Faith and the American Dream
The American Dream has become somewhat of a muddled concept, the tricky part being that it means plenty of different things to plenty of different people.
An entrepreneur may see it as the fulfillment of a deep-seated vision: a successful invention, a profitable business, a contagious idea. A union lineman may see it simply as a comfortable retirement: a fat pension, frequent vacations, and a healthy amount of golf. For mothers, it can mean everything from being able to stay at home with the children to being an executive VP of a FORTUNE 500 company.
In its most general sense, the American Dream is about opportunity. We all have our own goals and visions, and the American Dream is about allowing for those desires to manifest.
But for author and pastor David Platt, this type of empowerment has proven destructive for the church at large. For Platt, the American Dream is a virus, slowly polluting the church’s vision into an entitlement-driven, service-forsaking glorification of the self.
In his new book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, Platt attempts to deconstruct what he sees as the dangers of American individualism, warning that American churches are warping the Gospel to make it fit their culture. “[W]e are starting to redefine Christianity,” Platt says. “We are giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with.”
The solution, as Platt sees it, is forsaking ourselves and returning to radical abandonment.
The odd part is that Platt’s definition of radical abandonment is eerily similar to my own definition of radical individualism, consisting heavily of the type of selfless self-interestedness I have argued for previously. Platt writes an entire chapter titled, “Living When Dying Is Gain,” in which he explains how our obedience to Christ will not go unrewarded. (For anyone who wants follow-up to my recent Ayn Rand blabberings, this chapter is for you.)
Likewise, in a discussion of what Platt calls “the cost of nondiscipleship” (an inverse complement to Bonhoeffer’s book), Platt once again illuminates how properly aligned self-interest is integral to partaking in radical abandonment.
As Platt explains:
This is the picture of Jesus in the gospel. He is something — someone — worth losing everything for. And if we walk away from the Jesus of the gospel, we walk away from eternal riches. The cost of nondiscipleship is profoundly greater for us than the cost of discipleship. For when we abandon the trinkets of this world and respond to the radical invitation of Jesus, we discover the infinite treasure of knowing and experiencing him.
Overall, Platt does a fine job of making the Biblical case for radical abandonment. He draws on all the right scriptures, brings all the right insight, and uses much of his pastoral experience to provide context.
Where Platt falls short, however, is on matters of application.
As indicated, although Platt seems to understand that individual sacrifice and individual obedience lead to individual empowerment, he quickly turns to scorn America for its emphasis on the individual.
For Platt, American culture promotes the antithesis to radical abandonment. It relies heavily on individual ingenuity and prosperity, and thus it is automatically low on grace and generosity (in truth, the two tend to go hand in hand). In order for the American church to reach widespread abandonment, Platt argues, it must instead strive toward extinguishing any “non-sacrificial” pursuits therein and ensure that its participants are engaging in more “acceptable” activities.
Platt’s recommended activities include a number of mandatory ones (evangelism, prayer, fasting, becoming involved in the local church, etc.), but they also include plenty of discretionary ones (mission trips, charity, lifestyle adjustments, etc.). The problem is that Platt makes no such distinction. He sees the latter as parallel to the former, and this type of confusion is not isolated.
In truth, they are fine recommendations. But Platt’s scope of Christian service is extremely limited. He makes no mention of the ways that Christians have impacted the world by engaging in philosophy and politics. He makes no mention of the ways in which Christians have alleviated poverty and spread the Gospel by participating in trade and production. Instead, there is a subtle dismissal of these types of activities. For Platt, anything that might involve individual advancement or recognition is not good for the church.
Perhaps I am so quick to parse Platt’s criticism because American culture has been an incredible asset to pursuing radical abandonment in my own life. The freedom of choice we have in America has simply amplified the choice to either follow Christ or forsake him. In addition, America’s vast opportunities for individual advancement have provoked important questions about which direction God wants me to pursue. Such questions have been crucial to my personal relationship with Christ, and have been far more important in my alignment toward the Lost than the mission trips I’ve participated in.
Without the American Dream, I would most likely be slaving away for some feudal lord in the cold of winter, trying my best to stay alive. I would be illiterate, would not own a Bible, and would barely be able to feed my family, let alone donate to Compassion International. Make no mistake; this situation would resonate with many in today’s world. But it is individual empowerment, not blind altruism, that will set them on the path to helping others.
Having the freedom to pursue one’s own goals and dreams can certainly be a bad thing, particularly when such dreams are merely one’s own goals. But God has intended for our hearts to be aligned to his mission. When that is the case, the society that promotes individualism becomes one that has great potential for enabling God’s plans through individuals.
Remember, Christ’s example of sacrifice is ultimately about sacrifice to God (Platt would surely not disagree with this). Is God so simplistic and legalistic that all he requires of us is the disposal of our wealth, a curbed income, and a modestly sized house? Is the church’s mission so narrow that the Gospel is most amplified through a program of mission trips and donation buckets?
All of these things that Platt calls on us to reject — our salaries, our homes, our comforts, our businesses — are not things Jesus would necessarily have us reject. The real challenge — the real radical abandonment — involves figuring out how and what Christ wants us to do with those resources.
In short, it may be challenging and rewarding to give to others, but it may prove even more challenging and valuable to produce something that God has called us to produce. We should not designate God’s business to one or the other.
In the end, Platt’s high-level criticism is warranted, and he offers many valuable reminders to a church that is indeed prone to carve out idols that look like ourselves (has it ever been different?). Our view of the self is under constant attack and we must remember what true self-interest looks like.
But in application we cannot be so hasty as to ridicule and abandon the very tools that God has given us. By doing so, we will risk a church whose voice is marginalized and unproductive, and whose heart is confused and masochistic.