On Being Krista Tippett: Why talking about spirituality is more important than ever

August 23, 2017
By Rachael Kohn for The Spirit of Things

In a media culture dominated by the 24-hour news cycle, carving out a space for the voices of poets, theologians and philosophers isn't easy.

But that is Krista Tippett's mission.

Krista Tippett
                                                                                        Photo for ABC RN: Siobhan Hegarty
As the creator of the hugely popular podcast and radio show On Being — distributed to 400 stations in the United States and heard globally through SoundCloud — she interviews spiritually uplifting people who often go unnoticed by the media.

"Everyone I interview is someone who I believe is illuminating this question of what it means to be human and how we want to live in a 21st century way," she says.

"I believe what they are doing, what they are learning, the questions they're asking, the insights they have, deserve to be heard."

Tippet has dedicated about 20 years of her life to this cause.

In the late 1990s, she would creep into the Minnesota Public Radio station at night, to experiment with a new program, which then was called Speaking of Faith.

Today, she has an audience of many thousands.

Tippett says the stories of people with deep faith and spirituality are just as real as what is more commonly in today's newspapers.

"That is also the story of our time," she says.

But she didn't always believe this.

Walking away from a career in geopolitics

As a college graduate, far from her home in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in the Midwest US, she was headed for the world of politics and journalism, living and reporting from Germany.

In the mid-1980s, Tippett also worked for a senior diplomat in West Berlin and later as chief aide to the American Ambassador to West Germany.
Geopolitics seemed like the key to the future, but she was also becoming increasingly struck by the empty personal lives of those who wielded so much power.

Regularly travelling between East and West Berlin, however, Tippett witnessed quite the opposite amongst her German friends — especially in the East.

With the barest material resources, they had meaningful and joyful lives.

This realisation turned her towards an inner quest, exploring a world of values that transcended material success.

Returning to US, she decided to study theology in her 30s and emerged from Yale University with a Master of Divinity degree in 1994.

It was the preparation she needed to start thinking about a radio program on religion.

Illuminating beliefs and values

Tippett admits it was an uphill battle to convince her colleagues that talking to people about their faith, and how it shaped their outlook and their lives, was an important form of journalism.

She makes the point that while journalists often believe that facts inherently carry the truth — it is context that gives any fact meaning.

Tippett says this is why she is committed to illuminating the beliefs and values that surround the facts of any situation.

But it is a task that requires good questions and the willingness to be surprised.

"A lot of the questions and answers [posed by hard news reporters] … it's really not about understanding more," she says.

"The questions themselves are statements … the intentionality on the part of the person asking the question is often very fixed. They know what they want to get out of this person and where they want to take them.

"I think a real conversation has a willingness in it to be surprised."

Tippett illustrated this in her recent interview with Glenn Beck, a right-wing talk show host in the US, who is regularly vilified by the left-leaning media.

Against the advice of many of her listeners, who registered alarm on her blog when she announced Beck as a future guest on the show, she was determined to give him the respect he had been denied.

She described her approach as avoiding the usual "knee-jerk opposition" that makes people defensive and sends them into their corners.

A true conversation, she says, doesn't mean that you're ready to be converted to another point of view.

"But it does mean that you're ready to see them as a human being in all their complexity, curious about their questions as about their answers, and willing to be surprised," she says.
Tippett says by approaching the interview with this in mind, she witnessed Beck as someone who was reflective, exhibited conscience, and was prepared to be a bridge between opposing positions.

He even sent her an email that thanked her for "allowing me to be human".

Tippett calls people like Beck "bridge people" and she believes that we need to grow more of them in our societies, by asking the right questions of them.

At present, she says, there is a growing tendency towards polarisation of opinions, in which people refusing to talk to anyone who does not endorse their agenda.

And this put us all in perilous territory.

"We are in an existentially dangerous place," she says.

Tippett says right now in the United States — and also in the United Kingdom — there's a sense that if someone doesn't buy into your entire checklist of beliefs, then "there's nothing for us to talk about."

And that is where poetry comes in.

Poetry's importance in times of strife

The On Being podcast and website regularly features poets — and they have proven to be popular.

Tippett believes poetry has a special mission at this moment in time, and she notes that it often surfaces in times of crisis and confusion.
According to Tippett, there was a deluge of poetry after the US election.

And when she asked the poet David White, how poetry works in us, he said: "Poetry is language against which we have no defence."

Tippett says his words helped her to understand why poetry is so important in a moment like this.

"Where we are surrounded by language that is offensive and defensive and defended — but we don't know how to start the conversation about the deep things that really matter," she says.

She admits that cherishing deep and meaningful conversations is a reaction to the absence of them growing up in the Bible Belt.

Her grandfather was a preacher, and the strong Southern Baptist faith of her family was big on answers but not on questions.

"There were many questions that just burned as we looked away," she says.

In Australia, though, it appears she's found an appetite for open and searching conversations about values and spirituality.

She's attracted full houses to her events in Sydney and Melbourne, organised by Small Giants, the Australian branch of Alain de Botton's School of Life.