Theology

“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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  • Lyf Stolte

    Some really excellent points here Samantha! Thank you.

  • I think I bought this one a while ago and have never gotten around to it. I’ll be interested to see what else he says are just sort of assumed for every Christian to do, including those with less privilege. I’m a middle-class straight white Canadian man, but I also have narcolepsy and a few other smaller health issues. Work takes up about 95% of the energy I get for a day, with the other 5% trying to do simple things like cleaning the apartment. So I’ve encountered this before where somebody who doesn’t have the energy limitations I do talks about how all Christians should be doing 20 hours of volunteer work a week or things like that. It sucks to hear that and know you’ll never measure up to that standard.

    Jesus routinely had people who wanted to follow him “count the cost.” He even told people not to follow until they had taken the time to do that. The Sermon on the Mount is fascinating because he is speaking to his disciples, but there are hundreds of others listening in. Some of them probably decided to follow after what they heard. Many of them probably said it was too costly. I imagine you’re right that his sentiment was “don’t pick and choose” but that’s a different idea.

  • Pauline

    These are real eye opening points here that I haven’t heard before- and actually gives me some relief to the standard I’ve held myself up to but have failed to even come close to reaching. Thank you!

  • Good points. I’m still trying to work out the difference between Jesus’ calls to self-sacrifice and the dangerous, abuse-enabling ways that individuation is discouraged in some church circles.

    I wonder whether I need to make a distinction between ‘self-denial’ and ‘self-negation’. An athlete will deny herself junk food and push her body to uncomfortable places, because she has set herself a high goal and believes in her ability to achieve it. But someone who’s been taught that he has no worth will never even try to reach his full potential. And I think this is the danger of some forms of Calvinism – ‘total depravity’ is understood to mean ‘total worthlessness’. Maybe genuine self-sacrifice actually requires a very high view of self?

    • “I’m still trying to work out the difference between Jesus’ calls to self-sacrifice and the dangerous, abuse-enabling ways that individuation is discouraged in some church circles.”

      Similarly, I’m trying to work out the difference between the self-sacrifice needed to put energy into a good marriage with an imperfect person versus the self-negation that happens when you adapt to an abusive marriage. Very confusing because certain things can feel the EXACT SAME in practice, which is very. very. scary.

      I do have to wonder if there really is a reliable difference between the two ideas, both for what I’m working on and what you are working on – if there’s not a reliable difference, it would certainly explain why so many people get easily sucked into toxic situations. (Spoiler alert: It’s not because they’re “stupid” which is something I hear a lot.)

      But I have to hope that somehow a person can learn to tell the difference – the alternative is really too horrifying to think about.

      • This can definitely be hard to do. We sometimes talk about the difference between ‘enabling’ and ’empowering.’ Enabling is what happens when we make excuses for abuse, or we shield people from the consequences of their damaging behaviour. Empowering is when we give people the tools they need to flourish and grow.

        But in both cases honesty is needed – the honesty to recognize hurt, pain, trauma, triggers, fears and so on for what they are.

    • carter

      I ask myself this a lot– what exactly was the “self,” to Paul, when he said he died to self? It seems less like it means “erase your personality” and more like it means “die to selfishness.”

      C.S. Lews in “The Pilgrim’s Regress” has a bit about asceticism that talks about the meaningless of self-denial for its own sake that I’ve always thought was a very overlooked critique of the kind of self-abnegation I was taught through fundamentalism.

  • Sheila Warner

    Wow, you nailed it for me! So wrong to follow a human being as a stand-in for Jesus. It shuts down discussion & debate, which Jesus engaged in–a lot!

  • “Put down your nets and follow Me.”

    I think it’s worth pointing out that Jesus gave that command to a small handful of people, not the world at large. For that small handful of people, it was indeed their vocation to “put down their nets,” but that’s not what all of us are asked to do. We couldn’t even if we wanted to – it would be chaos.

    So I think the actual message is to be ready to do what Jesus asks of YOU, up to and including radical life changes. But just because radical life changes were St. Peter’s vocation or St. Paul’s vocation or your neighbor’s vocation doesn’t mean it’s YOUR vocation.

    • Lindsaydoodles

      I wish I could like and amen this 100 times. I definitely feel like a less-than Christian for not giving away everything and moving to a foreign country, but ultimately, I don’t feel like that’s what I’m supposed to do. How can you open your home and practice hospitality if you don’t have a home? How can you feed your friends (and enemies) if you don’t even have enough money to feed yourself? Someone has to stay, hold down a job, and build a “normal” life.

  • ReverendRef

    Jesus didn’t tell everyone to sell everything they had. Jesus didn’t tell everyone to drop their nets or quit their jobs and follow him. Those were specific incidents directed at specific people. In most cases, it certainly was a case of Jesus talking with someone else about the cost of discipleship and letting them make the choice whether or not to follow him. And don’t forget that there were times when a person wanted to follow him and Jesus said, “No . . . stay here.”

    The other thing that’s problematic with this:

    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.

    is it ignores that this exactly what discernment is all about. People listen to what a particular church has to say before deciding to become members. People listen to the voices of God and others when deciding whether or not to pursue a particular vocation. People listen to the words of another person before deciding whether or not to get married. Samantha has it right when she says it’s “foolhardy and ridiculous.”

    What Mr. Platt seems to be looking for is a group of people willing to turn over their free will and critical thinking for the certainty of being told what is right. That and convincing them that bigger donations to the overhead of the congregational staff is absolutely necessary to be regarded as a committed Christian.

    • In all fairness, Platt’s church does seem to be financially committed to giving in a way most other evangelical churches aren’t, and I didn’t find him chartering personal jets or buying mansions like other pastors of similar influence, so at least superficially he’s not a charlatan like TV prosperity gospel evangalists.

  • danat

    I have not heard of this book before, even though I am quite a reader. After reading this post and a few reviews on Goodreads, I am really looking forward to this series.
    I agree with you that the church generally is terrible in guilting those who have physical limitations. From what I read I am afraid that he is also going to be coming from an upper middle class Christian perspective, too. Totally unrelatable and just as guilt-inducing in those that don’t have the luxury of giving up everything or even going on a 2 week mission trip.
    My husband and I live and work in a low income under-resourced community, and most books, videos and teachings that I have seen from evangelical American Christianity drives me crazy. It is completely insular, and dehumanizing towards those who work 2-3 jobs just to put food and a roof over their families head. The idea that they need to feel guilty for not doing or giving more is one of the most unChristian things I can think of.

  • JBReiter

    Once again you put your finger on a real problem with progressive Christianity. In addition to the assumption that everyone is able-bodied, extroverted, and has time and energy to spare, there is a narrow definition of Christian discipleship as church volunteerism, social service projects, and giving money to charity. No guidance or appreciation for how a person might meet their existing commitments (to family, work, artistic creation, contemplation, mental and physical healing) in a spirit of Christian vocation. It’s only ever about adding new chores to our list. (Reason #600 why I stopped attending church regularly…)

    • Jackalope

      Thank you for pointing out the part about extroversion as well. I have a job that involves lots of people, and as an introvert that takes up almost all of my emotional spoons each day. I love my job and consider it to be my current main form of service, but I did slowly drop just about all of my volunteer commitments after I started here because I don’t have the emotional energy anymore.

    • Original Lee

      Not only that, there is a real bias towards people who work “normal” 9-to-5, M-F jobs, or (especially for women) people who are at home during daylight hours. I work a rotating shift where I work 4 days 7AM-3PM, have a day off, work 4 days 12PM-8PM, have a day off, and so on. I don’t expect anybody to try to match my crazy schedule, but it would be nice if ministries and meetings were not always scheduled the exact same day of the week or the exact same time of day. For instance, one of the Bible study groups is always Thursday evenings from 6-8. I have suggested that maybe the group could meet for a couple of months on a different day and maybe a little later in the evening (not that it would help my attendance at all), so as to enable other people in the church to attend, and they look at me as if I’m speaking Esperanto or something. They do. not. get. it.

  • Ooooh, hmm this is interesting, because evangelical Christianity (as I learned it) is definitely made for white Americans, specifically cishet men, and gives a nice bunch of theology to justify treating others badly (discriminating against LGBT people, silencing women, ignoring poor people’s needs because we all have equal spiritual needs, pretending racism doesn’t exist, etc)- it’s true that it’s a system that just works for the in-group members and it’s about keeping us comfortable, and that absolutely should be called out and criticized.

    BUT. You don’t fix this by asking people to be MORE sacrificial in service of the exact same system, with all the assumptions and stereotypes about other people and the same white-savior-ism and all that. So if that’s what this book is, then… yeah not cool.

    And now I’m thinking about how strange it is that I was taught to constantly deny myself, and it was so tough to live that way, and yet the system was built to privilege people like me so much. Hmm.

  • Desiladygamer

    I find the approach that we can make a difference where we are, a lot more helpful. Yes maybe there will be a calling to give up everything we’ve known and go somewhere else. But more often than not, there are other places outside of church that we are needed.

    I found this bible study really helpful. We just finish it in our small group

    http://www.licc.org.uk/imagine-church/resources/life-on-the-frontline/

    “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.””

    There are not enough face palms for this.