Fathom Mag

Helplessness Blues

A review of In Search of the Common Good by Jake Meador

Published on:
July 22, 2019
Read time:
6 min.
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If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak
Yeah I’m tongue-tied and dizzy and I can’t keep it to myself
What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?
Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”

“Oh man, I haven’t talked to Mike in ages.” 

“Yeah, he’s good. Got a kid now.”

“And Alex?”

My sister and I have this familiar litany once or twice a year. I list people from our hometown and she tells me how they’re doing. Save for a brief season, since 2012 I’ve lived out of state or out of country. The deep roots I have in the rural Illinois village I once called home have dried up to what family still lives there. My concern for the daily going ons of the community are a pleasant memory.

My experience is not unfamiliar. In our hyperconnected world, rich local connections with our neighbors seem rare and precious. Borrowing a cup of sugar from Jess next door, or Bill, a deacon from church, stopping by with a casserole after the birth of a child, or a forty-hour work week providing sustainable income—all such things are adorable, quaint antiques. These kitschy Norman Rockwell losses are symptomatic of much greater losses. Deaths from suicides, alcohol and drug overdoses reach all-time high—deaths of despair—are at an all-time high according to yet another report from June. We live in an age of despair. 

In his new book In Search of the Common Good, Jake Meador casts a vision for the church to be a balm for this broken and desperate world. With clear eyes, he sees and points out how the church has grown anemic theologically and morally alongside villages, towns, and cities that have been atomized. But Meador doesn’t join a chorus of culture warriors damning an amorphous and ill-defined secular culture whilst loosening their grip on Christ to grab at political power. In Search of the Common Good is immensely hopeful. Meador’s goal isn’t to scorch the secular earth for political gain but to ask “how [can] we build flourishing communities shaped by the truths taught in the Christian faith.” 

In Search of the Common Good is not just a thorough examination of our age of despair and challenge to greater fidelity in the church, it is also a well written and enjoyable read. Though Meador draws on the works of great philosophers and theologians the book is never so dense the vision of flourishing communities shaped by Christian witness is lost. His writing is chock full of lovingly descriptive personal anecdotes and pop-culture references. 

Faithfulness in the Ordinariness of Life

I have noticed a trend in recent Christian publications away from the radical, do-big-things-for-God solutions towards a simple faithfulness in the ordinariness of life. Jake Meador’s In Search of the Common Good sits comfortably on my shelf next to Hannah Anderson’s All That’s Good, Alan Nobel’s Disruptive Witness, and Ashley Hale’s Finding Holy in the Suburbs. This shift away from dramatic faithfulness to ordinary faithfulness seems to be a sigh of relief as we face the collapsing of religious and communal life in America. But, as Meader proves, the call to ordinary faithfulness is just as substantial and counter-cultural as the call to be a world changer.

The call to ordinary faithfulness is just as substantial and counter-cultural as the call to be a world changer.

Jake Meador begins his book with a brief overview of the state of things in the American evangelical church and the state of American community. And, dear reader, things aren’t looking so hot. Worse yet, things have not always been as sunny as we remember. Quoting a Barna study from twelve years ago, there were eighty-two million self-identified evangelicals. That’s a lot. But only about 20% of that vast population held to classic evangelical theological convictions. Over a decade ago sixty-four million American evangelicals were not evangelical in conviction. And the statistics have not improved over the last decade plus. This anemic theology has led to an obviously weak public witness.

As noted above, our towns are not much better off. Meador draws a connection between the two, “The life of the Christian community and the life of the commonwealth, a word traditionally favored by Christians to describe the sum total of communal life in a given place, are knitted together.” Our towns and villages are simply where strangers have gathered unintentionally in unfamiliar geographies. We are lonely, tired, and bored. Meador argues the lack of a convicted personal faith leads to a weakened public witness in a world that deeply desires a faithful Christian witness is convincing. He writes,

[A] church that loses hidden faith will not be able to sustain public faith. It will, rather, become what the Pharisees were in Jesus’s own day—whitewashed tombs, cups scrubbed clean on the outside but filthy on the inside. . . The failure of the American church is that we have become indifferent to the heart. This is because fidelity of the heart will compel us toward an external fidelity that is frequently uncomfortable, demanding, and dangerous. 

This breakdown of community, as Meador describes it and argues, leads to three losses: the loss of meaning, wonder, and good work. Our social narratives no longer give satisfactory direction for establishing meaningful and fruitful communities. Drawing on the works of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sarte, John Locke, Charles Taylor, among other philosophers and theologians, In Search of the Common Good evidences the many ways in which these very real losses manifest themselves in our daily lives. Meador’s book is both honest and hopeful, he writes, “There is a still more excellent way of being in God’s world than what we have seen as we consider our present condition in America.” We are not doomed to a monochrome existence devoid of meaning making widgets for someone else’s profit. 

God’s creation is as inconceivable and dizzying with wonder as we sense and we are not as helpless as we think. Meador prescribes three practices of simple, ordinary faithfulness drawn from the first page of Genesis: sabbath keeping, membership, and, with this much-needed qualification, good work.

Loving God and joining him in seeking the welfare of our next door neighbors is how the church pushes back against our common darkness and despair.

Christians understand creation to first be an act of God that we then, together, participate in. The Genesis account shows us that we are meant to be co-laborers together in God’s garden for six days and to rest in God’s provision on the seventh. Meador’s threefold prescription is simple and addresses all humans at all stages of life, “We tell the drug addict, the corrupt politician, the gang member, and the thieving Wall Street banker the same thing: Repent, or you too will perish.” Together for the sake of our commonwealths we must turn from our isolated, bored, and endless straining and put our trust in the Creator who works and wills good for those who love him. Meador writes, “[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 ocean.” In our shared and ordered work we participate with God for the good of a world rich with his glory. And when our work is done at the end of the week we can put our tools down and rest in God’s loving-kindness.

“There are things we experience in this world, physical earthy things, that are beautiful and tell us something about the world to come,” writes Meador. It is fair for us to long in our age of despair for simple pleasures like a home-cooked meal and a good conversation, it is essential in this crisis for churches to practice and proclaim the gospel. “The good news of the Christian faith is that these [physical earthly things] will not fail and that the delight we derive from them today, delight that God smiles upon since he is the giver of the gift, will continue on into eternity, world without end,” finishes Meador. Loving God and joining him in seeking the welfare of our next door neighbors is how the church pushes back against our common darkness and despair. In Search of the Common Good calls Christians not to grand displays of piety but back to the greatest command of scripture: love of God and love of neighbor.

Cover image by Kevin Young.

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