In my mind this post began as a recap of Q Boston, an attempt to make connections between the disparate array of presentations and conversations that took place during its 2.5 stimulating days. Much has been made of the focus of this year’s Q conference on the church’s “gay dilemma,” a subject explicitly addressed by at least six speakers and implicitly by several more. I’ll say more on that later, but there was more to Q than LGBTQ discussions, and the myriad of ideas, problems, provocations and prophetic calls offered from the Q stage each deserve far more analysis than could be offered here. Plus, I wouldn’t know where to begin.
One of the downsides of a conference like Q (but also one of its selling points) is the overwhelming nature of its programming--a fire hose of as many trending topics as can be squished into two and a half days. The idea, I think, is that something will stick with each attendee in a profound way, or that the cumulative effect on the influencers present will be to go back home to spread the “stay curious, think well, advance good” ethos in existing communities and networks. A valuable aim, to be sure.
But I think there can be a bit of a numbing effect too--a “where do I begin?” paralysis that results when one Most Important Idea after another comes at you with little context, little time to process (aside from a meal conversation here or a coffee break there) and little connection to the sorts of long-term relationships where real change happens. In a way it’s reflective of how one experiences the world through the “feeds” of Facebook and Twitter: an article about ISIS followed by an op-ed on religious freedom followed by suffering in Syria followed by an opinion on gay marriage followed by a joke and a video and statistics and personality tests, and so on… A schizophrenic stream of passionate ideas embedded in only the loosest of social ties capable of spawning tangible action.
In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine writes about what we are to do with the “where do I begin” dilemma in the face of all the problems and suffering in the world:
“Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.”
Proximity. The needs, the people, the relationships right in front of you.
This is an idea I’ve been pondering a lot lately, from a variety of different directions. Since being married, my wife and I have seen our respective friend groups change; the people who’ve emerged as the most important have (surprise!) turned out to be the ones who are most proximate in our church, workplace and city.
Being a blogger and writer on the Internet, there are many amazing people from all over the world who I “know” and have occasional online exchanges with. On rare occasions I get to meet them in person at things like Q, and it’s a delight for which I am very grateful. But more and more I see that the relationships that matter most are the ones right in front of me: My wife, church, neighbors, co-workers, the members of the life group I lead, the college students I teach or mentor. These are the people who inhabit my incarnational reality, who show up in my daily and weekly rhythms, who know me in an integrated way. These are the people I grow with. If any of the ideas I gleaned from Q are to develop into good-advancing action, it will be in collaboration with these people.
This is not to diminish the goodness of my digital friends, contacts and social network; nor the value in attending annual conferences like Q. It’s just to say (and it probably goes without saying) that the “back home” relationships, particularly in the local church, should be the priority. But this is harder than it sounds. It’s easier to find a tribe of like-minded kindred spirits online or at national conferences; much harder to make community work with the “hand you’ve been dealt” in physical proximity. As my pastor likes to say, it’s often harder to love and serve the guy across the street, the crotchety landlady, the awkward coworker, than it is to go on a mission trip to Myanmar or support a cause on the other side of the world. People who go to the ends of the earth or take up “radical” calls are to be commended, of course, but the “ordinary” calling of domestic faithfulness and commitment to community is never to be diminished. Augustine is right: We should show “special regard” for what and who is right in front of us.
As idea heavy as Q Boston was, one of the thematic main ideas of the conference was that people should matter at least as much as ideas, communities as much as concepts. One speaker suggested that entrepreneurs build successful businesses not by thinking of ideas but by focusing on people, observing them and caring for them. This was evidenced in speakers like Dana Tanamachi, a graphic designer who got her start designing chalk art for her friends' parties in Brooklyn, and parlayed that into a business with clients like Nike and Oprah.
Michael Gerson’s talk (one of my favorites) suggested Pope Francis as a model of cultural engagement for contemporary evangelicalism. Why? Because while Francis holds firm on certain convictions and concepts, he is resolutely people-centric and relationally oriented. Too often evangelicals have chosen principles over people, Gerson suggested, but Francis is a model for balancing both.
The false dichotomy of “people vs principles” was on fascinating display during the LGBTQ discussions, particularly a panel that included Gabe Lyons interviewing David Gushee and Dan Kimball. Both Gushee and Kimball have felt the tension of being relationally proximate to LGBTQ people while wanting to hold to biblical principles that preclude same-sex marriage. Gushee started with the traditional view but then changed his mind after he came to have relationships with gay people. Kimball grew up with gay friends and didn't think anything of it; only after he became an evangelical and encountered Scripture's witness on the matter did he feel any tension between what he believed and the people he knew. While Gushee decided he couldn’t hold the two in tension and ultimately re-interpreted Scripture through the lens of his relationships, Kimball concluded that he must hold Scripture’s authority above the authority of relationship/experience, but that this did not foreclose the possibility of having loving, profound friendships with LGBTQ people.
The idea that two people cannot be in relationship with one another and simultaneously hold conflicting convictions is simply silly. Loving, civil, productive disagreement is admittedly a hard thing, but it’s possible. It’s necessary. People like Robert George and Cornel West, Princeton friends and colleagues who hold vastly differing views on most things, model it well. Just watch their recent discussion at Biola. The Biola University Center for Christian Thought also models it well, holding entire conferences on the value of collegial disagreement and living it out each year by bringing scholars from varying backgrounds to campus to pursue truth together (note: not always agreeing). Gabe Lyons and Andrew Sullivan, who spoke together on stage at Q Boston, are another model. They’ve become friends in spite of their agreeing to disagree on matters of sexuality (among other things).
Each of these examples showcases mutual respect, empathy, listening and love. But note how each is born out of proximity. These people are not online-only friends, speaking to each other from behind screens and trading tweets and blog barbs. They have offline relationships. Their connections are premised on more than just principles. They are to one another more than just @names who hold opinions. They are image-bearers of Christ, the fleshly neighbors we are called to love.
It can be easy in today’s world to live, breathe and lose oneself in ideas. Profound think-piece articles, fascinating documentaries, books, blogs, even entire college courses, have never been more abundant and accessible. There are great things about this, but also risks. We risk becoming bored, disenchanted or disconnected from the everyday rhythms and proximate communities that actually shape us.
Because make no mistake: It is the proximate that shapes us most. The physical, embodied rhythms of worship in community shape our desires (see Jamie Smith). If we lose the proximate community because we are distracted and lost in the chaotic maelstrom and unintelligible multivocality of Internet community, we lose everything. Perhaps that’s why calls to embrace more localized, intentional communities (for the sake of preservation, among other things) ring so true. It’s what Rod Dreher spoke of with “The Benedict Option” at Q Boston (another of my favorite talks).
To be able to grow in mind and character as part of a community with shared convictions, to have weekly rhythms with the same church family, to be able to sit around a table with people regularly, to embrace them, to cry and laugh and grow together, to disagree in love and debate without starting a flame war ... this is what proximity is worth.*
*The title of this post is inspired by a lyric from one of my favorite songs of last year, “Parade,” byThe Antlers: "When the streets get flooded, we know what proximity’s worth, ‘cause we're already here, in the same place when our phones don't work."
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based journalist. He is the author of Hipster Christianity (2010) and Gray Matters (2013), and has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, CNN.com, the Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Relevant, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas, and Conversantlife.com. A graduate of Wheaton College and UCLA, Brett currently works as managing editor for Biola Magazine and teaches at Biola University. Follow him on Twitter @brettmccracken.