Monday, December 15, 2008

Public Radio and Religion

I've said it in posts before and I'll say it again, I'm an NPR junkie. There's just not a match anywhere else in the media landscape for their detailed coverage of world events and culture. No, it's not perfect and fully capable of being as flawed as the rest of our shallow media, but in general it is far less shallow and often quite deep.

One of the areas of NPR's coverage is its its reporting on religion. NPR's insightful interviews when it comes to politics or culture are not matched when it comes to religion. Typically the hosts doing the interviews or the reporters narrating the stories reveal their lack of religious knowledge and experience in embarrassing ways. I often cringe when I hear them generalize about about one religious group or another, and it's clear that when it comes to religion they often can only understand it in political terms--i.e. one group's conflict with another.
Lately, I've heard some interviews and produced stories that have been far better than the usual NPR stuff on religion. Here are a few that are worth listening to:

Usually, Terry Gross of Fresh Air with Terry Gross is a serial offender when it comes to interviewing religious people. She's unmatched when it comes to music, film, authors, politics, etc., but when it comes to religion--Gross is admittedly non-religious herself--she's out of her league. Usually, she has somebody like a Karen Armstrong on--somebody who understands religion from an academic sense and has rejected the problematic personal aspects of religious experience. All that being said--Gross has has two really good interviews lately that show she's improving her game.

The first is with Frank Schaeffer, son of evangelical icon Francis Schaeffer, who earlier in his life was instrumental in focusing the religious-right's attention upon abortion through some significant films. Later in life, he ended up rejected the religio-political views of his youth and converted to the Greek Orthodox Church. He has a very interesting book out and a blog well worth reading. His interview with Gross is revealing in its depiction of the beginning s of the political power of the Religious Right and in its depiction of the way pride and power can corrupt.
The second is with Richard Cizik, the lead lobbyist for the National Association for Evangelicals--or I should say the former lead lobbyist for the NAE. Cizik has led the lobbying for this huge conglomeration of conservative evangelical churches and para-church organizations. He gained notoriety in recent years outside of evangelical circles for his efforts to organize evangelicals to fight global warming--efforts which amazed those on the left and enraged many on the right. It was this interview on Fresh Air that actually raised enough ire to force Cizik to resign from his position. Apparently, the fact that Cizik didn't come out in condemnation of homosexuals angered many of his constituents.
In a different vein altogether, one of my favorite shows is This American Life--this quirky and wonderful show is really like nothing else on radio, TV or in print. (Actually, it's worth noting that This American Life comes from Chicago Public Radio but is aired on many public radio stations that also carry NPR programs.)

The first show told the story of a pentecostal minister at a large church who decided that he no longer believed in hell. What happened next was a sad case of a church splitting and the minister being branded a heretic. This episode is really an interesting one. It was pointed out to me by a couple who attend my church who do not believe in hell and who have challenged my own thoughts on the matter. Currently, I'm an agnostic about hell, but deep down I suspect that when it comes down to it I trust more on God's love and grace than I do in the historical doctrine of hell.

The second story came on TIL's annual "Poultry Slam" episode which airs the week of Thanksgiving every year. This particular story told the tale of an Episcopal minister in North Carolina who got involved in an effort to unionize a poultry plant. It's a fascinating case of when a minister's convictions are in conflict with the business interests of his parishioners.

Also, while I'm at it--TIL recently aired an old episode from the 1990's that has three of my favorite authors reading excerpts from their books--David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and Anne Lamott. Anne Lamott reads from her first memoir on faith, Traveling Mercies. All three-but especially Lamott--are hilarious and poignant.

All I can say to NPR is keep it up--this is good stuff.

Grace and Peace,


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