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An Evangelical Ignatius?

Rick Warren, pastor for Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., has written a kind of Spiritual Exercises for today’s evangelical Christian. While The Purpose Driven Life shares much in common with the work of Saint Ignatius, the differences …
by Jay Dunlap | Source:
Review of: The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren
Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. Copyright 2002

The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola is one of the towering spiritual masterpieces of all time. Though originally designed for thirty days of silence with five intense meditations each day, the Exercises have been adapted for everything from short weekend retreats to a lengthy, nine-month process.

Rick Warren, pastor for thousands of families at the bustling Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., has written a kind of Spiritual Exercises for today’s evangelical Christian. While The Purpose Driven Life shares much in common with the work of Saint Ignatius, the differences are profound enough to call into question its usefulness for Catholic readers.

Ignatius’s program calls for four “weeks” of intense prayer (though the amount of time spent on each week can vary widely, depending on the retreatants’ needs). The first week focuses on God’s love and the call to reconciliation; week two emphasizes meditating deeply on Christ through the gospels; week three involves knowing Christ even more deeply through his Passion and death; week four looks at Christ’s resurrection and calls the retreatant to commit himself to serving Christ.

Warren’s book comprises forty chapters, each a meditation for a day. They fit into five categories, the “five purposes” for which Warren says we are created: “worship - you were planned for God's pleasure; fellowship - you were formed to be part of God's family; discipleship - you were created to become like Christ; ministry - you were shaped for God's service; mission - you were made to tell others about Christ.” Though not dependent on a retreat master or spiritual director, as Ignatius’s Exercises are, Warren does recommend going through his forty lessons with at least one companion for purposes of discussion, support and accountability.

But The Purpose Driven Life is not simply an updated or expanded Spiritual Exercises. In fact, nowhere does Warren even refer to Ignatius.

The first essential difference is one in Warren’s favor, at least at first glance. He has written in an engaging, readable, first-person style. His text is full of insights from Scripture and daily experience; he explains clearly and insightfully the difference between a Christian view of the human person and what one gets from pop psychology and self-help manuals. Occasionally he lets loose with a riff of rhyming slogans that bring to the mind’s ear the eloquence of an inspired evangelical preacher: “Don’t repress it; confess it! Don’t conceal it; reveal it. Revealing your feeling is the beginning of healing” (p. 213).

Ignatius, on the other hand, wrote a manual for a much deeper spiritual experience that puts the burden on retreatant and retreat director. Many read the Spiritual Exercises and come away unimpressed. That’s because the Exercises aren’t to be read, they’re to be explored through hours of deep meditation and contemplation. This is harder work than reading and reflecting on Warren’s forty chapters. It makes Warren’s book far more accessible, but at a price.

The second major difference is the most troubling. While Warren quotes from a number of Catholic sources – St. Iranaeus, St. John of the Cross, Mother Theresa, Henri Nouwen – this is definitely not a Catholic book. He doesn't embrace sacramental grace. Communion receives only a passing reference; baptism is hailed as necessary not for the saving grace it achieves but because it “symbolizes” the “fellowship” to which all Christians are called.

As one might expect, Warren makes several references to being “born again,” but this is never connected to baptism, which is the Catholic understanding of it.

What is missing here is not only sacramental theology but the Catholic sacramental imagination. For instance, consider his contention that “There is no such thing as ‘Christian’ music; there are only Christian lyrics. It is the words that make a song sacred, not the tune” (p. 66). Warren is tone-deaf, so to speak, to the reality that created things, including art, affect us because of their objective nature. As the Church has long noted and reaffirmed at Vatican II, some music is sacred by its nature; other music is profane. What else accounts for the recent popularity of monastic chant recordings? It’s certainly not because the audience has any idea what the Latin words mean. It’s the inherent sacredness of the music.

Another example of the absence of Catholic imagination: Warren rails against the contemplative life “alone in a mountaintop monastery.” He writes that we are called to remain engaged in the world. Perhaps he should read the Story of a Soul to learn how a contemplative nun could become patron saint of missionaries.

It is sad that Warren’s otherwise excellent book fails on these accounts. If one is a well-formed Catholic looking for a helpful, readable resource, The Purpose Driven Life could be useful. The risk, however, is the book in the hands of the poorly formed Catholic who, experiencing the many blessings it presents, is unable to discern its weaknesses. If Warren were open to it, it would make sense to edit a Catholic version of the book, one that would make it safe in the hands of those whose understanding of the faith is undeveloped.

Media commentator Jay Dunlap writes from New Haven, Conn. He is a contributor to the National Catholic Register, This Rock and other Catholic periodicals.

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