Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Ken and I and a few others from the Calvin community attended the fifth annual Q conference. This year Washington, DC was the host, which led to some great conversations about Christian engagement in the public sphere, and American politics in particular.
To get a sense of the conference, The Washington Post published a good preview piece. We got to have a great conversation over dinner with Justin McRoberts, a musician, who blogged about the theme of listening as a way to understand the Q conference. And Sojourner’s colomnist and Festival of Faith and Music 2011 speaker, Cathleen Falsani made a photo essay of the first day. Michelle Vu of the Christian Post wrote a good summary of the interview with NY Times op-ed columnist, Ross Douthat. Q Ideas also posted a post conference round up.
Following the conference, The American Spectator’s Mark Tooley wrote up a summary from where he was sitting. The summary has a tone of cynicism about the conference. While Jamie Smith (concluding Q speaker) sent out a postcard that makes a strong case for the importance of the gathering and movement Q has initiated.
What I really enjoyed about the gathering was the emphasis of Christians moving beyond the culture wars. Gabe Lyons, the creator and master of ceremonies of Q, grew up Jerry Falwell’s church and the religious rights’ circles of “Christian as culture-warrior.” While I had been at Q in NYC a few years ago, this year it was made explicit how Christians might move beyond a simple good vs. evil dichotomy. The main challenge, even at Calvin and other pluralistic contexts, is to have conversations across difference without frustration, or devolving into cynicism. For those of us, especially at Calvin, whose theology has lent itself to a robust understanding of engaging culture, it is good to see other language, groups, and locations for these ideas to take root and flourish.
Rather than preaching to the choir, Q challenges Christians to take their faith further by moving from a merely personal faith to a robust and complex public faith. In fact, I talked to a participant who is an outspoken agnostic, who enjoyed the conference because he wants to see Christians work more for the common good than they have in the past. Christians working for the common good is a better witness than attempting to dominate the world with a Christian perspective seemed to be the subtext to the whole conference.
The number of speakers and talks makes it impossible to list in any meaningful way, so instead I’ll hit a few of the highlights from where I was sitting. The opening talk by Andy Crouch about power was one of the best at the conference, moving beyond the paradigm that power is only used for evil. He argued very articulately that power is how we image God in the world and help to bring about flourishing in the world. Later, there was good panel on using the language of reducing abortion, which again, helps us move beyond the culture wars of pro-life vs. pro-choice. Gideon Strauss gave a succinct talk about principled pluralism, sustaining conviction while also allowing others to have the freedom to hold differing convictions. Miroslav Volf talk furthered this argument later in the conference. Herman Hess (owner of Elevation Burger) and Chida Achara (fashion photographer) didn’t seem to get enough time to fully articulate their visions, but exposed the audience to areas of culture that Christians often dismiss with negatively or simply neglect. Rarely do Christians take the time to reflect on where their food comes from or how their clothes are made and tastes shaped, and how this has to do with their faith. Barbara Bradley Hagerty (NPR correspondent) gave good insight into the relationship between religion and the media, even wading into the classic “liberal media” debate. Her experience at NPR is that it is a group of people that care more about informative stories than a political pulpit.
The room was moved by the stories of Sami Awad (a Palestinian Christian), Daniel Seidmann (an Isreali attorney), and Jeremy Courtney (an American Christian living in Iraq). Each of these stories was a compelling case for loving and living at peace with one’s neighbors. And the struggle that it is. Nancy Sleeth shared her experience of trying to enact some Amish practices into her life in order to grow in a relationship to God. This meant taking seriously ideas of Christian community, trying to live more simply, and attempting to keep technology in its place as a tool rather than a task master. And, finally, Jamie Smith closed the conference with a great talk about how Christians working for the common good, must start and end with the imagination. We need to use our head, certainly, but the stories that can move our hearts and bodies in new and creative ways will be a more faithful way to live. And it turns out we have a long tradition of these stories and practices to draw from in order to live out a faithful Christianity in the space and time that God has placed us.
Next year, Q will take place in Los Angeles. The conversations will continue and be taken further, staying relevant while drawing on a long history of Christian engagement and practice.