I’m continuing a new series I initially started via newsletter. I’m bringing it over to the blog for now. Today I’m asking Jake Meador, editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of In Search of the Common Good, five questions about writing, ideas, and life.
1. How would you explain Mere Orthodoxy’s platform to someone who had never heard of it?
The cheeky way is to say that we have been defending word counts and nuance on the internet since 2005.
The more serious and longer way is something like this: We’re a Christian review of ideas focused especially on politics, theology, and culture working from a mostly Protestant perspective, though we do publish Catholic and Orthodox writers as well. Why do we publish? I think this is my best short answer: Christian discipleship is, partly, learning to see the world as God sees it—and God says the world is good, something he loves. This world is worth knowing, but knowing it truly is difficult. Mere O exists to model Christian habits of thought that reflect the complexity, seriousness, and humor of the world. We also want to present a consistently and pervasively Christian account of theology, politics, and culture to a broad audience. If we can operate as a mostly Protestant outlet generally adjacent to First Things or Commonweal, I’ll be pleased.
2. In 1 or 2 sentences, can you express the main idea of your first book, In Search of the Common Good?
We live in a fracturing society defined by loneliness, anxiety, and listlessness. Living in such a society creates enormous challenges for Christians, but also presents us with a unique opportunity to model a still better way to our neighbors, if only we would have the courage and commitment to truth to embrace a life of ordinary Christian discipleship.
3. Who are your 4 most important influences when it comes to theology + society? (aside from Scriptural authors)
Wendell Berry is obvious for anyone whose read my work. Berry taught me about natural law, conservation, and the goodness of creation. I could tack C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien on here, but I think what really happened is that Berry gave me the broad framework that I needed to actually see what Lewis and Tolkien are up to. So many of us grow up with Tolkien and Lewis that I think they often appear to us in this very familiar, pre-defined shape that basically just conforms with all my priors that I have brought out of childhood and into adulthood because their books are just baked into my life and thought. After reading Berry as an adult and coming back to Lewis and Tolkien I was amazed at how much I missed in both of them—their radical conservationism (I’m loathe to say ‘environmentalism’ because it’s an anachronism, but at minimum both of them would be hardcore crunchy cons if alive today), their traditionalism around sexuality, and the centrality of humility and ordinary faithfulness in their imaginations. The Scouring of the Shire is a radically anti-industrial chapter in Tolkien’s work, for example. And in The Last Battle one of the first things we see in Shift that tells us about his badness is that he wants to import foods that don’t naturally grow in his home place and he wants to chop down a bunch of trees. Those themes were always there with both of them, obviously. But Berry gave me the eyes to see it. So I’m just saying Berry for this point and assuming Lewis and Tolkien within the broader influence of Berry.
Martin Bucer is next. He was a mentor to Calvin in Strasbourg in the late 1530s and early 1540s and especially had a large impact on Calvin’s approach to the work of pastoring. He was also a great preacher and theologian in his own right and was particularly strong at trying to foreground love of neighbor as being central to the reformed cause in Europe at the time. The arguments for reform for Bucer did not necessarily hinge on justification or sola Scriptura, although he obviously affirmed both of those things, but rather on the call God gives his people to take up the yoke of Christian discipline in service to God and neighbor. The Reformation cause for Bucer gets filtered through this concern with simple Christian piety and Christian love. There’s a letter he wrote to a friend he wrote immediately after hearing Luther for the first time and he says something to the effect of “I’ve heard the man whose theology completes Erasmus’s work.” So Bucer rejected the Rome of his day because he saw it as failing in its call to Christian love. So he has a very different route into the broad set of ideas we associate with the reformation relative to Luther. Bucer also saw the work of creating Christian society as being an essential and inevitable outworking of Christian love, which is another way in which he has influenced me, I think. I was a pretty convinced Hauerwasian until I picked up Bucer. Bucer was the first one to knock some cracks into that foundation for me.
Bucer and Berry are the two that have probably shaped my mind the most and for the longest time. These other two are more recent influences, but they’re the ones I’m thinking about the most right now, I think.
The first is Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus. What I find so compelling about him is the deep way in which he ties together our commitment to truth and commitment to neighbor. One of his encyclicals is called “Caritas in Veritate,” which means Love in Truth. I think so much contemporary Christian writing is fueled largely by sentiment. You get this in a lot of progressive evangelical writing, of course, but often the progressives are simply mimicking what they learned from more conservative evangelicals from the megachurch movement. I think you can draw a pretty straight line between 90s era seeker sensitive evangelicalism and something like Jen Hatmaker’s exvangelicalism today in that both are driven by a set of concerns we often associate with marketing and advertising–it’s image, branding, and so on.
What I love about Benedict is that he doesn’t care about any of that. He’s a relentlessly serious thinker who focuses all his seriousness on God and God’s creation. And so he wants desperately to know God and to love neighbor in light of what he knows of God. So there’s a studiousness to Benedict’s writing that is compelling to me. There’s also a breadth to it—Benedict was actually called “the green pope” long before Pope Francis ever received that moniker because Benedict spoke so extensively on the Christian call to environmental stewardship. And I think, perhaps because Benedict is simply much older there is also a serenity to his work. His work has the feel of having been written from a posture of prayerfulness and careful attentiveness to God rather than man that has been sustained for a very long time. And all of that makes the experience of reading him quite distinctive.
Finally, the last name–and he’s my newest and the one I’ve read the least of so far but who I find (so far) irresistible as a thinker–is John Webster, the great English theologian who died a few years ago at age 60. Webster does all the same things for me that Benedict does. He’s so captured by what he has beheld in his own walk with God that this astonishment radiates out in his theology. Reading Webster is one of the most intoxicating things I can think of and it’s not because of his style. It’s because when you read Webster you are always aware that you’re reading a man who has mediated deeply on the deep things of God.
I think part of the reason I’m drawn to people like them (and Oliver O’Donovan has a similar appeal to me) is that when I look around in the US right now, I see so much bad faith, so much politicking, so much lust for power. And it’s all so very ugly and the dissonance between all of that and what I find in Webster and Benedict is jarring. And there’s a certain sense in which I think that dissonance has been there in my mind for five years now and I’ve spent this whole time trying to work it out. But it’s been framed this way–the gap between the minority of people who seem to take truth seriously and the vast majority–basically since late 2015.
In December of 2015 when Trump was becoming clearly established as the GOP front runner, my dad spent three weeks in the ICU due to a brain injury. He’s now living at home with my mom, though he is fairly limited in what he can do. And the juxtaposition of those two experiences has conditioned my mind in certain ways, I think. You would not believe the number of visitors my dad had. Actually, I’m not sure dad would believe it either because he was in a coma the whole time and has no memory of them. But it was so striking to see how many people wanted to come by the hospital to see him, to talk with mom and I, and to tell stories about him. The gift that both my parents gave me was daily proof that nothing mattered in this life other than the truth—and the truth is that we are made to know and love God and, as an act of love for God, to also love our neighbor. They gave me that single-mindedness.
As I was watching the GOP (and many prominent evangelicals with them) begin its slide into relativism and hypocrisy, I also was seeing the fruit of a single-minded love for God that willingly paid whatever price such fidelity might demand. My parents’ faith cost them in all kinds of ways. Yet it would have been unthinkable in our home growing up to suggest that we betray principles for convenience or to advance ourselves. I saw my parents take unpopular stands to defend abuse victims and homeless people, amongst many other things I saw them do because of their faith. And I saw the fruit of their fidelity over the course of my dad’s injury and rehabilitation.
So as I look around right now and try to just orient myself personally as well as lead my family and lead this online media institution I run, I’m desperate to find writers to read who have that same single-mindedness, that fixation on God that so overwhelms all other considerations such that compromise would be as unfathomable to them as it was and is to my parents. I find that in Webster. Watch him give his papers on the doctrine of creation. This is a man doing Christian theology while constantly aware that he is talking about God before the face of God. It lends such a weightiness and reality to his work. I want to read people who have that kind of engagement with the good, the true, and the beautiful. And I know with both Benedict and Webster that that is what I will always find.
4. You’re an editor, a full time employee, an author, and a husband and father of children. What’s a personal discipline or productivity practice that’s been helpful for you?
Being able to function reasonably well on six hours of sleep and having a wife who is understanding of what I’m doing? I don’t know. There aren’t tricks. I’m trying to become more regimented these days because Mere O is busier than it’s ever been, my family is busier because we have four kids now, and I’m writing a book. So I’ve set up a note taking app called Bear that I use to track daily work. I use Trello to organize everything I do at Mere O. But the tools only get you so far. I think the bigger need is availing oneself of the ordinary means of Christian discipleship and trying to draw those resources into your work, which is something I struggle with constantly because I am a very independent person and am still young enough that I can often feel fairly invincible and as if I can do anything.
Anyway, I think if you are disciplined, focused, and serious (and I am only one of those three things consistently, to my regret) then I think you can get a great deal done. Cal Newport’s work is probably worth mentioning here. Deep Work is good, but Digital Minimalism is great. Oh, and on that note: I also use the Freedom app to lock myself out of social media whenever I’m really needing some focused time to get work done. So I guess my tools for work are some combination of Scrivener (book writing), Bear (short-form writing and note taking), Trello (task management), WordPress (publishing Mere O), Google Docs (editing), and Freedom (focus aid). But the tools are mostly indifferent, in my opinion. They’re a means to an end. The bigger struggle for me is trying to cultivate the discipline and love that is required to sustain a serious work load and to also express those virtues in my life offline, which is often the more difficult task.
4b. Could you give a brief window into the book you’re writing right now?
Yeah. So if In Search of the Common Good is about the call to Christian neighborliness during a time of breakdown, the next book is about what the long-term outworking of Christian neighborliness ought to be. If a group of Christians are faithful together for a long time, how does society change? What kind of society should those Christians be working to promote and sustain? So this book is trying to paint a picture of what Christian fidelity looks like when realized on a social level rather than an individual level.
5. What’s the Lord teaching you right now?
Discipline, patience, and trusting God to work, I think. I’m an impulsive, fairly aggressive person in many ways and there are good things that come from that, but also a lot of bad. Marriage and parenting force you to slow down and be patient, which is something I struggle with. Carrying the workload I’m carrying right now forces you to be disciplined or else you simply cannot get all the things done that need to get done. So I’m trying to be more strict about my time management and am also trying to create some more defined and structured routines that govern my day to day work.