Early on Sunday mornings, churches across the nation take over the airwaves. But households that set their dials on a National Public Radio station are likely to hear not the exhortations of an evangelistic preacher but the dulcet voice of Krista Tippett. Like a chameleon, when she speaks with someone who represents a facet of religious (or a-religious) thought, she seems to take on that person’s beliefs. Tippet discusses the traditional religions – all varieties of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists – and also probes the nontraditional – even atheistic – outlooks, those held by everyone from sportscasters to physicists, from mystics to neurosurgeons.
Tippett is a journalist and former diplomat with a divinity degree from Yale. Her "Speaking of Faith" program, a weekly conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas, airs on 200 radio stations across the country, reaching an estimated 500,000 listeners weekly. From her website, www.speakingoffaith.org, there are more than 210,000 downloads per month. Her spiritual autobiography, "Speaking of Faith" (Viking/Penguin) was just released in paperback, and she reads from it on Tuesday, February 5, at 7 p.m. at Princeton University’s McCosh 50. The lecture will be followed by a panel moderated by Carolyn Rouse of the anthropology department, with Leigh Schmidt and Judith Weisenfeld, both of the religion department, and Matt Hedstrom, of the Center for the Study of Religion.
As a long-time fan of Tippett, I ask her in a telephone interview if she serves as a "pastor" for some of her public radio listeners. She vehemently objects to that idea. Though she admits that her conversation program has been called "redemptive," she identifies herself as a journalist and denies that she is any kind of spiritual leader. "If I considered my work a ministry, I could not approach it as journalism. I don’t think I am in the interviews as a minister or a pastor. I see the program as a journalistic endeavor that is trying to be suited to this subject of religion."
Many journalists have difficulty reporting on religion. As she explains in her book, "Investigative journalism excels at exposing vice – the tail end of a definitively failed struggle with light and darkness. I’m not out to investigate (a particular) religion (or vice). I’m out to expose virtue. And virtue is not the exclusive domain of religious people. Religious assertion misrepresented and abused can be far more amoral than an absence of religion. Secular voices (she names Bruce Feiler) are rediscovering core religious ideals."
Tippett grew up in a small Oklahoma town, where her grandfather had been a Baptist preacher and her father a businessman and political operator who picked candidates and managed their campaigns. She graduated from Brown University in 1983, was a Fulbright scholar in Germany, and was a freelance reporter in Berlin for the New York Times, the BBC, and other international news organizations. Later she served as special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to the former West Germany.
After she married Michael Tippett, a Scotsman, they lived in England and then they both went to Yale Divinity School. They moved to Minnesota, where he was called to a church and she became a consultant for the ecumenical institute of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville. Along the way she had two children, worked her way through a clinical depression, and was divorced. Her program at American Public Media began as an occasional feature in 2000 and went weekly, and national, in 2003.
Just as political or business journalists have their own views, Tippet claims the right to have her own opinions about religion, but she conceals them well. In fact, it is hard to discern her opinions because she is so focused on reflecting and probing those of her guests. When she talks to a Jewish theologian, she gives the impression of being Jewish. "My role as a theologically-trained journalist is critical," she writes. "I engage people at that personal level, but I also invite them to articulate the important ideas and the deep, relevant perspectives that faith can add to our private and public lives."
Most often Tippett stays at her home station in Minnesota and speaks to her guest at his or her radio station. "It is very intimate, and I am really relying on the words and the human voice," she says. "What I am getting is what the listener is getting.
"If it is a good conversation, we are both surprised by what we hear and what we give voice to," she writes. "The first person approach opens the subject wide, insisting that people speak straight from the experience behind their personal beliefs. Something magical happens when 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."
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