Noah Toly opens his reply to my recent Q conference review by stating that my piece contained one big weakness. Apparently, this relates to my observation that at Q “bridges are favored over lines in the sand.” Toly replies, “While Q organizers and participants might find this refreshing, Murdock finds it obscurantist, lending a dangerously false sense of reconcilability to what might actually be irreconcilable positions.”

At the risk of moving towards reconciliation in the midst of what Toly may think our irreconcilable differences, I would like to openly declare myself pro-Q, and pro-bridge, and pro-Venn diagram. I like Q and I admire those who have written its mono-letter story. Gabe and Rebecca Lyons have made good use of the decentralized evangelical culture. With a big vision, charisma, lots of energy, prayer, faith and the skillful determination to follow through, the Lyons have built a touchstone institution in under a decade that is a net blessing to the body of Christ. That’s an impressive display of entrepreneurial parachurch chutzpah, and the conference is consistently polished, provocative, and well presented. I’ve attended twice and hope to make Q Boston in 2015.

I certainly view Q’s penchant for bridge building as one of its pluses. In my own life, I am trying to span what I see as a false divide between social conservatism and the care of God’s creation. There are real reasons that many of those who take the Bible seriously on ethical matters ignore an ethical mandate that literally appears on page 1—they are just not very good reasons, and they are worth rooting out. (Based on his previous work, I expect Toly and I are in rough agreement here.) On this and other issues, I am all for clearing as much common ground of the Enemy’s mines as possible. Nevertheless, as Toly rightly intuits, I do not find it helpful to pretend that the world is made of nothing but common ground.

The Venn diagram is a helpful tool for illustrating this. No matter what our differences, there are common themes in the human condition—emotions, longings, joys—that we almost all share. These provide the potential for connections across cultural and religious lines. This is no surprise. Every human still bears the marks of a good Creator. We are all Venn diagrams—there’s just no escaping it.

One way to relate to this unavoidable Venn condition is to emphasize our remaining distinctives. Certainly, some on the Religious Right may seem to revel in policing the line where the uniqueness starts. (How do you say “shibboleth”?) In so doing, these people can neglect (or even reject) a piece of who they are simply because that part uncomfortably overlaps with others who they have determined they most certainly are not. I see this in the realm of environmental politics where too often I hear from my fellow Republicans, “If Al Gore’s for it, I’m against it.”

On the other hand, you can embrace the overlap. Q generally takes this approach, and there is a real need to remind the Church and the world that the Christian social witness is more than the 1984 Republican Party platform. There’s a lot we can do that will get non-religious heads nodding. Yet, if you turn your back on all distinctiveness, as though the overlap is all there is, the Christian witness is reduced to the smiling “Welcome beloved child of God!” today doled out by rainbow clad clergy in liberal denominations. It’s true, but incomplete.

Radical inclusion is a good place to start. (Jesus practiced it: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”) But, it is a sad place to stop. (Jesus didn’t say this: “You are perfect just the way you are. Don’t let the taxaphobes get you down.”) Better to begin within the overlap, build relationships and work outwards, but as one does so, there will be lines that must be faced and crossed.

After noting my observation that homosexuality merited nothing but passing references from the Q main stage, Toly goes to some lengths to build a case that, “culture warriors [apparently including me] find and assert the necessity of conflict where it doesn’t exist.” I agree with Toly that it is often “hard work . . . to identify what is truly reconcilable and what is not,” but, frankly, one does not have to work too hard to identify a real and current societal conflict over the definition of marriage. (As one marching at the Supreme Court the day marriage was in the dock and who was loudly told that I “wake up every morning hating someone,” I can personally attest to the passion surrounding this issue.)

I was disappointed because the Q stage seemed set for a real discussion before leaders from the generation that is most conflicted. In its pre-conference survey, Q had polled participants on their reaction to World Vision’s employment policy change tied to gay marriage. Russell Moore had been one of the first out the gate decrying the initial move. Rachel Held Evans had taken to CNN.com to turn in her evangelical credentials in protest over “indefensibl[e]” reactions that had quickly led to World Vision backtracking. Yet, come Q time, there was no civil discussion where differences or even the possibility of Toly’s “creative tension” could be discussed—just a couple veiled drive-by sound bites—and unlike other survey questions, Gabe Lyons was mum on the results of this one. I am all for expanding the pie of issues, but I am not as keen on ignoring the big slices that cultural tremors have slid into our laps.

John Murdock writes from deep in the heart of Texas. His previous First Things articles can be found here and he occasionally blogs as a Republican Treehugger

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