The moment I began reading Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life I didn’t like it. It was immature, simplistic, theologically inadequate, and ripped biblical verses from their context. But I have come to dislike it even more now I have read Robert M Price’s The Reason Driven Life: What Am I Here On Earth For? Price’s book is a brilliant critique of fundamentalist Christianity as illustrated by Warren’s book. And while Price is responding specifically to Warren, one doesn’t need to have read Warren’s book.
Price is an intriguing character. He has been a fundamentalist evangelical, a pastor of a liberal Baptist church, and came to eventually reject theism altogether. Reading his life story, as described in the introduction to the book, one can see he was a very committed fundamentalist Christian practicing as one would expect of a Christian in this tradition — attending church, having daily “quiet time”, training for Campus Crusade for Christ, president of InverVarsity Christian Fellowship, and so on. He has doctorates in theology and New Testament. He describes himself as a humanist and is currently, I believe, a member of the Episcopal Church. Price is also a fellow of the in(famous) Jesus Seminar and sometimes describes himself as a Christian atheist. He has also authored a number of books on the historicity of Jesus which he questions.
I recently heard Price speaking on a podcast addressing atheists who, in his view, disrespect the Biblical documents in the way they dismiss them. He argued that atheists need to at least treat the biblical documents with the same regard they treat other great classics of literature such as The Iliad. Instead, because of narrow-mindedness, many of them are blind to the Bible’s beauty and wisdom, even if they do not take it literally or accept the absolute claims made for it by fundamentalist Christians.
Hearing how Price spoke in such respectful language regarding the Bible and the deep scholarship and expertise he clearly had prompted me to buy The Reason Driven Life and have a read. And what a read!
Price’s essential message is that fundamentalist Christianity is narrow-minded, immature, and unthinking. In forty short chapters (emulating Warren’s book) Price explores the characteristics of fundamentalist Christianity and suggests that they:
- are obsessively focused on continual religious activity to the exclusion of living life to the full
- place people in a double bind of valuing the self and denying the self
- deny scientific discoveries and understandings of human nature and existence
- confuse and equate limited human perspectives and interpretations of the Bible with the very voice of God
- take an immature approach to living life and making decisions and, instead, place this responsibility on a god who is constantly intervening even though it makes no sense to do so
- constantly experience anxiety and depression at not measuring up to what is understood to be God’s standards for living and behaviour
- discourage thinking and promote the need to adopt the absolute truth as understood by the denomination or church
- require conformity to the group rather than development of individuality and uniqueness
- construe as heretical any position that does not conform to denominational creeds and reject independent thinking
- use friendships and other relationships for evangelising rather than experiencing these for their own value
- and much more…
Price most definitely has a point! Anyone who has grown up in, or lived in, any religious group that leans towards a fundamentalist milieu will have experienced many of these things. Thinking — real, genuine, independent, critical thinking — is not high on the agenda. And many fundamentalist Christians, under the guise of faith in God, live lives of egocentric wish fulfilment. For many, God is more interested in them getting a car park or finding their keys than rescuing the millions of men, women, and children who suffer natural or moral disasters around the globe. Or God is mostly concerned about correct belief, defined by them, than about genuine loving of others.
There is an enormous amount of benefit in reading Price’s book. One of the most liberating paragraphs is found in the introduction where he says that he
…does not much care what you end up believing, partly because you should not jump to conclusions. Part of living the reason-driven life is that you no longer feel the false urgency to make up your mind right now what you believe. You realize you are not under any deadline. Nor are you likely ever to arrive at some definitive truth. Your thinking about the meaning of life will be an ongoing project, its own reward. And the conclusions you do reach will be tentative and always open to revision in light of new insights you may encounter.
This is, indeed, a liberating position to take in life. One of the features of fundamentalism is a constant need to be certain. The degree of certainty one feels is often made a matter of life and death. But with maturity comes an approach to living that does not require certainty about everything. Living with uncertainty and adopting one’s right to think for oneself rather than being told what to think is sometimes painful but always liberating.
For some Christians reading Price’s book, there will be many things unacceptable. For example, Price denies the historicity of Jesus and the reality of a personal God. In his view, there is inadequate evidence for either. He deeply respects people’s right to believe in either or both and he associates with Christians, even to worshiping with them and identifying himself as an Episcopalian. At times, he has accepted the term ‘Christian atheist’ to describe his perspective although he prefers to be called a humanist.
The Reason Driven Life is a fascinating book by a fascinating author. His essential critique of fundamentalist Christianity (his primary target) is often apt and accurate. Despite different readers probably rejecting some parts of the book and some of his ideas, it’s a good wakeup call to fundamentalist Christians to start thinking more seriously about their religion and their faith.