|Krista Tippett ’83 Named National Humanities Medalist|
|By Zachary Block ’99|
July 23, 2014—Among this year's ten National Humanities Medalists announced at the White House yesterday is Krista Tippett ’83, host of the public radio show On Being, which, according to the program's website, "opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?" Begun in 2003 as Speaking of Faith, the show has earned a Peabody Award, and its website has received a Webby, which recognizes excellence on the Internet. In a press release, the National Endowment for the Humanities said of Tippett: "On the air and in print, Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people of all faiths, no faith, and every background to join the conversation." Tippett has also published two books, Speaking of Faith and Einstein's God. The National Humanities Medals will be presented, along with this year's National Arts Medals, at a White House ceremony next Monday, July 28.
"First-Person Singular," the BAM profile of Tippett that appears below, was published in 2003, shortly after Speaking of Faith began broadcasting. Visit Tippett's website here.From the beginning it was clear there was something special about Speaking of Faith. After Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) broadcast pilots of the program, which explores culture and society through the lens of religion and spirituality, listeners launched a grassroots campaign to ensure the show’s future, raising nearly a third of its $180,000 budget. For Speaking of Faith’s creator and host, Krista Tippett, that support confirmed the public’s hunger for smart, in-depth reporting on religion.
Two years later, with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Speaking of Faith has found a place in the public radio canon. After airing monthly programs for a year and a half, Tip-pett’s show has been heard on more than 150 affiliates nationwide. In April it switched to weekly broadcasts in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, and in July, New York City’s WNYC added the program to its weekly schedule. Other stations are also expected to follow as they set their fall lineups in September.
Described by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as “arguably the most intelligent show on radio about religion,” Speaking of Faith is almost wholly Tippett’s doing. The idea for the program, which she took to MPR in April 1998, occurred to her while she was completing an oral-history project for a Christian cultural research center. Collecting those first-person stories, Tippett says, provided her with a vehicle for exploring the nature of faith. By bringing in the personal experiences of theologians, philosophers, artists, musicians, and a wide variety of other guests—instead of relying entirely on religious leaders—she can, she believes, avoid the shrillness and stereotyping that often dominate public religious debate. “I can disagree with another person’s opinion,” she points out. “I can’t disagree with her or her experience.”
Tippett says the show took on additional momentum and relevance after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That fall Tippett produced a three-part series: “Where was God?,” “The Spirit of Islam,” and “Justice and a Just War.” In a program on the power of fundamentalism, journalist Yossi Klein Halevi tried to probe the mind-set of a suicide bomber, drawing on his own teenage involvement in quasi-militant activities. “The fantasies that I had of destroying the enemies of the Jews,” Halevi revealed, “they were moments … of religious ecstasy.”
Tippett’s interviewing style and wide-ranging intellect have drawn comparisons with NPR’s Terry Gross and PBS’s Bill Moyers. Like them, she tries in every interview to draw broader truths from her guests’ personal experience. Tippett’s soft voice, combined with the show’s ethereal background music, creates the effect for listeners of eavesdropping on an intimate conversation.
Last January an especially personal program titled “The Soul in Depression”vividly illustrated Tippett’s probing approach. She began by interviewing Andrew Solomon, author of the best-selling Noonday Demon, who described depression not just as a physical collapse but as a spiritually transforming experience. Then Quaker theologian Parker Palmer talked about the misguided glorification of suffering that can keep some contemporary Christians unnecessarily mired in illness. During the show Tippett also revealed her own bout with depression. “I took the making of this program,” she confessed, “as an occasion to walk with some trepidation back through the spiritual territory of despair.”The granddaughter of a Southern Baptist minister, Tippett was raised in Shawnee, Oklahoma, where family life revolved around church. When she arrived at Brown, she rejected the rigidity of her upbringing and began to identify herself as agnostic. “It just slipped off me,” she says of her childhood faith.
After Brown, a Fulbright scholarship took her to Germany, where she became a stringer for the New York Times and other news outlets, and then served as an aide to the U.S. ambassador to West Germany. While attending nuclear arms talks, Tippett says, she found that the disarmament issue has spiritual implications that the negotiators did not address. She dropped off the diplomatic fast track and enrolled at Yale Divinity School.
Tippett never returned to her Baptist roots, but she remains deeply spiritual. “The questions I’m asking people are intimate questions,” she says. “I think I only have the right to ask those questions because I am a person of faith.”
Zachary Block is the BAM’s staff writer.