Ten years ago the names and faces of Brian Nichols and Ashley Smith dominated the news cycle. At the time, the events surrounding their encounter gripped the city of Atlanta in fear.
In 2005, Nichols was facing trial for rape. On the morning of Friday, March 11, he attacked his guard and several others before murdering the judge and the court reporter presiding over his trial. He shot and killed another guard as he escaped the Fulton County courthouse, and led police on a lengthy manhunt. Over the course of several tense hours, he stole a string of vehicles and murdered a federal agent.
Eventually, Nichols forced his way into Smith’s apartment, and held her at gunpoint for several hours. During their time together, Smith famously read him passages from Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life. She also let him snort some of her methamphetamine. Smith was an addict at the time, but today she traces her sobriety and spiritual awakening back to that night in her apartment as Nichols’s hostage. In the morning, he released her. She alerted the authorities to his location, and after they surrounded the apartment, Nichols surrendered.
In a few weeks, the movie version of their story—titled Captive—will hit theaters. Based on Smith’s 2010 book Unlikely Angel, the movie will likely revive national interest in their unique ordeal, and in The Purpose-Driven Life, which figures heavily in the film’s trailer.
As was the case in the immediate aftermath, there is likely to be much discussion about what really prompted Nichols to release Smith—was it the book, the meth, or simply his guilt and the inevitability of his own capture? Only Nichols knows for sure, and it’s unlikely the movie’s dramatized version of events will shed any new light on the answer.
Unlike Smith, Nichols has no public testimony of faith. In fact, the few statements published after his arrest don’t indicate any repentance or spiritual transformation whatsoever. On the contrary, they indicate a heart still bent toward rebellion and wickedness.
In that sense, there is no point in speculating on what brought an end to Nichols’s killing spree. The idea that his heart was touched and maybe even broken by what Smith read to him makes for a heartwarming story, but there’s nothing to indicate a lasting change in his life. For all we know, the effect would have been the same if she read to him from any self-help book, The Hobbit, or even the sports page. Ultimately, it was God’s will that Nichols release Smith and surrender to the police, and the Lord used His chosen means to accomplish His ends. What He used to do it is relatively immaterial.
The better question is what, if any, redemptive qualities are inherent to The Purpose-Driven Life? What eternal truth does it offer its countless readers? With more than thirty million copies sold, this book has become one of the definitive texts of the modern church. But what is that influence accomplishing in the lives of all those readers?
Rick Warren frequently quotes the first line of his book, “It’s not about you.” In terms of the believer’s calling and purpose, he’s right—our lives, even our bodies, no longer belong to us (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Unfortunately, Warren abandons that mindset almost immediately, and spends the rest of the book focused primarily on the reader’s sense of identity, purpose, and fulfilment. His emphasis leaves little room for many essential elements of the gospel, and imbues readers with naïve, man-centered theology. In that regard, The Purpose-Driven Life serves as a manifesto for the modern Christian—one that demands closer scrutiny.
Why bring all that up?
We’ve just spent three weeks on the GTY blog discussing what it means to be a Berean—how we are to faithfully test everything against Scripture to determine its spiritual value. The release of the movie Captive and the renewed interest it’s sure to prompt in The Purpose-Driven Life give us a great opportunity to put the principles of discernment into practice.
And that’s precisely what we’re going to do this week. We’re going to evaluate The Purpose-Driven Life, not based on heartwarming anecdotes or cultural saturation, but strictly according to Scripture. How does it measure up against the testimony of God’s Word?
We’ll also compare it to another important book that deals with the issues of identity, salvation, and purpose—Slave by John MacArthur. Where do these two books agree or disagree, and what does Scripture teach us to help make sense of the disparities?
As we’ve already seen, this kind of careful evaluation and study is a necessary element of the believer’s life, and we trust this will be a helpful and encouraging example for you.