Hostage spotlights Christian bestseller focused on purpose

Sometime during her seven-hour ordeal Saturday morning, hostage Ashley Smith asked captor Brian G. Nichols if she could read. He said yes, and the 26-year-old Duluth, Ga., mother produced “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?

That book — an international bestseller that has spent 108 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list — is used by many local Protestant pastors and, 2 1/2 years after its publication, continues to be a top seller at Christian bookstores throughout the Bay Area.

Jubilee Christian Center in North San Jose is now into the fifth week of study based on “Purpose Driven Life.” The church’s pastor-founder Dick Bernal said he bought 4,000 copies for his interdenominational congregation.

“It’s amazing how popular the book is,” said Bernal. “I think it’s because it’s so doggone practical yet profound. It answers the questions: Why am I here? How can I help people?”

Added Jim Pholen, owner of Gospel Books & Music in Mountain View, “The book is our best seller, by far. People are looking for a purpose in their lives, and it helps show them that God has a specific design for them.”

Smith, who mentioned the book in her Sunday news conference, is one of an estimated 22 million readers who have sought spiritual guidance through “The Purpose Driven Life,” written by Rick Warren, a Baptist minister at Saddleback Community Church in Orange County.

The 336-page book, which retails for $19.99 but is sold for as little as $8 to churches, states that God has a purpose for everyone and then lays out a 40-day Bible-reading program to determine that purpose.

“It’s not about you,” Warren writes in Day One. “The purpose of your life is greater than your own personal fulfillment. . . . If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.”

That message, according to Publishers Weekly, has made “Purpose Driven Life” the bestselling hardcover non-fiction book in U.S. history.

Bob Gregg, professor in religious studies at Stanford University, describes it as a sort of anti-self-help book.

“The reason it’s so popular,” Gregg said, “is that it says the Bible is the word of God that can be followed on a day-to-day basis. That makes it different than most `spirituality’ bestsellers. It doesn’t invite the reader to explore his own mystery or deeper self; its basic proposition is spelled out in its first chapter: `It all starts with God.’ ”

The question now being pondered: Did Nichols, who is alleged to have killed four people during his escape from an Atlanta courthouse Friday, give himself up in response to Smith or the book, or a combination of the two?

“He may have responded to the fact that a woman, rather than being frightened, offered him counsel, showed concern,” hazarded Gregg. “Or, he may have responded to Warren’s message.”

Warren, now in Uganda on business, released a statement Monday that said he “was humbled to learn that hostage Ashley Smith found strength and encouragement” in his book during her ordeal. He added that he was grateful the book was able to “bring some hope to her captor’s life that was unraveling so tragically and dramatically.”

How will Smith’s mention of the book affect sales? “It’s already popular, but it won’t hurt,” said Gregg.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Mercury News, USA
Mar. 15, 2005
Glenn Lovell

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday March 17, 2005.
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