BOOK REVIEW: "Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream"

(David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, 2010, 231 pages.)

David Platt, the pastor of a four-thousand member megachurch in Birmingham, Alabama, boldly highlights near the beginning of his book that Jesus, at the time of his death, was at best a “minichurch” pastor with far less than four-thousand followers (2). Even Jesus’ closest and most loyal followers fled when the Romans arrested him. This insight is one of many contrasts that Platt draws between the radical, activist, peasant lifestyle of Jesus and the apathetic, complacent, middle-class lifestyle of most contemporary citizens of the United States.

Full disclosure, Platt’s church is affiliated with the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, and I am an officer on the board of the Alliance of Baptists, which embraces a much more progressive theology. So even as I celebrate my many places of agreement with Platt (would that many more Christians recognized the connection between Jesus’ teachings and social justice — are you listening, Glenn Beck?), I also have significant points of disagreement with Platt, most notably his adherence to a blood theology of atonement (35) and his exclusivist perspective that Jesus is the only way to salvation (152). So, whereas I am eager to partner with him and others who recognize the immediate response needed to the fact that “more than a billion [humans] are on the edge of starvation,” I am less concerned that, “more than 4.5 billion people are without Christ.” Briefly, my own views are much more in line with Paul Knitter’s Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian as well as Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker’s Proverbs of Ashes : Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. (I would, for example, call Platt’s — and many other evangelicals’ view of God requiring a bloody, suffering death for salvation — to be not only horrific theology, but also a theology of divine child abuse.) I have taken the time to briefly outline these differences because these two perspectives are so integral to the book, but I want to set them aside to address the more important theme, which is the sharp contrast between the radical way of Jesus and the way most American Christians live.

I should also note that I admire the ways in which Platt puts his money where his mouth is. He does not merely preach the radical words of Jesus regarding wealth and material possessions. Instead, as he increasingly read the radical words of Jesus, he and his family, “put our house up for sale and began looking for something smaller and simpler. We began the process of adoption again, concluding that our savings were better spent on that which is most important to the heart of God. We are attempting to form a budget that frees up as much as possible to give away” (137).  He even talks about the need to put a “cap on our lifestyles” (195) — which sounds like perhaps a call not only for a minimum wage, but also a maximum wage, at least until we eliminate poverty and create a thriving common good for Main Street, not just for Wall Street. “Christian Socialism,” anyone?!

However, as much as I found myself impressed with Platt’s willingness to take on the hard teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and as much as I hope that many of his readers will embrace the changes he calls for, I will confess to being underwhelmed by his prescription at the end of the book. In the final chapter, he writes — in light of all the hard biblical teachings he has surveyed — “I dare you over the next year to (1) pray for the entire word, (2) read through the entire Word, (3) sacrifice your money for a specific purpose, and (4) commit your life to a multiplying community” (185). I couldn’t help incredulously thinking, “That’s it?” Instead of “My Radical Experiment,” the title should be “A Modest Proposal” or “My First Baby Step of Following Jesus.” I felt like that before writing the final chapter, he needed to go back and read his own words from chapter one that, “Plainly put, a relationship with Jesus requires total, superior, and exclusive devotion. Become homeless. Let someone else bury your dad. Don’t even say good-bye to your family” (8). Admittedly, Platt attempts at times to qualify these hard teachings of Jesus, but Platt’s book title is “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream” — whereas, in the end, he banally accommodates Jesus’ teachings to be more palatably in line with the so-called American Dream, although some experimenting with the truth of Jesus’ teachings is much better than none at all!

In concluding this review, please allow me to indulge in my own re-radicalization of Platt one-year challenge.

Instead of “I will pray for the entire world,” spend twenty minutes twice a day in contemplative prayer. Or, want to be really radical? Find a spiritual director and spend an hour twice a day in prayer being contemplatively present to God alone.

Instead of “I will read through the entire Word,” read through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) everyday for an entire year. Memorize it. Live it. Or sign-up for a group like the Disciples Bible Study that will take you through the entire sweep of the Bible along with a group of students and insights from some of the world’s best scholars — instead of merely reading alone in your room.

Instead of “I will sacrifice my money for a specific purpose,” specifically commit to tithe (give 10% of your pre-tax income) to charity.

Instead of “I will spend time in another context” [besides my own town], commit to spend a week of vacation doing full-time charity work with the poor in your own town — and donate the funds you would have spent traveling overseas to a church in that overseas town you would have visited. In other words, resist privileged, jet-set missionary work.

Instead of “I will commit my life to a multiplying community,” commit to practicing Sabbath once a week. Spend time with your family, with God, and in God’s Creation.

Again, I celebrate Platt’s work and wish him a wide hearing, but may his readers listen even more to the words of Jesus himself, who is even more radically loving, radically inclusive, and radically compassionate than even Platt seem aware.

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