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.

1 comment:

Ed Koehler said...

I know this is a comment on a three year old post, but I just heard my first David Platt sermon via The Gospel Coalition. I've not read Radical, though my adult daughter did, and I think she found it difficult.Her difficult may be, and I suppose Platt would advance, because of conviction. Or because of a Law heavy brow-beating. I can't honestly say which applies to her. She is, like me, and any honest person I know, a Christian beset with weirdness. But a Christian. Because a person is a Christian by God's grace, alone, all the time.

I think that's why I'm mildly unsettled by the sermon I just listened too, and wanted to see if there were any gentle critique's of Platt's message. He sure has lots of fans, and maybe deservedly so. The sermon I heard probably captures the gist of his book. so like you, I found much to encourage, and accept his critique of people like me, an American Christian, who at the moment, is middle class. I hear, and need to accept, that life is not about my comfort, my prosperity, and so forth.

Unless Platt is living under a bridge, my guess is that he too, compared with those he visits, is in some range of middle class, and I gather he's an American citizen. Is he really "radically" different from those he critiques. Maybe, but I doubt he is greatly different. My guess (I might be wrong) is that he has a home, a car, will eat today, and tomorrow, and wears more than one set of clothes. If he has any of that he has more thanJesus probably had.

But my point isn't to measure whether Platt is sufficiently true to his Radical admonition. He probably quickly admits his shortcomings (if that's what they are). My bigger concern is whether he, and those steeped in a kind of evangelical conversionist tradition, are as Reformed as they claim. I'm fine with people not being Reformed, but I think many are identifying themselves with a soteriology that I'm not sure they fully grasp.

I'll lay my cards on the table and say clearly that I don't know how someone can call themselves Reformed when they deny baptism to Covenant babies. I understand missional zeal, and evangelistic fervor. I more than understand them, I affirm them (even as I lack zeal and fervor all too often). But I don;t think it Reformed to speak as though the redemptive enterprise hinges on our obedience. Yes Paul certainly risked all to spread the Good News, but I don;t get the sense that he regarded its success dependent on his strength.

Maybe Platt isn't saying this. Today's sermon was my first intro to him. Maybe my uneasiness is conviction. If so, I trust God will turn me from the error of my ways. I wonder though if my uneasiness is because of some measure of Law being preached without Grace. I pray Gpd will show me which. I am glad that you provided me a gentle, but clear, critique of Platt's message. I certainly regard him a serious and faithful Christian. Thanks for your post. If you like, please share more of your thoughts via edkoehler@me.com Take care.