Book Review: In Search of the Common Good by Jake Meador

A review of Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (IVP, 2019).

If the culture is disorienting and frustrating; if life seems trivial and you long for something more significant; if you follow Jesus but wonder how he makes a difference in work, technology, relationships and politics—then you should read Jake Meador’s, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World.

If you find our culture disorienting and frustrating; if life seems trivial and you long for it to be more significant; if you follow Jesus but wonder how that makes a difference—read In Search of the Common Good

In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World
Jack Meador
IVP.

If you liked The Benedict Option, but wanted something more (and more thought out) you will want to read In Search of the Common Good. I considered calling this review “Benedict 2.0”, but that would not be fair. As I read it, I wondered if it was meant to be an alternative to Dreher’s Benedict Option. I was intrigued that Rod Dreher is mentioned in the acknowledgements, and then discovered the Meador and Dreher have had extensive interaction. There are similarities, but Meador is doing far more than repeating or reacting to Dreher.

In Search of the Common Good is a broad and thoughtful discussion which deserves to be read and pondered (not just summarised in a review). So, I‘ll give a very high level overview and then point out some of the highlights.

Overview

Meador starts with the observation that “America is in decline” (p9), culturally, politically and spiritually and the evangelical church is more part of the problem than a solution. He, like lots of believers from his generation, wonders what has gone wrong and how we can live better. (You might wonder, at this point, who the ‘we’ is—and that is part of his case: “we” has to be both the wider culture and Christians; including evangelical Christians).

The book is in four parts. The first documents the decline. Part two offers an analysis of the cultural sources of that decline:

  • there is a loss of meaning because modernist thought and culture inevitably lead to existentialism in which we have to devise our own meaning;
  • we’ve lost wonder because our culture has been disenchanted (here Meador draws largely on the work of Charles Taylor);
  • work has lost meaning because it has been removed for community and dominated by technique.

The third part offers three practices which can help to restore lost community: (i) Sabbath, (ii) ‘membership’ (which is more grounded than voluntary and disposable ‘community’), and (iii) the recovery of meaningful work oriented to serving others.

The final section offers some of Meador’s background thinking on political theology and Christian eschatology.

Appreciation

There is a great deal to like about this book.

Meador’s writing is a delight. His presentation of the loss of meaning and the disenchantment in our culture is poignant. If you are born before the 1980’s then the first part of the book will help you appreciate the way millennials and gen-Z experience the failure of our culture. He crafts his story well with anecdotes that movingly crystalise his insights.

The discussion is grounded in thoughtful interaction with good Christian thinking. It is not a heavy work, but there are references to—and obvious interaction with—Oliver O’Donovan, Charles Taylor, J.K.A Smith, Calvin, Augustine, John Paul II, Stanley Hauerwas, and Jaques Ellul (to name a few). The references to classical and contemporary literature and popular culture enrich the discussion.

Meador’s assessment of the malaise of late modern capitalist culture is accessible but not simplistic. He is reflective and sympathetic in his view of the culture. The sense of panic found in some Christian assessments of culture is blessedly absent.

In Search of the Common Good subverts the left-right polarity of much modern political discussion. There is more than enough to annoy both sides of politics, which is a good sign. But the subversion has a deep foundation, it is not just rhetoric.

The basis for the subversion is the recognition that politics is first about how we live together, not primarily about policy or voting. “What evangelicals most need to do in the political arena today is not elect certain candidates or support certain legislative causes. There is a place for that, to be sure. But the most important thing we can do is be properly Christian in the totality of our lives, starting with the way we shape our homes and carrying that out into our individual vocations, whatever those may be”. (p106)

Meador offers a helpful introduction to Christian political theology. He makes the important distinction between political doctrines and public policy and calls for Christians to think more about the former than the latter. Often Christians fight over policies, reflecting our party alignment, but don’t get down to the more basic discussion of political doctrine. He offers a nice introduction to three key ideas in political theology—solidarity, sphere sovereignty, subsidiarity (pp162-67).

For my money, the book strikes a balance between a concern for the common good and authentic Christian community. Meador does not claim that the church living as the church will transform the society, but he does view the church as engaged with society.

For my money, the book strikes a balance between a concern for the common good and authentic Christian community. Meador does not claim that the church living as the church will transform the society, but he does view the church as engaged with society.

Meador starts his consideration of a better way of life in worship. He argues that we need to be re-oriented to time, and to each other, by worshipping God together: cultural renewal begins with keeping a Sabbath which is centred on public worship. There’s a provocative idea! I suspect and hope that we might be due for a recovery of the Sabbath.

The final chapter is a discussion of new creation eschatology, an important theological basis for the whole approach.

Reservations

Do I have any reservations? A few, but nothing major.

This is obviously an American book. The premise is that America is failing. Australian readers are used to translating this kind of discussion into our context, and most of it is relevant—though the particulars are different. Maybe Australia does not feel quite as ‘failed’ for most of us, and that might be partly because we have not had the same exceptionalist nationalism. The underlying issues are, however, much the same.

I wonder if the book suffers from some romantic nostalgia for a bygone era. I accept there are changes in culture, and genuine losses through history (though also gains). It is worth pondering what is lost. Yet, every human culture has the same root problem—our alienation from God—and needs the same solution in Christ and his gospel. Returning to an older way of life is not a sufficient answer. (I don’t think that is all Meador proposes, but he leans that way at a few points).

Like any book seeking to set a social agenda, In Search of the Common Good risks being idealistic. Meador’s desiderata for life, church and work are appealing; but I wonder about how they see people as locked into patterns of life through circumstances beyond their control.  The book can stimulate our imagination, but some readers might feel dispirited by unachievable proposals.

Finally, though I hesitate to raise this, I wonder if the gospel and gospel mission could be more central and explicit in the book. It is certainly not absent. Meador frequently mentions the gospel and his approach reflects the gospel pattern of creation—sin—redemption—restoration (though I don’t think he says it that way). The practices of worship, membership and work are grounded in redemption in Christ implicitly. This could be spelled-out more fully. What I mean, in brief, is that:

To make these things explicit would show the proposals are grounded in the redemption of the world by God in Christ and are not just practical recommendations for church and society. This, in turn, would help readers see that Meador’s political theology is also missional (which I am convinced it is).

For a while, I have been thinking that evangelicals need to develop thoughtful accounts of the common good, so I am very glad this book has been published. In Search of the Common Good is recommended reading. It offers something like The Benedict Option, but evangelical, theological, millennial, ecclesial and missional.


A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

First published at theologyinteralia.net

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