Culture At Large

With Friends Like These: A Podcast with 1 Corinthians Principles

Aarik Danielsen

Everyone needs a friend like Ana Marie Cox.

With a political scientist’s head and a punk rocker’s heart, Cox has written for The New York Times Magazine, MTV News, and Rolling Stone, among others, garnering more than a million Twitter followers. In 2017, she launched the podcast With Friends Like These. An early graphic for the show featured mirror images of George Washington, one wearing a Make America Great Again cap and the other the pink anatomical hat made famous at the 2017 Women’s March. Yet the show never dances the do-si-do of equal time and faux objectivity. With Friends Like These isn’t where the pundit class goes to hear itself talk. Cox initiates conversations so others might be heard.

Cox often frames With Friends Like These as an examination of “messy coalitions,” of the hard limits and malleable borders of our humanity, of the power of politics to change relationships and vice versa. Possessing the right alloy of fearlessness and vulnerability, the show is indeed a beautiful mess.

Cox laughs to keep from crying with comedians such as W. Kamau Bell and John Moe. She analyzes the “how did we get here” of American evangelicalism with the likes of Jemar Tisby. Writers such as Rembert Browne sound out profound moments in live, longform readings. When journalist Ira Madison III riffs on being “the black friend” to numerous white people, it partially indicts Cox and brings reality home.

Episodes yield hidden-in-plain-sight proverbs such as “Discomfort is a tool of oppression” and “Being called racist is white people’s kryptonite.” The show finds its way in awkward exchanges and apologies as well as hearty laughs and affirmation. Cox knows when to press a guest and when to live and let live, which bridges to build and which ones to burn.

Cox initiates conversations so others might be heard.

Cox came to Christianity as an adult; rather than hide it under a bushel, her little light permeates With Friends Like These. No doubt conservative-leaning Christians will find much to quibble with in her progressive expressions of faith and politics. But when the spiritual engine of the show fires on all cylinders, Cox might as well be recording with 1 Corinthians flipped open before her. With Friends Like These relies on people society often casts away—black men and women, those with disabilities—to shame conventional wisdom. Like the Apostle Paul, Cox sets aside her rights—to indulge privilege, to save face, even the right to be right—for the sake of empathy.

Describing her faith, Cox often borrows a phrase from her recovery community. Christianity is a “program of attraction,” in which winsomely living out one’s values matters most. Here, Cox most fully takes after Paul, who became “all things to all people” in order to win some.

Cox never pretends to be all things to all people, but manages a ratio of many-to-many. To Never Trumpers, she is a sister-in-arms, even as she wonders aloud what becomes of their alliance beyond this administration. To conservative evangelicals, she is someone who performs the kindness of asking good questions. To those in recovery or facing mental-health issues, she is a fellow traveler. To progressives, she is a peer who sounds the semper reformanda cry. Cox doesn’t try to win listeners to Christianity, or even some personal social gospel. Rather, by being many things to many people, she hopes to win listeners to one more conversation, to a surprising act of kindness, to another day without giving up on or writing off their neighbors.

Sometimes my gut reacts with a “so close, yet so far away” feeling to expressions of Cox’s spiritual and social doctrines. And yet I keep listening. To win people back in the wake of dissonance seems like the whole point of With Friends Like These. The show wins me back to the recognition that other people’s ideas aren’t irritants under my skin or something that will infect my orthodoxy. Rather, With Friends Like These encourages me to hear people out, to listen beyond easy labels. The show reinforces David Dark’s beautifully salient point: “When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully. I no longer have to feel overwhelmed by their complexity, the lives they live, the dreams they have.”

Cox’s work wins me to this train of thought weekly, and that makes her a true friend in this time of need.

Topics: Culture At Large