In case you missed the cover story of this week's Time, reporter David Van Biema wrote a profile of evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren. He presents Warren as a kind of evangelical King David on a global scale. Van Biema's thesis is interesting, arresting even. And the reporting and writing in the story are exceptionally well done. But whether the story truly gets religion I have my doubts.
The story was intriguing. It told of an evolution in Warren's thinking about his role in society. While it is a common knowledge that Warren is no longer a conventional figure on the religious right, Van Biema went on to explore the pastor's new, expanded mission in detail:
If Warren were content to be merely the most influential religious figure on the American political scene, that would be significant enough. He isn't. Five years ago, he concocted what he calls the PEACE plan, a bid to turn every single Christian church on earth into a provider of local health care, literacy and economic development, leadership training and spiritual growth. The enterprise has collected testimonials from Bono, the First Couple, Hillary Clinton, Obama, McCain and Graham, who called it "the greatest, most comprehensive and most biblical vision for world missions I've ever heard or read about." The only thing bigger than the plan's sheer nerve is the odds against its completion; there are signs that in the small country Warren has made a laboratory for the plan, PEACE is encountering as many problems as it has solved.
The story was also fair and balanced. A conventional magazine article would describe Warren's new program and quote academic experts debating whether it would succeed or fail. This piece featured actual reporting from the front lines, seeking to determine whether his new enterprise has worked or not:
Yet others, rather flatly, claim Warren's effort is invisible by the very terms on which he sold it. Visitors interested in the PEACE plan are still invariably flown not to a church but to the hospital in the town of Kibuye (Rwanda). PEACE is working with the University of Maryland to upgrade the facility and next year will give $500,000 as part of its province-wide $13 million commitment. But so far, aside from a paint job and some tidying up, there is little improvement. Laura Hoemeke, director of Twubakane, a USAID-funded Rwandan decentralization and health program, says, "Warren's people haven't done anything. For passing on information, mobilizing people, changing social norms, I think the church can be really effective. But ..." Others maintain that short-termers can't stay on top of the involved logistics of development.
Also, the story showed the domestic side-effects of Warren's new global venture:
It's possible that what drives Warren is the opportunity not just to lead American Evangelicalism but also to reshape it as a broad-based postpartisan movement, as focused on challenges abroad as (Billy) Graham's was on the crisis within. But it's still unclear whether Warren's many spheres of activity, his seemingly genetic disposition to multitask will sap his energy and influence rather than enhance them. Trouble recently popped up in the form of an "Evangelical Manifesto" that expressed several New Evangelicalism principles he has come to support. Despite having helped launch the document and claiming to still agree with it, he declined to sign it, saying it was released before consensus could develop for it. Warren's retreat made it easier for old-line conservatives to dismiss it. It would indubitably have fared better had he applied his networking skills.
But it is one thing to describe a pastor's social vision and its progress. It is another to explore its theological basis.
After all, Rick Warren is not a diplomat or politician; he is a Southern Baptist pastor, and a best-selling author at that. As Mollie noted in an email to me, why would Warren de-emphasize eternal salvation and the five non-negotiable political-cultural issues? Has his theology changed? Does he consider helping the poor and sick in Africa the doctrinal equivalent of God's command about marriage and protecting innocent unborn life? On these questions, I am afraid, the story came up short.
The story attempts to answer those questions through an anecdote:
Warren had an epiphany in 2003. His wife Kay had dedicated herself to the fight against HIV/AIDS, a brave move in a community where it was still often stigmatized. In Africa with her nine months later, he says, he heard a message from above. "God said, 'You don't care squat about the sick and the poor. And you need to change; you need to repent.'" He became fond of repeating that the Bible has 2,000 verses dedicated to the poor and that the Gospel of Matthew contains not only the Great Commission, in which Christ bids his disciples to spread his word, but also the great commandment, in which he tells the Pharisees to love thy neighbor as thyself.
The time line is off. As late as the fall of 2004, Warren was invested heavily in that year's presidential election and its attendant clash over cultural issues. But the passage above makes it appear that Warren and his wife had their change of heart and mind in late 2003 or in 2004.
Rick Warren's pastorate changed sometime from 2003 to 2005. Time's story did a great job showing readers how it did and the consequences thereof. But it just didn't explore why it changed.