Cue Bulging Veins

I listen to NPR a lot, and this morning I was struck by the extent to which they devote air time to people who expatiate on theological topics, but without the benefit of rich literacy in theological deliberation.
 
Lest I be misunderstood — and people frequently react sharply on this topic, so I’ll probably be misunderstood anyway — I’m not saying that poets, politicians, opera singers, ballplayers, legal commentators, dog catchers, and diplomats should be prevented from commenting on “what I believe” or that their views should be explicitly deprecated. Imagine, though, a culture in which NPR spent a lot of air time describing home remedies for various ailments, offered by people with no particular claim to medical authority, and hardly ever mentioned the fact that a number of researchers and practitioners have actually attained articulate and closely-reasoned insights into health care. Interested as I am in home remedies, I also want to know what medical researchers say about health and wellness.
 
Surely a great part of NPR’s reticence, and that basis of their choice of the populist path, involves the headaches that would ensue from reporting some angles on theologico-spiritual topics and not others. The Reformed theologians might be up in arms if a story included Catholic/Orthodox scholars, but not Presbyterians; a story that quoted a conservative Southern Baptist scholar would irritate the liberal Congregationalists, and so on ad infinitum. But NPR is already doing this by reporting only anodyne demotic spirituality; they’re simply evading the issue by selecting interviewees who don’t wear an explicit denominational tag.
 
This is not a moment when NPR will probably consider hiring a richly-informed, sympathetic, even-handed reporter of theological and varied-faith issues (a sort of audio-journalist version of Martin Marty); still, if they understand their mission to include educating the public about various angles on complex topics, this would be an area where their present coverage falls radically short.

7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I am always amazed at the self-importance of comments in this series. So often a person says something about a thought that he or she had at age 10 which has become the basis of a theological construction. I don’t doubt the power of preadolescent insight, but I wonder at people who replicate prominent cultural narratives all the while believing that they thought them up through their native genius.

  2. While I’ve missed this programming, I understand what you’re saying. I think part of the issue here is how media programming folks view the topic of religion, namely as something INHERENTLY subjective. From this point of view, while there are scholars who study the phenomenon, the real heart of the matter is what individuals think within their hearts.

    Some of the locally produced programming has been better on this at times (namely The State of Things, particularly their interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)

  3. Fwiw, I came to journalism from education, and have never understood how public news and information can and does set itself apart from any educative mission. To me they’ve seemed joined at the hip. While at times the journos are happy to get up and lecture us, at others they simply ignore the role and the opportunity. It still puzzles me – I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone articulate the relationship clearly.

  4. Geezo Crimeney A,

    You are really flailing about here. The bad news is that the series has been on for almost four years, begging the question of where have you been, the good news from your perspective is that the series is ending. Your pain is almost over:)

    Making the statement that belief is not possible without a ‘rich literacy in theological deliberation’ is something I would expect from a televangelist with a PO Box and a toll free number for contributions. Not using words quite so articulate, but still carving out belief as an area of human experience that cannot be validated or expressed without some sort of faith based seal of approval is a paternalism I had thought you were above.

    The home remedy argument is particularly hollow as these things are arrived at by somebody trying them out. Then sharing that experience. Desiring third party validation of medical authority sort of undercuts the belief argument since medical authority derives it power from demonstrable repeatable results and belief requires no more than an acceptance of a proposition that in most cases cannot be demonstrated, verified, or repeated. But it is believed past any point of either logic or rationality.

    No experience or belief starts out from a position of ‘authority’.

    All theological systems start out with a proposition that there is a higher power, with perfect everything, and then accrete layers around themselves in the same way that oysters create pearls. Do remember that pearls are created in response to an irritation in the oyster, before you begin to think that this is an endorsement of such systems.

    The same cannot be said of belief systems. From Objectivism to Rationalism, there are many belief systems that have demonstable cause and effect. They are no less valid.

    The idea that belief requires theological intervention is easily as dangerous as the religious clubs who believe that killing unbelievers is a path to heaven. Especially in view of the fact that all the religious clubs on the planet agree that killing another is bad.

    No, belief does not require theological literacy.

    This I Believe

  5. Have you sent them an email with your thoughts? They might interview you about your thoughts, or air them as feedback. Just the vocabulary should sound like an invitation.
    I agree that this reincarnation of an old program is about building feeling and connection, not education. I believe (pun intended) the program ended this week with a spot by Muhamed Ali.

  6. AKMA,

    We’ve met a few times at the AAR, and I came across your blog a few months ago. I enjoy checking in for your acuity, especially when you post on theological subjects.

    I listened religiously to NPR during the Bush administration because I liked the consistent POV that NPR offered. Outside of “All Things Considered,” which adopts the lowest common denominator of “objectivity,” like the Big 3, NPR’s programs are left-leaning, and so provide needed (and sometimes hilarious, a la “Wait Wait!”) criticism. After Obama’s election, however, the tenor of the programming is mostly disappointing. Frankly, it’s boring and entirely predictable. Like Camille Paglia I find myself, for the first time since the Clinton years, tuning in to Rush, Hannity, etc., simply to laugh at it all — the American experiment with all of its human foibles (and then to pray for it).

    Which brings me to my point. How can we forget Walker Percy’s comedic set-piece in *The Moviegoer*? As I said to friends when NPR reintroduced “This I Believe” a few years ago, NPR has some moxy to bring back a feature that was satirized so brilliantly through the character of Binx Bollling. Binx, frustrated by the vacuous comments of “the highest minded people in our country,” who regularly recommend “peace” and “love,” sends in his own tape. His own version of “This I Believe” is a breath of fresh air: “Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer living in New Orleans. … I believe in a good kick in the ass.” Easy self-indulgent platitudes are met with the solitude of existential awareness.

    Perhaps we all need that? Especially insomniac theologians like myself.

    Happy Easter.

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