November 11, 2009

Krista Tippett on Religious Dialogue and Curiosity

Krista Tippett hosts the radio program Speaking of Faith, which deals with "religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas."1 If you enjoy podcasts and you enjoy thinking about religion I can't think of a good reason not to listen to her program. Last night Tippett spoke at the Salt Lake City public library, but earlier in the day she had lunch with some students and faculty at the University of Utah and I was pleased to sit in. It was an informal conversation and I scribbled only a few notes, but wanted to highlight a few points we discussed.

Tippett is soft-spoken but intense and she described becoming more interested in how religion infuses life with meaning while covering politics in Berlin shortly before the wall fell. She said at the time she thought she was dealing with the big issues—weapons, war, government, conflict. She saw people living on the east side of the wall, saw the restrictions under which they lived, but who were able to create huge "inner lives." They made the most of the restrictions because their families became tightly-bound places of refuge and kinship. On the west side she saw people with many more opportunities and freedom making much less of what they had, doing less with more. She marveled at the difference and wondered how some were able to make their own days more important than the nuclear bomb. It was the stories of individuals that really struck her and led her to the show she hosts today which focuses largely on religious individuals and their stories.

One student noted that he felt her show maintained a good balance and demonstrated respect for religious values. He asked how she managed to create that atmosphere and Tippett described a few things she does to foster ecumenical discussion. She wants to understand how religion affects a person's everyday life and so doesn't often engage a guest in abstract questions but rather personal experiences. She had been inspired by Parker Palmer, a Quaker author/educator, who noted that conversations tend to focus on the intellect or the emotions. We are good at stating our opinions, we are good at showing our emotions, but Palmer emphasized the need to seek insight in the soul. In order to do so the environment is crucial, so Tippett tries to create a quiet, inviting, and trustworthy atmosphere. She said the best way she has found to do this is a "first-person approach" wherein people answer theological questions through the story of their own lives. Though it often hits the cutting room floor she begins each interview by asking the guest if there was a spiritual background to their childhood. She believes this is a non-threatening question that helps open the heart of the interviewee. This has the added benefit of personalizing another person's view of God. It "humanizes" their view of God by connecting a line between ideas and experiences. Tippett said she believes this helps open minds—people are less likely to dismiss the views of another when they have heard a more personal account of their beliefs.2 

Finally, and most interesting to me, she talked about curiosity as a religious virtue. When a person is truly interested in learning about the views of another person real and fruitful dialogue can take place. Genuine curiosity helps people connect with each other, and it can help people connect with God.3

Speaking of Faith is produced and distributed by American Public Media. See

Tippett said she doesn't usually make the entire entire revolve around this approach, but uses it as a way to break the ice. She noted that her interview with Robert Millett, a BYU professor and LDS writer, focused a good deal on these questions throughout the interview, however.

This was the subject of a recent episode on Speaking of Faith called "Curiosity over Assumptions."


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I really enjoy Ms. Tippett's show and was pleased to read a little more about her. I thought she did a great job interviewing Robert Millett a couple of years ago.

What was she doing in the heart of Mormondom? And what did she have to say, if anything, about Mormonism?


BHodges said...


She was in town to give the McMurrin Lecture on Religion and Culture for the U of U last night. Here's the info link:

I searched for news coverage of the lecture and came up with nothing, though. I couldn't attend because of my Anthropology class. Before lunch she was a guest on RadioWest though. Listen here:

Regarding Mormonism, during the lunch she talked a little about her interview with Millett, it was sparked because of Mitt Romney being in the news. Someone asked her why Romney's religion became a big deal when Harry Reid hasn't been similarly singled out. She noted that Harry Reid didn't run for president, and that he didn't announce his faith and so forth. She said the interview with Millett got positive feedback. I didn;t bring it up but I was disappointed by the end of the Millett podcast, especially when Millett related the story about an Evangelical meeting he attended where they asked him what they could do for Mormons. His response was something like "Be patient, give us time, we will get there." He made it seem as though Mormonism was some sort of wannabe Evangelical movement and I found it to be a very "unfortunate" answer. :)

She also talked a little about recent interfaith efforts that focus on service, which she says is different from earlier efforts when doctrine was discussed which often would lead to stalemates. She said recent trends involve working together on service projects and so forth.

Another student asked her about her seeming interest in the physical body. She talked a little about "body consciousness," how physical we are, and how she has been interested in soul and body, the dynamics and interplay,how culture and religion have tended to be too cerebral, etc. She said when a person is more aware of their own physicality they can become more aware of the physicality of others in the sense of compassion and so forth. She also talked a little about an upcoming episode where they discuss the cerebral cortex and child development, where researchers believe it requires a lot of play and activity for a child's mind to properly develop. No one brought up the Mormon concept of embodiment, which would have been interesting to talk about with her.

BHodges said...

Oh, and she also spoke a bit about how people tend to try and separate religion from the public sphere which leaves a good deal of who a person is and believes out of the direct conversation, which she thinks is unfortunate.

Anonymous said...

Awesome, BHodges. Thanks. Lucky you.

Tippett is an absolute gem. She is getting people talking about religion, that most forbidden of subjects.

I appreciate hearing the details of what you heard. Thanks.

(By the way, I didn't recall Millett's "capitulation" at the end of the interview and will go back and give it a listen.)


BHodges said...

The part I was thinking of came around the 46:30 mark. Millett related an experience when he was invited to the Salt Lake Theological Seminary (which is essentially an anti-Mormon outfit that recently closed). They were discussing his book on the Mormon Jesus, if you will, and at the end they asked him: "Bob, what can we as Evangelicals do for our Mormon friends."

Millett: "And I said, Boy, I appreciate you asking that, I don't think I've ever been asked that. But I said, try this: Cut us a little slack, will ya? Give us a little time. We're in the religion making business and this takes time, it takes centuries. And trying to explain the faith, and articulate the faith, that doesn't come overnight. We've really only been about that for twenty or thirty years."

The implication here, to me, was that Mormons were "coming around" so to speak, and mainstreaming and trying to simply fit in as Christians. It overlooks what makes Mormonism Mormonism. Millett seemed to be trying to reassure Evangelical anti-Mormons that we were coming closer and closer to what they would find acceptable. Also, he overlooks the theological works of early apostles who worked to define the faith from the outset, like the Pratt brothers and so forth. Anyway, the answer just rankled me, and it was geared to give the impression that Mormonism is Christianity's misfit little brother or something rather than the restoration of the gospel.

A different Anon said...

Yes, I remember the Millett interview well. His comment "We're in the religion making business," bothered me quite a bit. I'm sure the evangelicals used it as proof that it is a man-made religion. I would have thought that Prof. Millett would have used a better choice of words.

BHodges said...

In a sense Millett is correct, we are indeed in the "religion making business" if by that he means we help shape and forge an idea of individuality and community, infusing life with meaning and direction, etc. But it seems he tossed in that comment off the cuff and didn't fully explore what it could imply. So it came across as him saying we are in a market economy of religions and will simply adapt our product to market demands or something.

Anonymous said...

Funny, ok, I understand what you mean, Bhodges and another anon.

My understanding of what Millet was talking about is that mainstream Christianity is much older than the LDS Church. They shouldn't have a double standard when it comes to comparing our two traditions. Because the LDS sources and history are relatively new, they can be dissected in ways that the New Testament sources cannot. It's inherently an unfair dichotomy. So, Millett says, give us time to come to terms with and understand fully some of the implications of the revelations of the Restoration. Be as patient with us as everyone is (has to be) with Christianity. I didn't view him as saying that we are inventing our religion to make it conform to evangelical Christianity.

And even if his comment were somehow off-base or an improper capitulation, I will give Millett a pass on this every time. He has done too much for the Church -- and especially with the community of evangelicals -- for me not give him wide leeway in discussing theological niceties.

But I've loved hearing your take on his comments. Fantastic, thanks.


BHodges said...

No prob, Hunter, thanks for the conversation. It's nice to hear back on some of these blog posts.

Gus O. Kahan said...

Comment on:
Mormon Perception Management
By the way, throughout your posting you chose to misidentify Robert Millet.
As long as The Mormons are committed to using unreliable narrators for spokespersons in the Religion Making Business there will be unreliable messages sent. Only the elect are able to see beyond the message sent to be divined as truth by the faithful.

Robert Millet’s comment "We're in the religion making business," bothered me quite a bit. I'm sure the evangelicals used it as proof that it is a man-made religion.”
Even evangelicals fall prey to this axiom: From the beginning, through all time with strength in the loins, all religion is made by man –– it’s called the Religion Making Business.
 And the apologetic Reply is:
“In a sense Millet is correct, we are indeed in the "religion making business" if by that he means we help shape and forge an idea of individuality and community, infusing life with meaning and direction, etc.”
Yes ‘infusing life with meaning and direction in the Religion Making Business.’
Was Millet speaking from the bowels of the Church? Was “the Religion Making Business” a gaff, or a mirror into the land of Oz?
Excuse me, but, Free Speech is fundamentally at odds with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. From the invention of Mormonism, free speech has tangled with the Latter-Day Saints, their prophet was executed for suppression of free speech; by the destruction of the Newspaper, “Expositor” his lot was cast, and it came to pass, General Joe was consumed by hubris, the arrogance of power.
Mormon message control is losing its grip, if you search: “Religion Making Business.”
On the second page there is a curious posting by a blogger: Online cheap viagra » Blog Archive » Online cheap viagra
Jettboy, aka, Blogger of Jared is also, "straight and narrow blog”

So we have Mormon bloggers burying their posts in the Online cheap viagra » Blog Archives? 
That’s one way to dump the Religion Making Business in the Mormon Utopia.
Mormon hatred of communism seems ironical as the Mormon Glue is socialist, an idealized communitarian theocracy is socialist tipping to fascism.
I appreciate you post and the concern you show for public relations in Branding Mormonism. Seems there could be a bit more care lavished on the message; the messenger will follow the script in the Religion Making Business.
Suing for peace with the Evangelicals will only lead to mischief and heartache.

BHodges said...


To be frank your comment is a bit rambling and a little less coherent than will enable a responsible reply.

So unless further clarification is forthcoming all I have to say is thanks for stopping by!

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