In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World. Jake Meador. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.
Summary: Observing the breakdown in community in both church and society, the author traces the root causes, and the practices of Christian community that can lead to recovery of community and a church that seeks the common good in society.
Many attentive culture watchers have noted the parallel declines of both church and wider American culture. Attendance is dropping in many churches even as churches are rocked with scandals of sexual abuse and financial mismanagement. The seduction of the church to corrupt political alliances, whether of the left or the right, in the author’s view, is only the final step in a church that has given itself to power instead of the doing of “small things with great love.” While all this goes on, America is “bowling alone” to even a greater extend than when Robert Putnam first published his study of the decline of social capital and community in America. Suicide rates are up, life expectancy is dropping, and the professionalized care industry is booming, even as local community and a sense of cohesion and pursuit of common good is vanishing in a land of toxic discourse.
Jake Meador chronicles these parallel declines and traces them to three factors. One is a loss of meaning, a pervasive existentialism that pretends to meaning in choices of radical freedom, yet without hope. A second is a loss of wonder, a dis-enchantment with the world as the buffered self cuts us off from both danger and wonder, resulting pervasive boredom. A third is the hollowing out of work, where efficiency and profitability is the sum total of work’s meaning, where we are alienated both from our work, and by our work from home, family, and religious life, as work becomes all-consuming.
Meador proposes three practices that may play a crucial role in restoring Christian communities to health, enabling them to exercise a societal presence that fosters a wider common good. He begins with the surprising proposal of keeping sabbath, as a tangible way of underscoring that human beings were made, not for work, but for God, that we are human beings, not human doings. One of the things Meador argues for is corporate worship, as one tangible way of keeping sabbath that begins to restore a sense of our being part of some “common good.” He adopts Wendell Berry’s idea of “membership” in which we recognize that we are embedded in both a human and wider biological community. He advocates for work that is sacramental–that work is good and offers ways to bless others, that produces wealth, and is attentive to the membership.
His final section consists of two parts. The latter grounds the former, and really all that he has written, in the new heaven and new earth, a hope that is even more real than life in the present age. The former talks about what it means for the community of God’s people to be citizens in earthly societies. It is here perhaps that he makes one of his most trenchant observations:
Put another way, the political priorities of many American Christians in recent years have been precisely backward. We ought to have begun with doctrine because doctrine defines the good life as it relates to political systems and societies. Then we ought to have turned to the formation of citizens. We should have asked what kind of virtues are necessary to live well in community with one another and what particular virtues are necessary for responsible political action. Then we should have asked how to cultivate those virtues within our people. Finally, only after attending to these issues, we should have moved on to debating policy….American Christians, and evangelicals especially, have done the exact opposite. (p. 161).
He argues for a political doctrine shaped by the Kuyperian ideas of solidarity and sphere sovereignty, and the practice of subsidiarity–that government should only do those things it is large enough to do, leaving other matters to other spheres of life.
Reading Jake Meador as a sixty-something took me back to what it was like to read as a college student a young Os Guinness in The Dust of Death, with his sweeping discussion of culture, and what it meant for Christians to live as a third way. There is the same scope of considering cultural forces, the intellectual ideas behind them, and a fresh vision of what Christian faithfulness might look like in the present time. Sadly, a boomer generation fascinated with “fast-everything” circumvented doctrine and virtue and communal practices in pursuit of policy influence, power, or a personal prosperity without a sense of our membership and solidarity with others and all living things.
This leaves me reflecting. Os Guinness is still speaking and writing. Jake Meador has written for a number of publications. But who is reading? And who is heeding? I hope someone is and that the American church wakes up to how far it has declined over forty years, before all we can do is cry “Ichabod. The glory has departed!” (1 Samuel 4:21). Meador’s ideas and commended practices offer light for those tired of groping in the darkness.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.