By J.J. Helland

Too often, the media views the subject of religion in America as a strictly sociological study. Faith is to be interpreted on economic, political and cultural terms — anything other than as a significant set of religious beliefs that informs people’s lives. The most recent example of this approach is found in the September 12th issue of The New Yorker. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, a bestselling work of pop sociology on how people follow trends, profiles the evangelical pastor Rick Warren, founder of the hugely successful Saddleback megachurch and author of The Purpose-Driven Life,a bestselling work of pop theology on why people should follow one particular trend.

Unfortunately, Gladwell’s profile doesn’t bring the reader any closer to understanding, from a believer’s perspective, why Rick Warren’s religious message has penetrated so deeply in this country, and why his followers experience so much apparent spiritual fulfillment through his work. If Gladwell had included the voice of just one of Warren’s followers, the reader would have a better sense of the more intangible reasons why the evangelical pastor’s efforts have attracted so many members to his congregation. Instead, Gladwell presents the reader with what is essentially a marketing testimonial of why Warren has become so popular. Regrettably, this treatment — examining Warren as if he were a specimen under a large microscope — only reinforces the impression that the mainstream press, and elite liberal publications like The New Yorker, fail to understand the essence of this movement, believe their motivation alien and disingenuous and appear cynical to its designs.

For example, Warren’s success, according to Gladwell, is largely based in his marketing savvy (he preaches alongside Budweiser logos), technological skill (he launched pastors.com) and deft organizational abilities — i.e. his utilization of the “cellular model” of organization, employing small groups of worship to facilitate a more intense and personal spiritual experience. Warren’s appeal, in Gladwell’s accounting, has everything to do with his knack for marketing, and nothing to do with any resonant spirituality.

“The real job of running Saddleback,” says Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, “is the recruitment and training and retention of the thousands of volunteer leaders for all the small groups it has.” Gladwell quotes from another academic who essentially says the same thing: that Warren’s influence is drawn from his adept cultivation of “networks” and his talent for recognizing how to manage people. “Warren’s great talent is organizational,” writes Gladwell, “He’s not a theological innovator.”

Indeed, Gladwell underscores the latter theme throughout the article, portraying Warren as only superficially concerned with matters of faith, instead animated more with a passion for surmounting technical matters and expanding his personal influence. For instance, Gladwell emphasizes Warren’s association with elite corporate figures like media mogul Rupert Murdoch (Murdoch published The Purpose-Driven Life) and corporate titan Jack Welch. And in a passage that is unlikely to endear the pastor to liberal readers of The New Yorker, Warren’s “entrepreneurial spirit” is compared with that of McDonalds founder Ray Kroc and Wal-Mart patriarch, the late Sam Walton.

Such connotations make it harder to understand the spiritual dimensions of Warren’s appeal, a feature complicated even further by the fact that Gladwell glibly compares the Saddleback Church’s “small groups” and their effectiveness to the group tactics of Alcoholics Anonymous and communists. One can only imagine the reaction from a member of Warren’s congregation in which the appeal of their faith is construed with that of physical addiction and a ideology.

At the end of the piece, Gladwell offers the reader a sort of “conversion” narrative of Warren’s. After he reaped the wealth and fame of his book’s success, he gave much of the book’s proceeds away, started to engage the gay community on how to fight AIDS, and begun to think about poverty. But it felt less like an attempt to identify who the real Rick Warren is, and more like a secular effort to mollify and convince liberals not to condemn him out of hand. Warren is not a liberal by any means, so why does Gladwell attempt to redeem him in the end with some sort of progressive narrative?

This is, of course, the one of the biggest problems with Gladwell’s profile and it is emblematic of how the rest of the media seem perpetually inclined to shape stories of faith in terms and ideas that they’re comfortable with –– effectively casting religious subjects more as secular mirror images of themselves. Perhaps publications like The New Yorker believe that to do otherwise — for example, to explore Warren’s conservatism as part of his popular appeal — would seem patronizing and aloof. Yet articulating religion strictly through a secular prism, and making certain at least some aspects of the subject palatable to an audience simply to avoid offense, is condescending as well. This approach distorts the true story of spirituality in this country, as it ultimately presents religious people motivated only by political, social and economic reasons — anything but faith.