Over-sized mansions, super-sized French fries, and sport utility vehicles. These are the marks of contemporary America, and we're proud of them. After all, these are the tangible products of the "American dream," a concept that promotes ingenuity and hard work as the means to financial abundance. We are a people who believe in certain unalienable rights--life, liberty, and the pursuit of opulence. Wouldn't questioning the validity of such things be, well, un-American?
Actually, a new generation of American faithful is questioning whether such things are inconsistent with the Christian Gospel. The way of Jesus, they say, is focused on others rather than self, on generosity not wealth. While the American dream exalts personal promotion, the Christian Gospel emphasizes downward mobility. We become the greatest when we become the least.
Proponents of this paradigm highlight Jesus' teaching that it is nearly impossible for the rich to enter God's kingdom (Mark 10:25), and that a poor person is in a better position to receive the Gospel (Luke 6:24-25). Jesus did, after all, make clear that God and money are at odds, and we much choose which we'll serve (Matthew 6:24). Such may be a shocking revelation for some American Christians trying to clinch both.
A prominent voice leading this charge is David Platt, a Southern Baptist minister who became "the youngest megachurch pastor in America" at age 26. His new job bred in him uneasiness in light of what he sees as the New Testament message, and inspired his New York Times bestselling book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.
Jesus, he says, was a "mini-church pastor" who made following him difficult. He turned people away with exhortations to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:53) and hate your family (Luke 14:26). Christ was laser-focused on the poor and oppressed, and often had harsh words for the wealthy. Christians who think like Platt emphasize Jesus' exhortation to the rich, young ruler to give up his wealth and follow him (Matthew 19:16-22). As they see it, Jesus doesn't just upset the rich, young ruler; it upset rich Americans.
But this radical Jesus isn't the Lord preached in many pulpits today, is it? Our Americanized Jesus seems to be okay with massive building budgets, suburban estates, and personal wealth, even in the face of global poverty, suffering, disease and hunger. The average church today spends more money on personnel and utilities than missions or benevolence. Our silence on this discrepancy indicates that we believe the Son of Man is cool with the set-up.
"When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshiping the Jesus of the Bible," Platt writes. "Instead, we may be worshiping ourselves."
Platt's arguments aren't new. Ron Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity released decades ago and is now in its fifth edition. The new monastic movement, led by figures like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, has also gained momentum in recent years. What's significant about Platt's perspective is that it is coming from a solidly conservative voice in the evangelical mainstream and has released in the midst of a financial crisis that's spurring a recalibration of economic norms.
"Platt's arguments are old, but they emerge at a postexcess moment, when attitudes toward material life are up for grabs. His book has struck a chord. His renunciation tome is selling like hotcakes. Reviews are warm," writes David Brooks of The New York Times. "Leaders at places like the Southern Baptist Convention are calling on citizens to surrender the American dream."
But that leaves cultural observers with a significant question: Will this "radical" Christianity have any real effect on the American Church?
It seems doubtful to me. Despite the squeeze placed on many church budgets and personal incomes by the recession, I don't see hordes of believers selling their possessions, moving to the developing world, or throwing off aspirations of affluence. I haven't. And I can't name a single megachurch pastor anywhere who has sold his or her church property and given the money to the poor. The distinctly American Gospel that tolerates luxury in the face of suffering doesn't seem to be fading at any measurable rate, despite the efforts of the Platts, Siders, and Claibornes.
David Brooks agrees: "I doubt that we're about to see a surge of iPod shakers. Americans will not renounce the moral materialism at the core of their national identity."
The strength of wealth's allure is now painfully apparent, but it is also disheartening. I often wonder what judgment Christians in 50 or 500 years will lay upon us when they survey our lifestyles through the prism of the New Testament. Will they look on us with bewilderment and disdain or will they sympathize with the dream we call "American?"
Only time will tell, but I for one hope that in time these revolutionary perspectives on faith will penetrate the ranks of the Christian elite as we consider together what it means to follow Jesus. Perhaps laying our homes, bank accounts, and SUVs at the feet of Christ for his glory and the sake of others is less radical and more reasonable than we realize.
Have you read any of the works mentioned above, and if so, did you find them convincing? Do you see a move toward this "radical" type of Christianity in your life and faith community?
Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer and author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet. This piece first appeared on QIdeas.org.