Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: "Radical" by David Platt Part I

I've been recently asked to review the book Radical, Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, by David Platt and feel that posting a simple blog entry might be more helpful than trying to give my thoughts in the interrupted and disjointed context of a conversation. It's not that I don't wish to hear feedback on my feedback - rather, I'd like to have the advantage of hearing a response to the whole of my understanding and opinion rather than piecemeal understandings of what I might have just said. The art of conversation is lost in our generation because we're too impatient to have a long enough conversation to warrant listening.  By the way, it is entirely a fair criticism that I am writing a review before I'm finished reading the book.  This is a chronilogical review and should be understood as such.  To the extent that any errors I note are corrected in later chapters shame on me.  To the extent I misunderstand something that is made more clear in later chapters, again - shame on me.

This book, Radical, is now selling well - according to the New York Times and therefore warrants a bit of discussion and criticism. I don't mean criticism in the usually understood negative connotation, but rather, criticism in the sense of thinking critically about what the authors says.

So, here we go - first chapter. If the sense and gist of a book can be captured from its first chapter, then this is a book about feeding the poor. Pastor Platt begins by - literally - by noting his status as the youngest pastor of a mega-church in history. I don't believe he does this in pride, although it is brought up so often that one wearies of hearing it, rather, Pastor Platt seems to be stating his purpose in writing as a personal crisis of faith subsequent to becoming pastor of a mega-church. The irony here is not lost on me. "My biggest fear, even now, is that I will hear Jesus’ words and walk away, content to settle for less than radical obedience to him." And herein, we see the genesis of the title. It is hard to criticize someone who writes about being radically obedient to Jesus. From the onset, Pastor Platt has preemptively dissuaded any real critical examination of his argument because, after all, who wants to argue against radically obeying Jesus.

As I noted, this first chapter is about feeding the poor. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying the book is about feeding the poor. I am simply noting what the conclusion of this first chapter is. Before we get there, I would like to note a few fallacies of logic and clear thinking. Pastor Platt begins with a few unspoken assumptions that are put forth as axiomatic, but which I would suggest are not only suspect, but far from logical. The first is his discussion of a small nuclear group of pastors in an Asian country who meet in an environment hostile to the corporate practice of Christianity. In this context Pastor Platt makes the following assumptions - 1. these Christians are being persecuted for their faith, 2. these Christians are more spiritual/devout because of their willingness to be a Christian when the consequences for corporate practice are severe, and 3. these Christians are to be commended for their authentic emotional expressions and simplicity of faith.

This morning I had a discussion with a friend who noted that there are some who believe that Christians under persecution act differently than Christians who aren't being persecuted. However, it is my opinion and observation from Scripture that all Christians are persecuted and being persecuted. Jesus does not say "the world will hate some of you" or "the world will hate many of you." We, all of us, as followers of Christ and those who have faith in him for the atonement of our sins, are now being persecuted by this world. Many in the West have been deceived into believing that because our mortal lives are not being attacked, that we're safe. I would posit, however, that we in the West are as much under attack as any other church at any other time. The enemy of Christ is rarely so foolish as to believe that the most effective means of combating Christianity is a head on attack on the lives of the faithful. The lesson was learned more than 3000 years ago in the life of Job. The lesson was re-learned during the Roman persecutions. There are times when the enemy is effective using the threat of life, but most often, the more effective threat is not against mortal life, but against Spiritual life. We are never so much hampered in our realization of our faith than when we are deceived about our faith. In this, while Pastor Platt makes what I believe are erroneous assumptions, we both agree on the conclusion - there is something wrong about Christianity in America. We agree our faith, has been altered into something un-Christ like. Pastor Platt incorrectly assumes a purity in a church that is being mortally threatened. There is little in Scripture, if anything, to suggest that believes who are being mortally threatened, are somehow better off spiritually, or more spiritual, or more holy or more anything. To criticize comfort for comfort is to naively understand the grace of God. To some are granted mortal peril, to others spiritual peril. But the world will and does hate God and those who follow God. If we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are not being persecuted, then the enemy has already won a great battle. We are a steer who still thinks he is a bull.

The first assumption, that these Asian Christians are being persecuted for their faith is wrong. I'm not saying that they are not being persecuted for their faith - I am saying that we cannot presume they are. The fact is they cannot meet corporately to practice their corporate Christianity without threat of mortal peril. Granted. However, we would need to know more. In many countries it is permissible to meet corporately under license of the government and this restriction is imposed against all religions. In this context worshippers are not persecuted for their faith, they're persecuted for having any faith - Islam, Buddhist, Christianity, Jew... it matters not. You can hardly say someone in such a country is persecuted because they follow Jesus - they're persecuted because they follow anyone. Also, it denies the fact that all Christians everywhere and at all times have been and will be persecuted by the ruler of this world. It makes artificial classes of Christians - those who are persecuted and those who are not. Lastly, there is nothing to suggest that the mere proclamation of faith in Christ is what is being denied. What we are told is that to meet corporately is what occasions peril. Fellowship is a key and integral part of the Body of Christ - to be denied fellowship is a harsh measure of Grace. And there are those Christians who will risk their lives to gain fellowship - but that is different than risking your life to proclaim your faith in Christ. It is also different from risking your life to evangelize. Each persecution is real and harsh Grace, but each occasions different responses. We are all going to be persecuted and the mode of that persecution is largely not our choice - rather it is a Grace of God. It is, therefore, simply not logical to assume that because one person or group is prevented from congregating that their ideas of Christianity, that their expression of Christianity, that their understanding or Christianity is more pure, more holy, or better in any facet or quality than anyone else' Christianity. Pastor Platt makes a grievous error in making the first and second assumptions.

The last assumption, the deference and honor given to these Believer's expressions of worship due to their hardships falls quickly when we note the fallacy of the first two assumptions. In reality, there is no measure of the Holy Spirit given to various Believers on account of their situation. All true Believers worship God in truth, all Believers struggle with sin, all Believers proclaim their faith. All are members of the same body, and to suggest that those under mortal peril are somehow "eyes" while those who live in relative mortal safety are somehow "dishonorable parts" is to deceive ourselves about the body and the Head and the Grace of God. Pastor Platt begins his book with three insupportable assumptions which form the basis of a great deal of erroneous thinking later on as we shall see.

While illogical argument is bad, there are worse things. Perhaps Pastor Platt will remedy this in the chapters that follow, but it cannot be excused until such time and there is always a lack of responsibility in teaching an incomplete doctrine hoping that the reader will hang around for the correct completion. I am of course referring to Pastor Platt's teaching on the Rich Young Ruler.

Pastor Platt completely and inexcusably omits the first communications between Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler (RYR). He skips to the "sell everything you have" language and makes that the focal point and purpose of this dialogue. Never mind that no where in any other Scripture do we have a command to sell everything and give to the poor. Pastor Platt fails in his adherence to the discipline that Scripture interprets Scripture. There is no context given to these words. I take this opportunity to correct an older brother in the faith, hopefully in meekness and humility. Pastor Platt - Jesus first words to the RYR are most alarming - "Keep the commandments." You note how much Jesus fails in his salvation message with "sell everything" but you fail in your understanding of Jesus' salvation message by omitting, intentionally or negligently, Jesus primary teaching - "Keep the commandments." The command of Jesus for that RYR to sell everything is a response to the RYR's arrogant, self-delusional and false proclamation that he had indeed kept the commandments. Jesus was illustrating that man's heart. It is not fair to suggest that Jesus is giving a general command to all believers at all times to sell everything and give to the poor, or that Jesus is teaching the rich to do this. How do we know this? For one, Jesus, nor any other prophet or writer in Scripture, ever commands anyone else to do this. Secondly, the righteous and/or wise are blessed by God with riches (see Job and Proverbs, and Abraham, and Solomon). Thirdly, we see examples of the rich worshipping God without feeling compelled to give everything they have to the poor - Mary's vial of perfume which she poured on Jesus was worth a years' wages. Who has that kind of money? Judas, the false disciple, complained that the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. I wonder if Pastor Platt realizes how much his teaching echo Judas instead of Jesus with regard to selling everything and giving to the poor.

Before I am blasted by those who don't know me; let me state for the record my beliefs about the poor and giving. Proverbs alone teaches more than any other book about the poor. In this book God reveals his heart for the poor. We are taught that to despise the poor is to despise his maker. There is everything commendable about giving to the poor, about having a heart for the poor. It is a mark of a heart for God that one has a heart for the poor. And to the extent that Pastor Platt condemns American greed and commercialism/materialism because we do not have a heart for the poor he couldn't be more right. But to confuse one moment in Jesus' life, one conversation, one teaching on the law and our depravity and our ability to keep the law, as a general teaching to eradicate poverty, as a church-purpose to alleviate poverty in the world, is simply indefensible from the Scripture.

This chapter is so full of errors that it may take as many words to rebut them as Pastor Platt has used, and for that I apologize. Let me assure you that Pastor Platt's second chapter is one to be commended as one of the most elegant pronouncements of the Gospel that I have ever read. But we are not there yet, we are still dealing with the errors of Chapter 1.

Pastor Platt has, in my opinion, a distorted view of Jesus' calling of sacrifice. He confuses both the scope and the actuality of the sacrifice called for. Jesus' requirement is everything - agreed. We are commanded to give our very lives so we can hardly have right to complain should our property or relationships or security be imposed upon by God's Grace. However, the realization - the actuality of the sacrifice is not the same in every instance. While all are called to give their lives to Christ, very few will die a martyr's death. Pastor Platt apparently conceives this in that he is not admonishing everyone to die a martyr's death. However, Pastor Platt fails to understand that while we are all called to give our lives to Christ, few are required to give every possession to the poor. Nowhere in Scripture, the example of the RYR notwithstanding, are we called to poverty in material goods. We are called to be impoverished in our own righteousness. Ananias and Saphira as noted examples. The Holy Spirit does not kill them because they fail to give everything to the poor. Indeed, it is noted that while it was theirs it was theirs to do as they wish. Is the Holy Spirit through Peter contradicting Jesus?

One last example from this chapter illustrates the inconsistent and immature logic of Pastor Platt. Lest I be unfair I'll give the exact quote and admit that (hopefully) he is trying to make a point by being extreme. "A Jesus who would not expect us to forsake our closest relationships so that he receives all our affection." In this quote Pastor Platt attempts to describe what Jesus requires - and he notes that if we disagree we are idolaters, molding Jesus into our own image and worshipping ourselves. However, Pastor Platt has committed the same error he cautions against. The easiest refutation against this teaching is regarding marriage. Nowhere are we called to forsake marriage so that Jesus receives all of our affection. In fact, husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. If a husband is to so love Christ that his love for his wife looks like hate, then how can he at the same time love his wife as Christ loves the Church. This is an example of immature reading of Scripture. I am not meaning to suggest that Pastor Platt is an immature person or lacks responsibility in his pastorate or personal life. I am suggesting that when we approach Scripture, we are to understand these are the thoughts of God. Some of them are hard to understand, and we should not approach Scripture with a simplistic "it means what it says" while restricting ourselves to one verse only. Scripture interprets Scripture because only God knows the mind of God.

This first chapter is so replete with poor logic, bad eisegesis, and inflammatory statements that it is hard to even take it seriously. Perhaps I spend too much time reading scholarly works that I cannot see this for what it is. It may be that Pastor Platt has intentionally written a provocative and inflammatory chapter to hook the reader into reading more. I can certainly understand why the social gospel proponents are chomping at the bit after reading this chapter. Pastor Platt has become their new poster child. Honestly, it was hard to keep reading at this point and I would have stopped if not for the promise I made a couple friends to provide feedback. I am glad I did because Chapter 2 is one of the best chapters I have read from any Christian author in the past 10 years.

Chapter 2 is an eloquent, informative, accurate, concise and beautiful expression of the Gospel. Pastor Platt covers Scripture from the Fall in Genesis to the Atonement on the Cross to the ultimate glorification in heaven. Pastor Platt recognizes accurately God's role in salvation and man's role. His teaching reveals the sovereignty of God in salvation and is bound to make more than a few northern liberals uncomfortable in his pronouncement of depravity and grace. I wish I could excerpt this chapter alone, and I hope that Pastor Platt has many more thoughts on pronouncing the Gospel.

In reading chapter 3 and quickly realizing that Chapter 2 was a brief respite from the chaotic thinking - it does occur to me that Pastor Platt has at least one thing in so many writers who are confusing Christians today. He fails completely to understand the principal will of God in a believer's life.

Pastor Platt's hobby horse is evangelism and he has fallen into the error of extremism I refer to as hyper-evangelicalism; that is, believing the entire purpose and will of God for a believer's life is evangelism to the entire world. However, his error is but one of many who fail to understand God's will for our lives. In seeking to replace God's will, men will grasp onto anything they can and particularly those things that bring them personal comfort. Some see that thing as health, wealth and prosperity. Some see it as peace between the nations; some see it as being some sort of protestant Mother Theresa. And some like the late Bill Bright, Billy Graham or Pastor Platt as evangelism.

Again, I have to realize that someone may read this who doesn't know me. Allow me to explain. I am a strong proponent of evangelism. I've personally witnessed to hundreds of unbelievers in my life. I have crafted my elevator speech/2 minute personal testimony. I've practiced mass evangelism, one on one evangelism, written evangelism and defensive/apologetic evangelism. There is without a doubt, a commission given by Jesus just before He ascends to His Father. The Church is to be made of all peoples in all nations and tongues. There is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no black or white in the Church. We are all of us, redeemed sinners saved by grace through faith in the atoning work of Christ. Evangelism is the highest calling.

However, it is just that. Not all are called to be evangelists. Not my words. If Pastor Platt doesn't like it, I'm sorry, but the Scriptures clearly teach that not all are called to be evangelists. Pastor Platt tries to get around this by suggesting that we are all called to be personally involved in evangelism.

Regardless of whether Pastor Platt is right or wrong - he fails to recognize the singular most important thing a Christian can ever be doing. In his distortion of the traditional statement of the purpose of man - he makes it the singular purpose of the church and man to witness. His words are "enjoy his grace and extend his glory" This is a subtle change in the traditional understanding "glorify God and enjoy him forever." The subtle change is "extend"

It would take paragraphs and paragraphs to fully explain the purpose of man and why it is not to "extend the glory of God." However, I think it sufficient to mention a few things. First, the singular activity which Jesus, over and over again requires, which every single NT author requires, is NOT and is NEVER evangelism or witnessing. It is ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE the eradication of sin in the believer's life - the mortification of sin in our hearts and minds, the sanctification of the believer. The commission Jesus gives is to make disciples - a sanctification procedure above all. But Jesus teaches that we do not love God if we don't keep his commandments. Note that Jesus, and Paul and John do not teach that we don't love God if we don't evangelize. That is only one commandment given at one time to one group of believers. The so-called "Great Commission" (I laugh that Pastor Platt capitalizes it as if it were a name of God) is given to one group of believers. Jesus is not found teaching this to everyone. No where in the NT do we find any other teacher giving this commandment to another group of believers. If we as Americans have failed to understand Jesus' principal teaching as "go forth into OTHER nations and witness" then so has Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude.

The commission is a commandment - given to one group of believers. And many other believers are commanded to go forth through the ministry of the Holy Spirit; see for example Paul's commission at Antioch - indeed on the road to Damascus. However, not every Christian is so called and Pastor Platt's attempt to read this into Scripture is simply bad eisegesis. You cannot make a theology by capitalizing something.

Every Christian is called to live a holy life. We read this in almost every book of the NT. Why does God give us this commandment, often and everywhere - but hide the commandment to go into all nations in one teaching to one group of believers? Is God obtuse? Is God's will hidden? The entire purpose and error of this book so far is revealed in a quote from Chapter 4:

Meanwhile, Jesus commands us to go. He has created each of us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, and I propose that anything less than radical devotion to this purpose is unbiblical Christianity.

Wow. Really? Does Pastor Platt really believe he has adequately supported this from Scripture? Based on one teaching from Jesus to one group of believers? If I don't have a radical devotion to taking the gospel to the ends of the earth, I'm an unbiblical Christian. Never mind that I spend hours in prayer fighting sin in my life and working towards holiness. Never mind that I recognize my first and primary mission field is my family and those God has brought into my immediate sphere of influence. Never mind that I am called to server and love the brethren first and foremost. Never mind that I am trying to learn the mind of God by studying Scripture. If I don't have a "radical devotion" to world evangelism then my Christianity is unbiblical. Really Pastor Platt?

Throughout this book Pastor Platt continually gets so many things right. He accurately teaches the Gospel, he accurately denounces the American Dream as unbiblical. He accurately condemns a biblical understanding/gospel that puts us at the center of the Gospel instead of Christ. But he also fails completely to understand the nature and purpose of sanctification. We bring glory to God first and foremost by repentance and the fight against sin. Angels can pronounce the Gospel and they will one day. Only man can glorify God through the abandonment of sin and the turning to Grace. Only men can glorify God through faith in Christ. Our purpose is to be sanctified and live according to God's will. For many, that will includes evangelism - for me it does. But for many it simply does not. Children are called to be sanctified - they don't have to wait. They are not called to be missionaries or to have a heart for missions. We simply see no evidence of a so-called Great Commission in Scripture. If it is "great" because it comes from Jesus, then we deny the work of the Holy Spirit in the Inspiration of Scripture and might as well only live the red letters. If it is great because it is the last commandment, then we deny the continuing Lordship of Christ and the many commands he has given the Church since the ascension. It is only "great" because some rightly or wrongly have a great heart for missions and mistakenly project that ministry onto every one else. Simply because the Gospel will go to all nations and tribes and tongues, does not mean that every Christian is responsible to make it happen. It's bad logic, it's bad exegesis, and it's bad theology.

1 comment:

  1. Almost five years on the Internet and no comments? Just shows ya that people don't care to b e Bereans, IMopinion...good article, Kevin