Arts & Leisure

On Being with Krista Tippett—and Jesus?

Tamara Hill Murphy

If you’ve followed faith podcasts for any length of time, you’ve heard of the award-winning On Being with Krista Tippett. Depending on your comfort level with discussions of religion in general, you’ve responded to the show with appreciation or apprehension. I swing back and forth between the two.

I’m grateful that in a post-Christian world, someone provides a public space for discussions of “faith, ethics, and moral wisdom.” And I’m grateful for Tippett’s hospitable approach to the lived experiences of her guests, who represent various faith backgrounds. At the same time, I long for the Gospel of Christ to be presented with a grace that is unafraid of difficult differences yet remains faithful to the truth of Scripture and creed. Tippett consistently models one part of this equation beautifully; the other is more difficult to pin down.

Since 2001, first as a radio program and now as a podcast, Tippett has interviewed a wide range of people representing art, science, academia, religion, and social action. Whether her guests have professed any faith tradition or none, from Danah Boyd to the Dalai Lama, Miroslav Volf to Maya Angelou, Tippett’s opening question remains the same: “What was the religious or spiritual background to your childhood?”

Tippett’s own faith background is rooted in the Christian tradition influenced most notably by her grandfather, a Southern Baptist preacher in Oklahoma. In various interviews and in her bestselling books, Tippett tells the story of growing up in a religion-soaked culture that contrasted starkly with the environment she encountered in her post-university work in the 1980s in Cold War Europe. In the mid-1990s, disillusioned by the limits of political and journalistic work to address what it means to be human, she returned to the United States to study theology at Yale Divinity school. She wanted her work to offer a response to the “black hole where intelligent coverage of religion should be” and to the political presence of conservative Christians she felt had distorted the rhetoric of faith.

Christ’s questions are asked with a different kind of generosity.

An exchange during a recent episode provides an excellent summary of what motivates her work. In a conversation with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, the discussion turned to the value of making connections across religious boundaries. Tippett referred to such a connection as a profound paradox: “ don’t give up the ground you stand on, right? The world becomes larger because you have seen this other, and you may have an appreciation for them or a curiosity about what they bring into the world, but it’s also, the ground beneath your feet is somehow richer and more interesting.”

Earlier this year, Biola University hosted a live recording of On Being. In a Q&A session prior to the event, Tippett described her interview approach as one of genuine curiosity, and stressed that a hospitality toward differences is especially appealing to the “young among us growing up in this world of plurality.”

At the end of the conversation, a Biola representative reflected on the possible similarities between the On Being podcast and Jesus’ approach to conversation—that of a generous, steady questioner and listener. The possibility had occurred to me also. I began to study On Being transcripts for an inventory of Tippett’s questions. The more I considered these alongside the questions Jesus asks throughout the Gospels, the better I understood where Jesus might fit in on an On Being episode, and it wouldn’t be in Tippett’s chair.

It seems to me that Christ’s questions are asked with a different kind of generosity, one that attributes authority to his Father in no uncertain terms. While his storytelling and conversational approach often lead to the sort of beautiful mystery valued among podcast subscribers (see: all the parables), his encounters seem to be more about provoking a decision than opening a dialogue. Imagine an episode of On Being with Jesus as the guest:

Tippett: “How did your family influence your calling and vocation?”
Jesus: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?
Tippett: “What gives you hope?”
Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Tippett: “How would you describe yourself?”
Jesus: “Who do people say the Son of Man is? ...what about you? ...Who do you say that I am?”

Where Tippett’s questions foster an enigma by way of diverse theologies, Jesus’ questions invite a clear response. In his conversational genius, Jesus both honors and makes visible the mystery of the unseen God.

We’d all be wise to represent the immutable with grace and humility. As people of faith living among a diversity of faith traditions, we can learn much from the thoughtfulness and skill that Tippett models beautifully in each interview. To that method, I’d add a principle of ministry modeled by my husband, an Anglican priest, who combines the wisdom and work of religion professor James Davison Hunter and Rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman into something he describes as “faithful, non-anxious presence.” This goal—to be faithful to the orthodox understanding of the Christian Bible, present bodily and hospitably to the world around us, yet unanxious in our encounters because we are secure in our identity with Christ—is a powerful antidote to what has gone wrong in Christian witness throughout history.

Tippett engages influential people in hospitable conversation about the big meaning of life. In her work, she provides a gleaming example of a non-anxious presence, and she gives me hope that there is a way to engage my neighbors in civil, curious, and generous conversation. In our attempt to follow that example, we endeavor also to live and work grounded in an orthodox representation of the Christian faith. And so we continue, as always, to keep our focus on Christ, who is and was and always will be the embodiment of a mysterious God.

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