Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Review of David Platt's Radical

I really wanted to love this book. So many people that I respect highly have said wonderful things about it (including Mark Dever's blurb right on the first page) that I figured it must be good. The book, boiled down to its core, is a call to American Christians to stop living for their own comfort and prosperity and follow Jesus' call to a radical Christianity that is committed to reaching the nations with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.

There were several great things that I very much appreciated about the book:
  1. David Platt really does have a heart for reaching the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is very evident in everything he says. In other words, I don't doubt his sincerity in the slightest. 
  2. He does have a very valid critique of the widespread version of American evangelicalism that associates Christianity with America and prosperity and everything that comes with it. And even within those parts of American Christianity that push back against this Christianized American dream, there can be a tendency towards over-reliance on our money and our stuff. 
  3. He also is right to call American Christians to look beyond themselves and their own comfort and see the needs of a lost and dying world around us, both locally and internationally. This is something that I know I need to hear, and has caused me to turn a very critical eye on my own life and how I am involving myself in Christ's mission to make disciples here and around the world. This should and does involve significant sacrifice, something that Platt demonstrates very well. 
  4. Chapter 7, "There Is No Plan B: Why Going is Urgent, Not Optional," is a very good exegesis of Romans that shows why reaching the world with the gospel is so important. If the entire book had been like this chapter, I would have nothing but praise for it. 
  5. Finally, his conclusion, "One Year to a Life Turned Upside Down," is one of the best parts of his book, because the things he calls Christians to are exactly the things he should be calling Christians to: reading Scripture, praying for the nations, give our money generously, serve in contexts outside our local church, and get involved in a local church. 
Unfortunately, while I agree with much of Platt's basic critique, I think that the book falls far short of accomplishing the worthy purpose for which it was written. These are just a few of the reasons why I say this:
  1. He is so hyperbolic in his language that he seems to completely miss his target audience. Throughout the book, he talks of the "American church" as if it were one organic whole, with every individual church being exactly the same, having completely abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ, distorted the words of Jesus beyond all recognition, willfully spending all of its money on worthless things, and entirely unconcerned with the true mission of Christ. Unfortunately, while hyperbole may make good polemic, it doesn't capture the world we live in. There are thousands and thousands of faithful churches out there pursuing Christ's mission wholeheartedly, and the real problem in much of the American church is a question of distraction from the mission, not wholesale abandonment. But there is so little nuance in Platt's book (maybe because denunciation is easier than nuanced critique) that people like me, who need to hear his message but are members of faithful churches that do pursue Christ's mission, are left out of the mix. It's all or nothing in Platt's picture of the American church, which just isn't an accurate picture of reality. 
  2. It could just be my own perception, but I was overwhelmed by the humblebrag that seemed to pervade the book. His incessant description of his seeming eighty-five trips to India and his high demand in South Korea and his visits with the underground church in China often seem just as intent on showing how great the demand is for David Platt, the speaker and leader, as on actually making the points about the passion and needs of the international church that he is trying to make. It seems that in every chapter there are at least five different examples from his world travels or from his wise and perceptive leadership of his church in Alabama. I know what he was probably trying to say, but all I could hear was "look at all the cool things I've done and the great ways I lead." 
  3. Platt also makes the mistake that I think a lot of authors and speakers make when talking about the international church--namely, the exaltation of international believers to the denigration of American Christians. I do not deny that there is often much passion and love for the Lord evident in international churches, but those churches have all of their own problems, like the widely prevalent struggles with occult practices slipping themselves into Christian contexts. No church in this world is perfect, including churches that are not in America, and holding the practices and/or poverty of international churches over the heads of American Christians as a flat condemnation of American churches is not responsible pastoring or preaching. 
  4. Finally, and most importantly, the way that Platt phrases both his condemnations and his solution is incredibly legalistic--the emphasis ends up being first on what American Christians have done singlehandedly to lose the gospel and thwart God's purposes (as if anyone has the ability to actually thwart God's purposes) and then on the actions that American Christians need to do in order to recover the gospel and spread the word to a world that needs to hear it. In very few places is the point made that anything that we do as Christians ultimately flows from God, and that, just as we don't have the power to thwart the gospel, God will accomplish his purposes through our actions or even our lack of action. It's not about us, and yet Platt's book makes it all about us and the radical changes that we have to make, even as he tries to focus us on Christ's mission. This point is made far more coherently in this excellent review by John Fonville. As Fonville states at the end, "Platt may understand the relationship of law and grace, but Radical undermines a proper biblical perspective for thousands of readers. Ultimately, Radical's demands cannot be sustained and its end cannot be achieved, because only the gospel can give what the law commands." 
Ultimately, while I agree with much of Platt's critique, I think that this book ends up falling flat. To sum up my thoughts, I have often said that I judge a book by its caveats, because a well-phrased caveat demonstrates not only a good understanding of one's own argument, but also the ways in which that argument may be misunderstood and misapplied, and seeks to correct that misunderstanding before it becomes an issue. Platt's book offers few caveats and demonstrates very little subtlety or nuance in dealing with what is a very difficult and widespread problem. Hyperbole may be effective in getting emotional reactions, but it has a very difficult time communicating truth, and Platt's book has very little to offer outside of its hyperbole. I do believe, from everything that I've heard about Platt and the church he leads, that he loves Jesus and is truly pursuing Christ's mission to make disciples of all nations. I just think that his book does a terrible job of communicating his point in a biblically responsible, nuanced way.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Newcomer's Reflections on the Great Game

I grew up in a football family. As far back as I can remember, I've cheered on the men in burgundy and gold on autumn Sunday afternoons (and have, of course, gotten very used to the feelings of optimism and subsequent defeat, since the Redskins have been mediocre for just that long). I played all of the requisite sports as a child--soccer, basketball, t-ball--but abandoned them at a pretty early age because I was fairly incompetent at anything athletic. Baseball I especially loathed, since it was so incredibly boring, especially compared to the excitement and physicality of football.

Fast-forward to college. I was still a devoted Redskins fan, but I started running into an obnoxious number of pretentious baseball fans (including my eventual best man) who would acknowledge that "football was fun and all" but that "it doesn't hold a candle to the majesty of the greatest game on Earth, America's past-time, the thinking man's sport, etc." Talk about a bunch of insufferable snobs. My opposition to baseball was only strengthened. (It didn't help that both of my area teams, the Orioles and the Nationals, had been terrible for about as long as the Redskins. It's hard to get really engaged with a perpetual loser without any family ties.)

Fast forward again to life after graduation. The year was 2012. I'd just gotten married to a wonderful woman and the world was bright and shiny and new. I decided that situational awareness for my area teams would be a good thing to have, so I subscribed to ESPN ScoreCenter alerts on my phone for the Nationals, Orioles, and Tigers (my wife's family's team). Suddenly I was getting score notifications every night, and around July I started to realize that all three of these teams were doing fairly well for themselves. In fact, they were all winning a good number of games. Especially the Nationals.

I started reading the Washington Post sports section to try and learn more about this surprisingly good team. I started hearing names like Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, and Ryan Zimmerman, and they started to mean something to me. I started to care about the Great Strasburg Shutdown (I still think it was a good decision, for the record), and then I got ridiculously excited when they finished the season with the best record in baseball. The other two teams I was following also managed to make the playoffs in very exciting, last minute fashion (the Tigers after a late-season nose-dive by the White Sox, and the Orioles squeezing into the Wild Card game and then knocking out the Rangers). Suddenly baseball was exciting, and my team was the best in the league, and I couldn't get enough.

I still remember sitting in the kitchen on my computer watching MLB GameCenter update pitches for Game 4 of the NLDS against the Cardinals because I didn't have TBS in my cable package. I remember the tension watching Jayson Werth foul pitch after pitch in the bottom of the ninth with the game tied 1-1 and the Nationals in a win-or-go-home situation. I remember dancing around the kitchen like a maniac when he sent his walk-off homer over the left-field wall on the 13th pitch. I wasn't even watching the game, just a box score on a computer screen, but I was totally in--hook, line, and sinker. I was riding high.

I got a few friends to go out to the Greene Turtle sports bar with me to watch the Orioles and the Nationals play in back-to-back Game 5's--winner takes all, loser goes home. The Orioles game didn't go so well--CC Sabathia pitched a complete game and shut them down. But my Nationals were riding high on Werth's homer, and started the game off in resounding fashion: 6 runs in the first three innings, an insurance run in the 8th.--domination. Even in the top of the 9th inning, when the Cards had closed the gap to two runs, I was totally confidant. The Nats were on their way to the NLCS to face off with the Giants. Time to start packing up to leave.

And then the unthinkable. Drew Storen, our rock-solid closer...failed to close. With the winning out one pitch away at five different moments, he gave up four runs...and just like that the game, the season, and all of our wild hopes were at an end. Cardinals 9, Nationals 7--the whole bar was dead silent. No more postseason. No more Nationals baseball. I was heartbroken.

In hindsight, there was no better way to make die-hard baseball fan--pure elation followed by heart-wrenching sorrow. I had just experienced, in the course of 24 hours, the very best of what baseball has to offer. All I could do was put on my Nats cap, walk out of the bar, and start thinking about next season.

This year, I followed every game. I read every article the Post wrote about the National. I played fantasy baseball. I checked out The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baseball from the library so that I could learn the nuances of the game. I sent taunting texts to my Orioles friends during the Battle of the Beltways. And I was so sad when the season ended with a loss against the Diamondbacks. Now I'm cheering on the Tigers as they try to come back in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Red Sox. And I've never been happier. 

So here I am. I still love my Redskins, but now I love my Nationals too. And it turns out the two loves aren't mutually exclusive. I still watch every Redskins game on Sunday afternoons, but now I listen to baseball while I do the dishes every night, or while I drive home from work. 

I had to learn a few things, coming to the game as a football fan. You can't treat a baseball game like you treat a football game. They don't lend themselves to straight undistracted viewing for 3 1/2 hours in the same way football does. It's a perfect sport to have on in the background sometimes, to tune in for just a few innings, to watch while you do something else--and sometimes, to sit riveted while Tigers pitchers flirt with a combined no-hitter well into the ninth inning. It's a sport to watch and think about all of the careful decisions being made--which pitch to throw to which batter, whether to steal a base and when, how to lay down the perfect bunt--and then go crazy for those brief fifteen seconds when Denard Span makes an unbelievable over-the-shoulder catch to end the inning. 

It's a beautiful game. And I'm so glad that the Nationals drew me in and showed me how beautiful it was. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Thoughts from a Cross-Country Road Trip

A collection of random thoughts and observations from our 16-day, 7,100 mile, 132 hour road trip around the country:
  • We live in an incredibly beautiful country. I mean, even the supposedly boring parts are incredibly beautiful (e.g. Kansas and South Dakota). Except Ohio. Ohio is boring. I swear this has nothing to do with how many times I've driven through Ohio in the last 24 years. 
  • South Dakota is particularly beautiful. I had no idea. Everything from the rolling hills in the east to the Badlands and the Black Hills in the west definitely made this my surprise favorite drive-through state.
  • Montana's nickname of "Big Sky Country" is no joke. The sky really just feels bigger, and that's probably because of the complete lack of any vegetation. But oh man. I have never felt that small without the presence of stars. 
  • Also, we drove for a good 2-1/2 hours without passing a single house or, more importantly, a gas station in eastern Montana. Thanks Google Maps for not mentioning that fact when you told us to get of I-90.
  • The Mississippi River is huge. That probably goes without saying. But it was not nearly as big or dramatic as the Columbia River in Washington State. You're driving across this incredibly flat and arid farmland that looks like nothing if not the Scottish moors for hours, when suddenly, out of nowhere, you're on the edge of this massive red rock canyon with an unbelievably wide river at the bottom and you just think, "How on earth can we even get across this?" 
  • Seattle was an very friendly city. There's not a ton to see there as a tourist, but everybody was just so nice. Also, the Space Needle is overrated, but the Chihuly blown glass gallery is absolutely incredible. I didn't even know you could do that sort of thing with blown glass.
  • My single favorite moment in Seattle, and possibly of the entire trip, was sitting down after a long day of walking around Seattle in Rachel's Ginger Beer at Pike Place Market and drinking a Montana Mule (ginger beer and whiskey) for a solid forty-five minutes. Talk about delightfully relaxing.
  • All of the coastal roads are beautiful, but US-101 comes nowhere near the coast in Washington, so you might as well wait to get on it until you get into Oregon. 
  • Pretty much all of the West Coast beaches, with a few exceptions, are at the bottom of cliffs. This is very foreign to me, being from the East Coast, so I just thought I'd call it out.
  • Redwoods are very big. And there is a portion of US-101 that winds through them so that it feels like an awesome video game. 
  • Napa is just fun. It really is the only place in the world where people come solely to drink good wine and eat good food, so it feels distinctly European. Plus, it means the food and wine are really, really good. Mmmmmm.
  • San Francisco is very hard to do if you're not with a local. We spent a good 1-1/2 days wandering around the city and felt like we totally missed the real city. We definitely need to go back.
  • However, the tourist stuff in San Francisco is cool too. Alcatraz is awesome, the sea lions are hilarious, and we accidentally were in town for races 3 and 4 of America's Cup, and got to stand at the finish line for both races. In related news, catamarans are awesome.
  • Big Sur would be a lot cooler without being engulfed in fog. Or so I'm told. 
  • Santa Barbara has a ton of shopping. Like, miles and miles of stores, which is only a slight exaggeration. I think people go to Santa Barbara for things other than shopping, but I have no experience of these things.
  • Also, the police department in Psych is a lie. It does not exist. The exterior shot of the police department is nowhere to be found, and boy did we look hard for it. Stupid Vancouver. 
  • Mediocre diner pancakes taste a whole lot better when your toes are in the sand. 
  • Also, I've been trying to avoid mentioning food in these notes, but I had the best sandwich I've ever had at Pickles and Swiss on State Street.
  • If you've never been to Las Vegas, think of every crazy elaborate tourist trap you've ever experienced, and then blow that up to how it could be done if you had unlimited money to make it awesome, and that's Las Vegas. And it really is awesome. Just because it's the mother of all tourist traps doesn't make it any less awesome.
  • You can get an incredible hotel room in Vegas for nothing. But if you want to do things like, I don't know, eat, prepare to spend some serious dough. (Seriously though, our hotel room in the Signature at MGM Grand was a suite with a full kitchen, two bathrooms, a full Jacuzzi, and a balcony. And the TV rose out of the desk with the push of a remote control button and said "Welcome Emily." And it cost $110 a night. No joke.)
  • Utah is gorgeous. But you already knew that.
  • Driving through the Rockies at night is bad. Driving through them in the rain is worse. Driving through them during the Colorado floods of September 2013 means you need to give up and find a hotel in Vail.
  • When you're driving cross-country, and one of your main goals is to see the country, try to plan your days so you don't have to drive at night. In other words, I have no idea what Missouri looks like. 
  • The St. Louis Gateway Arch is actually pretty cool, except it's hard to get a good view if you take I-70 right into the city because you're too busy trying not to drive off a bridge to actually look at it. 
  • The last day of driving on a long trip is the worst, because all you have to look forward to is your own bed. But there is nothing like that feeling of being home and collapsing into your bed. 
Sometime I should share all the incredible food we ate. Maybe I will. But not today.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Is Our Gospel Too Small?

One of the most helpful passages I've read in a very long time comes in the midst of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert's book What is the Mission of the Church? They take a chapter to look at the current evangelical controversy surrounding what is actually included in the "gospel." Is our gospel too small? Do we limit the gospel when we focus on the cross? Their thinking is very wise and insightful and helps to draw out the exact questions we are asking. I cannot recommend highly enough taking the time to read and absorb them.
     Both of us have over the past several years been immersed in the world of evangelical discussion about the gospel. We've attended the conferences, read the books, looked at the blogs, and written a few things ourselves about this most controverted and important of topics. One of the things we've concluded over the years is that in many ways evangelicals seem to be talking past one another on this question of what the gospel is.
     On the one hand, some would define the gospel as the good news that God is going to remake the world, and that Jesus Christ--through his death and resurrection--is the down payment on that transformation and renewal. They look at the gospel with the widest possible lens, taking in all the promises that God has made to his people, including not only the forgiveness of sins but also the resurrection of the body, the transformation of the world, the establishment of God's kingdom, and all the rest.
     On the other hand, there are those who would define the gospel as the good news that God has acted to save sinners through the death of Jesus in their place and his subsequent resurrection. They look at the gospel with a narrow lens, focusing particularly on that which lies at the foundation of salvation.
     The conversation between these two camps has gotten quite tense, even heated at times, with one side accusing the other of being "reductionistic," and that side firing back with the accusation that the first side is "diluting" the gospel and losing the heart of it.
     A good deal of this confusion can be untangled, we think, by making some careful observations about how this conversation often plays out. It seems to us that these two groups--those who say the gospel is the good news that God is reconciling sinners to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus (let's call them "zoom-lens people"), and those who say that the gospel is the good news that God is going to renew and remake the world through Christ (call them "wide-angle people")--are really answering two different though highly related questions. Of course both groups say they are answering the question "What is the gospel?" (and they are!), but if you look closely at how they talk, it turns out there's quite a lot being assumed by both sides about that simple-sounding question.
     To a zoom-lens person, the question "What is the gospel?" translates as "What is the message a person must believe in order to be saved?" And so he answers by talking about the substitutionary death of Jesus in the place of sinners and the call to repent and believe. To a wide-angle person, though, the question "What is the gospel?" translates instead to "What is the whole good news of Christianity?" And of course he answers by talking not just about forgiveness but also about all the great blessings that flow from that, including God's purpose to remake the world.
     Now with that in mind, you can see where the confusion comes from. When a zoom-lens person hears a wide-angle person answer the question "What is the gospel?" by talking about the new creation, he thinks, "No! You're taking the focus off the cross and resurrection! A person doesn't need to believe that to be saved! That's diluting the gospel!" On the other hand, when a wide-angle person hears a zoom-lens person answer the same question by talking only about the forgiveness of sins through the cross, he likewise thinks, "No! The good news doesn't stop there! There's more to it than that! You're reducing the gospel to something less than it is!"
     The fact is, depending on how you think about it, neither the wide-angle person nor the zoom-lens person is off base. It's true that when someone asked in the New Testament "What must I do to be saved?" the answer was to repent of sin and believe in the crucified and risen Christ. It's also true, though, that the Bible sometimes (even often!) talks about the gospel with a wide-angle lens. It includes in the whole good news of Christianity not only forgiveness of sin, but also all the other blessings that come to those who are in Christ.
     Another way to put the point is that neither of these two questions is illegitimate. Neither is more biblical than the other. In fact, the Bible asks both the question "What must a person believe in order to be saved?" and the question, "What is the whole good news of Christianity?"--and it answers both in terms of the word gospel. 
The authors proceed to examine in depth several New Testament passages that use the word gospel in both senses. After establishing some shorthand for the two senses of gospel--the gospel of the kingdom for the wide-angle lens sense, and the "gospel of the cross" for the zoom-lens sense, they summarize their finding and bring the two together with the following points:
     First, there is only one gospel, not two.... There is only one gospel--one message of good news--but the New Testament writers seem to have no problem zooming in and out on that one message, sometimes looking at the whole thing and calling it "gospel," and other times zooming in particularly on forgiveness through Christ and calling that "gospel," too.
     Second, the gospel of the kingdom necessarily includes the gospel of the cross. You cannot proclaim the "full gospel" if you leave out the message of the cross, even if you talk for an hour about all the other blessings God has in store for the redeemed. To do that would be like picking up an armful of leaves and insisting that you're holding a tree. Unless those leaves are connected to the trunk, you don't have a tree; you just have an armful of dead leaves. In the same way, unless the blessings of the gospel of the kingdom are connected to the cross, you don't have a gospel at all. Take a look again at those passages from Matthew and Mark where Jesus preaches the arrival of the kingdom. If you look closely, you'll notice that Jesus never preaches simply "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." He always preaches, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," or, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand; therefore repent and believe the gospel." That is a crucial thing to keep in mind; indeed it is the difference between preaching the gospel and preaching something that is not the gospel at all. To proclaim the inauguration of the kingdom and all the other blessings of God without telling people how they may become partakers of those blessings is to preach a nongospel. Indeed it is to preach an antigospel--bad news--because you're simply explaining wonderful things that your sinful hearers will never have the opportunity to be a part of. The gospel of the kingdom--the broad sense of "gospel"--therefore, is not merely the proclamation of the kingdom. It is the proclamation of the kingdom together with the proclamation that people may enter it by repentance and faith in Christ. Perhaps, in fact, it would be more accurate (though clunky) to speak of the gospel of the cross and the gospel of the kingdom through the cross. And that leads to another point.
     Third, and more specifically, the gospel of the cross is the fountainhead of the gospel of the kingdom. It is the gate through which all the blessings of the kingdom are to be gained. The fact repeated over and over again throughout the New Testament is that the only way a person can become a partaker of the blessings of the kingdom is by coming in faith and repentance to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus for salvation....
     Incidentally, that's why it makes perfect sense for the New Testament writers to call the gospel of the cross "the gospel," even as they go on calling the whole complex of good news "the gospel" as well. Because the broader blessings of the gospel are attained only by means of forgiveness through the cross, and because those broader blessings are attained infallibly by means of forgiveness through the cross, it's entirely appropriate for the New Testament writers to call forgiveness through the cross--the fountainhead of and gateway to all the rest--"the gospel." That's also why we never see the New Testament calling any other single promise of God to the redeemed "the gospel." For example, we never see the promise of the new creation called "the gospel." Nor do we see reconciliation between humans called "the gospel." But we do see reconciliation between man and God called "the gospel" precisely because it is the one blessing that leads to all the rest.
     --Kevin DeYoung and Gregory D. Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Wheaton, IL: Crossway (2011), pp. 92-94, 106-109. Italics original, bolding added.