When I was in college, Anabaptist theology shone like a beacon of light in a time of confusion. George W. Bush was president. My friends and I were sick of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, which was justified as preserving the freedom of a Christian nation. So we turned to Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw (Jesus for President!), Rob Bell and Brian McClaren, and commenced our radical resistance between classes. Behind these popular sources were more substantial ones: Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, the Old Testament hermeneutics of Walter Brueggemann. And, of course, we stumbled upon Wendell Berry, whose arguments against the intrusion of politics in the church and the industrialization and weaponization of American economic life were as unpopular then as they are now in the Trump era.
I remain grateful for that time in my life, though now I see how our “resistance” often capitulated to the doctrine of liberalism. It seemed natural to both decry American corporate power and stand for a laissez-faire approach to gay marriage and abortion, despite how the latter went against my upbringing. We believed Barack Obama was a savior when he was a candidate, and for a moment it appeared he was just that as president. But this was simply another kind of idolatry, albeit of the liberal sort. In insisting on a sharp political separation of church and state, we mistakenly thought the church had no public life and no intrinsic social ethics. Tolerance and freedom were our ideals. Catholicism was what they did over there in Europe, mainly during the Middle Ages, and “Reformed” was another word for “exclusionary Calvinist” or, worse, “capitalist.”
Meanwhile, in chapel we heard lessons on “worldview.” One professor even did a series titled “Thinking Christianly.” We made snide remarks about it. Even so, many of us internalized the curriculum my college put together based on a skeleton outline of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, but this source was stripped of any theological context in favor of a “Bible-only” approach to worldview, proposing we think about non-Christians through the lens of a book many of them simply ignored. To be sure, for any Christian, Scripture should be the life text, the source of the revelation of the Word, but without the supporting context of theology and the embodied practices of the church, even Scripture can become a warped, stultifying lens.
We needed Jake Meador’s In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World, a remarkably successful attempt to bring together the core teachings of Christianity and the community-centered practices of an economic life less dependent on global capitalism. His argument is fairly simple: amidst all the loneliness, despair, and gross inequality in America today, the ordinary piety of Christians can provide hope and real significance to a confused world. Meador explains that the American evangelical church was never designed to pursue ordinary piety. As it developed in the post-World War II era, the evangelical church sought “power and prestige and status” and suburban comfort rather than the practices of holy living (20). Many of Meador’s criticisms and lines of argument will be familiar to Front Porch Republic readers, but he uniquely grounds Berry-esque arguments for community and ecological health in the life of the church.
In this way, Meador cuts across various political and Christian arguments for restoring the common good. For him, there is only One who is good, and this Father delights in sharing his goodness through the sacramental gifts of the church in the world. Many evangelical writers of the last decade have been urging the faithful to “seek the good of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7), but they tend to skip over the prophet’s agrarian message and the implicit resistance to the economic workings of the Babylonian empire: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (NIV, 29:5). One might also refer to terribly distorted readings of Jeremiah 29:11 (“I know the plans I have for you, . . . plans to prosper and not to harm you”) as the “health and wealth” wing of evangelical culture. This reading of Jeremiah 29 has little do with a “common good.” It succumbs to the demands of American individualism, trumpeting the freedom to choose a fulfilling career that allows us to “prosper,” meaning we can purchase the latest things and consume them with all manner of haste.
In contrast, Meador argues for a Christian culture in which the faithful desire “a simple life of work and prayer in a particular place among a beloved people” (22). They delight in the created gifts of God and the ordinary means of grace in the church, the preached Word of God, and the blessed sacrament. For readers familiar with the arguments for good work, community, and the practice of Sabbath, Meador adds to the conversation a rich archive of Reformed theology, in particular excerpts from John Calvin’s Bible commentaries. According to philosopher Charles Taylor, one of the themes that arose during the Reformation was “the affirmation of ordinary life.” Meador draws from this theme to make his case for ordinary piety. Even among Anabaptists who argue for a strong separation from the state, there is an emphasis on a life shared in common that runs “with the grain of the universe,” the phrase Hauerwas draws from Yoder for the title of his published Gifford lectures. Meador believes that these Protestant sources, coupled with the social ethics of the Catholic church, can help American evangelicals reorient the church: rather than just being an institution for individual fulfillment, the church ought to act as Christ’s body and minister to the wounds in American society at large, including those inflicted by economic inequality and racial injustice.
The Trump era is, of course, a fitting time in which to be making this argument, but Meador traces the problem back further to the beginnings of the “modernist” story that “destroys the very things that make freedom possible” (63). While writers such as Patrick Deneen have told this story in more detail, Meador’s own historical sketch serves to emphasize how we got to “lifeboat” ethics, where no one is to be trusted and community is expendable. His alternative vision for the public square stresses the principles of “solidarity,” “sphere sovereignty,” and “subsidiarity,” all of which will probably be familiar to readers of First Things. Meador unpacks these principles just enough to contend that evangelicals tend to prioritize “doctrine” over “policy” when we engage in the public square. Meador’s principles would steer the American church toward more faithful public witness. When he does touch on particular political debates, he avoids fitting neatly into either camp. Both left and right, Meador convincingly explains, prioritize exigencies over respect for our life in common. The resources of the church should lead us to distinguish more thoughtfully between policy and doctrine.
Most importantly, Meador is interested in the teachings and practices that help us journey toward the Eternal City. For example, he suggests we practice Sabbath: on Sunday we can rest from exploitive economies we don’t admire but in which we are inevitably complicit. Preparing for the week ahead, we seek to return to the rhythms of a world sustained by divine love rather than human effort. For Meador, Sabbath also means attending public worship and perhaps going back to the two-service model in which the evening service would function as a time for theological rigor and catechesis. Churches tend to use the morning sermon to invigorate rather than instruct in the faith. The evening service could help Christians recover traditions of theology that would give them the confidence to understand and practice their religion in the world. In this and other instances, Meador strikes a balance between countercultural practices and recovering the traditional patterns of church life.
Meador concludes with a useful reading of 2 Peter 3:10, the passage Christians often cite when they say, “Why should I care about the created world? Isn’t it all going to burn in the end?” In context, Peter is referring to a refining, not a total destruction. Rather than God creating another earth from scratch, this earth will acquire new characteristics, a reading that harmonizes with the image in Revelation 21 of the New Jerusalem “coming down” to earth. The refining fire should provoke humility in Christians, not profligacy. As T.S. Eliot put it, there is only the choice of “pyre or pyre— / To be redeemed from fire by fire.” And Love is the name of this fire for which Christians await, a renewing that will satisfy our longings for truth and beauty and wholeness in this world.
If my Christian college friends and I had encountered In Search of the Common Good, we might have more clearly seen how our desire for a sustainable economy and virtuous politics coheres with the ordinary sacramentalism of church life. Some of us felt we had to leave the church to find the truth we were seeking: the churches around us seemed to imitate consumer culture in trying to entertain their members, or else they aimed at a biblical fundamentalism unmoored from Christian tradition and the embodied rituals of the faith. Conservative and liberal congregations participated in exploitive economies; still, we shouldn’t have abandoned the traditional patterns.
In the end, Meador makes me wonder: will American evangelical culture ever relinquish its drive to be savvy and “relevant” and instead embrace the gifts and precious resources of the historic church? Meador thinks it can. If the experts are right about climate change, it may have to in the near future. Conversely, those working for ecological health and the restoration of community life may come to realize they need a theological basis for their labors. They may discover their agrarian and localist arguments are unsustainable without the Word imparted to the church. The church should be ready to embrace them, and refine us all as we mature in our vision of the world, created and loved by God and his incarnate Son. If this vision of things is correct, the body of Christ holds out the surest way of recovering the common good in America.