Book Review–Radical: Taking your Faith Back from the American Dream

Note: This is the first in a series of book reviews we’ll be posting over the next two weeks.

Imagine a Christian book that forcefully made the following points. How do you think it would sell?

  • The Gospel is diametrically opposed to some aspects of the American Dream we cherish most.
  • Consumerism is a blind spot for contemporary Christians just like slavery was for Southern white Christians in the early 19th century.
  • Genuine discipleship means not just tithing, but carefully choosing a modest lifestyle and giving away the rest, regardless of income.
  • Followers of Jesus are called to give not just “what can we spare” but “what will it take” to evangelize the world and end the most egregious forms of poverty.

Actually, there is such a book, and it is currently the bestselling Christian book in America.  It has been on the NYT Bestseller List for 31 weeks and has been through 22 printings in nine months.

I happened on David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream in the airport recently.  Normally I religiously avoid Christian bestsellers, but in this case I read all of chapter 6 (“How Much is Enough:  American Wealth in a World of Poverty”) while I stood in the airport bookstore. I almost missed my plane.  By the time I was done, I was actually weeping (a little) in public—an absolutely unprecedented, and rather embarrassing display of emotion for me.

Why was I so moved by this book?  I think because it gave me hope. You see, living simply and giving generously used to be standard issue Christian ethics.  But over the last 200 years, the massive tidal wave of consumerism, upward mobility and the American Dream has totally overwhelmed the church, leaving only a tiny remnant to protest.  There have been occasional attempts to push back the tide, but since the Reagan Revolution the vast majority of evangelicals have been very loud about abortion and homosexuality and very silent about wealth and poverty.

But all of a sudden Platt, a stereotypically slick, charismatic megachurch pastor is saying things like this:

What is the difference between someone who willfully indulges in sexual pleasures while ignoring the Bible on moral purity and someone who willfully indulges in the selfish pursuit of more and more material possessions while ignoring the Bible on caring for the poor? The difference is that one involves a social taboo in the church and the other involves the social norm in the church. . . .

Are you and I looking to Jesus for advice that seems fiscally responsible according to the standards of the world around us? Or are we looking to Jesus for total leadership in our lives, even if that means going against everything our affluent culture and maybe even our affluent religious neighbors might tell us to do?

These are hard things to hear, but Platt offers them without legalistic self-righteousness and with an empowering tone of grace.  If you’re looking for a 20-page introduction to genuine economic discipleship, I’d recommend turning straight to chapter six of Radical. It’s the best bestseller I’ve read in a long time.

What do you think?  Is Radical‘s success a sign that things are changing for evangelicals?


4 thoughts on “Book Review–Radical: Taking your Faith Back from the American Dream

  1. > Is Radical‘s success a sign that things are changing for evangelicals?

    I don’t have a strong background in evangelical churches, but my general experience is that they believe in economic discipleship as a high calling, similar to being a missionary. That is, they don’t have anything against it, but they don’t believe it’s feasible for the everyday churchgoer.

    Once I went to a retreat (evangelical-style) and heard Jeanette Yep speak. I remember her very clearly throwing out a challenge for us young adults (evangelical term for post-college but unmarried): live on 50k a year and give the rest away. Google tells me that she’s now on staff at Grace Chapel, a big — if not mega — evangelical church in Boston.

    From the missions angle, I wonder if Urbana would be a good place to tie in economic discipleship. Because both require a radical change in lifestyle from the standard American dream.

    • As a follow-up question, Ed, I think it’s interesting that the challenge was to give away anything over $50K when many Americans don’t even make that, even college graduates. Do you know how she got to that number, or was she speaking to a very targeted demographic with high moneymaking potential when you saw her speak?

      I fully acknowledge, though, that I may be coming from one extreme, given that we have friends at CCFC who have lived on $11K a year and I’m a second-year AmeriCorps fellow. 🙂

      • She was speaking at a CBCGB retreat. Although the young adults in that church are more skewed toward the upper-middle class incomes of engineering, medicine, law, and business, I don’t think she meant to imply that everyone fell in that category. Instead she was just saying that if you did (or did in the future), why not make such a commitment?

        $11k is a pretty incredible low amount to live on in the US. I think that’s below the poverty line!

        Finances and budgets are complex, especially once you factor in children. Is it better for a mom to earn a second income of $100k (if she has the opportunity) and pay $40k for childcare, but have more money leftover for expenses and giving? Does the $50k cap apply regardless of whether you live in an area with $1k rents or $3k rents?

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