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Phyllis Alsdurf

Good Listener

Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith.

In Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett's account of her odyssey as a public radio host, the former member of the U.S. diplomatic corps and international news correspondent admits to a "habitual longing to save the world." It's an impulse she has tempered over the years by cultivating the discipline of listening. The book offers a forthright chronicle of her "adventure in conversation" as creator and host of American Public Media's program Speaking of Faith, weaving together spiritual memoir with reflections on her interactions with radio guests and some of the many intellectual and spiritual influences in her life. The book also serves as an apologetic for the style of narrative journalism that she practices.

One of a small cadre of broadcast journalists who speak intelligently about the religious dimension of public life, Tippett knows that listening is as much a professional necessity as a spiritual exercise. And as fans of her radio program will attest, listening and asking smart questions that get people to talk openly about their faith is something that Tippett does very well. The granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher who espoused a stern fundamentalist faith, Tippett left that brand of Christianity behind in Oklahoma when she headed east to attend Brown University. (A study-abroad program took her to East Germany in the 1980s.) Subsequently involved as a Fulbright Scholar in the high-powered world of international journalism and American diplomacy, Tippett for a time was energized by the conviction that the world's problems could best be addressed in the political realm. Soon, however, she began to find this perspective too confining: "There is at any given moment much reality we do not see, and more change possible than we can begin to imagine," she writes, citing the dismantling of the Iron Curtain as a case in point.

She had worked as a stringer for the New York Times, Newsweek, and the BBC while in Europe and as special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to West Germany, experiences that left her disillusioned not only with the crossfire approach to journalism that tends to "simplify and flatten" spiritual content but also with the "impoverished inner lives" of so many of the powerbrokers with whom she had contact. Tippett's search subsequently took her to Yale Divinity School, where she explored how narrative theology could be translated into a journalistic paradigm.

Written in response to the many questions Tippett has received over the years from her listeners, the book chronicles her loss of faith and its recovery, her divorce and struggles with depression, but it isn't primarily about her own life. Tippett has declined in most interviews to reveal her own religious affiliation other than to say that she is a Christian. "I'm immersed," she said. "I'm involved. This part of my life is well developed, and I don't apologize for it."

Rather, the book tells of Tippett's efforts to rethink the religious dogmatism of her youth and learn to live with "seemingly unanswerable questions." Among the spiritual values she clings to is the humility to approach any idea that is "new and other with a sense of curiosity and wonder" and an acceptance of mystery as "the crux of religion." She writes: "We are talking about something that is ineffable, trying to put words around something that will always, ultimately, defy them. We do our best. But we are left, in the end, with arms full, minds full, of mystery."

On her hour-long program, heard each week by half a million public radio listeners, Tippett interviews theologians, scientists, and social activists, police officers, politicians, and poets. They talk in the first person about how they live out their faith. The program is not about religion, Tippett is quick to point out, but about "how religion flows through and infuses and informs all aspects of individual and public life."

Her goal when she proposed the program in the late '90s was to give people in the middle of the religious spectrum a voice. "I was dismayed with the black hole where the religious dimension of life might have been on public radio," she says. "I longed to add depth to the way religious ideas made their way into public conversation. I believed that these kinds of ideas belonged in the mix of resources by which we navigate all the important issues of our common life." Exploring topics as wide-ranging as Pentecostalism and paganism, Einstein's ethics and whale songs, Tippett offers in-depth, one-on-one conversations. On air, she speaks in a warm and winsome manner, hesitating here and there, mulling over ideas, halting at times to reframe an issue as she listens to other people talk intimately about how they understand and live out their faith.

Not surprisingly, she writes in the same disarming voice, telling her story as a minor theme in relationship to the big ideas that have formed her perspective. As she travels in the "company of others"—physicist John Polkinghorne, Jewish bioethicist Laurie Zoloth, theologians Miroslav Volf and Roberta Bondi, writer Elie Wiesel, Indian journalist Pankaj Mishra, religious historian Karen Armstrong, to name but a few—Tippett melds her story into theirs. She eschews media sound bites about religion for a kind of journalism that is both more constructive and more difficult to practice.

Tippett uses her pulpit—both in print and broadcast—to preach the healing power of conversation. "Something magical happens in a real conversation," she writes, "where people bring the clearest words they can muster, and the most natural, to matter and meaning. Paradoxically, what is most personal also lands in other ears as most universal." She says she no longer looks for solutions, systems and overarching themes that "apply to all people and all places." Instead, honoring the humanity of "different others" is her task. Her goal is not to champion a particular worldview, but to "keep sense and virtue and the possibility of healing alive in the middle of the world's complexity."

A commitment to finding the truth in all religious traditions may keep the conversation going, but it can avoid facing the unbridgeable abyss that exists between many religious traditions. The tension for Christians, of course, is that personal experience is not the bedrock of faith, and a focus on first-person narratives may only contribute to the "Sheilaism" or intensive privatization of faith that Robert Bellah warned of back in the '80s. Enamored of mystery, nuance, and questioning even as she finds herself delving into faith systems that are built on certainties and absolutes, Tippett may have chosen a stance that keeps her in a sort of spiritual limbo, where she is ever encouraging of others' accounts of their faith but is left standing on the sidelines of religious experience herself.

Tippett says she has opted for a "clear-eyed faith" that asks her to confront both her own failings and the world's horrors. For her, the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, to repair the world, is one that holds special resonance. Clearly, listening to others has become a way for Tippett to repair if not save the world—one conversation at a time.

Phyllis Alsdurf directs the journalism program at Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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