As a writer or podcaster these days, you’re taught that stories should drive your pieces. If you want to analyze Obamacare, you better talk to Bob or Jose in Oklahoma whose mother is dying because the goddamn governor refused to expand medicare through Obamacare. You’re told that no one wants to read a straight story about healthcare policy.
This bias toward storytelling also extends into how we’re taught to address important but abstract questions concerning meaning or ethics. This American Life would never air a segment of someone philosophizing about the meaning of life if that segment weren’t driven by a story. But This American Life would gobble up a story of someone who came to the same conclusions about the meaning life by talking into a solar-powered tape recorder while stranded in the middle of the Pacific after a shipwreck. They’d eat that up quickly.
If you’ll excuse the hyperbole, it’s undeniable that This American Life has a bias toward storytelling — and for good reason — the shipwreck story would be better radio.
Still, I wonder if it’s worth pushing back against an insistence on the insight-through-storytelling method. There is a place in general culture for explicitly talking about meaning outside of the confines of storytelling. There is even a place in this realm for — wait for it — explicit conversations about theology.
In fact, I believe that when the insight-through-storytelling form is at its best, it breaks into actual discussions of meaning that transcend the story being told and reaches the level of something like theology.
Take the example of the podcast Heavyweight’s episode Gregor (which I believe is one of the best podcast episodes of the year). The episode tells a story of a middle aged man and his endearing but curmudgeonly quest to retrieve CDs he lent decades ago to the musician Moby. The best moments of the podcast, in my opinion, occur when Moby and others are philosophizing — when they’re talking explicitly about life and lessons learned.
But in its more standard register, the This American Life cultural milieu (of which Heavyweight is an example par excellence) tells a story that flirts with universal conclusions but remains confined to a story. Take the example of a great This American Life segment in which producer Stephanie Foo interviews a veteran about how he relates to people in civilian life. It’s great radio and it touches on larger themes — one of the big takeaways is that it’s important to find a space to talk about your own feelings — but it remains confined to the story at hand.
There are examples of more abstract, overtly philosophical — or dare I say overtly religious — radio that work. In her podcast On Being, Krista Tippett emphasizes meaning and larger conclusions over storytelling and is very often successful.
But one can go even deeper into the realm of explicit religious discussion and pull it off. This podcast, a discussion about happiness by two rabbis and scholars at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, makes for good radio because the interlocutors are sincere and offer valuable insights about larger questions of meaning. The podcast does include some stories (mostly biblical ones), but when it is at its best it is much like the Heavyweight podcast: The two rabbis are talking about what matters most to them without pretense.
I think this mode of discussion in which people sincerely and explicitly discuss what matters most to them is a sweet spot, especially for podcasting/radio. I don’t mean to dismiss storytelling; one can definitely access this mode through a story-driven piece, and even the rabbis’ discussion depended on storytelling. But at the same time, I believe our times call for a discussion that more directly enters this sweet spot.
Part of the reason, I believe, that This American Life insists so much on stories is that it comes from a cultural milieu in which there is no option but to tell stories. This is because the show emanates from a milieu that is generally disillusioned with traditional religion and philosophy. When This American Life tries to answer the types of questions one answers with theology it has to reinvent the wheel. It simply lacks a vocabulary and a conversation to pick up on. At the risk of sounding sensational, we live to some extent in an age in which we have to invent an ethical and ontological system (my personal belief is that the best way to do this is to borrow from the past).
The rabbi’s podcast is more rooted in Jewish theology than what I am interested in creating. But in their conversation, the rabbis benefit from a millennia-long discussion because their conversation is rooted in Jewish tradition. This gives them entry points to talk about meaning and a vocabulary with which to do so.
This doesn’t mean that I want to produce pure theology. As much as I like Krista Tippett’s On Being, philosophizing can fall flat when it becomes too detached from real life and sounds insincere. There are definitely techniques to be learned from the This American Life register. But if in our writing or podcasting we want to address what matters most, we can’t be afraid to talk explicitly about theology.