A Radio Show About Nothing

“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Loosely translated: “About which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”  In other words if you don’t have something intelligent or useful to say, just be quiet.

If Public Radio lived by Ludwig’s rule then some things would change.  “Speaking of Faith” would have been called “Not Speaking of Faith” and would have consisted of an hour of blessed silence.  Of course that show, which I think I’ve mentioned once or twice on this blog, has been born again as “Krista Tippett on Being.”  It would have to become “Krista Tippett on Nothing,” which can only be an improvement.

But the main thing that would happen, freeing up countless hours of currently wasted time, is that NPR would have to cease its breathless, obsessive handicapping of upcoming elections.  I have railed against the horse-race nature of what passes for political coverage on NPR several times before but, shockingly, it appears to be having no effect.  In fact things are getting worse.

How many radio hours have been wasted in the last month breathlessly poring over the latest poll numbers and pre-announcing the imminent demise of the Democratic majority?  Even more than the number of hours spent during the approach of last year’s “nothing to see here” off-year elections.  Remember how it was supposed to be a big revolution?

I have three explanations for the amount of blather on this topic.  First of all the press thrives on reporting on conflict and change, so the prospect of party turnover interests them far more than what the new party in power will actually try to do.  Second the coverage of polls is a low risk for them politically because they’re just talking about poll results so they can go on for hours without worrying about appearing to be, God forbid, non objective.

Finally it’s easy.  Which makes me think they are lazy.  It’s like filler.  “Hey, guys, can you fill up ten minutes talking about poll results?”  “No problem!!”

Sucking Up To Faith

The moderate success of Speaking of Faith has stimulated the New York Times religion section to emit a sticky-icky paean to our Krista, midwifed by Columbia  journalism professor and web domain eponym Samuel Freedman.  (Even Krista Tippett doesn’t yet use her own vanity web domain, and Krista Tippett barely allows people to use pronouns when referring to Krista Tippett.)

The short review: Get a room, you two!

The headline should have read “Self-Promoting Journalist Enjoys Time With Self-Promoting Journalist, Seeks Dinner, Movie.

So that you can get the gist without actually subjecting yourself to the article, I’ve turned excerpts into a found Mad-Lib.

Please submit your best efforts.  If it comes out porn it’s really not my fault.  I promise this is really from the R-rated profile and is not the opening to a Harlequin Romance novel:

…all of which made her wonder why, with a fulsome __(noun)__ and a social __(noun)__ to match, she felt “really __(adj)__ in ways I couldn’t acknowledge or even explain.”

So it was odder still, as she moved onto __(noun)__ , to __(verb)__ with an old, unbidden sensation.  She told herself at first that she just wanted to __(verb)__ . Then she admitted that what she was doing was __(gerund)__, returning not to the fierce __(noun)__ of her Southern Baptist upbringing but surely to the way it taught her how to __(verb)__ __(preposition)__ God.

“Religion is a touchy subject. You’re really getting at the core of people’s __(noun)__, an intimate place. This religious sphere in our public life is very charged, and I want to __(verb)__ that.”

Then she won admission to Brown and recast herself as an __(noun)__, taking up the study of German literature and history, and __(gerund)__ in the same __(noun)__ as John F. Kennedy Jr.

“Won admission?!?”  “WON admission??!”  Seriously?  Did she have to defeat someone in mortal combat?  Who the hell says that?!  More importantly, who says that about Brown?!  Shouldn’t the phrase be “weathered admission to Brown”, “covered up admission to Brown”, or just “settled for admission to Brown”?  And what is it with the triumphalist verbs relating Krista Tippett to higher education?  Avid readers of this blog will recall that she “emerged” from Yale Div.  I guess it’s just my hyper-sensitivity to language.  After all, I studied English Literature after wresting an Ivy League admission myself.

Can anyone enlighten me as to the relevance of her sharing a dorm with John F. Kennedy Jr?  Is that some kind of euphemism?  And, oh, while we’re non sequitur name dropping a K-Bomb, there’s another dweller in imaginary English castles, Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter movies, who “won admission” to Brown.  I’ll expect them to mention that in the name-dropping errata section usually monopolized by glittery omissions from “Weddings of the Times.”

According to the article, Tippett claims “parsing” familiarity with ancient Greek.  Is this hyperbole or does she prefer to secrete her polymathematics deep inside pop-theology books so as not to overawe her guests and listeners.  Perhaps she publishes her New Testament exegeses pseudonymously with, of course, the Yale University Press…the same press that wouldn’t publish the Dutch cartoons of Mo- Mu- uhmm Mohu – wait – Muhammed in a book written exclusively on the subject of the Dutch cartoons of Mohammad. That’s the kind of bravery to which Speaking of Faith should dedicate an episode!

Or maybe she simply attended, excuse me, won admission to, one of Yale Div’s summer language classes.  By that yardstick I’m a Catullus scholar.  My pathetic seventh and eighth grade Latin teacher who was killing time until she won admission to Pharmacy school will be so proud to hear it.

Much is also made of her work as a “diplomat” during the cold war.  I’d love to know the details of those adventures given that her mastery of statecraft evidently informs her career as self-appointed ecumenical referee.

And finally Krista’s boyfriend – I mean interviewer – gets in a little dig at, I have to believe, your humble servant.

He states:

…she has been criticized at times on the blogosphere for a perceived timidity.

Guilty as charged, Professor!

Of course in the long run she wins because, as noted Catholic Sunday School Teacher St. Stephen Colbertius so often reminds us, the market has spoken.

On the other hand since she produces a radio show designed to pander to the religious among us, i.e. pretty much everyone on earth, 600,000 listeners is only a drop in the bucket.  She’s got a long way to go if she wants to placate and fail to challenge all 6 billion religious folks on Earth, many of whom can’t find a Minnesota Public Radio affiliate on their dials.

She’d better hurry, British Petroleum seems to be trying to set her a time limit.

St Krista

The religion of “belief in belief” now has a saint!

Here is her icon:

How shocking that Krista “I’m Krista Tippett” Tippett would select this particular cover art. Did anyone suggest an image of Einstein?  Or God?  At least BB Hagerty had the good taste to slap a scientifical image on the cover of her recent “Some scientists are religious!” tell-all.

Anyhoo…

Note the mystical, crepuscular background of this auto-canonization.  It symbolizes – could it be? – the half-lite of the day god (sun/knowledge) as it mixes with the night goddess (moon/irrationality).

A little on the nose don’t ya think?

“Personal Miracles” My Behind

Scott “There Goes Cryin’ ” Simon, NPR Nation’s reliably lachrymose Saturday morning sentimentalist, spent a tellingly lengthy, as well as tellingly mild, chunk of the show today conducting the full range of what public radio recognizes as religious discussion.  On the one hand, in a segment entitled with gratuitous obsequiousness “Oral Roberts Leaves Personal Miracles Behind,” there were the red state red meat Oral Roberts adherents, who happen to be true believers in some rather specific and rather extreme doctrines. One of them claimed he was, as a child, on the receiving end of an actual healing miracle. (WTF?  Is this NPR or CBN!?)  And in this corner, representing the blue states, there was Mitch Albom, who declared his admiration for a more Krista Tippett sort of faith, where it’s the faith journey that’s good in and of itself, pretty much regardless of what the beliefs are or how sincerely they are ultimately accepted by their professors.

And that’s really the problem.  The latter makes it impossible to robustly interrogate the former.  A lack of confidence in one’s own belief system, something of which I’ve accused the public radio upper middlebrow intellectual ecosystem many times before, makes it impossible to offer thoroughgoing coverage of a subject.

An interview subject on a news program needs to be challenged, or what’s the point of having the interview? I admit, Scott soft-balled a question along the lines of “what if your miracle was just a coincidental recovery from an allergic reaction,” but that’s really, really not good enough.  A leisurely 30 second googling of the Oral Roberts empire of Elmer Gantry charlatanism will yield untold treasures for the journalist wanting to talk about something of importance.

Here are a few suggested topics that are immediately relevant to Robert’s death:

  • What is the prosperity gospel?  Is it uniquely American?  What does it say about us as a country?  Did it contribute to our recent economic downturn?
  • There is a spectrum of prosperity gospel purveyors.  On one extreme you have Nigerian mountebank “pastors” who are so evil they cause little boys to be murdered in order to increase their own notoriety as witch hunters and thereby raise more money from their gullible flocks.  On the other extreme, I assume, you may find sincerely misguided leaders who honestly think god will improve your material circumstances to reward faith and, of course, tithing.  Where on this spectrum did Oral Roberts sit?  (By the way NPR never covered the “little boy witches” story even though it’s perfect for Gwen Thompkins.)
  • Pentecostalism is growing rapidly all over the world.  What is it?  Why is it becoming so popular?
  • And so much more…

But instead of taking on these kinds of questions we get the standard kid glove treatment.  Barbara Bradley Hagerty‘s not going to ask them.  All she could bring herself to do in her unenlightening and pointless obituary was give him credit for reinventing televangelism and mention briefly his too-notorious-to-ignore-even-for-Barbara claim that god would kill him if he didn’t raise $8 million.

Krista Tippet’s not going to ask them. “Prosperity gospel” is barely mentioned on the Speaking of Faith website.  You’d think they’d get around to that a few episodes before Ambian-outmoding esoterica like “Re imagining Sitting Bull“.  (Or maybe “Sitting Bull” is a yoga posture?  That would explain it.)

Why are they doing such a piss-poor job of this?  There are two reasons.  First, there is the aforementioned dearth of cojones as either journalists or philosophers that results in an inability to really take on these subjects.  Second, they think discussions of religion that are anything other than “nice” are dangerous and unpleasant so they simply choose to pretend that religious activities and ideas that aren’t nice don’t exist.

For an alternative treatment of Oral Robert’s death I strongly recommend Karen Spears Zacharias‘ take on it.  She, herself a faithful believer in a teleology a bit more specific and full throated than Karen Armstrongian Neo/Pseudo/Crypto deism, has absolutely no problem calling it like it is. But I don’t think you’ll hear anything like this on public radio, especially not on Speaking of Faaaaaith.

Come on Scott, I know you’d love to interview her.  After all, she’s been mentioned in the same log roll with Fanny Flagg, one of your favorites I’m certain.

As a side note I’d like to thank “Entertainment Weekly” reviewer Jennifer Reese for describing Albom as setting “tough new standards for sticky sentimentality [and] insipid moralizing” in “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”.  That’s right, a glossy excuse for movie and cosmetics ads puts Weekend Edition to shame, even at the risk of alienating an advertiser.

Public Radio could really use a bit more of this kind of attitude, which is only found on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and “On The Media,” and then all too infrequently and inconsistently.  I mean I understand the semi-ironic impetus for having on Andy Williams at Christmas time, but come on.  The guy said Obama’s a Marxist who wants our country to fail.  Now those are fightin’ words which, and this is the point, invite the same, not misty memories of watching Christmas specials last century.

Krista Tippett’s Agenda: Kum Ba Yuck

Oh lord, kum bia yuck...
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A commenter who somehow managed to overcome the recent technical problems this blog has been having with too many people trying to comment at the same time posed the following question this morning:

What is Krista Tippett’s agenda?

This is an intriguing query.  Since I can’t hear the vocal inflection of the person who asked it I can’t tell if it’s sarcastic or serious, but it deserves exploration.  It spurred me to think and research more about the whole problem with much religious “journalism” in general and Speaking of Faith in particular.

It turns out that the agenda of SoF is a bit hard to tie down because they don’t seem to have an official mission statement on the SoF website.  Their stated priciples are, unsurprisingly, couched in a warm miasma of platitudes:

When she [Tippett] emerged [like Venus from the sea!] with a Master of Divinity from Yale in 1994, she saw a black hole where intelligent coverage of religion should be.

The black-hole-generating religion reporters who worked before 1994 have got to feel good about that one!

…she began to imagine radio conversations about the spiritual and intellectual content of faith that would enliven and open imaginations and public discussion.

She draws out the intersection of theology and human experience, of grand religious ideas and real life.

Evidently Krista didn’t study a lot of geometry at Yale Div, as I’m not sure how you “draw out an intersection.”  I just can’t tell if she means “clearly delineate” or “smudge beyond recognition.”

So an outright mission statement from SoF seems a bit elusive, maybe ineffable or even transcendent.  Sound familiar?  Maybe you can only have a poetic way of knowing the agenda of Speaking of Faith.  Maybe you have to look at it sideways.

Or maybe you need to look at their sponsor.

A primary sponsor of SoF appears to be, from the prevalence of their ads on the SoF website, the Fetzer Insitute. Luckily for my purpose they aren’t shy about articulating their mission statement:

The Fetzer Institute advances love and forgiveness as powerful forces that can transform the human condition.

Wow, who could be against that?  “Advancing” is a weak, vague verb to use in the context of love and forgiveness, however, so let’s take a closer look what they actually do.  Their programs range from extremely laudable sounding, if quixotic, world peace initiatives to less universally approved-of claptrap consisting of new age healing and spiritualism mixed with junk science some of which reads exactly like jacket copy for Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

So what we’ve discovered is nothing less than a teeming nest of modern Theosophers.  These folks find the hardscrabble wonders of rationalist secular knowledge to be unfulfilling, uninspriring unless they are spiced with heaping helpings of tired, intellectually empty and dishonest but highly decorated teleologies.

These sentiments have a corrupting influence on public discourse and encourage what atheists call “woo.”  Woo is a helpful category that refers holistically to irrational beliefs, especially in the realm of health care.  The problem with woo is that it can kill.  When Christian Scientists or Jehovah’s Witnesses or New Age cult members refuse modern medical help for their children, and the children die, that’s the dark side of all this spiritual role-playing.  What if deluded, costumed, Klingon-speaking Star Trek fans refused actual medicine in favor of a spray painted salt shaker they claim is a treatment from the 23rd century?  What really makes that different?  And should we really be spending money on trying to detect souls with fMRI machines when, for example, vaccine production is so slow and antiquated?

The real “black hole” in religious journalism, at least since the “emergence” of Tippett, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Karen Armstrong and the rest of the weak teleologists, is the inability of such people to be objective.  They see a noble heart in, as far as I can tell, every religious or spiritual idea they’ve ever covered.

Isn’t it frighteningly easy to imagine a friendly hour-long interview between Krista and, say, Jim Jones, or Charles Manson?

Ultimately what fails to satisfy about Speaking of Faith is the extreme ecumenicism Tippett’s “agenda” requires.  It’s intellectually crippling, akin to a restaurant which tries to delight both big game bush-meat lovers and vegan PETA activists.  Everyone likes to eat, right?  They have that much in common, so it’ll be great!

Imagine if “On the Media” had a similar mission?  The whole point of the show would disappear.  No malefactor would be thoroughly investigated or subjected to cleansing, well-deserved ridicule.  So when an agenda like that of Krista’s Theosophical Sunday School infects public radio for two hours every weekend, taking up space where a superior program might thrive, it annoys me.  And I’m not alone.

You may not be surprised to learn that one of the most common google search queries leading people to this blog is as follows:

Krista Tippett Annoying

She’s Krista Tippett

Sometimes it’s like the rain.

“I’m Krista Tippett.”

“I’m Krista Tippett.”

“I’m Krista Tippett.”

“And this is…” <pause> “…Speaking of Faaaaiiiiith.”

How does she always manage to say it exactly the same way? And is it just me or does she say her name a lot more than other public radio hosts? Oh well, she’s Krista Tippett.

A probing, clear eyed analysis of religion in modern life is a great idea for a show, but SoF’s editorial stance, which seems to me to be something along the lines of “isn’t it just so nice that people are religious!” (what Daniel Dennett calls “Belief in belief“), leaves me a little cold. The episodes I’ve heard tend to sound like commercials for the ideas/dogmas the guests espouse. Krista rarely challenges them.

A laudable but all-too-brief exception occurred in a recent interview with a Mormon scholar. There is a Thanksgiving cornucopia of refutations to bring against Mormon historical and theological claims, but Krista chose only one. It was a good one, though. Mormon founder Joseph Smith miraculously “translated” some actual hieroglyphic scrolls (before anyone knew how to!) which were subsequently lost and then rediscovered in the 1960s, by which time humankind had mastered non-miraculous hieroglyphic translation. Inconveniently for Tippett’s guest it turns out Smith’s version was the very worst kind of bullshit. Krista actually brought this situation up with the scholar (go Krista!!) and received an amusingly meaningless response. (Imagine how entertaining and socially beneficial an hour of that kind of hot seat would be!)

You see, the scholar explained, that whole translation gotcha isn’t irrefutable evidence for Smith’s brazen charlatanism, rather it is simply one of the solemn mysteries of the Mormon faith!

Wow.  Maybe in 150 years people will consider the whole Enron thing as a solemn mystery of some future faith which some future version of Krista “I’m Krista Tippett” Tippett can ask a believer politely about.

One other thing bugs me about SoF. In an oft-played promo for the show Krista states “you won’t hear many religious authorities” on the show.

I have two problems with this.

First of all, Krista has a Masters from Yale Divinity School. Doesn’t that qualify her as an authority?

Secondly, what the hell is wrong with authority?