By Jesse Carey
January 11, 2016
Jesse Carey is an editor at RELEVANT and a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.
Ira Glass Wants to Save Christianity, Kinda
A group of theologians gathered on a spring day in 2004. They faced an ominous job: Like some medieval trial, these men would decide whether or not one of their fellow pastors and church leaders was a heretic.
Before that hearing, Carlton Pearson was one of the most influential young, black pastors in America. He founded the 5,000 member Higher Dimensions church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was a mentee of legendary evangelist Oral Roberts. But something changed for Pearson that would eventually lead to that formal ceremony in March of 2004.
Months before, Pearson says he received a personal revelation from God: that everyone on Earth was going to go to heaven. He started to preach what he called “the Gospel of Inclusion,” denouncing a belief in a literal hell and rebutting commonly held Christian theology.
After he refused to recant, the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops found him guilty of heresy and Ted Haggard, then the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, called his teachings “counterproductive to the cause of Christ.”
The episode 13 years ago resulted in the dismantling of the ministry and personal life of one of America’s rising Christian leaders. It’s something Ira Glass still thinks about a lot.
“A guy preaches hell all of his life, and then he thinks God revealed to him, like, ‘Nah, you don’t have to believe in Jesus and you still go to heaven.’ He turns his back on everything he’s ever believed,” Glass says. “And all his friends tell him like, ‘Brother, don’t do that—you’re going to go to hell!' ... And he still goes with what he thinks God told him. And then suffers the consequences and takes a downfall and loses his church and loses his family.”
Glass can’t shake it: “That’s just an amazing story.”
Glass understands what it is to tell amazing stories. He’s the creator and chief creative force behind This American Life, a radio show and podcast heard by more than 4 million people every month.
In 2005, Glass and his team did an episode about Pearson called “Heretics.” It was one of many the team has produced centering on the stories of Christians.
You wouldn’t say they talk about Christianity often, but they don’t avoid it, either. Glass and his team at This American Life aren’t out to push an agenda or perpetuate a stereotype. They’re out to tell real and really great stories and document American lives often ignored, misrepresented or misunderstood by cable news, mainstream outlets and Hollywood.
Act 1: Something New in the Air
Before podcasting broke out, This American Life was doing something antiquated but innovative. Back in 1995, at a time when TV dominated the media landscape and the internet was blossoming as a new, exciting source of information, the show reinvented a form mostly forgotten by serious writers, journalist and entertainers. Ira Glass was creating the most important long-form radio show in modern times.
Unlike morning shock jock radio or public radio news shows, This American Life wasn’t drive-time fluff or distilled newspaper-style reporting. It was a hybrid of documentary storytelling, radio drama and commentary, thoughtfully woven together by theme.
Their goal was simple: Tell interesting stories of American life that you can’t hear anywhere else—like one about a pastor facing a modern heresy trial.
Early on, Glass realized there was something missing in the way a large portion of mainstream culture perceives Christians. And he saw the opportunity to tell a unique kind of story.
“The radio station we were at, WBEZ, it’s Chicago, so a lot of people are really devout and mostly evangelical,” he explains. “And there were a few people on staff who were really Christian—they were out with their Christianity in a way that was really lovely. And they were people who I really adored and just seemed like model people and model Christians in every way—and who I really loved talking to in general, and also about religion. And I was aware that the way Christians were portrayed in the media, in the news, and in fiction—in the movies and on TV—seemed totally disconnected from the actual Christians in my life.”
Glass’ fascination with Christianity came at a moment of revelation. And in 1999, Glass had his own revelation that would change the course of his career.
But, unlike Pearson, Glass wasn’t hearing what he believed to be the voice of God; his was a more secular voice of inspiration.
Glass saw David O. Russell’s breakout film Three Kings and realized that the disconnect he observed could actually make for really interesting stories that, for the most part, weren’t being told.
“In the movie, one of the characters at some point, something’s going to happen and he just goes off and prays about it,” he recalls. “And it wasn’t even a plot point in the movie. It was just this is a character with faith and he went off and prayed on it and then the next thing happened.”
The moment surprised Glass—not because of how strange the prayer seemed; but because how normal it actually appeared on camera. If that’s how actual Christians regularly behaved, why did it seem so surprising to see it depicted on screen?
“I realized I have never seen that before in a movie—of like the normal thing that millions of people do everyday in this country,” he says. “I was like, ‘How is it that I’m this old, and I have literally never seen that in the movie?’ That the point wasn’t like, ‘OMG, he’s going to pray on it, and now he’s going to get something from it, and everything’s going to change in this story.’
“‘It was, he’s a normal person and he prays,” Glass says. “So this is sort of all out of an impulse that came from that.”
The moment in Three Kings was a catalyst for Glass.
In the months and years that followed, Glass and his team produced stories about teens going on missions trips, megachurches leading prayer rallies, Christians confronting daily realities.
They weren’t always cut and dry, black and white stories. Like the story of Carlton Pearson, sometimes Glass’ didn’t have traditionally “happy endings.” But they were tapping into that thing he thinks secular culture misses about Christians.
Sure, the portrayals weren’t always completely flattering, but they weren’t ever cynical, overtly biased, mean-spirited or hostile. They were truthful and compassionate. They were intimate and authentic. Some were even funny. Most of all, they were true. Because those were the kinds of stories of Christianity Glass thinks are missing.
“I feel like among a lot of the secular press the word ‘Christian’ is kind of a weird word,” says Glass. “Whereas I feel like all the Christians I know are really wonderful, and it seems like a really great thing to be.
“In the media, it just seemed like whenever there was a Christian character, it was like the most doctrinaire, stiff-necked, doesn’t-listen-to-anybody, kind of corny version of an intolerant person,” he explains. “And every Christian I knew was exactly the opposite of that: great listeners, super concerned about people, utterly compassionate.”
So the stories from Glass and his team were real stories of real Christians dealing with real life. And in that way, This American Life, led by an openly atheist host simply looking for great, human stories, was doing something no one else in American media could (or would) do: Talk about Christians honestly.
For the next decade, Glass continued to find and tell stories that broke new ground in journalism. In many ways, “Heretics” represented a formula that could be replicated to communicate bigger cultural truths: “The plot has to be surprising,” Glass says. “It has to drive at some idea about the world that you haven’t heard before.”
In the plot of This American Life’s own story, the next chapter offered a surprise twist that no one saw coming.
Act 2: The Revolution Won’t Be Televised
When This American Life started, listeners heard the show the same way they heard almost anything on the radio: By tuning in on a dial at an appointed time. But in 2004—10 years after they first started making shows that were broadcast on public radio stations—Apple introduced a technology that would change the media landscape.
As an updated feature to the iTunes software, users could easily manage digital audio files that would be known as podcasts. A new form of digital broadcasting was born.
Podcasts—essentially downloadable audio shows—allowed This American Life to reach new audiences and listeners hungry for on-demand programming to provide a backdrop for their commutes and workouts.
Their show became one of the medium’s most popular, and the amount of people who hear it online now rivals the amount who actually tune in on the radio.
In the fall of 2014, the This American Life team enraptured listeners around the world with a true crime podcast called Serial—which recounted a 14-year-old murder case and became an international phenomenon. The podcast (which is produced by Ira Glass and the team behind This American Life), went on to become the most popular podcast in history and actually led to the subject’s murder conviction being vacated.
The prominence of Serial signaled an even greater trend: Podcasting had arrived as a new, major form of mass media. Downloadable audio programming was now not only being produced by scores of independent media outlets and dorm-room talking heads, but also by the biggest media companies in the world, all vying for a piece of mass media’s new millennial-friendly market.
Glass’ revelation—of finding interesting stories with surprising twists, unexpected messages and unlikely heroes (like Carlton Pearson)—sparked a movement.
“It’s funny because the shows that are like ours that are proliferating now, I feel like, a lot of why people like them is very old fashioned, sort of like—it’s like fun to hear a nice story—kind of feeling,” Glass says.
“One of the things that’s interesting is I feel like we are constantly being told that we have short attention spans because of the internet, and I feel like it’s so obviously untrue.” he explains. “People will stick around if something is interesting and good. And I do think we hunger for nuance in the same way that we hunger for goodness. We’re all complicated enough. You want fast food, and you want a nice meal that somebody cooked.”
By now, you probably notice intuitively that sound bite-driven cable news attempts to grab ratings by giving the most polarizing opinions the most airtime. Internet headlines beg you to click. Network TV shows deliver quick punchlines.
In a way, it’s not surprising that people misrepresent Christians. Many forms of media are built to polarize. There’s no time for nuance. Things are black and white, and if you’re religious and have complicated opinions, you may not find too many outlets comfortable allowing you to explore shades of gray.
Yes, in the era of prestige television and Netflix, Glass says “we’ll spend 26 hours watching all the seasons of any given show,” but there’s still something uniquely powerful about the long-form effect of a purely audio podcast to help you reshape how you think about the world.
“Not seeing heightens intimacy,” Glass explains. “For somebody making stories, I actually think it’s an incredibly powerful tool that the audience doesn’t see what the people look like. I think especially when you’re asking people to jump across cultures from their own.
“For a lot of non-Christians, they see the way people dress. They see the nice haircuts or the short haircuts on the men,” Glass says, essentially describing a Ned Flanders version of a pop-culture Christian stereotype. “A lot of people would look at them and say, ‘That’s not me; that’s not me.’ But then you just hear somebody’s voice, and if it’s somebody talking from the heart, you can’t help yourself but relate to it. You bypass a lot of cultural signals that tell you not to listen. I feel like that’s one of the things about radio that makes it so powerful.”
This American Life started a media revolution. It changed the way people view news, culture and, yes, even Christianity. But even Glass will admit, his storytelling method dates back—way back—to a somewhat unexpected source: Jesus, Himself.
Act 3: Jesus Christ, Podcast Star
Glass has developed his storytelling over more than two decades, and he’s landed on something powerful: Find an interesting entry point (a preacher questioning hell, for example), grab ahold of an idea (how willing are you to stick to your convictions?), find a plot twist (the celebrity preacher becomes an outcast) and bring home the message (holding fast to beliefs isn’t always easy).
Along the way to developing the formula, Glass found some unexpected inspiration: “Our story is structured exactly like a sermon, consciously so,” he explains.
“There’s a little anecdote and then you make some idea about it and then there’s another little anecdote and you make some idea,” he says, recounting the process of structuring a story. “I kind of thought I invented that. And then a friend of mine, who was in seminary was like, ‘No you didn’t invent that, that’s what we do when we tell a sermon.’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no. I made this up.’ And he’s like, ‘No, you did not. This is thousands of years old!’”
It was the same style used by Jesus 2,000 years ago:
“I remember him saying if you look at Jesus’ sermons in the Bible, this is their structure,” he says. “And sure enough, you look up the New Testament, He totally, when He tells the parable of the prodigal son, He tells the little story, it’s a great story and, then He tells you what He means. He tells you the anecdote and then He gives you the idea.”
Sure, This American Life has benefited from having the tools of great journalists and being on the forefront of an emerging media technology, but Glass realizes that modern advances are really just vehicles for timeless storytelling.
“If you think about also the technology that Jesus is using to get the word out—He doesn’t have a church,” Glass explains. “He’s just wandering around talking to people. The technology He is using, like the internet, is He’s got these 12 guys. That’s it. He’s got these 12 guys—and three of them are pretty unreliable, or two depending on how you count it—and that’s what He’s got. Obviously He knew what He was doing; it worked. But the kinds of stories He’s telling, that’s the structure He uses, it’s built into us. That structure will get into us.”
Act 4: Raising Hell
Any given week, if you tune into This American Life, it’s hard to predict what kind of stories you’ll hear: There could be reports from the front lines of the refugee crisis; there could be investigations into failing education systems; there could be lighthearted, human interest stories about an average person who’s found themselves in over their heads.
Stories of faith, and not exclusively Christianity, are still a regular part of the mix though. During the run-up to the 2016 election, there was no shortage of interesting stories of Christians passionately divided on Donald Trump.
But even as the radio show is constantly finding new things to get obsessed with, Glass’ fascination with Christianity will soon take on a new form of storytelling: He’s bringing one of the show’s early, faith-centric episodes to the big screen.
The story that helped launched a movement is becoming a movie.
The movie version of “Heretics,” called Come Sunday, is set to star Chiwetel Ejiofor as Carlton Pearson and Martin Sheen* as his mentor, famed evangelist Oral Roberts.
In the era of Love Wins, when an author and pastor can go from being hailed as the next Billy Graham (which Rob Bell was by Time magazine), to becoming a Christian culture pariah for asking questions about the afterlife, the story seems to be more relevant than ever.
“There’s a part of my week, where it’s just thinking about Carlton Pearson,” Glass says.
Glass still isn’t overly concerned about what side of the theological line you fall on. He wants to tell an interesting story—one that just happens to forgo easy, black and white ideas about religion, common stereotypes about Christian leaders and perceptions of narrow-mindedness. He wants to tell a story that doesn’t paint Christians in a bad light; but one that’s complicated, intimate and true.
“The reason I think people are with it is partly the nuance, and partly because it takes you into a world—that if you’re not going to a megachurch and you don’t know that kind of world—it takes you into that world in a very intimate way,” he explains. “But partly, this is a classic story of somebody standing up for what they believe in—right or wrong—and then they suffer the consequences.”
Like many stories on This American Life, particularly ones about people of faith, Come Sunday likely won’t have a lot of easy answers or even simple resolutions. There is no underlying agenda.
There’s just a great story.
And the thing about great stories is that even though they may not always change the way listeners think about other types of people, if they’re told right, they will change the way they feel about them.
“It’s not our job to enact change,” Glass says. “I’m somebody who got into journalism in my 20s wanting to change the world, but I learned within the first few years that it’s really rare for journalism to ever really change anything.”
Whether it’s Christians, refugees, political candidates, victims of injustice or just someone who’s lived through an interesting experience, after two decades of changing the way people consume stories, Glass and his team don’t feel the need to try and spark the listener to take some sort of action.
No, in a way, their job is much harder than getting people to sign a petition, to cast a ballot or to make a donation. Their job is to humanize people who the world loves to stereotype:
“We just need to say that these people, who you’re talking about, are people too, whoever they are,” Glass explains.
“Sometimes, we have a very mission-y sense of like, somebody’s got to say this.” he says. “But saying we have a mission-y sense of somebody’s got to say this, that’s very different than thinking it will cause any change. It’s more nihilistic than that: It’s like we’re going to say it even if it doesn’t do any good.”
Will This American Life change the way those within the broader culture see an issue—like, for example, the reality of what Christians are really like? Maybe.
“It’s fun making radio stories, and we like meeting the people and maybe somewhere somebody is going to get a different idea.”
*When initially reported, Robert Redford was set to star in the role as Oral Roberts. This piece has been updated to reflect the new casting.
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