The evidence is clear: American society continues to decline at a rapid pace. Anxiety disorders and suicide rates are rising. Loneliness has become an epidemic. Marriage rates are down. Racism seems as widespread as ever. Automation threatens to create massive unemployment. Health care is a mess. Politics is seemingly more polarized than ever. Education systems are failing. Opioid abuse wreaks havoc. Families and communities are fractured. I could go on.
A lot of Christians are taking notice and beginning to write about the breakdown of our culture, but Jake Meador’s In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (ISOCG) ranks at the top of my list in both diagnosing the problem and proposing a way forward. As far as I can tell, Meador has no formal theological training, but he’s grounded theologically and very familiar with the leading thinkers, theologians, and cultural commentators relevant to the topic of the Christian faith and the public square. Over the past several years, I’ve read many of his excellent pieces at Mere Orthodoxy where he serves as editor and chief. He also serves as Vice President of The Davenant Institute.
The Main Argument
ISOTCG argues that despite the bleak decline of our culture, Christians must have hope for renewal because of the overflowing, abundant life of God and because we, as walking proof of his abundant life, are agents in the world capable of shaping the future through ordinary piety and work in the places and tasks to which we are each called.
Meador develops this argument in four parts. Part 1 describes the cultural decline, starting with the failures of the church and then moving on to show how this has led to broader cultural decline. The church’s decline flows from its successful pursuit of the wrong goals of middle-class growth and mainstream political power, which demonstrate a neglect of patience in the small and local. The result has been the loss of a vibrant common life in America marked by fragmented communities that cannot sustain relationships, the loss of social capital, rampant loneliness, disembodied experience, the splintering of the family, and increasing general despair.
In Part 2, Meador paints a more concrete picture of our social life in America by revealing and analyzing the failure of the dominate social story that has taken hold. This picture emerges through three chapters focusing on the loss of meaning, the loss of wonder, and the loss of good work. On the loss of meaning, chapter 3 explores existentialism and how it has left us with an empty freedom filled with competition and consumption. On the loss of wonder, chapter 4 shows how disenchantment turns us into buffered individuals cut off from one another, from the surprises of life undercut by modern technology, and from beauty. On the loss of good work, chapter 5 shows how the work in which most people engage has become alienating, absent of individual creativity, removed from where and with whom we live, and fraught with numerous political and economic challenges.
With the landscape painted, part 3 moves into the hope we have in recovering a vibrant common life through normal Christian piety carried out in our work, home life, and sabbath practices. Chapter 6 argues that the sabbath is a practice that resists the temptation to strive to achieve by trusting in God’s provision. Meador suggests this practice should involve going to church both morning and evening on Sundays with communal fellowship, rest, and the enjoyment of God’s provision in between. In chapter 7, Meador urges us to recover community (or, borrowing from Wendell Berry, “the membership”) primarily by discussing the vocations of marriage and celibacy. In chapter 8, he contrasts technical, extractive work from good (sacramental) work, which produces wealth, is attentive to the membership, and is not driven by efficiency.
Continuing the theme of hope, part 4 contains two chapters on the promise of hope, the first describing how Christian societies emerge and the second pointing us to the heavenly city that is to come. Chapter 9 outlines some very helpful political theology and urges us to cultivate the virtues needed to faithfully participate in politics, namely, humility, patience, and wisdom. Unlike any of the others, the final chapter aims to correct a common misunderstanding among Evangelicals regarding the relationship of this world to the new creation with some basic Reformed theology: grace restores nature.
ISOTCG is a short book packed with deep insights accessible to most readers. It covers a range of topics in a cohesive way that, on the whole, helps readers to make connections and see the big picture.
I found Part 1 to be really helpful, particularly because Meador discusses cultural decline as secondary to or even the effect of ecclesial decline. His critique in chapter 1 of the church in America is spot on. It’s common in many evangelical circles to say the decline of the church has occurred because we haven’t prayed or tried hard enough, but Meador (rightly, I think) argues that the American church has been incredibly successful in what it has set out to do. However, what it has set out to do was all wrong. Churches should never have innovated our worship practices to draw bigger suburban crowds or sought political power through an allegiance with the Republican party. Because the church has sought power, prestige, and mainstream status, we have facilitated a cultural decline. I hope pastors, denominational leaders, planting networks, and coalition leaders pay attention to this critique.
I also found Part 2 to be helpful in deconstructing the dominant social story that pervades American life. Even though some of the ideas he introduces have already been unpacked by authors such as Charles Taylor, James K.A. Smith, Alan Noble, and others, Meador’s analysis of what we have lost with this story is really clear and insightful.
One of the best chapters comes in Part 4 when Meador talks political theology and engagement. He makes the very important point that Christians sharing the same doctrines may still have disagreements about policy. This is an insight Christians desperately need to consider, and Meador does a great job exposing how our political priorities have been backward. We must first attend to our doctrine, then to our character, and only then will we be able to discuss and debate policy. Additionally, this chapter outlines some key political doctrines that most Christians don’t know they need: solidarity, sphere sovereignty, and subsidiary. Solidarity foregrounds the public peace. Sphere sovereignty helps differentiate responsibilities among individuals, communities, and institutions. Subsidiary helps us prioritize the local community when addressing social problems that have arisen. American Christians would be better off if we were attentive to these doctrines.
I found Part 3 to be the weakest section of the book even though it was still beneficial on the whole. The chapter on the Sabbath emphasized a return to morning and evening worship, and Meador offered good arguments to do so. But while he suggested we ought to consider some sort of rule of life throughout the week, he did little to develop what that means or what it might look like.
The largest criticisms I have of ISOTCG have to do with Meador’s heavy reliance on Wendell Berry in the chapters on community and on work. I really enjoy Berry’s work and have found it challenging and fruitful, but I think he is someone who must be appropriated, not taken in whole. Meador’s proposals seem overly dependent on Berry in ways that undermine or fail to develop his guidance in these chapters. For example, the chapter on community calls for the recovery of Berry’s “membership.” There’s a good bit of solid theology here, but Meador, like Berry, does not distinguish clearly between society, the church, the family, the neighborhood, or the town. So we are left with a very broad call to membership by living connected to others followed by a very narrow focus on marriage and celibacy. The chapter did almost nothing to challenge our conception of church membership or to identify ways Christians ought to alter our understanding of and participation in the church. One could easily read the chapter, embrace his message, and do very little to renew the local church’s fragmented communal life. Given that the book started by analyzing the decline of the church, Meador would have done well to attend to how we can renew our membership in the local church.
The chapter on work suffers from a similar problem in its dependence on Berry. Again, there is some very helpful analysis about the difference between working with a focus on efficiency through technique and sacramental working, but toward the end of the chapter, Meador’s application of Berry seems to dismiss a lot of work that is very common today without much discussion and without an alternative vision for economic livelihood. Berry’s romanticized idealization of the agrarian economy can be insightful, but I have yet to see how it charts a way forward for us today.
ISOTCG is a good book that I recommend to any Christian seeking to understand where we are and where and how we need to go from here. Meador looks to be an important emerging voice in the Reformed Christian world for years to come, and this book certainly confirms his voice is needed in the conversation.