Is it really "radical" to encourage Christians to not be attached to their stuff, preach the gospel, and give to the poor? Do these topics represent the "milk" described in Hebrews (5:12-14)? Is evangelism and helping the poor the new legalism? I asked these questions after reading David Platt's good book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream.
Using Christianity as a means of achieving comfort, safety, ease, and professional success has certainly poisoned the missional spirit of many Christians. But while Platt rightly calls this syncretism sin, in the end readers are left with nothing more than a "compassionate revivalist" Christianity that fails to radically call Christians to live in harmony with God's desire to redeem the entire creation. The book seems to be a sampling of the revivalist Shaker movement during the Second Great Awakening, which called Christians to renounce material attachments for an "authentic Christianity."
Admittedly, I am biased. I'm a Reformed theologian who understands the biblical story in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Revivalist Christians understand the Bible's chief narrative in terms of sin, repentance, faith, and disciple-making, and Revivalism is usually associated with American fundamentalism. Reducing the mission of the Kingdom to evangelism tends to discourage Christians from pressing the claims of Christ into renewing and creating culture. For example, many revivalist evangelical preachers of the 19th and 20th centuries engaged in powerful evangelism while neglecting to fight against racial segregation after slavery was abolished.
Platt takes an appropriate sledgehammer to Christians who have refashioned Jesus into a middle-class, comforting and loving nice guy who hides in suburbia to avoid Samaritans, as well as to those who ignore the needs of the poor and serve the idols of self-advancement, self-esteem, individualism, materialism, and universalism. He nails the deadly consequences of these trends. However, if Platt wants to launch a radical movement, the following issues, at minimum, need attention:
(1) Christians are called to be more than disciple-makers. The fall of Adam and Eve affected more than people. The affects of the fall are seen in the entire creation (Genesis 3:14-24). The whole creation is active in the drama of sin entering the world. As such, Jesus came to reconcile all things in creation to himself (Romans 8:19-22; Colossians 3:15-20). In fact, Mark quotes Jesus as telling the disciples, "Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation." Disciple-making is a major part of the cosmic redemptive mission of God, but the work of the Kingdom transforms people, places, and things. Redemption in Christ reaches as far as the fall in terms of culture and the arts, business, education, politics, law, entertainment, and so on. Platt fails to call Christians to press the claims of Christ wherever the devil is working.
(2) Materialism is not exclusively a middle-class problem. It's universal. Rich and poor alike struggle with ungodly attachments to stuff. Materialism is a condition of the heart not associated with a socio-economic class. A homeless person can be just as materialistic as a wealthy person. The prosperity gospel would neither be attractive to wealthy people nor poor people if all people did not struggle with viewing blessings in material terms. In fact, materialism can drive unmediated frugality. Therefore, having a Gnostic avoidance of material enjoyment, conjoined with reducing helping the poor with dropping off material goods, does not create the conditions for a radical Christianity that shapes social mores.
(3) "White Messiah" Christianity? Inadvertently, Platt encourages the "White Messiah" neo-paternalism common among justice-oriented younger evangelicals. Nearly all of Platt's illustrations of living radically to help the poor are of white evangelicals going to the "inner-city," or some developing country of non-Caucasians, to find the helpless brown, yellow, needy, and ignorant natives who need white Christians to solve their problems. A truly radical approach would also send Christians to wherever the devil is destroying God's good creation (1 John 3:8)---in trailer parks, Western Europe, Australia, rural America, and the suburbs. Christians follow Christ wherever the curse is found. For example, according to the latest census data, 44 percent of America's poor population is white while 25 percent is black, but you wouldn't know that from reading Platt.
(4) Aid and charity do not help the poor in the long-run. Platt encourages Christians to cap their lifestyles and give aid to causes and organizations that are gospel-centered, church-focused, and specific. Creating wealth in poor countries, however, demands economic and political reform as well. Giving aid while not applying the gospel to social structures will not help the poor holistically. A more radical approach encourages Christians to work at all levels of sustainable economic development because evil exists in those sectors as well. Short-term visions are not radical. Platt's simplistic connection of the gospel to poverty does not address the differentiated issues connecting the poor to God's will on earth as it is in Heaven.
(5) Where's the love? I was hoping that the language of love would permeate the book since Jesus named love as the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-40) . What releases people from loving the American Dream is radical obedience motivated by love in order to love others justly. Before going to the "inner city" we must be challenged to articulate what it means to love God and others to avoid hurting people we intend to help. Also, Platt mentions the role of baptism in connection to radical obedience, but what truly demonstrates the radical scope of missional love are the implications of the Lord's Supper for Christian engagement with culture.
The book concludes by encouraging readers to live radically for one year but does not provide readers with a model of sustainable spiritual formation in the primary forms of love, like justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23), nor the cardinal virtues like prudence (James 1:5), fortitude (1 Corinthians 16:13), self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7), and humility (1 Peter 5:5). God calls us to live radically for cosmic redemption but with wisdom and discernment. To be fair, Platt's book is not intended to be a theology textbook and seems intended to be an introduction. A book this short will miss a lot. Nevertheless, Radical will remain a powerful revivalist challenge to those of us who are Reformed and tend to get so caught up in restoring creation that we forgot that Jesus expects us to always tell people about Him.