Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: On Being

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews (and at best, unedited interviews) concerned with religion or systems of belief and/or perception more generally
Episode duration: ~50m (produced shows) or up to 2h (unedited podcasts)
Frequency: ~8-10 total per month

I recall hearing years ago on Jordan, Jesse, Go! how much Jordan enjoys listening to On Being [RSS] [iTunes] with Krista Tippett, which constituted endorsement enough to get me tuning in as well. I also recall hearing years ago on Jordan, Jesse, Go! that Jordan enjoys hearing discussions about the consistency, or lack thereof, of the fictional “universes” in which movies, television shows, books, and video games take place. Those Jordanian enthusiasms might seem to have nothing to do with one another, but the more On Being I hear, the less they strike me as unrelated. Formerly known as Speaking of Faith, the show aims to “draw out the intellectual and spiritual content of religion that should nourish our common life” — or, as I think of it, to talk as clearly and non-judgmentally as possible about religions, broadly defined. Most shows about religion, I would think, come the perspective of the One True Faith — whichever of the One True Faiths to which its creators happen to subscribe — and therefore must reject outright the term “religion” in the plural. On Being, should it need a third title, might as well call itself Religions, Plural.

No one comes off as a believer in religions, plural as much as Tippett herself. She doesn’t sound like she actually follows all religions, or even several of them — she identifies, I gather, as some type of Christian — and indeed, the incompatibilities of their tenets would make that quite a difficult life. But you might say that the believes in their compatibilities, to the extent those exist. Or she believes in the potential for such compatibilities. To go back to the show’s about page, she operates on the premise that “there are basic questions of meaning that pertain to the entire human experience,” and often conducts interviews with religious or religion-oriented guests in pursuit of those questions. Tippett’s conversations thus make for valuable resources when you need to understand “the deal” with a certain faith: Brigham Young University professor Robert Millet on Mormonism, rabbi David Hartman (recorded in Israel, no less) on Judaism; nine different Muslims on Islam. If you like this kind of thing, make sure you don’t miss Tippett’s live conversation with not only a Muslim scholar, and not only a chief chief rabbi, and not only a presiding bishop, but the Dalai Lama too.

I suppose we can approach this side of On Being — a side dominant in the Speaking of Faith days — as we approach the Indiana Jones movies. If you consider all four pictures together, they constitute a fictional reality — a “universe,” if you will — where not only does the Ark of the Covenant exist, filled with ghosts, but magic-using, human-sacrificing Indian cults exist, Jesus’ immortality-granting Holy Grail exists, and ancient space aliens exist. While many fans take an interest in each of Indiana Jones’ adventures, it must give even the most obsessively devoted a headache to get them all logically aligned. The same must hold for humanity’s countless belief systems, and Tippett avoids these headaches by taking each one on its own terms, just like sane Indiana Jones fans must take Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (assuming, fridge-nuking and all, that they even acknowledge its existence) on their own terms. Tippett asks not, to continue this analogy, whether the Indiana Jones movies stay consistent with reality; she asks what human need watching Indiana Jones movies fulfills in the first place.

Still, arguments about Indiana Jones remain, by their very nature, contained; nobody loses their lives over them, and no wars erupt in their name. We can hardly say the same of arguments about religion. Some claim occasionally — and some claim daily, at least on my Facebook feed — that anybody talking about religion, any religion, even those deigning to discredit them, do humanity a disservice. And they have a point, if you go by certain major faiths’ tendencies toward social control and cavalier attitudes toward the truth. Listening to discussions of religion from On Being and other venues, I do wonder if the mere fact that someone, somewhere believes in something makes that thing worthy of attention, let alone consideration. But then I remember to frame a more interesting question: not about what people believe, and not about why they believe it, but about what aspect of their lives needs it to be true. The show’s intellectual broadening over recent years suits just this frame of mind by having more conversations that, as I say, take the concept of “religions” broadly, not just as systems of belief, but as, perhaps, systems of perception. This allows guests that may not have fit into the earlier mandate: I point you to Tippett’s interview with Seth Godin, a figure best known for writing forward-thinking books on marketing, but whom our host gets talking about “the art of noticing.”

Specifically, I point you to Tippett’s unedited interview with Seth Godin. Extending itself into the age of podcasting, On Being now offers Tippett’s interviews as recorded straight off the board, from the moment her engineer in St. Paul links up with the guest’s studio, working out the connection hitches and elusive echoes, right up until the time comes for her to tell the guest thanks, we’ll may have more questions, we’ll let you know when this should air. You can still download the produced broadcasts, which cut together segments of talking with music, sounds, and radio-y “resets,” but I daresay the unedited podcasts, which often run well over an hour, render them superfluous. Tippett prepares herself to hold actual human conversations — a rare willingness, believe you me — and she tends to do so with interlocutors who can rise to the challenge. Combine this with the way her program has now managed to increase its generality while maintaining more or less an appearance of specificity — a move I always admire — and you get, at least in the conversations that have kept me most rapt — Godin, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah on difference, writer Alain de Botton on adapting religion for atheists — two humans connecting about connection itself.


[Podthinker Colin Marshall, who has ten Podthoughts to go before retirement, also hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]