Saturday, December 20, 2008

Clarification: About Rick Warren

When it was announced that Rick Warren had been chosen to give the invocation at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration ceremonies on January 20, my first reaction was disappointment. My first pick was a colleague, admittedly a fantasy choice, but one based on the fact that he had prayed at a major Obama event before.

But I mentioned in that post that I liked Rick Warren.

In the intervening days, it's become clear that a lot of people don't like Rick Warren and for many different reasons.

I disagree with Warren on some things.

But for the past twenty years, I've been able to be a fan of Warren without being a fan of everything he says or does. Why?

1. He's a shrewd, insightful analyst of culture and human nature. Back in the early 90s, I listened to many of his sermons on tape. Theologically, there are often things I wish weren't missing in Warren's preaching; but there's also a lot of substance.

2. He's a brilliant communicator. Like the best communicators, Warren has an enviable capacity for distilling big ideas and truths in memorable phrases.

3. He's a fabulous leader. Warren understands the art and science of leadership.

Part of that can be attributed, probably, to the example he had in a father who was a pastor. Because pastors can't coerce those they lead, they, along with other not-for-profit sector leaders, are called upon to exercise leadership in its purest form. They must lead through persuasion and influence, hopefully undergirded by guidance sought from God through prayer. Pastors who try to coerce never amount to much as leaders. On the other hand, pastors who refuse to lead end up in the same boat. Warren no doubt observed both good and bad examples of leadership in his dad.

On top of that, Warren has been a student of leadership. One of his tutors, for example, was the leadership guru, the late Peter Drucker.

I've learned a lot about leadership from Warren. His monthly "Leadership Lifters" audiotapes back in the 90s, brought greater clarity to my thinking as a leader. Leaders in all fields would benefit from what Warren shared in them.

4. He understands the function, the purpose, of the Church. As the body of Jesus Christ in the world, the Church, especially the individual congregation, is commissioned to "make disciples" for Christ. The word disciple means student or follower. Belief in Christ isn't meant to be a stagnant, dusty idea stowed away in our brains, like a poem memorized for an elementary school play. The follower of Christ is meant to be a lifelong student of the Christ-way of life, following Christ to discover new ways to love God, love neighbor, share Christ with others, serve others in Jesus' Name, and to personally continue growing in our relationship with the God.

Warren explains this as well as anyone and has done so most memorably in two major books: The Purpose Driven Church (1995), in which he outlined a strategy by which churches can help people in the process of growing as disciples, and The Purpose Driven Life (2002), where he helps people answer, from a Christian perspective, what our purpose for living is.

As a Lutheran Christian, I have problems with some of what Warren has to say in these books. I don't think that we're driven, for one thing. I believe that we're called by a God Who, through the Holy Spirit, woos us, persuades us. This same God also frees us from the monkeys on our backs that often drive us. The Christian is liberated from the demands of sinful world in order to live as truly human beings.

I also, not surprisingly, disagree with Warren when it comes to his understanding of baptism. He sees it as a rite in which persons who have reached "the age of accountability" make a public commitment to follow Christ. Such commitments are great, of course; we Lutherans do the same thing in the Affirmation of Baptism (Confirmation, which usually happens around age 14) and in our weekly invitations to worshipers to confess their faith in such formulas as the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. But, I believe, these are only our responses to what Christ has already done for us, first from cross and empty tomb and secondly, in Baptism, which is God's act of claiming us as children of God. That's why we Lutherans--and most Christians in the world--present infants for Baptism. It isn't that children can't turn away from God or the covenant of Baptism. They do and God gives that freedom to the baptized. But God will never renege on the claim He made on us in the waters of Baptism.

Yet, I find more that I agree with in Warren's writings on discipleship than I find disagreeable. That's why in my former parish, we became involved in reading and digging into The Purpose Driven Life as a congregation.

5. Warren has done much good to combat poverty and AIDs around the world. His work in Africa shames those who like to talk about combating injustice and promoting peace. Warren has been engaged in those tough, demanding pursuits.

There are also other areas in which I disagree with Warren. I won't go into those here.

I think that President-elect Obama was right when, in defending his decision to invite Warren to give the invocation at the Inauguration:
"We're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common."
Those who portray Warren as a demon for his positions on homosexuality or a sellout for praying for the new president in January aren't paying attention to the whole person. His positions--theological and political--aren't driven by hatred. Nor, in being part of the Obama inauguration, is he endorsing abortion as a form of birth control.

His critics could learn a little tolerance.


Julana said...

Al Mohler had an interesting response on his blog, also. He comes from a Southern Baptist perspective. He doesn't agree with everything Rick Warrne says either, but still supports him.

jd said...

It really comes down to this for me: If he were forbidding interracial marriage instead of gay marriage would you have a different opinion? If he were equating Jewishness with pedophilia and incest would you be so sanguine? If so, then fine. If not, then not so fine.

It is easy to be calm if you are not the party getting screwed. Here is what I posted on the Obama site:

"Rick Warren literally snatched away my daughters' and their moms' right to a legal marriage. Without his efforts, Prop 8 would have failed. How can inviting him to bless Obama's presidency possibly be justified? Would Obama have invited someone opposed to interracial marriage to officiate? There are many ways to reach out to the right without selling out your own people. Obama chose a different way, one that discounts and marginalizes and delegitimizes millions of people. This is a really really bad sign. It indicates that he does not see gay and lesbian folks as real people with real rights that are being violated.

I am a straight white 60 year old male. Like millions of others I have been more excited by this campaign and by Obama than by any other campaign and candidate in my lifetime. Until now, I am sorry to say. To all you folks who are saying "oh get over it, let's move on" - sorry, it does not work that way - can't move on if you cannot even see us as people. I say "us" because what Obama may not realize yet is that GLBT folk are NOT isolated. They have friends and families. However many GLBT there are, multiply that by five or ten to get an idea of the community. So no, this conversation is not going away."

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for stereotyping me as "you people."

You obviously paid no attention to what I wrote. So, I won't write any more.

God bless you and yours.

Charlie said...

To JD I would point out that marriage has never, ever been a right. It has always in history been a privilege. Since marriage is both a religious and a legal arrangement, both government and the church have a right to define what marriage means.

However, since GLBT men and women are equal citizens in America, the government should give them some sort of legal partnership standing. States have the right to do this. Rick Warren has said that he does not oppose civil unions, and to my knowledge he had nothing to do with California's Prop 8, which passed, ironically, because of religiously conservative blacks who came to the polls to vote for Obama and defeat Prop 8.

Warren is a good choice because Obama needs to reach out to Christian conservatives, who are not his natural allies. Obama already has the GLBT vote and knows it. The choice of Warren is something of an olive branch to the Christian right.