Radical: A Review

January 8, 2011 — 3 Comments
Radical

I was sent this book by a dear family member who was passing it on with the recommendation of his Executive Pastor, who claimed it to be the most influential book he'd read in 2010. Certainly Radical by David Platt has made waves in evangelical circles in the past six months or so. Writing from the perspective of a young, Southern Baptist mega-church pastor, Platt boldly calls American Christians to leave behind their aspirations of wealth and ease and instead follow in a way of discipleship that that requires bearing a cross, obedience to espoused beliefs. I was excited! Having grown up Baptist, I am too aware of the damage that the sacred-secular dualism has done to the notion of discipleship in Baptist circles. They have effectively reduced salvation to dogmatic assent and discipleship to daily devotionals.

The theological perspective that Platt operates from is important to identify before launching into a treatment of his book. He is writing from a Southern Baptist perspective primarily to other Southern Baptists. All eight blurbs endorsing the book are by Baptists from prominent Baptist churches or parachurch organizations. This will impress, well, Baptists. Many of his non-Baptist readers will not recognize either name or institution.

So, what is the problem? According to Platt the problem is that there are "4.5 billion people who, if the gospel is true, at this moment are separated from God in their sin and (assuming nothing changes) will spend eternity in hell" (76). American Christians have, for the most part, turned a blind eye to the plight of the rest of the world. Instead they have opted to settle for "[a] nice, middle-class, American Jesus. A Jesus who doesn't mind materialsm and who would never call us to give away everything we have. . . . A Jesus who brings comfort and prosperity as we live out our Christian spin on the American dream" (13). This is a tragedy, indeed. "If people are dying and going to hell without ever even knowing there is a gospel, then we clearly have no time to waste our lives on an American dream" (143).

Many of those 4.5 billion people live in poverty. This is also a problem. Drawing from Wesley, Muller, and examples from his own mega-church in Birmingham, AL, Platt concludes that "most everything in our lives in the American culture would be classified as a luxury, not a necessity" (127) and wonders what might happen "if we stopped asking how much we could spare [to care for the poor] and started asking how much it was going to take? . . . What would happen if together we stopped giving our scraps to the poor and started giving surplus?" (130). Yet fundamentally addressing poverty does not concern Platt. This is where the book took a discouraging turn for me.

Instead of talking about the injustice that perpetuates poverty and the church's call to name and change those systems, Platt backs into a dualistic solution of tending to spiritual poverty (the un-evangelized) over against systemic changes to address poverty (which he calls "just providing for the physical needs of the poor [135]). Of the unjust systems that keep the poor impoverished Platt writes, "Poverty, after all, is rooted in social, political, economic, moral, material, and many other factors. Some we can affect (even if in small ways), and others are beyond our influence. Clearly, God does not command or expect us to meet every need" (130). If the church isn't called to affect the "social, political, economic, moral, material, and … other factors," who is? How do we reconcile passages such as Psalm 82:3-4, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:35-46, to name a few, with Platt's confident assertion that "God does not … expect us to meet every need"? Which needs, then, are we to meet? How are we to know?

Platt's radical call to discipleship boils down to another call for world evangelization, financed by the time and capital of American Christians. Platt asserts that "[m]ore than five thousand people groups, totaling approximately 1.5 billion people, are currently classified as 'unreached' and 'unengaged.' 'Unreached' means that a people group does not contain an indigenous community of evangelical Christians with adequate numbers and resources to spread the gospel within the people group. 'Unengaged' means no church or organization is actively working within that people group to spread the gospel" (158, emphasis added). This is the real extent of Platt's concern for the poor, his attention to poverty. Without making it explicit, Platt leads the reader to believe that the impoverished are poor somehow because they have never heard the gospel. Therefore the solution must start with taking the gospel, which he defines as that "[t]he just and loving Creator of the universe has looked upon hopelessly sinful people and sent his Son, God in the flesh, to bear his wrath against sin on the cross and to show his power over sin in the Resurrection so that all who trust in him will be reconciled to God forever" (36), to those who've never heard it. In that way poor and rich alike can "free our lives from worldly desires, worldly thinking, worldly pleasures, worldly dreams, worldly ideals, worldly values, worldly ambitions, and worldly acclaim . . . [and] fasten our affections on the one who promises eternal treasure that will never spoil or fade" (179).

I had high hopes that this book would represent a critical shift in the Baptist dogma that views the saving of sousl as the only legitimate vocation of the Christian life. Platt comes so close! Yet in the end, he cannot get away from an entrenched dualism that sees physical poverty as somehow secondary to, or even the result of, spiritual poverty. While this work does represent some ideas that will make many conservative Baptists squirm in their La-Z-Boy recliners, it stops short of offering a holistic understanding of, and approach to, the ills of poverty and the necessary Christian response. For a more detailed and reasoned treatment, I would suggest Richard Sterns' The Hole in our Gospel and Bryant Myers' Walking with the Poor, the latter I will be interacting with in this space over the next two weeks.

Anderson Campbell

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  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – wow! As you know I an neither Baptis nor American yet what you say resonates deeply with me. One of the things Myers, in his book in Walking With The Poor encourages us ‘non-poor’ to do is to examine closely our assumptions and presuppositions about ourselves and the poor. I am a pastor of a small congregation and the temptation to preserve what I and we in the congregation [by way of 'wealth' be that income, buildings, position etc] is great. I would think the temptation for Platt and the folks in his mega-church would be as great, if not greater. I suppose [more negatively] I would be more comfortable if Platt and others began to examine the assumptions and theology supporting being a mega-church vis-a-vis the texts you cite and Jesus’ words and Luke’s narrative in Luke 18.18-43. Now there’s a book that would set the Baptist’s tongues wagging! #dmingml

  • Chris Marshall

    Eddie, I’d pay for a service to read your book reviews (but I’m not suggesting it cuz I like it here for free). :-)The dualism in the West seems to be the blind-spot that Hiebert alludes to in Myer’s “Walking with the Poor”, it gets in the way of the holism you are suggesting and I agree 100% with. We continually project our ideas of what poverty is based on our own perception and don’t look at the blind-spot of our own poverty. If we in America yet demonstrate that we lack true shalom, how can we accuse or approach other cultures of being poor?

  • Anderson Campbell

    Thanks for the comments guys. I think that Platt’s blind spots are bound up in a theology that sees the poor as either “lost souls” or “people in rebellion” (to use Myers’ restating of Mouw’s examination of Christian views on the poor) or some combination of the two that reflects a dualism where the higher need is one of spiritual poverty and the baser need is physical poverty. When separated this way, addressing the latter is seen as a means to addressing the former. There is an assumption that if the spiritual poverty is resolved, physical poverty will be as well. This is, in my estimation, nothing more than an evangelical version of the prosperity gospel. It is more cunningly disguised because it wears the robes of aid and relief, but it is just as damaging.