Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Reason Driven Life by Robert M. Price

I feel I have to confess something. Robert M. Price, or more specifically his podcasting nom de plume The Bible Geek, is one of my guilty pleasures. I don’t remember how I discovered him, but I currently have several hundred back episodes of his Bible Geek podcast queued up on my smart phone, and I fear the day when I actually catch up and have no more to listen to. Listening to him answer questions about the origins, contradictions, and hidden meanings in the Bible is one of my favorite things to do.

So when I heard he had written a rebuttal to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, I knew I had to check it out. Having suffered through Warren’s infantile treatise on the “greatest, largest, most diverse and most significant cause in history,” I couldn’t wait to read what someone who actually understands the Bible thought of the whole thing. I was already pretty firm in my own convictions, but what would the “great and exalted Geek” think?

And with this desire in mind, The Reason Driven Life doesn’t disappoint. The best parts are when Price does exactly what I hoped he would--persuasively convict Warren of the crime of not understanding the historicity of the book on which so much of theology in The Purpose Driven Life is based.

Reverend Warren is completely out of touch with the actual book he is constantly and opportunistically quoting. One would have not the faintest idea of what the Bible was about if all one read was Warren’s comically out-of-context snippets from it.

To defend this position, Price cites example after example. Here’s one:

Similarly, he accounts for the origin of the great hymnal of Judah, the Psalter, in this trivial fashion: “To instruct us in candid honesty, God gave us the Book of Psalms … every possible emotion is catalogued in the Psalms.” Talk about the dog gobbling up the crumbs that fall from the table (Mark 7:28)! The Psalms are a treasure trove for understanding the mythology, the liturgy, and the royal God-king ideology of ancient Judah. The emotional utterances to which Warren refers are all dramatic lines, formulaic scripts, probably intended for the ritualistic use of the king during times of national crisis or triumph.

And here’s another:

[Warren says:] “He is a God who is passionate about his relationship with you.” This is supposed to be Exodus 34:14, which in an actual translation from the Hebrew reads: “The LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” I prefer quoting from the New American Standard Bible, which happens also to have been translated by a committee of evangelicals, but these translators left theological interpretation to others and actually rendered what is in the Hebrew and Greek texts. Warren likes to quote from, in the case, the New Living Translation, one of several fundamentalist paraphrases of the Bible that seek to increase the ancient text’s usability for born-again devotionalism by transposing the original into the idiom of that brand of piety. Just look at the context, and you will readily see how Warren and his fellow ventriloquists have hijacked the meaning of the text. Originally it formed part of the dictates of Jehovah commanding his people to overrun and vandalize the old hilltop shrines (“high places”) sacred to other deities such as Asherah. The text is about what we would today call religious intolerance (but as long as it’s in the Bible, fundamentalists are okay with it). It has nothing whatever to do with the storm deity Jehovah being our pal. In fact, it was looking at such passages that led Harry Emerson Fosdick to comment, “One does not go into one’s room and shut the door to commune in secret with such a deity.”

Remember that Price is an actual Bible scholar, someone who has studied and who understands the origins and original purposes of the many different texts, traditions, and translations that have come together to form what most people just call “the Bible.”

My point is, however, that “the Bible” as Warren presents it bears little resemblance to the ancient book that so fascinates scholars. It might as well have been written in the 1970s or 1980s for born-again Christians. Come to think of it, given the raft of new, gooey devotional paraphrases he likes to cite, it was!

So when Price indicts Warren like this for peddling new-age mysticism based on what he wants the Bible to say, I find it simply delicious. But Warren does worse things (or better, depending on your perspective) than just misinterpreting the meaning of Bible passages.

According to Warren, “If you want to know how much you matter to God, look at Christ with his arms outstretched on the cross, saying, ‘I love you this much! I’d rather die than live without you.’” Uh, where in the gospels does Jesus say anything like this? Of course Warren does not mean to be quoting scripture; he provides no citation. But he is, in effect, creating his own scripture. Just as the gospel writers did in their crucifixion accounts, Warren is putting words into the mouth of the crucified Christ in order to set forth his own understanding of the so-called salvation wrought there.

That’s right. According to Price, Warren is not just taking Bible passages out of context, he is actually writing his own scripture. Not satisfied with just interpreting the existing text in his own image, he’s willing the create and insert new words to support that interpretation. After all, is anyone, other than Price, likely to understand the difference?

So that makes The Reason Driven Life a fun read. But, having read both The Reason and The Purpose Driven Life, I do have to concede that Warren’s work has a coherence that Price’s lacks. I don’t agree with Warren’s premise or his conclusions, but the forty essays and study guides that he has assembled for forty days of examination and reflection do all effectively serve his greater point, that the purpose of life is to worship and glorify God.

Price organizes his book on the same superstructure, reacting in forty short chapters to the points made in Warren’s forty essays. But in doing so, I think he has a harder time finding a single principle on which to direct and construct his manifesto for leading a life driven by reason. The nearest thing I could find to a central message on that theme is an often-repeated plea for mankind to grow up and admit that there probably isn’t any divine being that cares about what happens to us.

I believe Freud was correct: maturity depends on realizing there is no Creator, no divine lawgiver, no author of destiny and meaning, and no giver of eternal life.

And it is in this context that Price makes another compelling point. Essentially, the more fundamental one’s religious beliefs, the more immature their intellectual (and moral) understanding of the world around them. And Warren’s brand of religion is, in Price’s estimation, pretty fundamental, and therefore pretty immature. Across his forty chapters, Price repeatedly goes to lengths describing and analyzing Warren’s text to show us something that was apparent to me even on my surface-level reading. Warren’s God is very “human” one--that is, a God that loves, gets jealous, and needs attention and adulation. Like many theologians, Price finds such a human God philosophically incoherent.

I confess that I have lost patience with such contradictions. I do not think a coherent God-concept survives them, and a god of raw mythology such as Warren promotes is simply unbelievable. Warren is stuck in Sunday School-level, pretheological fundamentalism. It is religious infantilism of the kind that led Freud to conclude that religion is nothing more than neurotic wishful thinking and the refusal to grow up. I believe there is a good bit more to religion than that, but I’m afraid Freud was right about Warrenism. It is a pinata, made of brightly colored paper, filled with sweet candy, and too easily knocked apart.

Ouch. But Price revisits the subject again and again, holding less and less back each time he does.

Do you think anyone would hold up a sign saying GOD SAYS KILL FAGS if he didn’t believe he had the infallible truth of God in his hip pocket? Do you think that thoughtful individuals who carefully reason out evidence and come to provisional, tentative conclusions, the only kind science allows, would ever be found howling for the blood of homosexuals? You begin to see that the very belief of mortals that they have God’s certain truth is a corrupting hubris. And it short-circuits the process of intellectual growth. Even character growth.

[Paul] Tillich says, “The decisive step to maturity is risking the break away from spiritual infancy with its protective traditions and guiding authorities. Without a ‘no’ to authority, there is no maturity.”

Spiritual infancy with its protective traditions and guiding authorities. From where I sit, this perfectly sums up Rick Warren and The Purpose Driven Life. But it isn’t just name calling. There is a larger point to be made here.

Religion admits that it deals with invisible realities that we must take on faith. Thus it is hard to evaluate religious claims by anything but faith. But occasionally we are lucky enough to find an empirical factor that we can use to test the validity of religious claims. Here is one of them: if a particular approach to moral responsibility presupposes a state of arrested moral and emotional development, then we can reject that approach. The approach is plainly revealed as a product of minds that have not yet reached maturity. And that is incompatible with divine origin. Reverend Warren’s faith is one predicated upon moral immaturity. That alone should be enough to discredit it.

In other words, any religion that requires you to look at the world the way a five-year-old would cannot have any claim on the design and intentions of the divine creator of all things.

I'd have to agree.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment