[Editor’s Note: This post by Scot McKnight from the blog Jesus Creed is part of a conversation sponsored by the Patheos Book Club on David Platt’s new book Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God.]
I begin with a brief notice of a series Tim Dalrymple is doing on David Platt’s radical project, who opens with this:
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.
I had an opportunity last week to sit down with Richard Foster and get his thoughts on a wide variety of topics. Since I was planning on writing this series, I mentioned my concern that some people (including myself) might pursue radical Christian living for the benefit of what I’ll call Narcissa’s Camera. What I mean is this: we sometimes find ourselves going about our lives and seeing the world through our own eyes, but simultaneously observing our from the outside as it might be perceived or told by someone else. So here I am feeding the homeless on Skid Row, but even while I’m working with the homeless I’m also observing myself, and approving of myself, working with the homeless. A part of me is conscious of others and their needs, and a part of me is watching myself on video and admiring how I look. I’m watching myself through a camera that hovers somewhere over my shoulder, and ultimately I’m hoping that others will, someday and somehow, see the instant replay.
But Tim Challies, in a but of a curmudgeonly mood, pushes back some on David Platt’s mega-selling book:
Radical is a book about escaping the doldrums of the American dream. The American dream (which is a dream shared by pretty much all of the western, developed world and, hence, equally applicable to this Canadian) calls us to complacency, to a life of comfort and ease. We live in big houses and drive nice cars and worship in multi-million dollar churches custom built around all of our favorite programs. We give away a bit of our wealth—the kind of wealth that much of the world can only dream of—but largely live in great comfort. Occasionally we are stirred my images of starving children or by tales of God’s work in foreign lands. But quickly we forget and we go on with our lives, growing our portfolios and filling our homes with stuff….
Before I began reading Radical I assumed it was just another of a long list of books that would build upon a shaky theological foundation. I was delighted to find that one of Radical’s great strengths is that it is firmly grounded in the gospel. Platt spends a good bit of time discussing the gospel, the real gospel, and calling the reader to embrace it and live as if it is true. And then, on the basis of that gospel, he calls the reader to do what is radical, to let go of the American dream, a dream that is as alive within the church as it is outside of it. It’s a powerful message that falls on eager ears.
Throughout the book Platt seeks to show how Christians have been drawn in by that American dream and how that dream has influenced our theology and practice. “We have in many areas blindly and unknowingly embraced values and ideas that are common in our culture but are antithetical to the gospel [Jesus] taught.” He admits that he has more questions than answers and that he sees many disconnects in his own life, a humility that serves him well. It is not lost on the author or the reader that Platt is a megachurch pastor who lives in the same comparative luxury that most of us enjoy.
By the time you finish Radical you’ll be charged up. You’ll be ready to sell your home, to give up your car, to move across the world, to ditch the American dream in favor of moving across the world to do mission work. But here’s the thing: You’d better do it quickly because a couple of weeks later you’ll probably be back to normal, back to ordinary….
It’s not that the books are bad as much as they give us little to work with as we move from fantasy to reality, from abstract to personal. In the middle of reading a book it is easy enough to say, “I am going to give it all away.” But then you realize that your wife hasn’t read the book and isn’t quite as eager. And then you realize that you have children and hauling them halfway around the world would have a profound effect upon them. And then you realize that it’s been 6 months and you still haven’t done anything. In fact, the excitement has passed and you realize that life isn’t so bad. There may be some lingering guilt, but you’ve realized that is just isn’t so easy to extract yourself from all of this. Neither does the conviction remain that it’s actually necessary….
There is genuine value in reading Radical, I’m sure of it. But maybe it’s best not to read it if you’ve already read several other books in a similar vein. Maybe it would be best to go back to some of those books and ask, “What have I actually done about it?” Sooner or later we either have to take action or figure out if maybe we need to go about being radical in a whole different way. If your big takeaway from Radical is a short-lived excitement followed by long-term guilt or apathy, either the message is wrong or your application of it is wrong.
Well, Tim, would you accuse Jesus of the same thing — unrealistic, fantasy, abstract — when he said give it all away? Do you think maybe the Pharisees sat around and said, “Well, it’s not actually necessary?”
This post originally appeared at Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed.