saddleback_1For some reason, I feel like I should like Rick Warren.  He represented for me, in the nineties, what I believed to be a progressive force in the Christian church. Although I’m now something of a post-evangelical (old-fashioned term I know), I still feel some fondness for Warren; I now live much closer to his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California than I did back then and I’ve visited on a Sunday (it’s an astonishing campus in a beautiful setting with many acres of venues). Sadly, I no longer concur with the vast majority of what he says he believes, though the style in which he says it is very agreeable.

Warren wasn’t a household name when I read his book, The Purpose-Driven Church, which belonged to my dad, a Presbyterian minister in Belfast who wanted to make his church ‘seeker-friendly’.  But particularly after last year’s presidential election, Warren is known by the many now rather than the few, and accordingly the scrutiny upon him is much greater.  As he goes into the inauguration of Barack Obama this Sunday, Warren is making news because of the protests from gay rights advocates who oppose his role in the inauguration – Warren opposes gay marriage and some other gay rights – and gay Bishop Gene Robinson has now also been included in the ceremony (Robinson doesn’t think his invitation has anything to do with appeasing the gay rights movement after the revolt about Warren; I think that’s naive).

Wendy Kaminer wrote an interesting article about Warren which I’ve just read on Spiked.  Here’s an excerpt:

In a subsequent 2005 email exchange with Warren, I wondered why God was clear about his ‘non-negotiable’ positions on the Culture War but equivocal about war and social programmes: ‘Does God really care more about gay marriage than the obligation to alleviate human suffering?’, I asked. Not surprisingly, I received no response.

My correspondence with Warren was brief and followed a relatively critical 2005 article about him that I published in The Nation (which some of his detractors considered excessively kind). I described his best-selling religious self-help book, The Purpose Driven Life (which he pointedly described as ‘the bestselling book in the world for the last three years’) as childish and platitudinous and questioned his commitment to religious pluralism and civil liberty for all.

A few months later, on the occasion of Yom Kippur (which I do not observe), I received an email from Warren assuring me of his personal love and friendship, and seeking my forgiveness ‘for any ways that I may have ever unknowingly hurt you. Your article showed a lot of hurt by, and fearfulness of, what you think I represent … I want you to know that I would like to be your friend. I thank God for you, for your talent at writing, and I ask you, on this sacred day, to forgive me.’

Warren even took it upon himself to ask forgiveness for ‘all the hurt’ he assumed had been inflicted on me by anti-Semitic ‘so-called Christians’. He did not tell me that he and his wife had recently dined at the home of a Jewish couple, but he did note that he was ‘recently invited to speak at the University of Judaism to a gathering of US Rabbis’. He concluded by assuring me that I was in his prayers and his heart: ‘I respect you, thank God for you, and I am praying for God to bless you this new year. With love in my heart for you.’

Warren didn’t know me; we had met briefly at a conference sponsored by the Pew Forum and disagreed politely. Because I am a mere human being, I have no love in my heart for him, or other people I have briefly or never met. But Warren, it seems, is more like a benevolent deity, who doesn’t simply harbour indifferent goodwill towards others but loves them – loves us all, despite our sins and failings. In fact, Warren’s email to me was apparently a variation of a Yom Kippur form letter that he sent to Jewish journalists.

In any case, I didn’t see myself anywhere in his extravagant protestations of love for me and requests for forgiveness; I saw a reflection of Warren’s self-image, reminiscent of an old Yom Kippur joke: A rabbi prostrates himself before the Ark and says ‘Oh God, I am nothing’. The cantor prostrates himself and says ‘Oh God, I am nothing’. Then the janitor enters, prostrates himself and says, ‘Oh God, I am nothing’. The rabbi nudges the cantor and says ‘so look who thinks he’s nothing’.

It’s this mawkish, faux-harmoniousness that characterizes Warren’s brand of evangelicalism. For me, growing up in Northern Ireland rebelling against the harsh, self-righteous street sermons of people like the very Protestant Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley, Warren’s professions of love for the general public were a breath of fresh air and made the church’s message far more attractive.

Now it just seems… unconvincing?