“Radical” review: 1-22

The first time I heard about David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, I was in my second year of graduate school. It had been out for over a year at that point, and a colleague I worked with recommended it to me after a conversation we’d had about the corruption and greed common in American evangelicalism. This book had left a lasting impression on my friend, but I wasn’t as struck by it as he was.

Partly that’s due to the fact that I didn’t grow up in American evangelicalism, so David’s condemnations weren’t directed at me or my religious culture. He was describing a slightly different sort of radicalization than the one I’d grown up with, but, in the end, I realized I’d spent most of my life trying to live by a fundamentalist application of the same interpretations, the same principles– and I’d already figured out that, honestly, they’re just not realistic, healthy, practical, or even a way of living that reflects the whole breadth of Scripture.

However, it is a massively popular book. It’s acquired over thirty thousand ratings on Goodreads, thirteen hundred on Amazon, over four hundred on Barnes and Noble, over three hundred on Christianbook, and most most of these reviews are positive, averaging at 4.5/5 stars. Many of the Christian writers, speakers, and theologians I pay attention to have recommended Radical at some point– Francis Chan and Jonathan Merrit wrote blurbs for the book, and Rachel Held Evans has promoted it.

It’s one of the few books that seem to have bridged the audience gap between conservative and progressive Christians, and I hadn’t seen anyone critique it with any depth until I started reading the 1- and 2-star reviews on Goodreads. After all, shouldn’t someone like me be jumping all over this particular bandwagon? He talks about Jesus’ teaching for us to sell everything that we have and give to the poor– isn’t that exactly what I’ve spent a significant amount of time shouting about?

But, like I said above, I don’t think David’s approach and interpretation incorporates the natural balance that appears not just in the epistles, but in the Gospels, as well. And I think that the interpretation he advocates could be harmful to many Christians.

* * *

The first chapter, titled “Someone Worth Losing Everything For,” functions as a long introduction to the themes David will be arguing for. He opens with the contrasting experiences that prompted him to examine some of the assumptions broadly held in American Christianity (concepts like being “blessed by God” is equal to being wealthy, although he doesn’t articulate it that plainly): his visit to persecuted churches and the Sunday he became a pastor of a megachurch. His conclusion:

We were settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves. (7)

Abandoning ourselves is one of the themes of Radical, and as you can probably imagine it’s one of the things that sent up a red flag for me on this re-read. While I do agree with David to an extent about what’s inherent in Jesus’ call to follow him, the phrase abandoning ourselves can lead down a dark and unhealthy path. There is beauty and Christlikeness in self-sacrifice, in service to others, but while I think it’s terribly important to actively love others sacrificially, I have learned that there are limits. Even Jesus took breaks. Even Jesus withdrew and took care of himself when he needed to.

But the idea of abandonment doesn’t necessarily include the need for boundaries and the acknowledgment of realistic limitations, and as someone with chronic and debilitating physical and mental illnesses, the kind of lifestyle David says all Christians should live isn’t possible for me. People like me don’t seem to exist in David’s (coughwhite-and-able-bodiedcough) world.

While I can agree with his criticisms of American Christian greed (like his observation on one church’s new 23 million dollar building and another church’s gift of $5,000 for refugees featured on the same magazine cover), I read statements like:

We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with. (13)

 … and I can’t help but think but you’re twisting him too, David. He spends this chapter highlighting the times Jesus made statements like “sell everything that you have” and “put down your nets and follow me” or “hate your father and mother”– and yet he completely ignored people like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus who didn’t sell everything they had, who didn’t abandon their livelihoods or home or family and were still considered Jesus’ disciples. Or the numerous people (mostly women) behind the scenes who gave Jesus food and money and a place to sleep for the night.

The most significant problem I have with this chapter though, appears here:

First, from the outset you need to commit to believe whatever Jesus says. As a Christian, it would be a grave mistake to come to Jesus and say, “Let me hear what you have to say, and then I’ll decide whether or not I like it.” If you approach Jesus this way, you will never truly hear what he has to say. You have to say yes to the words of Jesus before you even hear them. (20)

That doesn’t make any sort of sense, and isn’t something Jesus required of his followers– not even his apostles, for crying out loud. Thomas demanded hard, physical proof of Jesus’ resurrection, and according to the Gospels, Jesus gave it to him. He heard “the words of Jesus” as communicated to him by the others, and said “no, I need more than that.”

What David is asking his readers to do is foolhardy and ridiculous. I think I understand the sentiment driving his words here– he’s attempting to argue that following Jesus is a package deal and we can’t pick and choose (which is really ironic right about now since it’s what he’s spent this chapter doing). However, telling fellow Christians to uncritically imbibe his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings — which is the only thing this book can possibly be — is asking Christians to forget the warnings about following Paul or Apollos or Peter.

He’s setting us up. He’s putting the idea in place that if you disagree with him, David Platt, the youngest megachurch pastor in America, you are not really committed to Jesus. Men who put themselves on pedestals like this– however unconsciously they might be doing it– should make us all skeptical, if not outright suspicious.

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