I have only recently heard of David Platt, but from what I have read, I am thoroughly intrigued.
Platt has a new book out called Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, in which he accuses the American church of manipulating Christianity to fit its consumeristic culture.
If you can’t tell already, Platt’s core criticisms are particularly relevant to the issues discussed on this blog, and thus I am looking forward to reading and reviewing his book in the near future. In the meantime, however, David Brooks has offered a thought-provoking introduction to Platt’s ideas, which I think is worthy of response.
On the whole, it seems that Platt’s main criticism has to do with materialism: American Christians have become wrapped up in wealth creation and individualistic pursuits and have in the process confused their worship of Christ with a worship of themselves.
Platt’s primary targets? Brooks explains.
Target #1: The Modern American Church
Platt’s first target is the megachurch itself. Americans have built themselves multimillion-dollar worship palaces, he argues. These have become like corporations, competing for market share by offering social centers, child-care programs, first-class entertainment and comfortable, consumer Christianity.
Jesus, Platt notes, made it hard on his followers. He created a minichurch, not a mega one. Today, however, building budgets dwarf charitable budgets, and Jesus is portrayed as a genial suburban dude.
Target #2: The American Dream
Next, Platt takes aim at the American dream. When Europeans first settled this continent, they saw the natural abundance and came to two conclusions: that God’s plan for humanity could be realized here, and that they could get really rich while helping Him do it. This perception evolved into the notion that we have two interdependent callings: to build in this world and prepare for the next.
These are fine things to criticize in the right circumstances. Indeed, we can all think of the megachurch that is tacky and tactless, overspent and unwise, self-absorbed and withdrawn. Likewise, we can all see how pursuing “the American dream” is not God’s roadmap for everyone.
The problem with these criticisms is that they are highly generalized and far too narrow.
Not all megachurches are the same, and who is to say which size of church God would prefer in the first place? Buildings and programs geared toward “gaining market share” may sometimes miss the mark, but why does Platt have a problem with their fundamental goal? Are we to believe that none of these churches are successful in developing “real” Christians?
As for the American dream, depending on who you ask, it could mean anything from working on an assembly line to owning a Rolls-Royce, and that’s only speaking materially. In its most general sense, the American dream is about the opportunity to pursue your dreams. When those dreams align with God’s (as they must), the American dream can be quite a wonderful thing.
It would seem then that Platt must have a very narrow view of the Gospel itself.
As Brooks quotes/paraphrases:
“The American dream radically differs from the call of Jesus and the essence of the Gospel,” [Platt] argues. The American dream emphasizes self-development and personal growth. Our own abilities are our greatest assets.
But the Gospel rejects the focus on self: “God actually delights in exalting our inability.” The American dream emphasizes upward mobility, but “success in the kingdom of God involves moving down, not up.”
This is a truly narrow view of the “essence of the Gospel.” For Platt, it seems that the Gospel is about saving our souls while paralyzing our bodies. It’s not about an obedient willingness to sacrifice everything for God, but a robotic charitable impulse to be followed blindly.
On the contrary, the essence of the Gospel is entirely about self — at its most fundamental level, Jesus’ radical act of sacrifice was about saving and redeeming us as individual sinners. Such redemption requires “self-development and personal growth,” not to mention individual empowerment by the Holy Spirit.
Of course, the first step in such self-development is purely spiritual, but the strong and stable Christian is one who will grow to be accountable enough to leverage earthly resources for God’s glory in whatever way God deems appropriate. This will often include material sacrifice, but not always.
That’s the problem. For Platt, it seems that redemption can’t come with an overall willingness to sacrifice; rather, we must participate in a unified, universalized effort to limit our resources:
Platt calls on readers to cap their lifestyle. Live as if you made $50,000 a year, he suggests, and give everything else away. Take a year to surrender yourself. Move to Africa or some poverty-stricken part of the world. Evangelize.
These are good suggestions, but they are hardly mandatory for all Christians (with the exception of “Evangelize”). For being so heavy on criticisms toward altar-call-obsessed, suburban Christianity, Platt shows a shocking obliviousness to how difficult the Christian pursuit really is. Indeed, when the implications of Platt’s beliefs are analyzed as a whole, it seems as though he offers a similar solution to the one he claims to oppose.
In other words, if we are going to coordinate a massive exodus out of the land of material wealth for the sake of the Gospel, I think we are being more materialistic then we’d like to admit.
Alas, Christianity is not a simple, legalistic, give-all-your-money-to-the-poor gimmick that can be rolled out to consumers nationwide (much in the way it is not a simple, American-dream gimmick). As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, once we are submitted, justified, purified, and obedient, there is no telling what God will call us to do.
Let’s be clear: I agree that the church mustn’t be careless and introverted. I agree that blindly pursuing our personal ambitions will not bring salvation. Our goals must be aligned to God’s, and many in the American church are confused about this. But Platt’s solution misses the mark.
What I disagree with is the notion that God cannot (or does not want to) use the American dream or the megachurch for his glory. If each individual’s heart is in the right place, God knows how best to use them, and it doesn’t necessarily mean giving all your extra money to the poor and living on $50,000 a year. Charity is not the only way to contribute to humanity, and a mission trip to Africa is not the only way to gain a genuine devotion to God.
Overall, I respect Platt’s Biblical approach and I appreciate what he’s trying to do. Perhaps he’s just overly idealistic and is speaking from his own personal experiences. Perhaps he just doesn’t understand basic economics. When I read his book, I hope to find the answers.
In the end, it is helpful to be reminded that we mustn’t pursue material wealth to achieve salvation. It is equally helpful, however, to recognize that we mustn’t necessarily abandon one to attain the other.
Reminder: I have not yet read Platt’s book, but based on what I’ve heard about it, I am pretty confident I am honing in on his ideas accurately. If I’m getting anything wrong, I would love to hear from you.