Review of David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2010). 240 pp.
David Platt’s book, “Radical”, is a call to missional engagement that reaches beyond the “American Dream.” In other words, Platt encourages readers to live radically by responding to Jesus’ command to “give all to the poor.” He advocates for missions, evangelism, and Christian engagement (versus apathy) by calling Christians to downsize, travel, and risk economic instability for the sake of sharing the Gospel with others.
Yet, several pressing issues make Platt’s argument flimsy, if not trite. For one, he never includes in his call to missions and individual transformation an assessment of Christian, Western-based socio-economic, political worldviews. He never once admits that the “American Dream” is a distinctly Christian-shaped ideal born out of a rigorous capitalist, Protestant work ethic.
For Jesus, and inevitably for us, politics, religion, and economics are intertwined, not compartmentalized or separate from one another. Each area informs and affects the others, so my question for Platt is, How have Christians been guilty of advocating for the American dream which the author so forcefully vilifies in the first place? How have Christians voted in favor of the so-called American dream at the expense of social justice?
If we can answer those two questions, then we can really call Christians to task on how to live differently (by opposing the so-called American dream) in light of Jesus’ radical Gospel message.
And as Hamlet says, there is the rub. Platt is speaking to a conservative audience, folks who consistently champion a strong individual work ethic. (You can tell he’s writing to conservatives because he is constantly apologizing and clarifying his beliefs throughout the book, so as to not have any conservative inquisition on his hands.) It is no secret that this thoroughly American (if not Western) tradition prides itself on prestige and profit, sometimes at the expense of the marginalized and oppressed. It often ignores systemic, corporate systems that intentionally derail upward mobility for the lowest classes (and, at times, the Middle Class) among us. (Don’t believe me? Just read the news coming out of Wisconsin!)
If we were to truly be “radical” in the full biblical sense of the word, we would have to call into question our politics and economic systems, as well as our use of personal resources. But it is precisely these areas that Platt ignores.
Second, Platt uses the Bible to move his argument forward to no avail. In fact, there is no clear line of argument for how the Bible applies to entire worldviews in addition to personal ethical and social engagement. Platt’s plot can be described more accurately as circular than linear, meaning he comes back to the same points over and over again, only in different ways.
His use of the Bible, therefore, is flat and generic. He rarely provides context for the verses he quotes, and he fails to inform readers on how his “radical” call matches all that Jesus’ Great Commission has to offer, especially where God’s Kingdom–and the politics therein–is involved.
He assumes that his readers can’t delve into deep theological critical thinking–he writes on a grade-school reading level–but then turns around and assumes that his audience knows the context of all of the Bible verses he conjures. He never really discusses the historical and theological nuances of the Bible, in turn short-changing the very radical call of Christ. If Platt were to go deeper, his “radical” call would have been more radical. (A quick overview of many reader reviews on Amazon shows a general consensus that Platt didn’t go far enough; and when he does provide theological nuance, by the way, it is decidedly from a neo-Reformed perspective.)
Overall, I appreciate Platt’s book as an entry-level call to missions and evangelism, despite the blatant Reformed theology that pervades his worldview. I am especially grateful that he brings attention to social issues that other pastors and theologians (those who are often called names, like “liberal”) have been trying to bring to the limelight for years.
However, I would think that such a book could have been about half the length since the later chapters merely echo the first two or three chapters. Furthermore, since I don’t think Platt went far enough in his call to radical discipleship, I recommend reading books by authors like Jim Wallis or Stanley Hauerwas. Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship” or Philip Yancey’s “The Jesus I Never Knew” are even better ways to spend your library time.
For a better read, try N. T. Wright’s After You Believe, which actually tackles the same biblical text and subject as Platt’s book, but pushes the boundaries further by approaching Christian character in an overall journey of faith transcending rule-based ethics. And Wright’s engagement with the political and ethical ramifications of living into the Kingdom of God is quite compelling, if not captivating.
(Disclaimer: This is not intended to be a scholarly review, only a surface-level critique. If you have any questions or want me to go deeper on any particular part of the review, I invite you to leave a comment!)