Book Report: Radical by David Platt

Posted: October 20, 2010 in Book Report
Tags: , , , , , , ,

“We are molding Jesus into our image . . . And the danger now is that when we gather in our church buildings to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the bible. instead, we may be worshiping ourselves”.

Knowing my struggle with pop-culture Christianity, a mentor suggested I read this book. There is much to appreciate about Dr. Platt and his ideas. He is obviously very bright and yet he comes across gently. I would not disagree with many of his ideas, but found the book to be superficial and steeped in modernist thought with a tinge of American exceptionalism behind an age-old missions rhetoric.

In Radical, Dr. Platt identifies the American Dream as a value system “dominated be self-advancement, self-esteem, & self-sufficiency, by individualism, materialism, and universalism”. He goes on to say that “we have a dangerous tendency to misunderstand, minimize, and even manipulate the gospel in order to accommodate our assumptions and our desires… how much of our understanding of the gospel is American and how much is Biblical?”

These thoughts resonate deeply. In recent years, I have been struck by the weak Biblical hermeneutics delivered from many pulpits. Sermons quickly become the platforms for setting agendas – agendas for evangelism, for building plans, for budgets, for making a name for ourselves (in Jesus’ name).

Of course, this is nothing new. Religious leaders have notoriously used power for self-gain throughout history. However, i wonder at the cultural undercurrent of American individualism and how it manifests itself in the American church. What unique eisegetical pitfalls does the independent evangelical church face? Why is individualism so great a danger to the church?

Dr. Platt suggests that individualism is dangerous because it leads to complacency and a lack of zeal to go to all the world and preach the gospel. While I cannot argue with this point, I am more interested in delving deeper into where this individualism came from, how it has polluted the framework of American church, and what an appropriate response should be.

Perhaps we can trace this individualistic trend back to the Great Reformation of the 16th century. Or perhaps it was confounded by (or was it precipitated) by the cultural shift toward humanism that took grip of the newly independent protestant denominations. Within a few centuries, the church continued to divide, splintering into faction after faction. I am afraid to know just how many denominations exists today in North America. I am more afraid to know how many independent churches exist with no authorities or theological guardians keeping an ear to the pulpit. Each church upholds a unique and “true” interpretation of God’s word and is burdened with the great task of making disciples. I can’t help but ask, disciples of whom?

When Christ said to Peter, “upon this rock, I will build my church”, did he really have the assorted independent denominations of the 21st century in mind? Do these schisms reflect the way of Christ as he led in humility and submission? I cannot recall the last sermon I’ve heard about Biblical submission that wasn’t geared toward women only. Rather, our pastors uphold rhetoric of independence – after all, we have been set free in Christ. Lone ranger pastors. Rebellion and self-determination outweigh respect for elders, compliance to authority, and seeking out Godly council. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Martin Luther stuck it out and reformed within. Is it possible that in an act of righteous protest the path toward individualism and rebellion was forged? Is it possible that this path has led to this evangelicalism “dominated be self-advancement, self-esteem, & self-sufficiency, by individualism, materialism, and universalism”?

This poses some significant challenges for a struggling evangelical who longs to be set free of the American church. In a future post, I hope to explore some of the perplexities this presents in terms of the authenticity of Protestantism in general. But for today, I must consider that the way of the consumer is not the way of Christ. Perhaps this cagey creature should stick it out and learn a lesson or two from Christ about submission and healthy spiritual reform before jumping ship in search of the perfect church that meets all felt individual needs.

  1. craigolson says:

    There are some excellent comments in this blog with which I wholeheartedly agree. Take this quote, for instance, “I am more afraid to know how many independent churches exist with no authorities or theological guardians keeping an ear to the pulpit”

    Compare this quote to a quote from my book, ‘The Casual Christian,’ “Unfortunately, in our church sub-culture we have not been as skeptical of religious authority as we should be. We haven’t established checks and balances to prevent abuse of power. And no power can be more repressive than spiritual power because of the fear of God it invokes. ”

    I don’t think individualism was a product of the reformation. Luther never would have been able to reform the Catholic church from within given its history of persecuting the saints and stopping the spread of the gospel. Just try reforming the church from within today. People will tell you that every failure of the church is an isolated incident and that the solution is to forgive and forget. They cannot see the pattern of systemic collapse. Yet the reason people don’t join the church is because they see absolutely no difference between Christians and others. Isn’t this an indication that the problems Christians tend to isolate are really systemic? No one sees the need for revival. Church leadership is complacent because God has blessed them with more wealth than in any other period of church history. How could they be wrong when God has chosen to bless them so richly?

    • Thanks for the comment and including the thoughtful quote from your book. To some extent, I agree with your thoughts about Luther and concur that my “reform within” assessment is simple and superficial. Individualism may not be a direct product of the reformation, however it does set historical context. While I hesitate to say the reformation is at the root of our contemporary church problems, I am interested in exploring the trajectory established by that event coupled with the cultural implications rising out of the American Independence. I believe these events are fundamental to understanding N. American evangelicalism.

      Revival is a great topic! I hope to touch on that in future posts and will welcome your perspective. Thanks for bearing with me as I begin this exploration process.

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