Columnists > Voices
Nicholas Gingold/SIPA Press/Newscom

I didn't hear it on NPR

An absence of Christian voices mars the troubled network

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

I killed my television years ago. Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death convinced me that presenting the news through images tilts the content away from substance and toward style. After a hard day on the campaign trail, TV journalists might think that their best material was when the candidate took a bite from an oversized hot dog. Radio and print news, on the other hand, are likely to focus on the policy speech.

I therefore tune in to my local NPR station daily and am grateful for it. I even like listening to the CD series, "I Heard It on NPR." Nevertheless, NPR frustrates me. As an evangelical Christian, I particularly regret what I haven't heard on NPR: namely, reflection of the faith of millions of Americans like me.

Savvy presidential candidates often appoint someone to do outreach to religious communities and-wishing NPR success-I hereby volunteer my services as a consultant. I really don't want the undercover operation on NPR's vice president for development, Ron Schiller, to be a knock-down moment. I cannot help but recall the Preacher's restraining admonition: "Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others" (Ecclesiastes 7:21-22).

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Still, that private conversation accords with my observations of NPR's editorial decisions. Schiller seems to think that my people are a repulsive other: "It's this weird evangelical kind of move." Conversely, he sees it as an injustice if "Muslim voices" are not heard.

Christian voices are strangely absent from NPR's programming. The only exception is A Prairie Home Companion. Whatever his personal beliefs might be, at least Garrison Keillor unapologetically assumes that going to church is part of the American experience. Indeed, he handles aspects of our culture ranging from county fairs to gospel music without sneering at authentic features of this American life.

Other programs seem to go out of their way to exclude Christianity. StoryCorps is a wonderful idea. But its editorial choices are tendentious. Testing my impression, I tracked back through a couple of years of episodes and could not find a single one that was a testimony to God's work in someone's life despite the fact that millions of Americans believe that these are the most important stories they have to tell. The closest the list came to a "spiritual" story was one about a man who has a séance every Halloween in the hopes of making contact with Houdini. At the same time, there are stories such as "One man's fight for a same-sex marriage law" that reflect efforts to politicize the series.

Likewise, "This I Believe" is apparently unable to find anyone who can articulate anything remotely resembling what a significant percentage of Americans confess every week: "I believe in God the Father Almighty. . . ." Examining the list of entries in this series, in an uncanny parallel to StoryCorps, the nearest one to a confession of faith is an essay titled, "Saying Thanks to My Ghosts." And then there is Annoying Music-a program that consists of cheesy music being played while the host takes the Lord's name in vain.

Last autumn it was decided that "Speaking of Faith" was too off-putting a title and it was changed to "Being." Krista Tippett explained that the program's old title was "an obstacle for many programmers and listeners." They would not discuss the show because they were embarrassed to say its name. In other words, for some NPR executives "faith" is the new F-word. Ironically, Tippett once wrote a book titled Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How to Talk about It. One would think that not being afraid to utter the word "faith" might be a good start for teaching people how to talk about it.

NPR, I really do wish you well: That is why I am giving you this candid advice. It would not only be fairer but also in your best interests if you would start to let faith have room to breathe in your programming in a way that communicates respect for believers. Please accept this pro bono consultation as part of my contribution to the fund drive.

-Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Ill., and the author most recently of A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (Oxford University Press, 2011)


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