For all the talk these days about the dangers of Christian nationalism, there seems to be scarcely any consensus among believers on what building (or restoring) a genuinely Christian nation would actually entail. This makes Jake Meador’s new book, What Are Christians For?: Life Together at the End of the World, especially noteworthy, in that one could characterize it as a quest to envision a country truly guided by biblical beliefs.
Mind you, this is no attempt to “take America back for God” or to portray the Land of the Free as Christ’s chosen nation. Instead of pining for a lost golden age, Meador charges the church today to live by the biblical values we say we exalt, even at the cost of leaving behind our culture’s golden calves. As he puts it, “What would it mean for America to be an authentically Christian nation? It will mean a repudiation of the beliefs and views that assail the cause of life and threaten justice.”
Meador, editor in chief at Mere Orthodoxy, has written a hard-to-pigeonhole book, one that does not fit easily along any simplistic ideological spectrum. He is less interested in seeking a moderate balance between the warring poles of Left and Right than in rejecting the “inhumane and deeply anti-Christian” assumptions of our tribalized thinking.
Plenty of readers will appreciate Meador’s strong defense of the family or his careful and compassionate explanation of the classical Christian position on sexuality and marriage. But his not-so-subtle criticism of the American way of life will not sit well with those seeing the world through red-white-and-blue-colored glasses. You could say that he does not play nice with others, but he provokes in the nicest way possible.
Surveying various elements of contemporary life, Meador challenges us to consider our ways. He examines our views on history, race, economics, nature, farming and eating, and family and community, among other subjects. He questions—or perhaps asks us to question—whether today’s church has imbibed too deeply from cultural waters without pausing to consider the consequences.
The abstract and the ordinary
At 170 pages, this is a fairly short book, with chapters running at around 10–15 pages each. That said, its pages contain great depth. Meador has thought carefully about the issues he addresses, and he has a way of explaining his point that impresses it upon the reader humanely, almost gently.
Meador is a skillful writer. At times his prose is so beautiful you almost wish he would try writing fiction next. There is nothing flashy about it; he simply shares his illustrations in a quietly vivid manner. His evident joy in recollecting the difficult labor he performed during his time at L’Abri, his portrait of the simple beauties of growing up with a bow-hunting father, and his tender description of long days and nights watching that same father suffer from sickness—each of these is a novella in the making.
Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is Meador’s masterful blend of the high and the low, of abstract theological principles and the beautifully commonplace practices of ordinary believers working them out in their day-to-day lives. Meador is incredibly well-read, and his knowledge of theology, philosophy, history, and politics flows from his pen with grace and ease.
No book is without its flaws, including this one. Boiled down to the essentials, the problem here is not that Meador is telling the wrong story but that he sometimes fails to tell the whole story. The book shines when it probes philosophically into the unasked questions of how we live our lives. And Meador applies these ideas effectively on an individual level. For me, however, the tale misses a beat when it moves to the middle ground—when it considers, in other words, how Christian ideals might be brought to bear on the larger society.
Part of the problem, in my judgment, is that the book could use a little less Wendell Berry (a hugely influential figure for Meador) and a bit more Tom Holland, the atheist British historian and journalist known for tracing the development of Western values back to the influence of Christianity (more about Holland later). Granted, within certain Christian circles, Berry is all but a saint, and it’s easy to see why. His appeals to the agrarian ideal are a welcome alternative to the hectic uncertainty of modern consumeristic society. And yet, as pleasing as such thoughts are to read and to contemplate, bringing them into being on any large scale is no easy feat.
Meador rightly praises intentional Christian communities like L’Abri and the Bruderhof, an Anabaptist movement that stresses nonviolence, simplicity, and the sharing of possessions. And indeed, these are amazing glimpses of what can be when believers are deliberate about organizing their lives around Christian principles. But here’s the rub: These communities are extraordinary—as in outside the ordinary flow of life. It is one thing to glean from them some insights and practices to apply in our own contexts and in our own way; it is quite another to look to them as a template for the whole of society.
Here is where Tom Holland comes in. In his book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, Holland reminds us just how brutal a place the world can be without the influence of Christianity. This is, in fact, something Meador himself emphasizes at points, describing at some length the repellent nature of pre-Christian sexual ethics. In reading his book, I found myself wishing that this theme had been extended further. There are times when Meador’s rhetoric passes over the difficulties of living life as it ought to be lived in a world where little is as it ought to be. In this second act of the human story, between Eden and the New Jerusalem, our best endeavors will be tainted by what Isaiah 64:6 calls the “filthy rags” (KJV) of our human frailties.
At several points throughout the book, he points to historical events to buttress his argument, but without the full context they become little more than anecdotes marshaled to make a point rather than episodes to be understood on their own terms. Take, for instance, his brief allusion to the Anglo-American air raids in the Second World War. For one thing, it is rather unsettling to see the Allied bombing of the Axis powers unconditionally placed alongside the Nazi Holocaust as examples of the 20th century’s brutality. But more importantly, it brushes aside some of history’s complexities. Yes, American and British bombers burned German and Japanese cities to ground, killing hundreds of thousands in the process. Yet they did so to stop something else, a campaign of conquest that killed tens of millions in Russia and China, not to mention the horrors of the Holocaust.
This one example points to a larger issue in the book. Meador rightly calls out the ill effects of industrialization, corporate agriculture, and the isolation of suburban neighborhoods. These things have created problems we will be dealing with for quite some time. At the same time, they have created conditions where our standard of living has risen to the point that the poor of today enjoy a lifestyle beyond the dreams of all but the wealthiest in the past.
The same intellectual ferment of the 18th century that crafted some of the worst obscenities of American slavery also fostered the ideas of absolute abolitionism, the then-radical contention that no human should ever be a slave. The industrialization that tore away the beauties of agrarian society also gutted the appeal of Dixie’s “peculiar institution.” The same capitalism that, as Meador observes, can strip any job of its joy also provided the tools needed to face down the totalitarian tyrannies of the 20th century.
How, then, should we receive this book? My answer is that we should receive it much as its author intended, as a challenge to the church to consider its ways. At times Meador’s analysis could bear some added complexity and context, yet the critiques are worthy of serious reflection.
I noted above that it was unsettling to see Meador link the American effort in World War II with the Holocaust. But that’s as it should be. No matter the justification, we should find it unsettling to wage war in such a way that so many would die. We should be troubled by the way 19th-century business barons ran roughshod over rivals, whose formerly independent workers were then given little option but to work for those who had broken them. On a whole host of matters, we absolutely should be unnerved by how the world’s way of thinking enters our lives without our even noticing.
My counsel is this: Read this book. Recognize that it is a partial answer to a complicated problem, but read it just the same. Let it make you feel uncomfortable about the way our world has been built and the cost to others. But, more than this, think about Meador’s examples of ordinary people in their ordinary lives doing their best to live out the eternal truths of the gospel. They might not have changed the world. Yet in some small but discernable way, they have changed their world.
This might not seem like much, but in reality it is everything. Despite what the history books seem to say, the world was not turned upside down only by famous preachers and theologians, as important as their work was and is. The most radical thing that we can do to cleanse our world’s “filthy rags” is to emulate in our homes and communities the sort of intentionally realized Christianity that Meador has so beautifully shared.
Timothy D. Padgett is a resident theologian at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is the author of Swords and Ploughshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937–1973.
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