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Book review: In Search of the Common Good

Jake Meador’s new book encourages us to reflect as we partner with God to right the world’s wrongs

In Jake Meador’s short and readable book, he considers the twin declines of the church in the US and common life in society and how, as the dwindling of both are interconnected, the rebuilding will be also.

This book is broad in its sweep and ambitious in its vision. It is better at analysing the challenges Christians face than telling them what to do to put things right. But, and I think if I’ve read Meador correctly, he isn’t trying to issue a manifesto for achieving the common good; he is, rather, helping Christians as they seek it out. 

If you can get through the first couple of chapters without becoming thoroughly depressed, you have done well. Meador is unflinching in his critique of much of evangelicalism’s engagement in public life; in a stark early passage he says: Where God calls His people to service, the American church has far too often pursued power. When we ought to have embraced the humble place of penitence, we have instead chased after thrones powered by an inexhaustible confidence in our righteousness.”

There’s a management quote of uncertain origin that goes something along these lines: A system is perfectly designed for the results it gets.” And although Meador doesn’t use this phrase, it’s at the heart of his critique of modern evangelicalism: Thus, the idea that the mass endorsement of President Trump or the ascent of heterodox celebrity pastors whose own moral lives are often disasters would represent failures in American evangelicalism is simply disconnected from the reality of the movement.” (emphasis in original)

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Ouch.

As someone who is passionate about encouraging the engagement of evangelicals in public life, the Atlantic divide doesn’t lessen the challenge I felt reading this book. The depth of the problem is surveyed at local community, the family and work. 

“Thus, it is not simply Christian community that is in danger but the very notion of community. This crisis is not one of an ascendant secularism prepared to batter Christianity in oblivion. It is rather one of a comprehensive social breakdown that leaves no corner of life untouched, no person immune to its effect. What we are seeing is a comprehensive crisis of public life.”

This is interesting because Christians frequently see the challenge to their faith as one of external threats imposing on their ability to practise their faith and live out their beliefs. Without wanting to put words under Meador’s pen, I think he sees this as a cop-out’ analysis. The problem is broader than that, and Christians – perhaps particularly evangelicals – in trying to tackle the problem in that framework opt into the very system that they want to critique. That said, one weakness of his book is perhaps the long-term effect of the desacralisation of society is not sufficiently held to account for its role in undermining the fabric of our common life.

When Meador looks at the nature of work in society, he is excoriating in examining how work has changed from good labour to efficiency and economies: In our economy today the only good we wish to pursue is cheaper goods, which we obtain through the mistreatment or outright elimination of workers.”

It is comparatively easy to notice the problems in our society and Meador sets them out well. It is also fashionable to lay the blame on powerful elites and the unwinding consequences of our late capitalist society’s economic system. What marks this book out is the willingness to be self-critical of the evangelical community’s participation in this decline of society, and then call attention to how we can get out of the malaise. 

In three important chapters Meador looks at sabbath, membership and work (each are worth noting in brief). Sabbath and work are relatively self-explanatory, and the call to rediscover rest and rhythms is straightforward but challenging. Meador’s approach to work could be dismissed as utopian, in the value of time-consuming work that makes meaning of the world around us. 

However, the way contemporary work is built around technique, technology and efficiency is a wake-up call to our participation in a system that often makes it harder for us to value the dignity of all people. He sums this up by commenting: The issue is that technical work’s normal trajectory is to draw more and more of human life into its grip. Efficiency-obsessed capitalists are not good at recognising where added efficiencies are useful and where they are actually alienating to worker, customer or both.” 

Membership is an odd term, and Meador takes it from American novelist and cultural critic Wendall Berry. But it is a way of talking about community in a stronger and more substantive way. When we recover the membership, we recover the idea that we do not exist in the world as lonely alienated individuals, but as embodied creatures made by the same God who made the rivers and the animals and the mountains and the oceans.”

Too often books drift into undistinguished conclusions. This book does not fail in this way. It is not prescriptive in what you or I should do next, but it is both inspirational and helpful in its call. In the penultimate chapter, Meador calls for policy priorities to be subservient to doctrine and civil virtue. It’s worth quoting the concluding lines of that chapter in full:

“The most basic and proper work of Christian citizenship is to cultivate the virtues of humility and wisdom in order to make oneself a gifted public servant in whatever venue God has called one to. By understanding the basic Christian political doctrines as well as the civil virtues, we can equip ourselves to repair the fracturing body politic of America and to offer a positive vision of mutual flourishing and hope in our decadent society.”

Throughout there is a call to hidden fidelity’, not a privatisation of faith, but a sustaining fuel: a church that loses hidden faith will not be able to sustain public faith.” This is vital but also leaves the question hanging as to what public faith should look like, and to what end should it be focused. 

In the final chapter Meador sits in good company, alongside John Stackhouse and relatively few others, in nailing this particular jellyfish to the wall. We want to see more of God’s kingdom in our world today. We want institutions that honour righteousness and systems that promote the flourishing of all people. But what should we expect to achieve in a world mired by sin and hampered by human corruption? 

The point here,” Meador says, is not that there is a rarefied class of creative people who create beautiful things that God loves, and those things exist forever. The point is that when we behold the One for whom we were made, God Himself, we bring with us the things we have made and the things we have done and throw them all at His feet for His glory. So, we bring things that are recognizably ours into the city and then we give them all back to Christ.”

In Search of the Common Good is essential reading for anyone seeking a renewal of society and wanting to see God’s kingdom come in our world today. It’s going to the top of my recommended reading for all aspiring public leaders. 

In Search of the Common Good is published in the UK on 25 August.

About the author

Danny joined the Evangelical Alliance in 2008 and has held a range of roles in the advocacy team. He currently looks after media relations and oversees advocacy programmes and projects including public leadership. Before working for the Evangelical Alliance, Danny, who has degrees in politics and political philosophy, worked in parliament for an MP. Danny is passionate about encouraging Christians to integrate their faith with all areas of their life, especially when it comes to helping them take on leadership outside the church. He frequently provides comment on current political issues, both in Evangelical Alliance publications and to the press.

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