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Reviewed by Jeff Crosby

Another Way to Talk About Faith

Public radio host Krista Tippett models constructive conversation.

My graduate studies in public discourse last spring brought the point home once again: Speaking about religious faith in contemporary North America is an activity fraught with challenge, misunderstanding, and polarization. Listening to others speak about faith in a meaningful way is no less difficult.

The 30 of us spent four hours together each Thursday evening for ten weeks reading texts on major public-discourse issues, including war, the working poor, gender, inequality in public education, and the environment, among others. By no means was there unanimity on any of these subjects, but we took them up without strain, in vigorous but respectful and effective dialogue. Then came religion.

  In our class discussion on religious faith, responding to Annie Dillard's For the Time Being and Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell, polarization and anxiety kicked in like a full-force gale. I found myself wishing that American Public Media host and author Krista Tippett were in the room with us, moderating the conversation, asking probing yet measured questions, drawing out the stories behind our own belief systems, and reflecting back her own insights from a theologically trained perspective. Alas, that didn't happen, but we have the next best thing: Tippet's book Speaking of Faith.

  Writing at a website devoted to the weekly radio program that carries the same name (www.speakingoffaith.org), Tippett says, "The first-person approach behind 'Speaking of Faith' sidesteps the predictable minefields and opens the subject wide, making it inviting, both in ambiance and substance. It insists that people speak straight from the experience behind their own personal beliefs. How did they come to hold the truths they hold? How are religious insights given depth and nuance by the complexities of life?"

  With the publication of Speaking of Faith, Tippett brings the same first-person approach, gracious spirit, and quest for depth and nuance to print. She acknowledges that some say religious passions are the "cause of our culture's worst divisions, and a threat to democracy and civilization here and abroad" but counters that "what most Americans want, whether they are religious or not, is for the religious voice in our public life to be more constructive—to reflect the capacity religion has to nourish lives and communities."

  Speaking of Faith the book, like the program that inspired it, offers a forum for that constructive discourse and nourishment. Tippett gives a hearing to a diverse range of voices, many of whom appear not to be on the Rolodex of religion journalists, editors and producers when instant sound bites are needed in their coverage of issues. We encounter insights from church historian Martin Marty and best-selling British author Karen Armstrong; from physicist and Anglican clergyman John Polkinghorne and UCLA professor of law and Islamic thinker Khaled Abou El Fadl; from author, activist, and professor Virginia Ramey Mollenkott and Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw; from Nobel Laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and theologian Miroslav Volf. Tippett doesn't ignore the hot-button issues of the day, but her book does not dwell there. Its emphasis is on conversation, not polemics.

  "As a journalist, I'm committed to drawing out the contours and depths of what I call the 'vast middle'—left, right, and center between the poles of competing answers that have hardened our cultural discourse," Tippett writes. "In the vast middle, faith is as much about questioning as it is about certainties. It is possible to be a believer and a listener at the same time, to be both fervent and searching, to nurture a vital identity and to wonder at the identities of others."

Though it is not the focus of Speaking of Faith, Tippett's own journey adds important texture and context to the book and has no doubt marked her desire for understanding the contours and depths of religious faith among those she calls her "conversation partners."

Born on the night John F. Kennedy was elected president, Tippett was reared in Oklahoma, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher she called Gaggy and through whom she "experienced the drama of faith." Early in Tippett's life her parents set aside Gaggy's stern rules for a fallen creation. Though the family went to church on Sunday, "Monday through Friday I was raised to win, to perfect myself, and to do so in the American way of accomplishment and accumulation," she writes. Tippett continued her accomplishments at Brown University and then worked as a journalist in Berlin in the days before the wall dividing east and west was chipped away with mallets both literal and ideological. In the days after her move from Germany to Codford St. Mary in England, she encountered the medieval mystical writings published as The Cloud of Unknowing and her spirituality was re-awakened in a very different form.

At Yale Divinity School she was challenged by New Testament professor Leander Keck to "read the text as a whole and see it in all its complexity." Subsequent readings in Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Kierkegaard further shaped her quest to lean into questions and be suspicious of "isms" and certainties.

In the closing words of Speaking of Faith, Tippett writes that her "head is full of many voices, elegant, wise, strange, full of dignity and grief and hope and grace. Together we find illuminating and edifying words and send them out to embolden work of clarifying, of healing. We speak because we have questions, not just answers, and our questions cleanse our answers and enliven our world."

Speaking of Faith should be required reading for all who are interested in effective public discourse around issues of faith in their broad expressions in contemporary North America. I plan to mail a copy to my public discourse professor, with the hope that she'll assign this book next time around—and let it inform the conversation on faith.

Jeff Crosby is director of sales and marketing at InterVarsity Press in Downers Grove, Illinois. He is the editor and compiler of Days of Grace through the Year, a collection of meditations drawn from the writings of Lewis B. Smedes.

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