The Common Good
December 2004

Road-Testing The Purpose-Driven Life

by Ed Spivey Jr. | December 2004

I'd miss the good old days, but they were before my time.

I'


I’ll never forget the day I read a book.
It was contagious. Seventy pages.
There were pictures here and there,
so it wasn’t hard to bear, the day...I read a book.
- Jimmy Durante

Who better to set the tone for our special issue on books than a 1950s-era singer who, unlike celebrities today, sang fully clothed. (Jimmy Durante’s schnoz was bad enough, so you gotta figure the audience had absolutely no interest in seeing his navel.) Of course, if you’ve never heard of Jimmy Durante then you’re obviously too young to have experienced classic American music, or the other joys we older people take for granted, such as shaving our ears.

But before I lapse completely into missing the good old days (which were before my time), let’s focus on the main topic at hand: books, and the fact that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid reading them.

If you’re like me, you get most of your information from supermarket tabloids or comic books, the kind where heavily-muscled figures, speaking cryptically in word balloons, solve the world’s problems the only way they can: with righteous anger and vigilante justice. (What do you expect from people who survived, say, a freak laboratory accident that left them with super-human strength and, in the case of Lizard Man, a really bad skin condition? They get cranky.)

Occasionally, however, I have ventured somewhat deeper into the realms of literature, enough to have some clear favorites.

For laser-like political commentary, one need look no further than Curious George at the Fire Station, a barely concealed metaphor for this country’s ill-conceived war in Vietnam and the way in which three successive administrations failed to stop it. But maybe I’m reading too much into it.

And then there’s my Instruction Manual (for Your New Television Set!). Be honest: How many books make you feel special from the very first line? "Congratulations," begins this manual, which then proceeds enthusiastically through the set-up instructions, its frequent use of exclamation points sustaining a reassuring pride in your choice of appliance. No wonder it’s easy to overlook the unavoidable translation problems from the original Chinese, which leaves text much incoherent and poorly; punctuated!

Lately, I’ve been trying to get more from my reading. Our church has been studying The Purpose- Driven Life, a national bestseller which reminds us that, despite life’s challenges, personal fulfillment is within our reach, especially if you can write a national bestseller. Because, let’s face it, nothing cushions life’s challenges like big royalty checks. This book has sold so many copies the author is already working on a sequel: The Chauffeur-Driven Life.

Unlike most self-improvement books, however, The Purpose-Driven Life is hampered by a major weakness: In 334 pages there’s not one recipe or diet tip, a serious omission one hopes will be taken care of in later editions. (Chapter One - "It All Starts With God" - may seem reasonable for most people. But it is not convincing to those who believe, with some conviction, that it all starts with balsamic vinegar and cilantro.)

The book urges us to look in the mirror and hold a magnifying glass up to our spiritual life. A kid in my old neighborhood used to do that with ants and I can definitely say you should be very careful if you’re going to do this sort of thing. That same kid also told me that if you look in the mirror with the lights off, you can see the devil. (In hindsight, maybe I spent a little too much time with him. Although he did have this great chemistry set....)

The Purpose-Driven Life promotes a 40-day plan for self-reassessment, a timetable inspired, one assumes, by the biblical narratives. Forty days is a big Bible theme. Jesus was tempted in the desert for 40 days, and, as I remember from Sunday school, Barabbas got 40 days for purse-snatching on the Sabbath, although I could be wrong about that. I know for sure that Jesus spent more than a month resisting Satan and probably could have used The Purpose-Driven Life - or any other heavy object - to throw at the guy.

No question, the book is a powerful devotional aid. But I’d only recently changed my life after reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (the new edition has eight). And before that I read all your major Chicken Soup for the [names of marketable personal weaknesses]. So I’m kind of worn out. It’s a good thing I already have a purpose in life, except on weekends, when they don’t broadcast The Daily Show.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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