the game. Likewise, Left Behind Games planned to market the game by passing out sampler DVDs in megachurches such as Saddleback.
Hutson's research led to Carver resigning from the board and a distancing of Purpose Driven from LBH, and he official response to the situation from Purpose Driven stands at:
"Rick Warren, Saddleback Church, and Purpose Driven Ministries have no connection to the development of the 'Left Behind: Eternal Forces' video game. We have not endorsed the game and have no plans to promote it... In order to avoid any confusion about the fact that Rick Warren, Saddleback Church, and Purpose Driven Ministries have no involvement with Left Behind Games, Mark Carver resigned from the board of advisors on June 5, 2006 and asked that the reference to him be removed from Left Behind Games website."
But how does an arrangement like that get started without Warren's approval? It existed for months and might have continued had it not been exposed. And the game has yet to be denounced as being against the precepts of Christianity. (In fairness to Rick Warren, no other major televangelist has come out against the game, either).
Seems like an easy thing to do, bashing a game that makes the ministry you've worked hard to build look bad. It's even the obvious choice given Christian outcry over the material presented in the game. But while Rick Warren may talk about his network of 200,000 pastors or how he's basically taken over the government of Rwanda with his purpose-driven agenda, he knows it's bad business to fully reject the video game. Who knows? It could be immensely popular.
But it's not what Jesus taught. And that makes him a hypocrite.
Canon Fodder is a bi-weekly analysis of politics and society.