Once upon a time, in a world without cars and screens, people had no choice but to live where they lived.
If their home was in the northeast part of town, they worked and worshiped in the northeast part of town. They knew dozens of neighbors by name because, well, they said their names a lot. Entertainment was a family or community affair: conversation around the dinner table, games with neighborhood kids, festivals at the park. More often than not, they recognized the contours of the land, even if their livelihood didn’t depend on it. They knew where the stream branched and what kind of maple stood in the backyard.
The newspaper offered the nearest doorway to the wider world, yet even the news was shaped by home. It arrived in rolls on doorsteps, the city name printed on top, local stories filling its pages. For them, “the news” largely happened in the place they lived, among people they recognized.
An old proverb puts it quaintly: “The goat must browse where she is tied.” Humans in the past, finding themselves bound to a local place and local people, lived and laughed and loved there. They spent their seventy or eighty years within limits that would feel to us remarkably narrow. They had to; the goat must browse where she is tied.
Today, however, many might respond, “Not if the goat has a smartphone.”
Strangers at Home
The picture painted above is not meant to be nostalgic. Sin, sorrow, and alienation laced the analog world before they laced the digital world. But questions still bear asking: How did we get to the point where we know our neighbors on social media better than our neighbors next door? Why are we often more aware of the happenings in the Capitol than the happenings in our church or community? And what are the consequences of browsing where we’re not tied — of living where we aren’t?
In his novel Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry’s narrator describes the effect of the highway in mid-twentieth-century rural places: “The interstate cut through farms. It divided neighbor from neighbor. It made distant what had been close, and close what had been distant” (281). The information superhighway has done something similar: invisibly, it has paved four lanes between neighbors, and even between family members. It has made distant places close, and close places distant.
Used rightly, knowledge of distant people and places can serve us; news from elsewhere can help us live more wisely here. Yet it can also make us fools: “The discerning sets his face toward wisdom,” Solomon tells us, “but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth” (Proverbs 17:24). Many of us strain our eyes toward the ends of the earth — and miss this little patch of earth called here. Like a man who mistakes binoculars for eyeglasses, we often know more about distant matters than about the needs, struggles, joys, and griefs of the ordinary people nearby.
Easily, perhaps without our even noticing it, screens exile us. At home online, we become strangers at home.
We might call our attempt to live both there and here “multiplacing,” a cousin of the famous myth of multitasking. Multitasking, we now know, is just a clever name for a common illusion. We never really do two tasks at once but instead switch back and forth, eroding both focus and productivity in the process. In trying to handle two tasks simultaneously, we handle neither as well as we could.
So with multiplacing. Just as we cannot focus on two tasks at once, neither can we live in two places at once. Time and attention are zero-sum games. The more time we spend with faraway friends, the less time we spend with nearby neighbors. The more attention we give to national or international news, the less attention we give to local news. The more our eyes rest on the ends of the earth, the less they rest on our spouses, children, and local church.
The digital world can trick us into thinking we can split these finite selves. But in trying to live both here and there, giving our best attention to distant places while inhabiting a local place, we end up living nowhere well.
We likely all know the feeling of being with someone whose phone seems strapped to his hand. Every minute or so, his eyes dart down, his thumb scrolls, his laughter and uhuhs go on autopilot. His body is here, his mind there — but where is he? Nowhere at all.
Two Places at Once
So far, we have been reckoning with realities of creation. In the beginning, God “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of [our] dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). He set our bodies in a local place among local people, deciding that we should live and move and have our being here and not there. He holds our lot (Psalm 16:5).
We learn the same lesson from redemption, even though, in a sense, the redeemed do live in two places simultaneously. Paul greets the Philippian Christians, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi . . .” (Philippians 1:1). As with all Christians everywhere, the Philippians had been “raised up with [Christ] and seated . . . with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). They lived “in Christ.”
Yet they also lived “at Philippi.” Life in Christ did not remove them from their city, but sent them into it: alert to its dangers (Philippians 3:2), awake to its neighbors (Philippians 4:5), alive to its God-given pleasures (Philippians 4:8), and especially aware of its fellow Christ-worshipers (Philippians 2:1–2).
In other words, spiritual life there shaped and animated physical life here. Their identity in Christ took form in the streets and stores, homes and halls, highways and byways of Philippi. In creation, God determined that Philippi would be their dwelling place; in redemption, he filled Philippi with living, local images of his Son. Living where they were, then, was a matter not only of creational necessity, but of redemptive mission.
Redeemed humans live not only in Christ, but in Christ at Chicago, Glasgow, Nairobi, St. Petersburg, Seoul. Redemption, like creation, happens here.