Radio Revival

Ethan Richardson
Thursday, November 1st 2012
Nov/Dec 2012
The facts of experience support this conclusion….What now can reason propose that is right, when it is thus blind and ignorant? … or, rather, what can the will pursue, when reason can propose to it nothing but the darkness of its own blindness and ignorance? Where reason is in error and the will turned away, what good can man attempt or perform? (1)

Most people claim that Martin Luther had Erasmus on his mind when he penned this passage from The Bondage of the Will. But I think he had just listened to episode 462 of This American Life, titled “Own Worst Enemy.” The show kicks off with the story of Dan Blumberg, an employee at WBEZ Chicago, and his inescapable devotion to the very thing that will kill him: crabmeat. Despite his severe allergy, Dan continues to partake of his favorite seafood. After one particularly dangerous incident, host Ira Glass asks Dan if this near-death experience is enough to make him stop. “Of course not,” Dan says, it’s just made him take further measures. The next time he goes to the crab restaurant, he brings his entire bathroom cupboard: a mountain of Benadryl, an inhaler, and, yes, an EpiPen, in case it gets bad.

Dan:But the poisoning myself, it’s not that bad. Like I said, I get sleepy from the Benadryl. That’s the worst part; I get really tired.
Ira:But if you find yourself saying the sentence, the poisoning myself is not that bad…
Dan:Yeah, I mean, I think there’s something probably to that. You know, I like it. What can I say? (2)

Did you catch that? Not only was Dan’s close call not close enough to keep him from eating crab again, it pushed him to take further precautions so he can go back again. He literally and willfully poisons himself’and finds ways to continue doing so.

This was just the prologue of the episode. The rest of the radio hour was spent talking with other original sinners: chronic pizza eaters and smokers, professional baseball aces gone rogue, people unstoppably sabotaging their careers and their relationships. An ER doctor interviewed said that nearly half of all hospital entrants are obstinately aware of what they’ve done to themselves. As the show’s host says, “They simply cannot help themselves when they do it.”

This is a story we all know too well. We can surely name our own inner conspirators. Like a nervous tic, we cannot still the hand, mind, or mouth that works against us. In that one area of our lives where every time the cock crows thrice, we find ourselves back at the entrance of the ER, asking for a doctor, with a guilty look on our faces.

These are the kinds of inner stories stirred every week by the public radio program This American Life. They are stories that span the scope of all relationships: stories about enemies, “frenemies,” unconditional love, and break-ups; you hear people crying, laughing, praying, shaking fists, gossiping, changing, trying to change and not changing, and hoping above all hopes. Each hour-long program brings listeners into some strange’and strangely familiar‘world of human experience.

Since its birth on the airwaves in 1995, This American Life has repeatedly been the number one most downloaded podcast on iTunes, boasts over 1.7 million listeners each week, and has received every radio award imaginable. Its creator, producer, and host, Ira Glass, is the face of the show, and has even become the face of contemporary radio altogether.

How does the program work? Each episode is loosely configured into a series of “acts” (a format that inspired its original “playhouse” name), each one revolving around that episode’s particular theme’for instance, “Scenes from a Recession,” “Amusement Parks,” “Lockup,” or “My Experimental Phase.” The act spins its own rendition of the theme under discussion. For example, an episode titled “Break-Up” had four acts: an eight-year-old’s perspective on her parent’s divorce; a writer’s break-up and the break-up song she composed with the help of Phil Collins; an interview with a “Divorce Mediator”; and a humorous dog’s-eye segment called “Divorce is RRRUFFFF!”

Doing it this way allows This American Life to foster a remarkable sense of playfulness and humility. An episode’s theme is the firm ground upon which the various acts play, with the emphasis on play. Yet the playfulness is not at the expense of honesty, which is why the show has made such an impression. Ira Glass and company have created a show that tells stories that are interesting of their own accord, without the need to bend the facts or pivot an angle. The show provides a kind of journalism that tells a story as it is, which thus connects with listeners because it meets them as they are‘which is usually a place of vulnerability, embarrassment, or guilt.

Its honesty and playfulness also make This American Life an irresistible source of illustrations for the Christian faith. Despite the fact that the show does not remotely embrace a Christian framework (Glass himself is vocal about his atheism), its interest in truth-telling guarantees, to the extent it’s doing its job, that the show will unwittingly touch on ultimate truth, even the One who is Truth. In other words, in seeking to tell “human interest” stories well, This American Life often finds itself pointing to a Christian understanding of love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace in such overt and powerful ways that not writing about them proves impossible. Thus This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God was born, a twelve-act tribute to the parabolic and illustrative power of the radio show. The book is laid out in twelve chapters, each one an essay based on a specific act of a specific episode of This American Life. We look deep into stories of the bound sinner’bingers, purgers, obsessive list-makers, drunks; we look deep into stories where mercy in the face of deserved judgment bears remarkable fruit.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that any of the stories on This American Life are watertight metaphors for the gospel, or that we should reduce the historical truth of the death and resurrection of Christ to abstractions. Heavens no! The hope here is simply to provide some new pictures for the Old Story, to talk about where these touching testimonies are ultimately pointing, and maybe even have some fun doing so. We need to hear the gospel every day; and in a well-defended world, who of us couldn’t use a few more avenues for that good news to travel home?

In conclusion, consider the following example from “Long Shot,” episode 398, wherein a life-sentenced prisoner named Don is denied parole for the last time. No amount of good behavior has been able to erase his past transgression or earn him a pardon. Yet, at his darkest moment, the wild mercy of a new judge comes to his rescue. Out of the blue, a new law is passed, one that recasts Don’s predicament, independent of any participation or striving. Don receives the benefit of a victory won by someone else. And it literally covers his irreversible guilt:

Don:[The new judge] read the law and said, “This man fits this perfectly.” And then the [prosecutor] just said, “We don’t have anything.” The attorney general also admitted, had to admit to her, “We don’t have anything. The governor had nothing and we don’t have anything either.” And the Judge said, “Well, why are we here then?”…The judge said, “Well, I’d like to close this hearing.” It was over! It was over. And we won!

This is our good verdict from God in Christ Jesus’the old story of the reversal of an irreversible guilt.

1 [ Back ] Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1992), 281.
2 [ Back ] "Own Worst Enemy," This American Life, episode 462, aired April 13, 2012 (WBEZ Chicago),
Thursday, November 1st 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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