In Praise of Rick Warren (Seriously)

Not long ago the Chicago Sun Times tagged Rob Bell as the new Billy Graham. That Bell has a church here in my backyard at the Grandville Mall might suggest that the parallels aren’t quite so clean. After all, Graham was in the business of mega-circuit riding while Bell can be located at any given time. Insofar as he represents how diverse the tributaries that run through broad Evangelicalism are and how it ever reinvents itself without changing, maybe Bell could be considered the new Graham only this time with a phone listing.

In its most recent cover story TIME magazine has dubbed Rick Warren “America’s most powerful religious leader” who “takes on the world.” The piece by Van Biema really yields nothing very new here to take up. And I doubt it will be long before we see certain quarters of western Christianity picking apart Warren for being, well, a very consistent Evangelical. This, when one thinks about it, is a bit odd.

And this is the angle I’d like to think about. Instead of heaping more critique upon the likes of poor Rick I’d like to suggest praise. And I genuinely mean it. Granted, in keeping with the counter-intuitive ways of our tradition, it may not be a plaudit in the way the world gives. I know that is to risk being heard as finally disingenuous. But I actually think it might help to serve the interests of a maturing confessional Protestantism.

As I read the piece I was struck over and over again with the fact that the purpose-driven pastor is simply applying Evangelical principles and taking them to their logical end in the twenty-first century. In that sense, there is nothing much with which to quibble. He’s just plain a good Evangelical. From the prerequisite goatee to “yearning to do battle with the five global giants of spiritual emptiness, selfish leadership, hunger, sickness and illiteracy” to the Herculean ambition of the PEACE plan which is a “bid to turn every single Christian church on earth into a provider of local health care, literacy and economic development, leadership training and spiritual growth,” Warren is bringing to bear the law that true religion has a direct bearing on and obvious implication for the cares of this world. To boot, he also understands that in order to be maximally successful that these sunnier moralistic ambitions cannot be held captive by gloomier moralisms or what he calls the “’sin issues’ of abortion and homosexual marriage” and must be “more interested in questions that [are] ‘uniting,’ such as poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate change and human rights.” (As a confessional Protestant I also don’t see what interest true religion has in certain “sin issues”—but like the man sang, we’ve got different reasons for that.) And, like a good Evangelical and worthy adversary to it, he wants to point out how something like confessional Protestantism, or at least its caricature, gets in the way of all this. Says he,

“The problem with a living sacrifice is that is can crawl off the altar. We sing Onward Christian Soldiers on Sunday, then go AWOL on Monday.”

Exactly, Rick. The point ever since Constantine is to get things done because heaven and earth are not really at odds. Whatever Jesus may have meant in saying that his kingdom is not of this world it can’t mean that the world does not, in point of fact, set the church’s agenda. (Confessional Protestants like dualities and paradoxes, too, but I’ll leave it to Rick to sort this one out.). Warren gets his tradition the way the Pope gets his. What’s wrong with that? There is only something wrong if one thinks Warren or Ratzinger speaks for him. And last I checked, confessional Protestants didn’t give much heed, to say nothing of attention, to the plights of Vatican City. Why should Saddleback enjoy any?

It may be that the nay-sayers, however correct they are, actually reveal interesting problems that abide in those of us who would conceive of ourselves as confessional Protestants. Call it Calvinism in overdrive, but could it be that a measure of self-examination is in order when it comes to pointing out the foibles of the poor Evangelicals? The criticism seems to imply that we have some common stake in what they do and say; to be honest, understanding it as a bankrupt system, I haven’t felt that way in years. So it can be frustrating to hear references to “the Reformed and Evangelical” community as if they are somehow that synonymous. Someone once said that when Calvinism and Arminianism are allowed to co-exist Arminianism always wins. I daresay the same must be true when it comes to confessional Protestantism and Evangelicalism But as one who has experience in it my own sense is that much of this owes to the fact that many of the confessional Protestants who are so excited about confessional Protestantism are former Evangelicals exorcising their demons. Even so, eventually one has to shake the dust from his sandals. I stopped going slack-jawed over Evangelical pastor conference interviews, like, years ago.

Something similar must have been the case from the early days of the Reformation when Protestants of the mainstream variety came into their own. At some point they graduated from being medievals-in-recovery and became full-fledged Protestants. I realize it’s complicated to say the least. And the analogy, like Bell to Graham, is a bit off since what confessional Protestants are up against instead of an institutional Church is a diverse, ubiquitous and decidedly un-institutional Evangelicalism that has been victorious over the Protestant household; whatever else that means it seems clear that the game must be played differently since there is no door on which to nail theses, so to speak. Which might mean that to begin to praise someone like Warren for being a good Evangelical would be to signal commencement. If nothing else, an effort to locate and correct where confessional Protestantism is behaving evangelically—instead of blaming Evangelicals for being consistent with their tradition—would be more in keeping with minding one’s own business instead of meddling in another’s affairs.

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22 Responses to In Praise of Rick Warren (Seriously)

  1. sean says:

    It’s such a weird trip. I don’t know which is more telling; that they’re tracking along the lines of a liberal protestantism barely a generation old, or that they’re not even aware they’re doing it. It reminds me of dealing with my jesuit instructors in college and being just flabbergasted that they were quoting Bultmann (positively) to us.

  2. Zrim says:

    Sean,

    I’d suggest it goes back way more than a generation. The Presbyterian Church was afflicted by the New Schoolers and the Reformers themselves had the Radical Reformation and Paul had the super-apostles. Somebody once said there is nothing new under the sun.

    But what becomes weird, to me, is when the “New Evangelicals” like Warren speak begrudingly of Liberalism. I tend to think that’s their left-over sense of a rote conservatism. When this happens I want to ask them if they’ve heard themselves lately.

  3. Rick says:

    I really dig this post. I’ve read it three times.

    So true, so true.

    Now do Osteen. 🙂

  4. RubeRad says:

    He’s just plain a good Evangelical. From the prerequisite goatee

    Hey now, let’s not get personal! Goatees are a sanctified form of facial hair!

  5. Rick says:

    Rick Warren before

    Rick Warren after

    Stylish haircut, contact lenses, slimmer, nice duds, tan…
    He’s a walking transformation.

  6. Chris says:

    Niebhur, in his (questionably) classic work, remarked that the libs and the fundies were just two sides of the same coin. I think that was insightful on his part for that day. And I think it holds true to this day, as this post points out.

    There’s a way for the church to fulfill its mission in this world that’s quite clearly distinct from both the evangelical and liberal ecclesiologies. I’m not so sure something akin to a “strict subscriptionism” is the way there, though.

  7. Zrim says:

    Rick,

    OK…Joel Osteen is a really good Revivalist. How’s that?

    Rube,

    I hear Osteen doesn’t even have to shave in the first place. Now that’s some transformation for you (I hate shaving, hate it). But doesn’t anyone know that beards are what’s in and relevant though? Hey, didn’t Jesus have a beard?

  8. sean says:

    “Stylish haircut, contact lenses, slimmer, nice duds, tan…
    He’s a walking transformation.”

    Well, besides the fact that beauty(transformation) truly is in the eye of the beholder, is it possible to really count all the ways popular evangelicalism has confounded sanctification/faithfulness with success? It’s just not that far from Frederick Price to Joel (lithium) Osteen to Rick Warren to infomercials.

  9. Rick says:

    I don’t know, Zrim – I just want to see a positive Osteen post. He makes me feel all warm inside.

  10. Zrim says:

    Chris,

    I’m partial to post-Liberal Methodist Thomas Oden’s line from “After Modernity, What?”:

    “Liberals and Fundamentalists have more in common than either would be willing or comfortable admitting.”

    Since I inhabit close familial ties that include Fundies on one side and Libs on the other and find no home myself in either, I know exactly what he means.

    For my part, I am persuaded of Hart’s argument that liberal and fundamentalist both fall under the category of evangelical. I am willing to give strict subscription a whirl since it seems to take something like confessionalism to explain why evangelicalism is a farce.

  11. Zrim says:

    Rick,

    Well, there is this one. It implies that Joel has something in common with the Reformed, but that it doesn’t seem to be a good thing for either.

  12. Darryl Hart says:

    Would that Ref 21’s blog allowed for comments and that this post and discussion could take place there. I don’t think those guys realize they are making the world safe for Warren. Sure Piper is better than Warren, even Keller is. But if the standard for judgment is simply being evangelical, then how is Warren blameable?

  13. Zrim says:

    Darryl,

    Exactly. When you say the “Lost Soul,” boy, you ain’t kidding.

    You might think about laying down something bigger than mere bread crumbs, my friend. Some seem to have confused “lost” with “misplaced.”

  14. Darryl Hart says:

    Folks want uplift, not pessimism. Then again, they want to get beat up with the law. I guess that makes them hyphenated — but in the wrong way.

  15. Zrim says:

    Ah, yes, the bad-hyphenatedness of being either brutalized or coddled. That reminds me…

    https://confessionalouthouse.wordpress.com/2008/01/14/the-gospel-of-law-the-brutalizing-of-sinners/

    Speaking of uplift, how’s Millward’s thesis coming?

  16. Bruce S. says:

    Folks want uplift, not pessimism. Then again, they want to get beat up with the law.

    This seems about right. But it’s a gelded law. It’s a soft law since it is couched in terms of “5 tips for being more generous” or “7 ways you can be whatever”. It is uplifting to get such great advice for free. But is it ever “Our God is a consuming fire etc.”?

    Getting free advice is so uplifting that you’ll never notice that the soft law is killing you – via starvation – or that you never hear the gospel.

    But you guys already know all this.

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  20. sean says:

    So Zrim,

    Do you want to fight for redefinition of “evangelical” or just jettison the term for purposes of distinction and clarification in at least the american scene? It seems to me until that determination is made, we’ll always be divided over how to react to Warren and his ilk.

  21. Zrim says:

    Sean,

    I am not sure I like either option. I’d rather just settle for “evangelical” to reside within its Reformed formulation, just like “catholic” or “apostolic.” It needs no re-definition, and it certainly shouldn’t be jettisoned.

    And less than how to determine our posture toward a certain word, I’d suggest we need to remember our tradition better when wondering what to do about Warren. The fact that we are divided about Warren only reveals how confused we are about our own identity. We aren’t evangelicals (read: Anabaptists) or Catholics, we’re Presbyterians.

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