Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Radical by David Platt

I love David Platt. I enjoy his messages every time I hear one. Platt offers a fresh, dare I say "radical, perspective on Christian living. I am constantly challenged and encouraged by what God teaches me through him.

Radical is Platt's first book and it has been a huge success. It has received glowing reviews and giant sales. Not all those who have read Radical have been as equally impressed. I encountered a fairly critical review in the latest issue of Modern Reformation magazine, and it made me reexamine the the text to see if there was any validity to the issues raised in the article. Let me say from the outset, there was, but I do not believe to the degree presented in the review. There is much to be praised in this great book so I wanted to lay out some of the blessings of this book and some of the more concerning parts that I encountered.

To begin with, the issues that the book tackles are prevalent and in incredible need of being addressed. Platt sets out to outline the American Dream and how it has become pervasive in American Christianity. The issues he raises: materialism, the business influence of church, the prosperity Gospel and the safety first mindset of Americans Christians are all issues that have been crippling to the ability of American Christianity to effect lasting, Gospel-centered change in our culture and beyond.

Platt first takes aim at his own pulpit, and those of mega-churches around the country suggesting that "satisfaction in our lives and success in the church are not found in what our culture deems most important but in radical abandonment to Jesus". He contrasts the culture of "successful" mega-churches to the culture of grass hut meeting places in the farthest parts of the world, and the Gospel success that is found there. In these places, the people understand the "success" is found, not in the size of the building or the salary of the pastor or the prestige of the congregation, but in the Gospel changed lives of believers who live a life of "radical abandonment" to Jesus.

To say this type of faith is lacking in much of American Christianity is an understatement. We enjoy so much freedom and so much access to public worship and God's Word that we take it for granted and despise it with our lack of fervency and affection.

Platt also hits on the sin of choice in America, materialism. Materialism is itself a form of idolatry, a type of what Paul described as worshiping the created as opposed to the Creator. We see no problem with it, because instead of recognizing our sin we have molded a God who approves of what we do. We have created a God who says we are to "have life and have it abundantly" and we have redefined "life abundantly" to mean a life of gluttonous, lustful materialism. Platt hits hard on the fact that while we so often live and spend(time and money) frivolously, over a billion people have yet to hear the Gospel.

One of the highlights of this book for me was the stories of people who are living/have lived "radically. George Mueller, Jim Elliot, John Paton, and many others who lived lives of radical abandonment to the cause of Christ. it was simultaneously encouraging and convicting to see all these stories of people who, for the cause of Christ, forsook all their earthly wants and pleasures to simply know Him more and make Him known.

This brings me to a couple of issues that I had with the book. Confusion of terminology may not seem to be an area of concern worth noting. However, sometimes nit-picking can be bud-nipping when it comes to confusion of thought. The pervasive use of terminology like "live the Gospel" and "be the Gospel" can lead people down a road that ends in a confusing place. I will not belabor this point here. My previous blog post was about this particular topic and said about all I am able to say about it. I do want to make clear that this terminology is not at all pervasive in Radical and when this type of language is used, the context will often flesh out the facts of what Platt is saying. However, terminology like "live the Gospel" is so prevalent in the minds of God-fearing, Gospel centered people that it is often used like jargon. The problem with jargon is not with the people who use it, they understand the nuanced thought behind the particular phrase. The problem is when jargon is heard by someone who does not understand fully what is being conveyed and the result is confusion. Now, I do not advocate abandoning Bible words that convey complex realities(repent, atonement, living sacrifice, redepmtion, etc) but I do advocate abandoning cultural jargon that, when read/heard at face value, contradict the teachings of Scripture. Clarity, especially in regards to the Gospel, should be paramount when presenting the truths of Scripture.

Another issue that concerned me had to do with the issue of suffering and poverty. One of the greatest plagues of American Christianity is the prosperity gospel The prosperity gospel says that if you have faith, God will give you health and wealth and success and anything less than that is because of your lack of faith. It is not a stretch to call this teaching Christian Karma, but if you were going to do that I would spell "Christian" with a "k" just for the sake of alliterations. Conservative Evangelicalism has, for the most part, seen the error of this false teaching but have been highly succeptible to its cousin, the comfort gospel. The comfort gospel says that the Christian life is all about living a comfortable life. It is not about being rich or never being sick, but it is about being "taken care of" A nice house, 2.5 kids, a dog, an SUV, a "safe" church with short sermons about how I can live my life better, no major diseases or tragedies, etc. The prosperity gospel is the American Dream on steroids, while the comfort gospel is simply the American Dream.

Throughout chapter eight, "Living When Dying is Gain", Platt is consistently calling for Christians to forsake a life of temporal peace and comfort and be ready to endure danger, hardship and persecution. To this I would agree wholeheartedly and I see the point he is making. At times, however, it seems as if Platt is saying that to be a real Christian we should seek out danger, poverty and persecution. To be honest, this is a struggle I have had for years and I very well may be projecting a bit into the text but I know, from personal experience, that a misunderstanding of this can cause a concerned Christian to begin manufacturing danger and persecution because they feel their Christian life is invalid without it. This, however, is simply not the truth. Solely living the Christian life will lead to enough persecution and following the Lord will lead to enough temporal danger, the need to manufacture trials and tribulations just does not exist. Platt may have made this point and I missed it, but I do wish he would have belabored it a bit more, if only for me and those who have had that same struggle.

Platt concludes the book with a chapter entitled, "The Radical Experiment". Platt leaves his reader with a yearlong challenge encompassing five aspects of radical Christian living:
1. Pray for the entire world,
2. Read through the entire Word,
3. Sacrifice your money for a specific purpose,
4. Spend time in another context, and
5. Commit your life to a multiplying community.

This is a challenge that I think all Christians should consider taking. It is a challenge, that I think is at the heart of living a life in light of the Gospel. To extend the circle of our prayers to include our brothers and sisters around the world and for those still in need of the Gospel, to search out God's awesome Word from cover to cover, to give sacrificially to a specific Gospel-centered purpose, to move out of our comfort zone in hopes of reaching people with the Gospel of Christ and to be a faithful member of a worship family---these are areas in which all Christians should purposefully be engaged.

My concern is with how Platt presents it, and how the majority of the book presents these types of challenges. I am left with a question as to the power behind our obedience. What fuels a person? What drives a person to take and complete this challenge? That question is never sufficiently answered in my opinion. The tone is Nike-esque, "Just Do It". Do not try, do not attempt, just get out there and do it! The implication seems to be centered on the efforts of the reader. Try harder. Do more. My question is this, where is the Gospel in this mentality? The Gospel does not tell me to try harder, or do more. The Gospel says that every effort I make,apart from the Grace of God, is destined for failure but I can rest in the fact that Christ has already succeeded. The Gospel says, "You try, but you inevitably fail. God tries, and He inevitably succeeds. In fact, He has already succeeded. In every aspect of the Christian life, Jesus Christ was victorious in His righteousness, His suffering, His sacrifice and His resurrection." Success is not ours to obtain, which we would inevitably boast about, but our successes have already been procured by Christ and we receive these by His grace through faith. This is why we can live a "radical" life, not because we trust God will make us succeed but that we have faith God has already succeeded for us. I know for certain this is what David Platt believes. I have heard him say similiar in numerous messages. In fact, he may have made this point. I just wish it were a bit more explicit that our success, our motivation, our obedience is not found in us but is found in Christ and the good news of His finished work on the cross.

This a good book. Apart from a few concerns I had, I thought this book was excellent and I would encourage everyone to read it. Read it carefully and read it knowing that the Gospel of Christ is the power that saves and the power that propels the Christian along and then begin to live a life as described in this text. The cause of the Gospel would be greatly aided if we all did.