Which is one of the reasons I was swooning to hear that a U.S. president this week gave a major award — the 2013 National Humanities Medal — to a religion reporter! In the small pool of journalists who cover religion, Krista Tippett is The Big Fish. Her show “On Being” is on 334 radio stations, and her podcast is downloaded 1.5 million times a month. I’m pretty sure there is no one else who covers religious and spiritual issues with an audience anywhere near that size.
In announcing the award last week, the White House said Tippett was getting it for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.” That ain’t a bad job description. I couldn’t help wondering the same thing about Tippett that others wonder about me: How does all this delving affect her faith?
In Washington for the award, Tippett was kind enough to do an interview with me, starting with her answer to this question:
How has religion reporting impacted your own faith?
I grew up Southern Baptist. I think the word ‘mystery,’ this notion of the limits of your own knowledge, this idea of an open space — that was something scary you didn’t want to go towards. What I find in very wise people [whom I interview], and even at the heart of things like where religious people are in the most fruitful dialogue with science or other faiths is that these are people who really honor mystery. Ten years ago I don’t think I would have said that such a big piece [of my own experience] is a delight in mystery…it’s very real for me and it’s so much more expansive than it was 10 years ago. We are so animated by things we can’t pin down and understand.
What about when you started “On Being” in 2003 (when it was called “Speaking of Faith”)?
In the early 2000s, we had very politicized religious voices in the headlines. Then we had around the Sept. 11 [attacks] violence in the name of religion in the news. Then the sex abuse scandals and as you and I know, that’s not the whole story of religion. It’s challenging to cover the best of religion because the best of religion has qualities of humility. The best religious voices and lives are the last to throw themselves in front of microphones. It’s a quiet story, it’s a story of every day goodness.
How did people see you when you started?
In journalism 10 years ago, there was a wariness inside public radio that I was a person of faith and that somehow rendered me unable to be objective and even reasonable. It’s irrational. I understand that’s a 20th century bias, but you wouldn’t trust a political reporter who didn’t vote. If I don’t have some personal stake, some inside knowledge — to say that I have a religious life is like saying that the economic reporter has a financial life. That says nothing.
We apply sometimes for government grant money and in the early days there was a lot of hesitance: Can you talk about this? Could we promote something related to religion? Even using the word ‘mystery’ — I don’t think anyone thought that was respectable language. This is all a suggestion that the world has changed.
How do you identify your own faith?
I’m a very average American; right now I don’t go to church every Sunday but that hasn’t always been true and won’t always be. I was raised a Southern Baptist, then for a while I wasn’t religious at all. Now I am a Christian. How much I go to church and my practices change over the years. The bottom line is: Christianity is my mother tongue and that’s just as true as it was 10 years ago.
Sometimes people choose jobs for their own needs. Were you, or are you looking to answer something by choosing a job based on religious and spiritual questions?
I was very political in my 20s [Tippett was a freelance journalist in her 20s, in the 1980s, in divided Berlin. She later became a special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to West Germany]. I was a non-religious person after having grown up in a religion-soaked culture. When I found myself coming out of a divided Berlin, asking, to my own surprise, religious and spiritual questions and gravitating toward taking religion seriously, I wasn’t sure that you could have a life of the mind and a deep religious life. I went to divinity school [at Yale University] posing that question. I couldn’t take religion seriously if I couldn’t have a robust life of the mind. Then when I came out [of divinity school] in the mid-90s, it was the Moral Majority, and it was such a narrow and anti-intellectual slice of religiosity. Starting the radio show I was saying: I think we could have a show on faith, on public radio that has all those values of intelligence and balance. This would be a religious space that would open minds.
Did being a religion-oriented journalist change your role inside your community? Are you the rabbi among your family and friends, the one people go to to talk ethics?
I have two children (a daughter, 20, and son, 15). They keep me grounded. If I ever started to feel like a sage they’d put a pin in it. Some of the places it’s most challenging to live out these ideals is with the people closest to you.
How is the show doing now?
We are on 334 stations now, compared to two when we started. There are still skeptics out there who aren’t sure this content belongs on public radio, but the world has changed so much. What’s growing fast now is the podcast — we have 1.5 million downloads a month. There are so many young people pouring into the space. They are really wanting to be whole human beings. That’s the only way I can put it. The institutions they grew up with, they are going to have to recreate: What education looks like, what politics looks like, what the church looks like. And they define themselves in very diverse and fluid ways.
The show’s whole vibe is about being open. But don’t you ever just feel like arguing with people?
I should have said, we do not invite the strident voices on either side. I don’t have people who are at the poles. Part of that is, those people get a lot of coverage already, and also because I think we frame so many of our really important discussions in terms of those poles. But most of us are somewhere in the middle. I’m also not sure there is such a thing as the center, so that’s not our goal.
There is this thing in journalism where there’s a reverence for the tough question. But that’s more about the journalist than about the quality of the answer I’m going to get. If I’m trying to really draw someone out — it’s as intimate as sex if I’m really drawing them out of themselves. If I start arguing I’ll just send them back in. I do ask questions that are challenging. But if I have someone on it’s because they have some wisdom that’s worth sharing.
I find that because I spend all day as a reporter engaging with people on religious and spiritual issues, it can sometimes feel like that’s a primary part of my own faith life. Can your job as a religion reporter turn into your religious practice?
Karen Armstrong once said: ‘My work is my prayer.’ Yes, it feels like a vocation, a calling. It’s enriching.