March 26, 2007
Speaking of Speaking of Faith
— Martin E. Marty
My website reminds readers that I cannot write dust-jacket blurbs for forthcoming books, a policy explained on the "Regrets" page. Sometimes, however, when I read a manuscript critically for a publisher or an author -- my "Regrets" page also explains why such readings are rare -- and a publisher finds something worth using, that's okay. But enough about me, except for this blurb on the jacket of Krista Tippett's new book, Speaking of Faith. "The brilliance of Krista Tippett's idea is to trust people to use the first person singular, to commit themselves with passion and clarity as they enlarge our urgent national conversation." There's more to say by way of review, but what follows is not a review. It's a case study.
My case: First, don't feel sorry for Ms. Tippett; she hosts a very widely listened-to NPR program, also called "Speaking of Faith." It is the top radio interview on religion nationally, and we are told that "millions" hear it. She just had a strenuous book-signing tour; I missed the chance to meet her in Chicago. The notices this book gets are all positive. So what's the case? I seethe and sulk when I find the media giving space and time to the Ann Coulters on the nut-right, and a good deal of space and time to those whom reviewer Brad Robideau refers to as the battle criers of "the end of faith" and "the God delusion." Meanwhile, Tippett, and others like her, while by no means out of view, still do not generate the audiences and responses that the noisy extremists do. So I seethe and sulk a bit when those who complain that they are alienated by the extremes in religions often do not bother with Tippett and her kind.
Tippett has interviewed a large and diverse cast of characters, and draws on that experience in her book, which is, in some sense, like a first draft of a memoir -- she's too young to be taking a long look back. The book offers a concise look at her Southern Baptist childhood, a temporary drift from faith, political correspondence years, learning at Yale Divinity School, and the invention of her NPR program. The result is not an egocentric program or book, but a set of testimonies filtered through her experience. Tippett neither hides her own faith nor parades it, but uses it as a base for drawing out the personal experiences of her interviewees and quotees.
Where are we? With respect to public religion I used to say that the excitement was at the conjunction of "the left of the right and the right of the left, which is not the center." Left of the right: "open," engaged and engaging evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, and one kind of Catholics. Right of the left: mainstream Protestants, Reform and Conservative Jews, and many other kinds of Catholics who are mindful of and draw on tradition as they fashion new themes. Polemicists and firebrands often dismiss such people as "moderates," and imply that, because these "moderates" are not verbal street-fighters, they have nothing to say. Contrariwise, they usually have the most to say -- but in our present culture it is harder for them to get a hearing.
Tippett is not alone as author or broadcaster. I think of Bob Abernethy of "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly," who is publishing soon. I hope Tippett's example will inspire still others among her spiritual kin to be forthright, and to better understand how and that they are "speaking of faith," not shouting about it. Case closed.
The alternative to extremism is not wishy-washiness but good sense.
Krista Tippett's book Speaking of Faith is available from Viking Adult. For more information about the radio program "Speaking of Faith," visit: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism: Religious, Irreligious, and Areligious" by W. Clark Gilpin. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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