603: Interview about Rick Warren with biographer and journalist Jeffrey Sheler

hen ReadTheSpirit first mentioned this upcoming book about Rick Warren—widely regarded as the most influential preacher in America at the moment—we immediately got our first complaint. At the mere mention of Warren’s name, a reader shot off a note slamming him for conservative stances. More followed.
    So, we want to be clear: Biographer Jeffrey Sheler is not a Rick Warren staffer or backer or paid consultant. Jeff is the former religion newswriter at U.S. News & World Report. These days, Jeff is devoting his energies to timely books, including this fascinating biography of Warren. There’s a clear separation of subject and biographer here: Jeff accepted no money from Warren’s organization and refused to write an “authorized” biography, which would have given Warren final approval.
    “Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren” is a leading journalist’s two-year examination of Warren’s life and his impact on American culture to date. Warren did allow Jeff a series of interviews, including access during a couple of Warren’s trips.
    On balance, when you read the book, you’ll find that this biographer likes this subject. That’s one theme in our interview today. But, Jeff is equally outspoken in warning that Warren’s dabbling in politics has, at times, been clumsy and naively conceived. Warren’s own status, poised at the pinnacle of religious influence, could easily change, Jeff concludes, if Warren can’t figure out a better way to navigate the mine field of issues stretching out all around him.

    CLICK HERE to order “Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren” now from Amazon.
(We also recommend Jeff’s earlier books: “Is the Bible True?” and “Believers: A Journey into Evangelical America”)

ON “Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren”

     DAVID: Jeff, we’ve known each other a long time and, now, both of us are working in new fields of media. You’re a noted author with several books from major publishers. I’m the head of ReadTheSpirit Magazine and Books. We both approach our work from journalistic principles—which means accuracy, fairness and balance.
    I’m glad you’re out there producing books like “Prophet of Purpose,” so we have some place to turn for an objective look at a major figure like Rick Warren. But, first, say just a word about the status of religion newswriters, will you?
JEFF (photo at right): I left the magazine when I got downsized like a lot of other journalists and, for a couple of years, they kept me on as a contributing editor. I still do some things for them, but I’ve spent most of my time in the last few years working on books.
There’s a whole new direction in the media industry. It caught up with U.S. News earlier than some other publications. The downsizing that caught me was something like the third round of staff reductions. This is unpleasant, of course, but it also frees us to do things we otherwise would not have had the freedom to do. For me, this turned out to be a good thing and gave me a new freedom to pursue subjects like this.
DAVID: In my case, I was a religion newswriter for major newspapers for more than 20 years. You’ve been a part of this profession for about that long, as well. But this is a profession that’s on the verge of disappearing and readers need to be aware, I think, of the importance of supporting efforts like your books, our magazine and so on.
JEFF: Obviously, the ranks are shrinking all across the country. It reflects the economic situation and the business climate in the news industry. I don’t think it reflects the interest among readers, though. I think that interest remains quite strong among readers.
DAVID: We agree entirely. “Prophet of Purpose” is a great example. Here’s a book we can trust because you—a senior journalist—dug into this guy’s life for more than two years.
This isn’t a book produced by Warren himself and published by Warren’s media empire. In fact, your publisher Doubleday isn’t Warren’s publisher. This is independent from start to finish.
JEFF: Yes, this was done with a notebook and a recorder and all the tools I used in covering stories for U.S. News.


DAVID: Rick Warren (photo at right) has sold an astonishing number of books—more than 30 million copies of “The Purpose Driven Life,” alone. That’s way up there in Harry Potter territory!
So, why did you think we needed a biography of him, now? The guy was born in 1954. He’s got a whole lot of life ahead of him.
JEFF: Yes, he has been in the media a lot—and he will continue to be in the news—but really everything we’ve seen about him has been fairly two-dimensional.
He has not been fully fleshed out in news coverage before this. I wanted to write a book that would let people see Warren as he is, to see the influences and experiences that brought him to where he is today.
I wanted people to learn about some of the challenges and problems he faced and, in the course of going through those challenges, how he demonstrated that he is a flesh-and-blood human being with foibles. He certainly is a man of faith, but he continues to struggle and he readily admits that.
People don’t realize that he had some very difficult times early in his marriage, that he has dealt with self doubts and insecurities that could have torpedoed his ministry, although he managed to muddle through and reach where he is today.
When I approached him about writing this biography, I said, “People don’t know you. People admire you, but they don’t really know you. Some people hate you, but they see you as a caricature. They don’t know you, either.”


DAVID: What did it take to produce the book?
JEFF: The scope became much broader than I envisioned initially. I initially had a contract to complete a manuscript within a year, but that was totally unrealistic. I spent two and a half years on the project, start to finish.
Ultimately, Rick agreed to give me 10 hours of interviews with him, which I thought we’d knock out rather quickly and that ended up taking close to 2 years to get my 10 hours in with him. It involved considerable travel. I was out at his church, Saddleback Church, on numerous occasions. I went to Rwanda with him. I met with him in Texas when he was there for a couple of events.
DAVID: On balance, you like him. You’re clear in warning that he’s sometimes his own worst enemy. But you admire him. Readers will discover that your book tells us his life story with all its quirks and occasional missteps, but this isn’t a book that sets out to attack him. So, tell us how you first came to appreciate Warren as a religious leader.
JEFF: I interviewed him on occasion for U.S. News and, in those early interviews some years ago, I found him to be really a breath of fresh air as a leading evangelical.
He wasn’t obsessed with the hot-button political and social issues that evangelicals are known for, basically abortion and homosexuality. Here was a guy who talked about helping the poor, working with HIV-infected people and bringing American church members into other countries where they could help people get their feet on the ground both economically and through education.
He sounded like a social justice kind of Christian, which you don’t typically associate with leading American evangelicals.
His personality was very winsome. He’s gregarious and has a positive attitude that’s in sharp contrast to the kind of dour, hard-edged, combative leaders of the Religious Right. He was quite different than the evangelicals who defined the movement through the late 1980s and most of the 1990s.


DAVID: It was rather surprising to me to realize that “The Purpose Driven Life” only came out in 2003. It feels like a book that’s everywhere and has been around for a long time. But, it’s not even a decade old.
To borrow from Warren himself, “This is more than a book …” This “40-day spiritual journey” was a major innovation in American religious life—in terms of the way the book was marketed and the network through which the book spread congregation to congregation and friend to friend.
And, here at ReadTheSpirit, we approach writing about spiritual life in the same way Warren posed his questions. Here’s the famous opening question in his book: “What on earth am I here for?”
Really, though, there’s nothing new between these covers. The innovation is in the simplicity of the summary, the pitch-perfect voice that comes through—and the stunning power of Warren’s own personal marketing network.
For myself, your section about his books, especially this one, was one of the most fascinating portions of your book.
JEFF: “Purpose Driven Life” is a very good example of Rick Warren himself.
It demonstrates his gift, a gift that had been noted about him before he wrote this book. His ability as a communicator allows him to communicate complex theological themes in ways that are easy to understand. He’s a simplifier of complex subjects.
He’s taking the foundational principles of living as a disciple of Jesus Christ and he explains how to live out that discipleship in the world in relationship with other people. He does it in a way that makes sense and he illustrates what he’s writing with personal examples and anecdotes.
He manages to get a lot of theology across without using a lot of heavy-duty theological rhetoric.
That’s really his gift. Listen to him give a weekend message, or if you see any of his DVD lesson plans that are available, and you’ll see that’s his approach. He gets up in the pulpit, but he doesn’t use standard preaching oratory.
He’s a teacher. He uses tons of Bible verses in his weekly messages and this is true of “Purpose Driven Life” as well, yet he presents all of this in ways that are readily grasped by people.
He’s also very good at alliterations, so he uses bullet points and alliteration in his messages to help people grasp and remember difficult subjects. Of course, this is a very old Baptist style of communicating. He learned this growing up in a Southern Baptist home, where he heard lots of three-point sermons with each point sharing the same letter so folks could go home and remember what was said.
Of course, most people in his church didn’t grow up in that milieu so it’s new to them. It sounds fresh and they like it.


DAVID: In the book, you describe the kind of connections he’s built over the past decade to link his church with so many others.
JEFF: When “Purpose Driven Life” came out, just going through his network of churches right away accounted for hundreds of thousands of books. Zondervan went through the first printing of 250,000 copies in a month! All of that initial excitement and spread of the book was through campaigns in churches.
People would get a copy of the book and study it for 40 days, but the wouldn’t stop there. They began buying copies to give to friends. The primary group of people buying books weren’t people who hadn’t read it—but people who had read it and wanted to share it with friends and relatives. That’s what caused the sales momentum to multiply so rapidly.
Then, news events spurred this even further. In 2005, there was the national news story of Ashley Smith in Atlanta (photo at right) who read the book to her abductor and that added to the national awareness of the book. Plus, it created a tremendous demand for Warren personally to show up on network talk shows. That was a huge adrenaline boost to all of his efforts.


DAVID: With that wall-to-wall publicity, he became a celebrity as well as an evangelist. Then, he was tempted to dabble in politics.
Readers will get a pretty fair analysis in your chapters about Warren’s political ups and downs. It’s clear that—as much as some issues define him as a classic evangelical—he’s also taken his lumps from hard-line Religious Right figures.
For example, you describe the mistake he made in 2004, essentially endorsing Bush in a letter he sent through his network of churches. Looking back, Warren calls that a mistake himself. Then, he invited Obama to his big AIDS conference, despite really strong opposition from Religious Right activists.
Those of us who remember that moment recall how well Obama did as a presidential candidate moving into that tough evangelical environment. But, really, it was Warren who won the most in that case, you write. You quote E.J. Dionne pretty much glowing about Warren as a fresh new religious figure on the political landscape.
JEFF: Rick continues to insist that he’s not involved in politics, even though he’s done so many things that are political.
As he sees it, he insists he’s just trying to be a pastor. He feels he’s been given opportunities to minister in circles where other ministers don’t have access. So, if he meets with people like political leaders, he’s talking about things that aren’t political policy.
    DAVID: Clearly, you’re skeptical about this distinction he’s trying to make. Your book points out that he’s obviously now a potent political figure himself.
JEFF: And he gets into trouble. He spoke out in 2008 on California’s Proposition 8 that limited “marriage” to “a man and a woman.” That got him into trouble. From his perspective, he says that he didn’t campaign about this. What he did was, a week before the election, he made a statement to the church on something he considered a moral issue. He urged them to support Proposition 8.
Trying to make that distinction demonstrates his naïveté.
When you become an international figure—and he already had achieved that status, something he had deliberately courted—then everything you say is for public consumption. You can’t distinguish between something you say in your church and something you’re saying in public.
That shows he hadn’t mastered the appropriate techniques of speaking in public on matters like this. You have to weigh your words far more carefully than he did—and you have to understand how you’ll be perceived by people who are not your admirers.
DAVID: You think he’s facing some big challenges ahead, right?
JEFF: Yes. He hasn’t fully grasped all of this.
He’s made some good decisions in hiring help. He’s got good professionals advising him, but he doesn’t always take their advice.
If he’s going to stay in the public limelight as an international figure, he’s going to have learn more about how you speak in public and how it’s perceived.
DAVID: I’m intrigued that you regard him as a potential bridging figure in resolving the long-running civil war between evangelical and gay Americans.
JEFF: I don’t know where this will go and, the more he talks about these issues, to some extent he further muddies the waters about where he stands.
He makes no bones about the fact that, like most other evangelicals, he believes that the Bible does not endorse gay relationships—it’s not the biblical vision of human sexuality, in his view.
But he will also tell you that gay couples should have the same civil rights as everyone else. I’m 99 percent sure that he supports the idea of civil unions, but where he stops short is redefining “marriage.”


DAVID: Can he survive in the glare of the national spotlight, given the sometimes clumsy ways he navigates these issues?
JEFF: That’s difficult to say.
He regards Billy Graham as a mentor and he’s put into place a lot of the safeguards the Graham ministry has used so successfully, so he’s pretty well insulated himself from the obvious kinds of scandals. He doesn’t take a salary anymore from his church—and he’s returned to his church all the salary they paid him in the past. So, I think he’s pretty well insulated from financial scandals.
But there could well be some unforeseen controversy that will erupt and change everything. Who knows what kinds of internal public-relations grenades are lying out there that might blow up in his face? Even after two years of looking into his life and ministry, no one can say.
Will he learn from some of the controversies he’s weathered in the last few years? Will he become more effective handling future situations than he has in the past? His track record with controversies leaves a lot to be desired.
Will he continue like his mentor Billy Graham and perpetually find himself among the most admired people in the country? I don’t know if that will happen here in the U.S. But, I can say that his international stature is likely to grow, because he’s placing more and more energy in that direction, ministering pastorally—not as a crusading evangelist—especially in Africa and Asia.
He’s becoming more and more visible in other countries.
Rick Warren is probably not the best-suited person to survive and thrive in America’s pop culture that’s so focused on celebrities. That’s never been his intent or his desire and I don’t think it’s necessarily his aptitude.
As much as he would love for everyone to love him, that’s just not going to happen. And I don’t think that’s ultimately a problem for him, but he does get disappointed and he does get frustrated when people misrepresent him.
He desires to be known and loved for who he is. And, in some parts of the world, that’s working out very well.


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