Food Fight! Beliefnet Bloggers Debate Rick Warren

There’s a bit of an in-house dust-up here at Bnet over Steve Waldman’s extensive interview with Rick Warren (VIDEO / TRANSCRIPT). Steve’s posted on it a few times, as have others around the blogosphere.

But here in the friendly confines of Bnet, a couple of my peers are at odds over the Purpose-Driven (TM) Pastor’s comments.

Paul Raushenbush takes umbrage at Warren’s stereotype-driven dismissal of the social gospel, which Warren says, “was just Marxism in Christian clothing.”  Paul is the great-grandson of Walter Rauschenbush (they lost a “c” in one of those generations) — and Walter was one of the founders of the so-called “social gospel” — so Paul is understandably defensive at Rick’s flippant denunciation of one of the 20th century’s more signficant religious movements.

In the other corner, Scot McKnight comments on Paul’s blog, calling his post “nit-pickingly silly” and goes on to comment that “Rick Warren is not the one to pick on.”  In his own post on the subject, Scot accuses the commenters on Paul’s blog of being liberal fundamentalists, just as zealous and closed-minded as conservative fundamentalists.

For my part, I find myself in the middle.  I agree with Paul: I have Rick Warren fatigue, too.  It seems the only reason that he sat down with Steve, a true journalist, for an extended interview is that Rick’s got a new addition to the Purpose-Driven (TM) Empire that he’s hawking — a book about Christmas.  Now, far be it from me to object to an author trying to sell books, but this is a particularly big week for Rick: the book, the much-blogged-about interview, and now we hear that he will be praying the invocation at BO’s inauguration.  (This last bit, I’d like to believe, isn’t an enormous pander on BO’s part.  But I just cannot see it any other way, and I do find it a disappointing choice.)

But I also agree with Scot that Rick’s persistent work on social issues is noteworthy.  In fact, it seems clear to me that Rick’s concentration on fighting AIDS in Africa did a great deal to de-stigmatize that tyoe of work among many evangelicals.

I’ve never met Rick Warren.  Back in 2000, his secretary called me and asked for a manuscript of the book I was writing.  I don’t know how he’d heard about it; and, at that time, he’d only written The Purpose-Driven Church, which sold a mere 1% of the 35+ million he’s sold of PDL.  I never heard if he liked — or even read — my book.  But it was an odd phone call to receive.

Ultimately, I’m confounded by Rick Warren.  I get that he has a certain brilliance, writing Christianity to the masses in a way I never will (on writing PDL, he told Charlie Rose, “I tried to make it very simple. . . . If I had a twenty-seven-word sentence, I’d try to make it down to nine.”)  He’s obviously friendly and winsome — in fact, I’ve met conservative rabbis who’ve sat under his tutelage regarding church/synagogue growth who rave about him.

But some of Rick’s comments in this interview are so naive and theologically/philosophically/constitutionally unsophisticated that it worries me that he’s being given Billy Graham’s mantle as “America’s pastor.”  For instance:

  • If a pastor speaks out against same sex marriage, he can be accused of hate speech and denied his first amendment rights
  • That same sex marriage is the moral equivalent to brother-sister incest.
  • That he’s got no answer to the problem of theodicy.
  • That he thinks W engaged in torture, but since W never asked his opinion, he never shared it.
  • His aforementioned caricature of the social gospel.

I’m sure Rick means well, but I think that Obama and McCain set a dangerous precendent by having a summit on his stage.  And I’d like to hope that “America’s Pastor” will do some theological reflection on some of these issues.

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  • Jeff

    I’m sure that you’d rather have BO’s Pastor Wright pray the invocation huh Tony. Rick is too simplistic? That’s the Gospel, very simple … Social Gospel? How about the factual Gospel that Rick and, oh yeah The Bible talk about. Keep on diluting the Gospel to make it more palatable Tony, and who knows, maybe you’ll convince yourself and all of your followers that satanic priests will enter into the Kingdom of God. Did you ever even read the Bible Tony? He died for you too.
    Peace, Jeff

  • A Walker

    I’ve read two of Walter Rauschenbusch’s books, and he rightly recognized that the gospel applies to how we save our society as well as how we save our souls. (Both are covered in the pages of the bible, and they are closely linked. And, It’s only Marxism when charity becomes State-owned and operated—there’s no virtue in helping the poor with someone else’s confiscated money.)
    “We have taken the hopeful position that our entire social order, with all its terrible immoralities, is neverthess woven through with Christian elements, which form the basis of its further regeneration. The same thing is true of our economic order. With all their bitter cruelty and wrong our factories are the cells out of which a christianized industry must be evolved. Even now business men are public servants in embryo. They pride themselves on the community service they are rendering, and many a one of them would serve admirably as Bishop of the Church of Holy Industry, if he had half a chance to put his Christian good will into action.” (From “Christianizing the Social Order” – Walter Rauschenbusch, p.237 — , New York, The Macmillan Company, 1919 )

  • A Walker

    One of W. Rauschenbusch’s most useful observations has to do with how Evangelicalism’s perpetual “sky is falling” refrain works against it’s own mission. He writes:
    “The social gospel seeks to develop the vision of the Church toward the future and co-operate with the will of God which is shaping the destinies of humanity. It would be aided and reinforced by a modern and truly Christian conception about the future of mankind. At present no other theological influence so hampers and obstructs the social gospel as that of eschatology. All considerations taken from the life of the twentieth century cry out for something like the social gospel; but the ideas of the first century contained in eschatology are used to veto it. Those who have trained their religious thinking on the Hebrew prophets and the genuine teachings of Jesus are for the social gospel; those who have trained it on apocalyptic ideas are against it. This is all the more pathetic because the pre-millennial scheme is really an outline of the social salvation of the race. Those who hold it exhibit real interest in social and political events. But, they are best pleased when they see humanity defeated and collapsing, for then the salvation is nigh. Active work for the salvation of the social order…is not only vain but against the will of God. Thus [futurist] eschatology defeats the Christian imperative of righteousness and salvation.” (From Theology for the Social Gospel – Walter Rauschenbusch, p. 210-211,– New York, The Macmillan Company, 1918 )
    He’s absolutely correct, and he wrote that in 1918. Could have been written today.
    Most evangelicals seem unaware that the primary application of eschatology pertained to the first century end of the Old Testamental age. Sites like and do a nice job of showing how eschatology applied primarily to the apostles’ generation, with a focus on the Roman Imperial Cult and the dissolution of the Old Covenant world, religion, and state at AD 70. Imminence pertained to them, not to us. The current age may have hundreds of thousands of years to go, if not more. That changes the perspective of what Christians are to be doing somewhat.

  • Nathan

    Maybe RW was just trying to exhibit post-modern playfulness and irony with his comment about the social gospel….
    I mean, it’s ironic and all….and….
    forget it.

  • tripp fuller

    Obama should have Steve Jobs pray.

  • Jake

    Funny Jeff – you end your comment saying “peace” – but I don’t see any evidenced in your comments.
    Good post, Tony. I have a lot of respect for Warren and many of the things he’s done – particularly his raising awareness among evangelicals of the problems in Africa – but I have also been disappointed and disturbed by some of his recent comments about homosexuality, torture, and the so-called “social gospel.”

  • Jeff

    Just a side note, African AIDS awareness is Ricks wife’s passion; he just offered his resources and stage to help her.
    Peace, Jeff