Isn’t it fun to be part of the in-crowd? Where you can connect with people who are of like minds and spirits, where everyone seems to be headed in the same direction? But what if you start having nagging questions as an insider that don’t seem to get resolved, and even worse, are met with disdain or fear from other members of your group? This can be a scary place for so many of us. For the purposes of our conversation today–we’re talking about when it happens in religious spaces. For years, singer/songwriter Derek Webb was very much on the “inside” of what was happening in Christendom as a top selling, award winning Christian artist, songwriter and worship leader. It took a few disruptions to his own life that sent him down the road to evaluating his faith, his beliefs and how he wanted to move forward with the new information he’d gained. Now, decidedly an “outsider” who tries to still take up space in the Christian zeitgeist to potentially model a different way of living, Derek has gone on to record solo albums and also work with artists that aren’t typical to Christian music–like drag queen Flamy Grant—with whom, incidentally, he attended the Gospel Music Dove Awards in 2023 (and who also had a number one Christian song pop up on the charts), with the intention of making people who are Christian and LGBTQ+IA feel less alone. In this episode, Jen and Derek compare their journeys as “peaceful disruptors,” what it cost them and what they gained in the process.
We’re wrapping up our Faith Shakers series this week, and we hope you’ve found it as eye-opening and enlightening as we have to see what people of faith in non-traditional spaces have been doing to make the world a better, more thoughtful place. This episode takes us to yet another unique space where faith and art are being combined to great effect–and it’s through poetry. In case you’re having flashbacks to Shakespearean sonnets you had to study in high school, fear not. We’re going beyond poetry to recognize the beauty in the lyrics we love from our favorite songs, to the way thoughts are constructed by deep thinkers like modern poet Maya Angelou. Language, words, and poetry have always been a tool deeply embedded inside any sort of faith search. So this week, we welcome a poet who also happens to be a theologian, and he’s going to walk us through the powerful ways that poetry can bring healing, hope, and reconciliation, Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet and theologian whose work centers around language, power, conflict, politics, and religion. For several years, he was the leader of Corrymeela Community—Ireland’s oldest organization focused on religious reconciliation. He’s also the in-house theologian for the NPR show On Being, with Krista Tippet. Pádraig focuses on conflict resolution who dedicates his life to creating safe spaces for all people within the religious realm. He shows us all that communication, understanding, and landing in the gray space is the way forward and that we can all find our faith space, no matter who we are or where we come from.
In the past, questioning the spiritual majority was unacceptable. Not only were people of faith expected to fall into line and just accept what was laid out by church leaders, but they were also expected to carry those beliefs throughout their entire lives–even when those tenets no longer aligned with their own values. And if they dropped them? Well, then they likely got dropped by their faith institutions. Fortunately for us all, there have been some quiet trail blazers who have been pushing at the edges of those institutions, asking hard questions, and paving the way for so many of us to shift and develop and grow our faith into living, breathing entities that enhance life–instead of being burdensome. One of those trailblazers joins us this week—the creator and host of the On Being radio show (and podcast) on NPR–Krista Tippet. Krista, like so many of us, grew up entrenched in the church–going three times a week, including Wednesday night suppers (we never turn down a potluck here) and it was her family’s main social life and community. Since beginning her career as a journalist Krista began to see that whenever religion was discussed in public, in the news or on public radio, it had the effect of shutting people’s imaginations down. She wanted to show people that you could talk about it, and we could speak about the part of ourselves that we’re referring to when we use the words “religious or spiritual” in a way that allowed for questions and differing opinions. Now, 20 years and hundreds of fascinating interviews later, she has changed the way we talk about faith publicly and allowed space for it to be full of inquisitiveness and beautiful mystery–enabling so many to find a faith that feels like home to them. You’ll want to be sure to listen all the way to the end where Krista reveals the surprising reason she started her show, On Being, and the touching situation that is saving her life right now.
A dilemma that has gripped the hearts of traditional church leaders and their followers is the trend toward “non-affiliation–” those folks referred to as the “Nones” – who check “none” when asked if they affiliate with any religion or attend any church. Which begs the question–why? Why aren’t people attending church like they used to? And why are people outright leaving the church? Are people still seeking and finding spiritual community somewhere out there? Writer, speaker and co-founder of the Sacred Design Lab, Casper ter Kuile–a graduate of Harvard Divinity School who once identified as an atheist–has done some fascinating research on why people–millennials in particular–are leaving religious institutions in droves; what it is they are searching for, and the surpising places they are finding connection and hope. Caspar published a study titled How We Gather, which discusses this millennial exodus from the church, and how they are transitioning into a more spiritual journey instead of a religious one. For those of us who may have been embedded in traditional church culture for years and now find ourselves at a crossroads because of the politicization of religion, or perhaps because of untenable behavior that occurred behind closed doors at churches for years wondering if we can see ourselves in spiritual community ever again, This conversation with Jen and Caspar reveals the darker reasons for the detachment many have from religion and church, but also insight into a transformation on how we might practice a new “religion” that draws from the best of tradition and the new and inspiring ways people are congregating.
We’re back with another installment of our Faith Shakers series–talking to people who are doing work in the name of faith in “not so typical places,” using nontraditional ways to bring life and light to people’s lives. One of the not so typical places people of faith are congregating more than ever is on social media. So many of us have a love/hate relationship with the medium. Sometimes it gives us the feeling of connection and community–especially during times where connection in person isn’t possible (remember the pandemic lockdown, everyone?). Other times, it can be a source of stress, a place where we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others, an alternate reality of only our “best selves” shown to the world through carefully curated content. Religion, faith and spirituality have their place on social media, and with emerging generations–millennials, Gen X’ers–many have never known life without it. But how do we navigate that quality of instant gratification that social media so readily supplies and find true connection and community that will challenge us, instruct us, and maybe even pastor us in the digital space? This week’s guest has done a lot of work looking at and studying digital communication spaces, and she is here to pass on what she has found so that we can better know the power of digital communication and make social connections that are positive, productive and beneficial. Heather Thompson Day is the host of Viral Jesus, a podcast that discusses these very things. She’s also an associate professor of communication at Andrews University and she’s intent on serving students and women in navigating the digital space toward the best possible end–good self image, finding conviction and even handling disagreements. This isn’t your grandma’s Sunday school class y’all–Heather gives us the tools to find a whole different way of experiencing our faith through our social channels.
We’re not always comfortable with people who push us past our comfort zones, who ask hard questions, who bring us a different perspective, a different angle–but we get so much from there. As we continue our Faith Shakers series, we’re talking to people who challenge unjust systems and are doing dynamic things in faith spaces and how those things are positively impacting the world. This week’s discussion takes place at a location that many would consider to be a hotbed of divisiveness–where many believe it hard to show love; the center of our political world–Washington D.C. This particular location is important because it’s representative of our public discourse, the direction of our country’s legislation, policy, and rhetoric. As we explore this highly emotional and volatile topic, we have a guest who has been standing on the frontlines and helps us take it apart compassionately. Lisa Schutlz is the chief of staff for the United States Senate chaplain, Barry Black. For 15 years, she’s been directing all of Chaplain Black’s programs and outreach to all senators, their families, and any Senate staff. Jen and Lisa really get into what faith looks like in Washington DC right now. There’s some hope baked into this conversation, and Lisa’s very unique perspective on faith in our highly charged political world gives us insight on how we can “brave the wilderness” in this political divisiveness to build bridges that might bring us together in love.
We’re back with a fourth episode in this powerful series; For the Love of Faith Shakers. As many of us who might have come from a Western evangelical Christian community, we were presented a God that has a strong patriarchal presence. As we dig into the history of that, we learn that this image has been crafted, held together and governed by men, as those in power tend to shape the deities as they want to see them. However, history–the same written and oral history that gives us the basis for the Bible–tells us that Jesus likely wasn’t caucasian with blue eyes as we often see him depicted, but that he was Jewish, born and raised in the middle east and more than likely, was a person of color. But the image of white Jesus took root, as well as God as a white man, his father, also a man, emerging from the clouds in a fury–ruling with an iron fist. This generally serves one group of people in one gender, but has been so painful and difficult for black and brown and female and LGBTQ+ communities to see themselves in their creator; and to feel safe with this God, to feel cherished, to feel protected, to feel included. And so to give us some insight toward moving beyond this narrow, potentially abusive and oppressive view of God, we’re talking with Dr. Christena Cleveland. Dr. Cleveland is a social psychologist, an author and activist who grew up in white evangelical spaces and was a popular speaker and influencer in that world for many years. As a researcher and former professor of Divinity at Duke University, she’s done some amazing study around the patriarchal forces in Christianity and other religions, which led to some dismantling of this practice of silencing the feminine side of God’s intimate presence in our life. It wasn’t until she looked at her own history of being “othered” by the white leaders in her religious background that she began to understand the tension she felt about her relationship to God as a black woman. This led to a journey of figuring out who God was to her and how we all–no matter our gender or our color–can find ourselves in the Divine.
Through our entire Faith Shakers series, we’ve been finding the places where faith is vibrant and alive–both outside the church and inside it–and who has been creating safe spaces for faith to be expressed; no matter where you fall on the religious spectrum. For centuries, art has been an integral part of the religious tradition. Some of the most breathtaking art was commissioned by leaders of the church and still adorns the walls, architecture, windows and gardens in some of the most famous religious landmarks all over the world. However, over the last century, the tie to art and religion seems to be tenuous. And those creatives who seek to express their faith or their relationship to God through art don’t always have a conduit to do so in religious spaces. But, like the faith shakers they are, people who connect to God through art are still doing their thing wherever they can–and reconnecting others to God in the process. That’s the story of our guest today– an artist who is actively helping build that connective tissue between art, God and people–the spectacularly talented Morgan Harper Nichols. Morgan is a visual artist and poet who shares stories of grief, anger and solace who found her place of expression, surprisingly, on Instagram (where now nearly 2M followers are tuned in to her artistic offerings). Morgan’s experience in the Christian faith began with roots in a church that was planted by former American slaves and their descendants. It was committed to community and ensuring all voices were heard and was a guide for how she began sharing her work with the world. Morgan recognizes that the word “God” alone has so much baggage for a lot of people because it’s been weaponized against them, and she wants to show those traumatized souls that you can actually feel eternal love and the presence of God, and it doesn’t have to be in a church, and it can look warm and welcoming and different than how it may have been presented in the past.
We’re back with more of our Faith Shakers series–with another person of faith who’s inhabiting something different than what we normally expect or see in faith spaces. When it comes to better understanding the church and how faith exists outside its walls, we must take into consideration voices that haven’t been largely represented in many church traditions. Communities of color were often not considered in the long history of liturgy in the church–and if you’re not familiar with what liturgy is, the technical definition is the “ritual or script for various forms of public worship in churches.” And those scripts and rituals more often than not didn’t take into account the Black experience. That’s where our guest today comes in. Cole Arthur Riley is an author and the creator behind the uber popular Black Liturgies, which has blown up on Instagram over the last couple of years. Cole daily shares the poems and prayers she has created that invite Black dignity, lament, rage, justice, and rest. She and Jen talk about how hard it can be to go against the grain in spaces of faith, and the power of trading acceptance for inner stability. As Cole says, “when you have that inner stability of heart, it gives you courage to step away and say ‘I trust that I am going to find belonging elsewhere.’”
It’s an origin story we’ve heard time and time again; a young person trying to figure out who they are as they grow up—in the context of their families, their religious beliefs, and their sexuality. And when all of those areas conflate, there can be fallout and damage—especially when they discover how and who they choose to love isn’t embraced by their faith or family structures. Award winning journalist and writer Jonathan Merritt navigated this particular firestorm in his own life by pursuing a Masters in Divinity and Theology and becoming a journalist who asked hard hitting questions at the intersections of faith and culture. But it would take years for him to sort out who he himself was in the midst of it. Growing up in the family of an evangelical mega-pastor, Jonathan was taught that in regards to gay people, Christians were called to “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” Jonathan didn’t see a lot of love with this practice, just a lot of hate. And it kept him from being open to who he himself might be—a gay man. It took an event that shattered his life into pieces and caused his private process to become very public; which ultimately sent him down the road to really pursue his identity and recalibrate his relationship to his family, his faith, and his purpose. For the first time, he talks about this process, and shares a moment where he and Jen’s paths crossed in a significant way that would also blow up a few sacred cows in Jen’s life and introduced her to an early version of cancel culture, circa 2016. Welcome all, to this first, powerful episode in our Faith Shakers series.
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