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Radical (David Platt)

November 10, 2011

(I read this back in February and posted a review on my other blog then.  Click here to see other readers’ comments from February.)

First let me say, I read this FAST (book club night was upon me!) so my reading didn’t come with a lot of time to ruminate along the way. That means I got a full overall impression quickly, and then BAM it was off to the book club discussion. (Unfortunately, this timing led to my making some observations at the book club meeting that were probably much muddier than I had hoped they would be, expressing vague uneasiness but unsure quite why. But then I’m known for thinking out loud and regretting it later.) Even now, though, having had some time to process the full message, the word I would still give to the flavor of this rumination is “unsettling.”

A great deal of that unsettled feeling is probably exactly what Platt fully intends this book to accomplish, for which I am grateful. We all need a kick in the pants from time to time, and I have to say, mission accomplished.

Platt’s premise is a big “what if”: what if Christians stopped crafting their religion to fit neatly inside our materialistic, self-actualizing, self-centered American-Dream culture, and really lived with complete abandon, as Christ called people to do (“he who hates his life…”, “no one who has left home or brothers or…”, “go and sell everything you have…”). In other words, following Christ surely means that in many ways our lives should look very, very different from a typical American life, and this difference involves way more than just what we do on Sunday, or what we don’t handle don’t taste don’t touch on other days. And I thoroughly agree, of course. I also agree that the majority of the American church (and, really, churches in most places where following Christ does not come with a threat of persecution, even death) is perfectly content equating “following Christ” to a plan of self-improvement with religious jargon, good-doing (when convenient), and basically huddling up with other like-minded P.L.U.s (People Like Us) to pursue our little kingdoms:

In our Christian version of the American Dream, our plan ends up disinfecting Christians…isolating followers of Christ in a spiritual safe-deposit box called the church building and teaching them to be good.

If this state of things doesn’t give me pause, I’m in trouble. I should hope the book makes me uneasy!

So I recommend the book for the reasons above if you suspect your complacency needs a kick to the curb, but let me add just a few hesitations that also had me unsettled, and not in such a good way:

  • Sometimes Platt will throw out a proposition, acknowledge that the proposition is problematic in some ways and could be misconstrued or misapplied, and end up with a posture of something like “but still…”. For example, he calls into question the building of multi-million-dollar church buildings, but admits he pastors a mega-church with just such facilities. What to do? It gives one pause, yes. Yes. Surely we ought to be disturbed by the disparity of wealth here. What to do? Not sure, but we’re disturbed by it, so that’s good. So let’s think about. Now let’s move on. (I exaggerate, of course, but if you’re going to throw the Big Questions out there, ya gotta give me a little more than “I’m still wrestling with this.” The elephant is still in the room, and you’re writing a book about it. Are you saying it’s wrong to build a big, comfortable church, or not?)
  • Platt repeatedly assures us that he’s not saying that having material things is wrong, just that wealth is treacherous. But often his illustrations seem to point to zeroing out our bank accounts as long as there is someone in need. For example, he tells the story of a time when John Wesley suddenly regretted the pictures he had bought for his walls because when a shivering chambermaid came by and he noticed she had no coat, the money left in his pocket after purchasing the pictures was not as much as he would have liked to give her. Wesley is left wondering what God will have to say about that tradeoff (adornment for his walls vs. a coat for the poor shivering woman). Platt says, “Were the pictures that Wesley had hanging in his room wrong in and of themselves? Absolutely not. But it was wrong—very wrong—to buy unnecessary decoration for himself when a woman was freezing outside without a coat.” My problem with this is, define a “necessary decoration,” and tell me when there is ever NOT a woman freezing outside without a coat. I don’t mean to sound callous, and those moments when God convicts an individual to sacrifice something are certainly that crystal clear and very important, but the problem of disparity of wealth, while it does sometimes come down to specific moments of choice like these, is not as simple as his comments often make it sound.
  • Platt comes awfully close to calling into question the salvation of people whose response to grace is not “abandon everything else to experience him” (p. 37-39). Should/must we lay everything on the line for him? Yes. Do all truly saved Christians do that? No, not all the time. They do it increasingly consistently, if there is the seed of new life in there, but it typically grows and matures in fits and starts. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone whose initial fervor did not waver from time to time as babies came and bills came and life happened. Were they not saved, then? Oh please, please be careful how and when you challenge people’s confidence in their salvation.

To be fair, Platt’s book is purposefully short and he acknowledges that he’s not setting out to write a treatise on how to solve world poverty. His critics have mostly faulted him, with some reason, I think, for having a simplistic approach to the world’s problems, even a “White Messiah neo-paternalism” (Bradley). But Platt’s intention is simply to sound an alarm to a sleepy church, much as Keith Green was doing when I was a young believer, and to get us to open our ears to what God might call us to sacrifice now, in this stage of our lives, in this stage of the world’s needs. We have to do that over and over as throughout our lives our own little privileged world will inevitably lull us to a complacent (and self-indulgent) status quo. Many have called us to this woodshed over the years; Platt is but the latest.

At the end of the book, Platt makes some specific suggestions on what to do to re-engage, if re-engaging is called for: word, giving, prayer, community, serving the world. No surprises here. He’s more specific in his challenges than the way I’ve worded them, but their essence is the ancient disciplines that true believers have practiced for centuries. These will of course jump-start any walk of faith if we have been neglecting them. NOW I’m with you, Mr. Platt. And by the way, this is why my favorite chapter in the whole book is the one on the gospel, the raison d’etre of mercy and evangelism in the first place. So those disciplines you propose, if we practice them faithfully (there’s the rub) and let them do their work of deepening our love of Christ and our appreciation of this gospel, will change everything, including transforming our begrudging “what must I do?” to an eager “what is needed?”

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