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.