I finished reading David Platt’s book Radical, while waiting for a flight from New Delhi to Hyderabad, India. The book had been recommended to me by several friends, so I decided to throw it in my bag for my recent tour (training pastors in the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Kenya and South Africa). The book calls us to a much deeper commitment to following Christ, and reaching others – two themes that get my blood going. So thanks to David Platt for stoking the fire. For the most part the book accomplished its mission well.
On the other hand, there were places where Platt got my blood boiling in a not-so-helpful way - a little too radical. In an effort to make his points, I felt that Platt pressed too hard, and stretched the supporting evidence. I would chalk it up to “too much of a good thing.” Here are my (hopefully) gentle critiques:
1. I feel like a radical life for Christ needs to be motivated by radical love for Christ. We need to be givers, but cheerful ones, not from compulsion. I felt there was a little too much compulsion in Platt’s book. I didn’t find much sense of cheer. While I can tell that Platt is on the move from his legalistic up bringing, I get the feeling that he has a way to go. At several points in the book I got the distinct feeling that Platt was preaching at me, instead of to me (maybe before the book went to print he had already received that feedback….he seems to apologize on p. 214). In my opinion there wasn’t nearly enough of “the love Christ compels me” and a little too much of “come on, you guys, you should be ashamed of yourselves!” Granted, we all need a kick in the pants now and then, but there’s a line we can cross where we can “exasperate our children,” particularly if you are a child who wants to do what is right. Count me among the exasperated.
2. Platt tends to overstate things a bit in order to make a point, particularly in his chapter How Much is Enough, critiquing the American dream:
a. “Caring for the poor is one natural overflow and a necessary evidence of the presence of Christ in our hearts. If there is no sign of caring for the poor in our lives, then there is reason to at least question whether Christ is in our hearts.” (p.110)
b. “If our lives do not reflect radical compassion for the poor, there is reason to wonder if Christ is really in us at all.” (p.111)
c. (on the story of Lazarus) “This story illustrates God’s response to the needs of the poor.” (p. 114)
d. “Isn’t the hidden assumption among many Christians in our culture that if we follow God, things will go well for us materially? Such thinking is explicit in “health and wealth” teaching, and it is implicit in the lives of Christians whose use of possessions looks virtually the same as that of our non-Christian neighbors.” (p.117)
For me, these over generalizations tended to lessen, not increase, the impact of his argument.
3. Platt has problems with the American church and I share his pain. But while He diagnoses the disease as largely spiritual, I think it is largely sociological. The church turning in on itself is quite natural – it is what organizations naturally do. By virtue of being organized together, over time, we get to know each other. As we get to know each other we become aware of each others’ concerns. As we become aware of each others’ concerns, we create programs to meet those concerns. In the end, our own concerns end up being plenty to keep us busy, and the mission is largely forgotten. It is purely natural. Of course, God does not call us to natural, but to supernatural. What I see happening in the American church is not unspiritual as related to spiritual, but natural as related to supernatural. I think the hearts of most Christians are well-meaning. I think they are just trapped in a self-reinforcing system where they can’t see beyond our own needs. If nothing else, I can see Platt’s book as a huge favor to get us to look up and see there is far much more beyond ourselves.
4. There is a lot of classic either/or (black/white) thinking in this book. For example, “We can stand with the starving or with the overfed. We can identify with poor Lazarus on his way to heaven or with the rich man on his way to hell. We can embrace Jesus while we give away our wealth, or we can walk away from Jesus while we hoard our wealth.” I’m not sure that those are the only choices. There may be some other combinations or shades of gray, but Platt doesn’t allow for the possibility of being interested in the plight of the rich man, only Lazarus. In response I would cite Jesus’ second great commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself” and his great commission, “go into all the world.” He could has said, “love your poor neighbor as yourself” but Jesus is interested in everyone, rich and poor, Lazarus and rich man. He could have said, “go into all the poor world” but Jesus is broad, not narrow, in his instructions. Jesus told us to go into all the socially and economically diverse world.
5. It would be possible, not popular, to make the argument that the church has spent more of its efforts reaching the poor, than the rich. Perhaps not in America, where the cost of the mega-model draws our attention to the rich suburbs (nearly all of the top churches in America being precisely located). But in other parts of the world, where poverty reigns, the church has done little to target political and business leaders, instead going to the people with the least power, and least ability, to change the system.
6. In some cases possessing great status and wealth may be precisely what God wants for a person’s calling (see Joseph); at other times such wealth and status should be forsaken (see Moses). One size does not fit all. Platt “cherry picks” the passages that fit his argument.
7. Platt tries to make me feel guilty for the price I pay for food, relative to “half the world struggling today to find food, water, and shelter with the same amount of money I spend on french fries for lunch.” This is a superficial argument, and contrasts like this abound in our world. Having just come from the Philippines I could say that they are enjoying much better pineapple than I am where I live, and a fraction of the cost. In India, their transportation costs (per person/per mile) are pennies on the dollar. So? The cost of something in one culture, relative to another, is sexy, not substantive.
8. Culture is water to fish. If you live in it, it’s hard to describe; if you live outside of it, it’s hard to understand. I wonder if the two-thirds world misunderstands America about as much as America misunderstands the two-thirds world, in their actual experience. If so, Platt seems to reinforce these misunderstandings. Many in the two-thirds world live very simple lives, with a daily diet of inexpensive rice and chicken. They do not have electric bills, insurance, health care, automobile repairs, college bills, a mortgage or debt. (Remind me again, who am I supposed to be feeling sorry for?) I guess what I am saying is that Americans are not nearly as “wealthy” as people think. At times, I have to say, when I travel in the two-thirds world, I don’t feel as guilty, as I do jealous. I think they may be rich in ways that matter.
9. I think it is important to make a distinction between struggling and suffering. Platt makes no such distinction, putting the cost of daily living on par with how many children die of malnutrition every year. It seems to me that a believer’s primary concern should be those who are suffering, a smaller subset of those who are struggling, and certainly a much smaller number than “half the world.” Ironically, it is a particularly western point of view to blur the two. As Americans, we don’t like to struggle (I think we think it is suffering), but sometimes we are spiritually richer for it. After all, it is in the Lord’s prayer where we read, “Give us this day our daily bread.” For most people in the world, this prayer actually makes sense, and the people praying it are blessed for doing so.
10. I think Platt’s interpretation of the rich young ruler negatively colors his perspective on wealth throughout the book. I like that story a lot, but I don’t come at it from a money-centric angle. Simply put I don’t think Jesus talked with the man because he was interested in the topic of money. I think he talked with the young man about the topic of money because he was interested in the young man. This was a personal challenge that came out of personal concern: “what do I still lack?” (what is in the way?). The answer? Whatever is in the way of him, and it could be (maybe often is) money. But Jesus made it clear in other contexts that is it could be relationships (mothers, brothers, sons or daughters) or something else valuable to us, like our time, our job, or our ideas. It would be a mistake to say that money is everyone’s issue, or every American’s.
11. One question that naturally arises for Platt and his church, which is of the “rubber meets the road” variety: What are they doing with the greatest accumulated asset of their ministry – their multi-million dollar church facility? He is obviously aware of the question, but there is not even so much as an oblique answer (“Every Sunday we gather in a multimillion-dollar building with millions of dollars in vehicles parked outside” (p.115). Platt comments negatively on how much money has been spent by others on such edifices (I pastor a multi-national church where we spend 13% on facilities in the US and less overseas, so I appreciate frugality here). Platt even suggests downsizing our homes (something else I am all for). But Platt doesn’t take his reasoning to its natural, radical conclusion: Shouldn’t the church sell its “home” and give the proceeds to the poor? I raise the question, not because I think they should sell their building, because I’m not sure they should. I raise the question to point out that there are times where it is more strategic for the overall mission to keep an asset than to give it away. The old fable, “Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg” comes to mind. At a certain point I don’t become more effective for Christ without a car (or phone, or laptop, or roof over my head), but less effective. For example, I work closely with an apostolic leader in India, and I think he needs to have more in the way of resources, not less, even though his standard of living already exceeds that of most Indians. This makes me think that the real challenge – largely missed in Platt’s book – is stewardship more than sacrifice. Shouldn’t our objective be to steward the resources of the world, particularly our own, in such a way that we “seek first His kingdom and his righteousness”?
12. I wish that Platt would have spent more time on Christian strategies to relieve suffering, beyond “give more.” What is a Christian strategy for alleviating suffering altogether, beyond writing a check? For those who “have something” to “sacrifice it” only addresses matters short-term. Shouldn’t we consider Jim Collins’ advice to “strengthen the core” while we “expand the frontier”? Doesn't justice need to be paired with mercy? While it in no way alleviates my moral responsibility to respond generously, even sacrificially, I believe that thoughtful people want to understand how their gifts are really making a difference. The situation in Haiti comes to mind, for example. If there is a gigantic hole in the bottom of the bucket, no matter how many resources we pour in the top, we are going to end up with an empty bucket.