Saturday, March 4, 2006

A Review of The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren

As a weekend subscriber to the New York Times, one of the first things I check when I receive my Sunday paper is the bestseller list. The New York Times list is the definitive list, and I often get new ideas for which books to read or give as gifts from all the titles I see on the extended list.  Even if I don't end up purchasing any of the books, I can at least get a quick feel for what other people around the country are reading, which is an interesting study in itself.

Right now, it seems that more folks are trying to get in touch with their religious and spiritual sides than ever before. By looking at the top 5 bestsellers in the "Hardcover Advice" category, I can see that two of them are directly related to faith and religion. The number-one selling advice book in the country, The Purpose-Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For? by Rick Warren, has been a mainstay on the New York Times list for an eye-opening 163 weeks. It has sold millions of copies since it first hit the stands nearly four years ago, and has become one of those books that you see in every store, hear about on radio and television talk shows, and discuss with your friends. Since I am not a religious person, I never considered buying the book. But all the buzz surrounding it made me extremely curious, so I finally borrowed a copy from a friend and sat down to read.

Again, let me say that I am not a religious person at all. I neither promote nor condemn any religion out there. To each his (or her) own is my motto when it comes to hot-button topics like religion and politics. So read my review with that disclaimer in mind.

The first thing I noticed about the book is that the author gives the reader instructions on how to use it. Warren suggests reading only one of the 40 chapters per day in order to really think about and digest his message. There is even a little contract (or "covenant," if you will) stating that you the reader will spend those 40 days trying to discover the purpose of your life, as set forth by God. There is a place for you and a friend to sign it, presumably so you can help each other stay on track with the reading, and Warren's signature appears on one of the lines as well. I had never seen this kind of thing in a book before, so I was definitely intrigued.

The book as a whole is divided into six major parts with seven chapters supporting each of the first five parts, and five chapters supporting the last part. Each of these major parts deals with one of the "purposes" of life that Warren wants to teach readers about. The six major divisions of the book are titled as follows: What On Earth Am I Here For?; Purpose #1: You Were Planned For God's Pleasure; Purpose #2: You Were Formed For God's Family; Purpose #3: You Were Created To Become Like Christ; Purpose #4: You Were Shaped For Serving God; and Purpose #5: You Were Made For A Mission.

After the introduction, we get right into the first of the 40 promised chapters. This chapter, and each of the subsequent ones, starts off with a quote or two from the Bible to preview the theme of the upcoming chapter. There are sometimes quotes from secular sources that serve to reinforce the biblical quote. Those secular quotes are interesting tidbits and come from people as diverse as Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Carlyle.

The chapters themselves are very short and can be read in a 10-minute sitting. I even finished some of the chapters in 5 minutes, so I think that reading the book in 40 days is an absolutely attainable goal. (However, I have to confess that I did not follow the one chapter per day edict. I finished the book in less than a week, so you can figure out how many chapters I read per day.)

At the end of each chapter is a short section called "Thinking About My Purpose." In this section, Warren gives the reader a Point to Ponder, a Verse to Remember, and a Question to Consider. All three of these things deal with the theme of the chapter that was just read, and are designed to emphasize the theme and impress it upon the reader's mind by getting the reader to think about it. I found this section to be a very important component and was a big reason that I was able to get anything from the book. When I actually took the time to think about and remember the points Warren was trying to make, my overall retention level went up. When I was pressed for time and either put the book down without checking the "Thinking About My Purpose" section or went on to the next chapter after just skimming the section, I usually forgot what the theme of the preceding chapter was.

As an aside, I noticed that Warren and his publishers offer a line of accessories that can be used in conjunction with reading The Purpose-Driven Life. For example, in the introduction, the author recommends memorizing scripture verses (the "Verse to Remember" at the end of each chapter). Perhaps knowing full well that people would need to read the verse several times over in order to commit it to memory, readers can purchase a product called The Purpose-Driven Life Scripture Keepers Plus. This product consists of 40 ready-made cards containing scripture readings and other affirmations that match up with the 40 chapters of the book.

In addition to these cards, Warren offers a journal to track your progress and thoughts as you work through the book, as well as videos, DVDs, CDs, a group curriculum, and other books. It seems that the whole Purpose-Driven Life philosophy has become a veritable marketing franchise! In all fairness, Warren does offer many free products and resources, too. I didn't sign up or send in for any of them, so I can't speak to their quality or usefulness, but I thought it was good that Warren made these freebies available to his readers.

On the whole, I have to say that the most impressive part of the book for me was the way that it was organized. I think Warren and/or his editor(s) did a wonderful job in designing a layout that would be the most beneficial to readers who are committed to the 40-day plan. It seemed that the author was truly interested in helping his readers use the book as a tool rather than just a source of information.

The writing style was pretty easy to read, though there was a small problem with repetition -- as is usual in most nonfiction books. I know Warren's repetition was most likely a technique to get his readers to remember the points he was trying to make. Nevertheless, that kind of thing is a pet peeve of mine, so I have to make note of it in this review!

I also want to mention another facet of The Purpose-Driven Life that struck me as a bit odd: It seems that Warren gathered his biblical quotes from no less than 13 different versions or translations of the Bible. Even to someone like myself who is not familiar with one specific version of the Bible, the stylistic differences in the quotes were very noticeable. The author must have known that this would have seem odd to readers, so he included a few paragraphs at the back of the book to explain his reasoning. He actually gives two reasons for using so many sources, the first being that no one translation is completely accurate or necessarily better than others and the second being that he wanted to reduce the familiarity (and thereby increase the impact) of some of the biblical phrases by using lesser-known translations.

According to some critics of Warren and The Purpose-Driven Life, however, the use of so many different translations could simply indicate that the author wanted to find biblical phrases that were rendered in such a way to support his text and ideas. So take this piece of information for what you will.

Overall, I came away with mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, I think people who are already religious and have already accepted God into their lives can do a lot with this book. Rick Warren manages to stay on topic throughout the entire 40 chapters and doesn't digress very often, which is certainly a welcome change from a lot of the nonfiction advice-type books out there. The suggestions he has for making your life a bit saner seem to have some merit. Again, I am in no position to evaluate the actual theology of the work; I'm just giving my personal opinion as a layperson after having read the book.

On the other hand, it's easy to see that this book is not for everyone. It is based entirely on the acceptance of God and Christianity, so those who practice a different religion or no religion at all are not likely to come away with anything useful from the book. The advice is very specifically related to religion, and it would be extremely difficult to extrapolate Warren's teachings for use in a daily routine that doesn't include God. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. In fact, I would be more wary of a book that presents itself as all things to all people. But sometimes people pick up books without being fully aware of the nature of the text, so I just wanted to make it clear that this particular work is all about religion.

Will The Purpose-Driven Life be able to help you focus your energies and discover your own purpose? I think that's something that is up to each individual to determine. But I guess you will never know for sure unless you read the book and see if any of Warren's advice can be applied to your current situation.

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