BOOK REVIEW: David Platt’s "Radical Together"

(David Platt, Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God, 2011, 165 pages.)

I have previously reviewed Platt’s earlier book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. That review is available on my blog, and to avoid repetition, some caveats made there about the differences between Platt’s more conservative theological orientation and my own more progressive stance are presumed for this review.

Platt structures his latest book around six convictions. The first is “The Tyranny of the Good: One of the Worst Enemies of Christians Can Be Good Things in the Church.” I couldn’t agree more with this premise. First, there is an important distinction to be made between “church building” (strengthening the institution of the central building where the church meets) and “kingdom building” (building the Beloved Community through acts of mercy like feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned). Platt puts particular emphasis on the need for long-term “disciple-making,” not just conversion of new Christians (8). I would also add, regarding the “tyranny of the good,” that I have learned from Ignatian Spirituality that a critical skill for Christian maturity is discerning between the “good” (those tasks that need to be done, but that are not necessarily tasks to which God is calling or equipping me or my group to do) and the “better/best” (those tasks that God is particular calling and equipping me or my group to do). Spending your time doing “good” things that you aren’t called to do can keep you from getting to the “better part” and can, indeed, be a devastating “Tyranny of the Good.”

Platt’s second conviction is “The Gospel Misunderstood: The Gospel that Saves Us from Work Saves Us to Work.” Here I’m reminded of the distinction of “freedom from” and “freedom for.” We are freed from work’s righteousness, but we are also freed to choose to incarnate God’s work of love. Otherwise, we slip into what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

Conviction three is that, “God Is Saying Something: The Word Does The Work.” At this point, Platt risks falling into bibliolatry, “idolatry of the Bible.” At the most extreme, bibliolatry is confusing the Bible for God and basically making the Bible a god. At a lesser extreme, bibliolatry is making the Bible something it isn’t. We need to be clear that the Hebrew Scriptures represent some of best written theological reflections of the people Israel, and that the Christian Scriptures represent some of the best written theological reflections of the early church. But there are also some distressingly low points and unhealthy theological reflections scattered throughout the Bible — such as the parts that encourage violence, disparage women, or justify practices like slavery. All these theological reflections that were eventually incorporated into the book we call the Bible were written and edited over many centuries, in many different places, and for many different reasons.

We should also be clear about our “canon within the canon” — that is, the places in scripture that we highlight and use the interpret other passages in scripture, and conversely the passages that we deprecate or ignore. For Platt, his “canon within the canon” are passages like “Romans 3, John 3, Philippians 1-2, and 1 John…” (45). Curiously, none of what Platt lists as “foundational texts” come from the Gospels! In other words, he seems often to read the Gospels through Paul and the other epistles. In contrast, I seek to read all of scripture through the lens of what Jesus called the two “Greatest Commandments” (to “love God” and to “love neighbor”) as a touchstone of scriptural interpretation.

Conviction four is “The Genius of the Wrong: Building the Right Church Depends on Using All the Wrong People.” Here I’m reminded of the old adage that God “equips the called, but doesn’t call the equipped.” Thus, Jesus didn’t call his first followers from the learned and powerful, but from the poor and marginalized. That’s good news for all of us imperfect people in the church and outside the church.

Conviction five is “Our Unmistakable Task: We Are Living — and Longing — for the End of the World.” At this point, Platt and I strongly diverge. I am much more in line with New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan’s position that the end of the world is not coming “soon, violently, and literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence.” Crossan calls this distinction the difference between “apocalyptic eschatology” (the end of the world is coming) and “collaborative eschatology” (God is always calls with us to partner with God to repair the world). We are the ones we (and God) have been waiting for.

Finally, Platt writes of “The God Who Exalts God: We Are Selfless Followers of a Self-centered God.” For a second time, I found myself scrawling an emphatic “NO!” in the margins of the book. This view seems to me to be precisely wrong. We humans may be narcissistic, but, as we grow spiritually, we are called to become as self-giving as God — a process the Eastern Orthodox call theosis or divinization. God is not self-centered, nor is God a giant projection of our narcissism in the sky — paging Dr. Freud and Dr. Feuerbach!

To close with an example of an alternative perspective, I look to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, one of the most brilliant, gifted, and thoughtful theologians of our time.  He writes:

Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.  The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tell us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the Trinity.  We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.  The life of the Christian community has as its rationale – if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as occasion as of joy.

(Rowan Williams, The Body’s Grace: The 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address, now reprinted in Charles Hefling, ed., Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies (Boston: Cowley Press, 1996), 56-68; here, 59. Quoted in Cunningham, 299.  This address is available online at http://www.igreens.org.uk/bodys_grace.htm.)

This review is part of the Patheos Book Club. Visit the website for more reviews, discussions, interviews, and excerpts.

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