David Platt. Counter Culture: A Compassionate Call in a World of Poverty, Same-Sex Marriage, Racism, Sex Slavery, Immigration, Abortion, Persecution, Orphans and Pornography. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2015. 288 pp. $19.99.
If a more provocative book has been written in the last 10 years, I haven’t read it. But that’s not because David Platt rejects biblical teaching, as we’ve seen with some other young pastors. And that’s not because Counter Culture advances any particular sectarian theological agenda that would repel other evangelicals. Counter Culture [interview] is the most controversial book I’ve seen in at least the last decade mostly because he restates the teaching of Jesus and his Word without any qualifications, with little attempt to cast such demanding beliefs in a way that would appeal to modern readers.
In this new book we see many of Platt’s most compelling characteristics on display even as we marvel at how he has become one of America’s most popular preachers with such a challenging message. Platt inspires Christians because he doesn’t apologize for Jesus and the Bible. We expect the new president of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention not to back off Jesus’s claims to exclusivity in salvation. As Platt so memorably writes, “If there were 1,000 ways to God, we would want 1,001” (14). He speaks against abortion as one who practices a consistent life ethic by adopting. And he condemns sexual immorality without finding all the faults in people unlike himself. He says, “I represent the class of people responsible for the vast majority of sexual immorality in the world today: male heterosexuals” (165). The book lacks the full effect of hearing Platt teach in pleading tones, but it still carries his characteristic urgency, emotion, and compassion.
Yet it is worthy of remark that a preacher so unconcerned with saying unpopular things can be so popular. Will this book alter that equation? I have never seen a writer attempt to address every single one of today’s most controversial issues, across the political and moral spectrum, in a single, relatively compact volume. He attempts this monumental feat because he rightly perceives that, especially among young evangelicals, the encouraging zeal to fight sex trafficking and global poverty has not been matched by concern to oppose abortion and social acceptance of homosexuality. Platt knows this audience, because they filled his church outside Birmingham, Alabama, and they made his first book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Multnomah, 2010), a publishing phenomenon. So how will they respond when the same accusations lodged against insular, wealthy evangelicals in their posh megachurches get turned against them? Imagine this book as the tone and spirit of Radical applied to every contested issue. As Platt writes in the introduction, “In a world where everything revolves around yourself—protect yourself, promote yourself, comfort yourself, and take care of yourself—Jesus says, ‘Crucify yourself. Put aside all self-preservation in order to live for God’s glorification, no matter what that means for you in the culture around you’” (xiv).
No Selective Outrage
You can’t help but marvel at someone willing to take a stand when so many pastors bend their beliefs or simply keep them quiet. The spirit of early evangelical firebrands like George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent permeates this book. Platt says, “It is impossible to be a follower of God while denying, disregarding, discrediting, and disbelieving the words of Christ” (17). By this he means you cannot be a Christian if you don’t believe God created the universe, wrote the Bible, offers one way of salvation through Jesus, sends unrepentant sinners to hell, and reserves marriage for one man and one woman (131). If you demur, Platt directs you to take up the concern with God and his Word.
Platt resembles another historical evangelical leader in this work. Like Francis Schaeffer, Platt writes as the conscience of the movement, not by offering his own novel views, but by reminding you what’s written in the book you profess to believe. He’s not impressed by your moral posturing if it’s not backed by personal repentance. “No matter how many red Xs we write on our hands to end slavery,” Platt says, “as long as these same hands are clicking on pornographic websites and scrolling through sexual pictures and videos, we are frauds to the core” (124).
The comparison to Schaeffer also helps to explain what differentiates Platt from the Religious Right jeremiads of previous generations. The worst Religious Right figures located problems almost exclusively outside the church in their calls for return to traditional morality. And they selectively prioritized a few issues, mostly identified with conservative politics, as black-and-white concerns for true Christians. But the most effective leaders, such as Schaeffer, recognized the church bore substantial blame for poor teaching and sinful practice. And he called for deep evangelical engagement across a whole spectrum of moral concerns. Platt likewise does not aim his harshest criticism at those outside the church but at those inside. And he cannot be accused of selective outrage in a book whose cover lists poverty, same-sex marriage, racism, sex slavery, immigration, persecution, abortion, orphans, and pornography.
But Platt also differs from Schaeffer in a key regard. Schaeffer operated in a Reformed theological framework that affirmed God’s good purposes in creation, in every person made in the image of God, in the ultimate plans of God to renew his creation with a new heaven and new earth. I don’t think Platt would disagree, but he doesn’t write with overarching theological vision or hopefulness for renewing culture. That isn’t his aim. He is a biblicist preacher, a pleading prophet whose power comes through God reminding his people of the demanding commands he’s plainly issued in his Word.
The weakness of this approach is evident when you consider the readers not already persuaded that God’s Word is true and authoritative, not already convinced that God is good in all that he does. And perhaps these readers are not Platt’s target. We still need books that rally the troops, because they’re deserting the camp in want of honest teaching. Sometimes the plain, painful truth is what we most need to hear.
“We have settled into a status quo where we’re content to sit idly by while literally billions of people die without ever hearing the gospel,” Platt writes. “Surely this is the greatest social injustice in the entire world, over and above all the other issues we have considered” (247).
This perspective may not be popular today, and guilt alone will not motivate change. But true love compels the followers of Jesus to carry out his Great Commission with courage and compassion even as we expect tribulation in this world (John 16:33).