The wait is over! Ethan Richardson’s This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God, Mockingbird’s newest book on the market, is available online here. For those lovers of all things public radio, all things Ira Glass, those in love with a good story–all of the above, none of the above–looking for a resource for church, or just looking for a summer read, This American Gospel is an indelibly refreshing look into the Gospel on the ins and outs of human experience.
Looking to the endless riches of that groundbreaking and world-famed radio luminary This American Life, Richardson examines their stories as powerful illustrations for and mimickings of that mysterious, upside-down world of the Christian Gospel. With stories of people hooked, bated, switched, trapped by the strife of human striving–with stories of people flipped, coddled, unbound, and undone by the violence of undeserved forgiveness; This American Gospel looks to the unremitting love of the cross from the honest experience of the American, the human life.
Below you will find an excerpt from the introduction, as well as Ethan’s breakout session at the most recent NYC conference. To read an excerpt from Chapter Six, click here. To read an excerpt from Chapter Eight, click here.
This American Life is not a Christian show. Far from it. Ira Glass has always been quite candid about religious belief, clearly expressing his own atheism, not to mention skepticism about Christianity in particular. He said this to the Chicago Tribune in 2000:
I remember, even when I was growing up a little kid, it all seemed, especially the Christian version—arbitrary. That the entire universe would be created, and the system that was set up was: you could actually lead a perfectly good life, and a life organized around good deeds and caring for others, and yet if you simply didn’t accept Jesus himself, the Creator of the Universe would feel so vengeful about it that you’d be condemned to an eternity of torture. It just seemed like a really weird system. Like what difference would it make to the Creator of Everything? The whole thing seemed really arbitrary. Even as a kid, I felt like, “Well, if that’s the system: fine. I accept my damnation. I don’t think it’s a fair system. But fine.” I just don’t believe.
So the question remains: how do we plan to both celebrate the journalistic skill and accomplishment of a radio show whose host explicitly does not believe in God, while at the same time pointing to the message of the Gospel through that radio show, through its host, through his storytelling? Is that not the approach we just criticized? Hijacking a story and making it the story you want to hear? Much of the time this is the case. When a story is taken out of its context and used for an ideological end, it does both the story and its teller a disservice. This book intends to, instead, let the beauty of the stories speak for themselves. If these stories are good stories—and they are—then they will shed light on reality. And reality is evenly distributed. There is no distinction between what’s real for the Christian and what’s real for the non-Christian; the human condition applies across the board. The truth is the truth, regardless of what one believes.
More than anything, though, commenting on This American Life was irresistible—the stories themselves point to Christian understandings of love and mercy and forgiveness and grace in such overt and powerful ways that not writing about them was impossible.
On a different note, it could be said that This American Life episodes function as modern-day parables. Jesus mostly taught by way of story rather than straight-line argument. Stories give life to concepts—they ground meaning in experience, and do so without sacrificing the mystifying complexity of life. By illustrating how an idea has legs in the everyday world, one is suddenly able to see the connection with one’s own life, in a way that would not have been possible with direct, dare I say religious, instruction. This is the power of the parable. Besides being not-boring, a parable tells its own illuminating story, and its points of access are as endless as its listeners. This is why the particularity of the stories in This American Life are not lost on its listeners—their illustrative power connects with people at large, in their own peculiar complexities. They also turn the table on one’s propensity to grab at some kind of all-encompassing religious moral. As Robert Farrar Capon says of Jesus’ parables:
His ‘parables’ comprise far more than the specific utterances that the Gospel writers refer to by that name, and they occur in a surprising variety of forms . . . for all their charm and simplicity, his story-parables are not one bit less baffling. Once again, they set forth comparisons that tend to make mincemeat of people’s religious expectations. Bad people are rewarded . . . good people are scolded . . . God’s response to prayer is likened to a man getting rid of a nuisance . . . and in general, everybody’s idea of who ought to be first or last is liberally doused with cold water.
The hope with This American Gospel is to, with equal playfulness, expound on where these complicated illustrations are pointing. To that end, we have selected some of our favorite moments in This American Life’s tenure and applied them to the paradoxical and no-less-complicated realities of the Christian faith. In these stories we hope to hit upon that “foolish wisdom of God,” to shed some light on the Good News of Jesus Christ itself. It is likened to the one-way love of an adoptive mother and the violently abusive adopted orphan; to the murderer freed by a stand-in; to the ‘wet house’ where the only admission ticket for alcoholics is that they are, well, alcoholics. In these stories the heart of reality, the heart of God, is brought near. And who doesn’t want more stories, more illustrations, to bring us good news, and to bring that good news home?