NPR and Faith

by Glenn on June 12, 2016

I haven’t listened to OPB/NPR public radio for about 17 months, now. Tuned in yesterday morning briefly as I was driving to work, remembering when it used to be part of my Saturday morning routine. As a reasonably serious generalist, it appeals to my curiosity about things I don’t know anything about. For example, yesterday morning I heard an interview with a bird expert that was fascinating.

NPR is endlessly entertaining, as well, particularly on weekends, which is one of the reasons I gave it up. It’s hard to be accomplishing when you are intent on passively being entertained. Later in the day, I remembered what I’d been missing when I happened upon a new (to me) program, The New Yorker Radio Hour. The opening of episode 34, “Cats vs. Dogs,” was hysterical, in particular, Malcom Gladwell‘s contribution.

17 months away from NPR was helpful for a sense of perspective, though. If you are attempting to live with a Biblical perspective, there are moments when NPR is absolutely and ultimately dangerous. On yesterday morning’s drive to work, I made one stop and was out of the car briefly. When I got back in I caught the tail end of an interview with Eli Paperboy Reed, a musician whose name and music was new to me. My understanding was that Mr. Reed was returning to gospel music in a new recording.

The interviewer, Scott Simon, asked this question:

“How important an ingredient is faith of some kind for this kind of music?”

Here was Mr. Reed’s answer:

“I think it’s very important, you know, and I think that obviously religiosity it comes in all shapes and sizes. I think that you can be a faithful person. I certainly consider myself a faithful person without necessarily having to adhere to something so strict as a particular religion. And I think, you know, having faith in the idea that things are going to get better. Somebody once said—I don’t know who it was—but that gospel music is just the idea that everything’s gonna be all right. And that doesn’t have anything to do with a particular deity just the idea that things have got to get better one day.”

This is a quote that begged for some follow up. And thinking about it reminded me that the best thing about NPR is probably the worst thing about it. It’s non-sectarian, which is just fine. I’m happy they aren’t advocating a particular viewpoint. But isn’t that, in a way, a viewpoint? No one is right. No one has the answer.

I call this swimming in the soup of unspecificity.

When you talk about faith, you must talk about the object of your faith. Faith always has an object. You don’t just have faith—you have faith in some thing or some one. And the object of that faith matters deeply.

Mr. Reed is correct. You don’t have to be any particular religious persuasion to be a person of faith. The question is, what do you have faith in? Mr. Reed suggests it doesn’t really matter, perhaps it is even better if it isn’t too specific.

You can, like Mr. Reed, have faith is “in the idea that things are going to get better.” I think it’s fair to say they might, but they might not.

You can have faith in the pilot and plane that are flying you to your destination. Flying being much safer than driving, your faith is reasonably justified.

There is nothing wrong with faith in ideas or people or systems. I don’t want to be cynical, like the bumper sticker: “Everyone believes in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.” Biblically speaking, though, we need an ultimate faith in God.

Faith in God is something that pleases God and, actually, makes us right with God. Having faith in God or not has eternal consequences.

The Bible introduces a really difficult fact when it comes to faith. Sometimes you can have faith—in the Bible’s context, faith in God—yet things, at least in this world, don’t work out.

Last week I read through the book of Job. The astounding thing about Job’s faith is how he keeps it in spite of his circumstances. Another way of saying it, his faith in God is independent of what he sees in terms of what God does for and to him.

Four verses in Job are key:

Job 1:21
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Job 2:10
“Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

Job 13:15
“Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.”

Job 19:25
“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.”

Which is why this quote from Mr. Reed is so troublesome and dangerous. Things don’t always get better. Things certainly don’t have to get better. And as generous and tolerant as he sounds, if we want things, ultimately, to be better, our faith should actually be very specific—beyond ideas and people.