What has been most encouraging about the phenomenon of David Platt’s Radical — it’s spent 55 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list for paperback advice, and the follow-up Radical Together recently hit bookshelves — is that its sales were driven largely by a theologically and morally conservative readership.
The significance of this point cannot be overstated. Young believers committed to radical discipleship and sacrificial service to the poor and the lost have too long felt – and too often experienced – that there is no place within conservative Christendom for them to live out their vision of what it means to be followers of Jesus. It’s imperative to demonstrate that a strong commitment to the authority of scripture and the historical teachings of the church does not eclipse, but actually grounds and inspires, a profound devotion to Christ as well as a wholehearted commitment to serving Christ in the least of these. If conservative churches come to be seen as the stagnant backwaters of a comfortable and compromised faith, while emerging or liberal churches are seen as the mobilizers of compassion and service, then conservative churches will damage their witness and lose many of the most fervent believers in the younger generations.
The art of writing prophetically does not necessarily consist in saying something new. I developed at an early age a love for reading back ad fontes in the history of Christian thought, from Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton to Barth and Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard, to the great pietists and mystics and monks, and ultimately back through Augustine to the Desert Fathers and the Early Church Fathers. Anyone familiar with these figures and their works will not find new themes in Radical. Yet the same could be said of nearly every doctrinally sound contemporary Christian book. We are the inheritors of a rich and extensive tradition.
The art of writing prophetically consists in writing something true – and, even more so, conveying the right truth at the right time and in the right way. In Radical, Platt applies the ancient themes of radical discipleship to the twenty-first-century western world of affluence and excess. The enthusiastic reception that greeted the book shows that many believers, conservatives and otherwise, are rightly dissatisfied with a best-of-both-worlds Christianity, in which the faithful can enjoy both the lavish self-indulgence of the American dream in the present world and the crowns and mansions of the world to come.
The American dream has changed. Once the province of the poor and the persecuted, now it is the fantasy of a young woman who dreams of stardom or a young man who wants his own Gulfstream by the age of thirty. Where once the American dream was about making a living and being free from oppression, now it’s about making a killing and being free from the irritation of unsatisfied desire.
In an environment of brazen materialism and conspicuous consumption, the life of the disciple of Christ should stand out as radically counter-cultural. Yet the temptations of the flesh are strong. Too often Christians have been accommodationists, negotiating the differences between God and the world: in exchange for Sundays (if we’re not too tired) and Wednesday-night Bible studies (if we’re not too busy) and the occasional effort to witness to a friend (if we’re comfortable with it), for ten percent of our income (if we have a comfortable amount put away) and the avoidance of the whopper sins like murder and theft and adultery, we tell ourselves that we can enjoy all of the rest the world has to offer and also enjoy the expectation of eternal reward. In exchange for ten percent, we can use the rest however we please. Meanwhile, 1.5 million children in the United States are homeless, the sex-slavery business is booming around the world, and hundreds of millions of people have never heard the good news of God’s gracious self-giving in Christ.
The great value of Radical, then, lies in the way it challenges our complacency, our selfishness, and our comfort with the American idols of wealth, fame and materialism. It sounds a clarion call to live lives more radically devoted to Christ and to others.
Radical Together seeks to spell out what this means for believing communities. It’s a slim book, like the first one, and it’s centered on six principles for churches that are seeking to live out a radical faith together. (1) One of the worst enemies of Christians can be good things in the church. (2) The gospel that saves us from work saves us to work. (3) The Word does the work. (4) Building the right church depends on using all the wrong people. (5) We are living – and longing – for the end of the world. And (6) We are selfless followers of a self-centered God.
There are minor matters over which I would quibble (although I understand what he means, I think calling God “self-centered” will be mis-heard by many), but I want to address the central question. Should churches strives to be “radical”? And what does it mean to be radical in our commitment to Christ? How has your church given itself radically to the work of the kingdom?
I’ll continue this series tomorrow with “Three Dangers of ‘Radical’ Christianity, and What We Can Learn From Them.” In the meantime, for more information on Radical Together, please see our book club.