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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Tuesday Evening Melody: Saturday Night Tavern Storytelling with Over The Rhine’s “All My Favorite People”

by Marcy Bain, guest contributor

As a Presbyterian minister I spend a great deal of time in sanctuary spaces, but I confess that my favorite spiritual music is not always sung by the Sunday morning choir. Often it’s sung in Saturday night taverns by mainstream folk artists like Over The Rhine, Patty Griffin, and Jennifer Knapp. Other artists shuffle in and out of my iPod rotation, but when I seek spiritual comforts, to these musical mainstays I always return.

The other day I was trying to locate that thing, that ineffable quality in their music that draws me into sacred space, and it proved a daunting task. Like a flash of creative insight, or a burst of beauty that wrecks the senses, I can’t really put my finger on the pulse of such mysteries; I can only receive them when they come to me. And so it is with these artists and their songs.

However, if I endeavored to speak in broad terms, I would say that these artists hold a few key characteristics in common. They make music that strikes a spiritual chord in me without being doctrinaire. They each pursue excellence in their craft. They defy labels and simplistic categorizations. Folk music at its core is story tellin’ music; each of these artists sings out their stories from the deep-seated wellsprings of spirit and soul. None of them make music specifically geared towards the Christian marketplace, but all of them have deeply nourished me in my journey of faith.

For those of you with New Year’s resolutions to expand your musical palette, start with Over The Rhine’s “All My Favorite People,” dive in to Knapp’s “Mr. Gray,” and let Ms. Griffin take you to church with her stirring rendition of “All Creatures of Our God and King.” If the Saturday night tavern happens to be your favorite sanctuary, who knows, you just might get to see a preacher overcome by “a juke box altar call” (to borrow a lyric from another OTR song) as she sits in the corner putting the final polish on her Sunday morning sermon.


Marcy BainMarcy Bain is an ordained Presbyterian minister from Dayton, Ohio. She believes that there is a special place in heaven for girls with guitars, and she is ever so grateful for all that they’ve contributed to her life.

Want to recommend a song for our Tuesday evening melody? Submit your suggestion and a little bit about the tune. We’ll take a listen for possible publication on the On Being Blog.

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A Polish Grandmother’s Christmas Story

by Paul Clement Czaja, guest contributor

While shepherds watched their flocks - С РождествомA Christmas scene from Syria. (Charles Roffey/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

As a Polish family, the real celebration of Christ’s birth for us took place on Christmas Eve with the singing of carols before sharing together a festive dinner. And then, finally, when the night outside was deep and decorated with a billion stars, all the family would sit around the Christmas tree, and our dad would give out the presents to each and every one of us. But my story takes place on that Christmas Eve afternoon so many years ago when I was still a kid growing up in the Bronx.

After my mother had prepared the big dining room table with a large, lovely white linen tablecloth, Grandma would come down from her apartment upstairs and place a white plate piled high with brown dates in the middle of the still empty table. My brother Peter and I would get up and begin eating some of these unusually sweet and sticky exotic fruits. We did so every Christmas, but on this particular time I was puzzled enough to ask Grandma how come we only got dates on that one day of the year. We never had dates on any other day — only on Christmas Eve. Why? She smiled at Peter and me and invited us to come and sit down and told us this story:

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Monsters We Love: The Power of Stories in Every Era, in Every Medium

by Krista Tippett, host

When I first sat down to interview Diane Winston, I told her that I didn’t want to start our conversation with zombies and vampires. I didn’t want to spend all of our time on them, but they quickly became the focus of the entire first half of our conversation nevertheless.

Diane WinstonAs I had sensed, and Diane Winston helped me understand in a whole new way, monsters — human and otherwise — are an immensely playful and deeply serious way in to the story of our time. And television — as she and I first discussed a few years ago through shows like Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica, and The Wire — is a medium where more and more creative people are drawn to tell this story in fresh and surprising ways. Like it or not, TV is a primary place in this culture where we act out the ancient human compulsion to engage who we are, what we fear, who we aspire to be.

Not surprisingly, as much has changed on the planet in the past few years, much has changed on the small screen. There is what I’d call a whole new genre of total civilizational collapse. Art and drama confront reality by exaggerating it. The instability people are feeling and fearing from the economy onwards comes out in the new TV season through scenarios in which a mysterious plague has turned most of humanity into soulless zombies (The Walking Dead); total environmental collapse has sent humans back in time to co-exist with dinosaurs (Terra Nova); and aliens have disabled modern technology and wiped out government and civil society as we know it (Falling Skies). Falling Skies was co-created by Steven Spielberg, and its departure from the sweet memory of E.T. surely says something about shifting perceptions of the hostility of the world “out there” — extraterrestrially and terrestrially.

The Walking Dead and its zombies, as I hadn’t quite realized until I dug into this topic, deserve special attention. Its second season premiere was the highest-rated television drama in the history of basic cable among viewers in the 18-49 demographic. It picks up some of the themes and touches of the wildly popular Lost. It turns them inside out as well. In Lost, bands of survivors were thrown together to find their way out of a supernatural place; along the way, they knew equal measures of love and loss, tragedy and redemption. In The Walking Dead, Earth itself has become a supernatural place in a horror story way. And the zombies — murderous creatures who used to be human and are now reactivated brain stems — are not the walking dead; the survivors are, as the show’s creators tell us up front. Life is reduced to a nightmare. Moments of hope and redemption are scarce and short-lived.

Walking Dead TruckA semi sports an advertisement for The Walking Dead on its payload. (photo: Ewen Roberts/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd)

As Diane Winston points out — and she is one of the sharpest watchers of these things I know — these plot lines are thick with ancient, abiding questions of meaning, of the presence or absence of God, of morality writ large. In this show, we play a scene taking place in an abandoned church in The Walking Dead, which is as overtly theological as anything I’ve seen on television in my life — complete with a cross, prayer, confession, martyrdom, and overtones of Jesus in Gethsemane and the sacrifice of Isaac. Diane Winston says to me, at one point, "People have been asking ‘Where is God?’ for thousands of years and why wouldn’t we be asking the same question? And why wouldn’t we want to represent it in our own language rather than in the King James version?”

It’s a relief, really, to turn from zombies to vampires, who populate a number of shows and who at least have emotional lives and relationships. True confession: I am a True Blood lover, as is Diane Winston. Vampires unlike zombies, she points out, are sexy. They are playful characters for projecting ideas about mortality, otherness, and the meaning of being human. And in part because their “true blood” is obviously fake, they fare positively in contrast to other monsters on TV right now who happen to be human — the serial killer Dexter or the teacher-turned-meth dealer and murderer on Breaking Bad. It is completely fascinating to hear what Diane Winston knows about the intentions of the writers of these series — the fact, for example, that Vince Gilligan, the series creator of Breaking Bad's bleak badness, is all about examining the reality that actions have consequences.

As a mother as much as anything else, I occasionally worry about the severity of these images as tools for examining morality. But Diane Winston’s perspective is bracing and comforting in some sense — reminding us to trust the power of stories which have endured through every era of human confusion and darkness. I remember the psychiatrist and author Robert Coles telling me how children know what to do with stories — and that we shield them from the world’s darkness and despair at their own peril. It is after all their world to make sense of, to navigate, and to repair.

And in the end, this is not a dark hour of radio. We’ve layered lots of great sound of various TV shows throughout my conversation with Diane Winston. We move beyond zombies and vampires to fascinating religious complexity in 24's successor, Homeland, and the fascinating back story to HBO’s Enlightened. It’s a strange and unpredictable mix that’s in the end funny and scary, bleak and hopeful, endlessly mysterious and endlessly familiar. Like life itself.

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Who Was the Buddha? The Story of a Human Being Like You and Me

by Toni Bernhard, guest contributor

Thailand - Ayuthaya 5 - Buddha headAn image of the Buddha is carved into a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat in Thailand. (photo: McKay Savage/Flickr, cc by 2.0)

The name Buddha means “awakened one.” This is the story of how a young man became the Buddha. As with all ancient tales, we can’t know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m inspired by his story either way.

The Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom in northern India. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. His father, the king, indulged his son’s desires and protected him from being exposed to human suffering. The king posted guards at the palace gates to keep Siddhartha from seeing how less fortunate people lived. He even had attendants hold a parasol over his son so he wouldn’t experience heat or cold or dust. Everything unpleasant about life was hidden from him.

When Siddhartha was nine years old, his father took him to a plowing festival. At one point, the nurses left the prince unattended under a rose-apple tree. In striking contrast to the noise of the festival, it was calm and quiet under the tree. Siddhartha sat cross-legged and became aware of the sensation of his breath going in and out of his body. It was his first experience of true calm and peacefulness. Soon his nurses returned and broke this peaceful abiding, but the experience had a profound effect on the young prince.

One day, when Siddhartha was a young man, he talked his attendant, Channa, into taking him beyond the walls of the palace. For the first time, Siddhartha was exposed to life as the rest of us experience it.

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Zombies, Zombies Everywhere

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

ZOMBIE WALK 2008A mass of people dress up for the Toronto Zombie Walk. (photo: Sam Javanrouh/Flickr, cc by-nc 2.0)

For some reason we’re experiencing a zombie moment. From zombie crawls across the globe to the record-breaking 11 million people who tuned in to watch the season premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, zombies are seemingly everywhere this season. Even sober institutions like The Centers for Disease Control are using zombies to teach us about disaster preparedness.

As we get ready for next week’s interview with Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California, we’re wondering about this collective obsession with the walking dead. Why do you think zombies (not to mention other semi-humans like vampires and werewolves) are so appealing to our imaginations right now? Is it campy escapism from our economic woes? Or could it possibly be a reflection of how many people are feeling at this moment — like the walking wounded?

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Tuesday Evening Melody: Allegri’s “Miserere Mei, Deus”

by Lisa Moore, guest contributor

This song affirms that humans create beauty. When that woman’s voice rises above the rest and spirals around, it is pure and intoxicating.

Miserere Mei was written by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri in the late 1630s. As legend has it, this piece of music was protected from being transcribed or played outside of the Sistine Chapel for the Tenebrae (“darkness” or “shadows” in Latin) service. Doing so was punishable by excommunication.

The story goes that, after more than a century, young Mozart heard the work in 1770 and rewrote it from memory when he returned home. His transcription ended up in the hands of an Englishman who published it in 1771. Rather than being excommunicated, Mozart was called to Rome and praised by the pope for his musical genius. The ban was lifted, and now it is one of the most common works to be performed by a cappella choirs.

Why would this song ever have been banned in the first place? Because it was so very beautiful. Perhaps people would hear this music and have a spiritual experience. That experience, of course, could then be had anywhere they heard that music and open a personal pathway to a relationship with God. The Church wanted to be sure that that type of communication could only occur with its guidance and control. There are other examples of music being avoided because of the belief that it insinuated evil, like the tritone.

Other composers also transcribed it, and there is quite the dispute about who got it right and whose version is the best. I first heard a recording by the Dale Warland Singers, so I think I’m stuck with my first love, but there are many recordings — including the gorgeous version above performed by The Sixteen — both with adult and children’s choirs.

As interesting as all of this is, I’m not trying to make any big statement. I just want to share this amazing music that deeply touches my soul, no matter what sort of mood I am in.


Lisa MooreLisa Moore is a medical student at Loyola University in Chicago. She attempts to maintain her identity as more than somebody who studies through yoga, creative cooking, reading, and writing.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.

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A River Water Blessing

by Michelle Johnson, guest contributor

Matt and Joy Scheidt were raised in the church, but in adulthood they’ve come to assimilate elements of many other spiritual traditions into their lives. When they wanted to welcome their infant son into the world, they drew on those traditions to create a water blessing and invited friends and family to a tributary of the Dan River in North Carolina.

"No matter which culture you come from in the world," Matt says, "there’s something innately essential to the value of ritual, however you might conduct that. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I was very heavily invested in serving the church," he continues. "I guess I kind of wandered. I don’t ascribe to one fixed belief system. I’d call myself an ‘ecumenical humanist,’" he says with a laugh.

"I can’t call myself an ecumenical humanist," says Joy, who grew up Episcopalian. "I think that’s too smart for me. I would say that I try to experience as much of the divine world in my life and the lives of others, guided by something innate that came to me when I was young, when I was born. I believe that we all inherently know what we are. There’s something true in us, and, if we’re in line with that, we’re really kind of hitting on life’s fullest potential."


Michelle JohnsonMichelle Johnson is an audio journalist living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This audio slideshow is part of “Sacred Rivers,” a multimedia documentary project under development that explores river rituals as a lens through which to see America’s changing cultural landscape. You can view more of her work at the Yadkin River Story.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.

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Reflections from the Typing Pool

by Amy Gottlieb, guest contributor

Sheryl Oring Collective MemoryEvery day is the anniversary of something. The date on the calendar ripples with other dates, other stories.

It’s now a month since the tenth anniversary of 9/11, when, two days earlier, a dozen of us marched into Manhattan’s Bryant Park wearing somber black vintage clothing, clutching manual typewriter boxes in our hands. Our up-dos and pearls lent us an air of Old New York secretarial efficiency. We were not to appear casual or chatty; we would not be using our cell phones.

When we first took our seats on the plaza, tourists snapped photos as if we were museum specimens. Gradually the first hesitant talkers sat down across from us, then a few more, until the hours passed quickly in an exchange of words and a clattering of keys.

The model for Sheryl Oring’s Collective Memory project was simple: a row of typists, dressed in early 60’s vintage, on the plaza of Bryant Park would take dictation from anyone who wanted to respond to the prompt, “What would you like the world to remember about 9/11?” The responses would be collated and become part of a traveling exhibit. I volunteered to help Sheryl because I am a writer and always dreamed of being a village scribe. Set me up with a carton for a desk and a duffel for a stool; sit across from me and tell me your story so I can write it down for you, clean up your grammar, make sure your words meet their intended destination. This scribal role is Collective Memory - Bryant Park - September 9, 2011 - 00012 not so different from the best moments of writing fiction or poetry; the surprise of inspiration and the work of crafting precise transmission are here, albeit in a diluted form. But what I did not expect was how privileged I felt being the recipient of a stranger’s words. Sit down and open your heart because I am here. My ancient and efficient Underwood will write it all down for you. The illusion of the past will carry your words into the future. What were you doing that day?

We were to receive every narrative with interest; we would be occasionally moved and often not. Some told stories of where they were when the planes hit. Many narrated pithy sentences, as if there was a moral to be found:

Live in the moment.
Do not hate.
Care for one another.
Be compassionate.

One woman said, “I am a New Yorker and we did not intend for this to cause a war, we did not want a war.” A young woman blatantly told me how the event seemed unreal to her all these years, like a movie, and, now that she is older, she is beginning to consider the import of what really happened. One woman narrated her words for the typewritten record and then told me the real story of how volunteering at Nino’s Restaurant down at Ground Zero in the weeks and months after 9/11 changed the course of her life. Another spoke of how the falling grey ash that day made all the survivors appear the same; all differences were blotted out. Some responses were defiant and political. Many speakers paused between sentences, considering the flow of their words.

Most willingly gave their names, first and last. There was a quiet satisfaction in being heard, in one’s words being recorded on these ancient keyboards.

Thank you for doing this.
Thank you for stopping by.

The act of inviting the telling was beautiful to me, and as fitting a memorial as anything could be.

After two hours I returned to the Bryant Park offices, combed out my up-do and exchanged my somber black dress for jeans. My co-typist slipped on a motorcycle helmet. We found our cell phones, checked email, rode the elevator down to the street, and descended further down into subways.

Sitting on the 1 train, I was once again an ordinary passenger, but what I most wanted to do was turn to the person next to me and ask her to tell me what she was thinking. Not because it was the anniversary of 9/11 but because the words of a stranger speaking through the cracks of her heart felt necessary, and remains necessary every day. I have a typewriter. Tell me a story:

Where were you when something big happened and what are you thinking about now?


Amy GottliebAmy Gottlieb is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in the Forward, Lilith, Puerto del Sol, Zeek, and other publications and anthologies. She is the 2010-2011 Poetry Fellow and Resident at the Bronx Council on the Arts and is finishing a novel.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute to the conversation.

Lead photo by Dhanraj Emanuel.

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The Fundamental Tension between Stories and Statistics

by Shubha Bala, associate producer

The DodecahedronMy favorite dog-earred, page-stained book growing up was The Phantom Tollbooth. I must have read over 40 times about Milo’s quest through the Kingdom of Wisdom to reconcile the rulers of Dictionopolis, the lover of words, and Digitopolis, the lover of numbers. The conclusion of this book, and of John Allen Paulos’ recent post in The New York Times, is that both language and math should reign equally.

Paulos, a mathematician and professor, argues that while narratives and statistics play important roles, people approach them both with different mindsets:

"Despite the naturalness of these notions, however, there is a tension between stories and statistics, and one under-appreciated contrast between them is simply the mindset with which we approach them. In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled."

He goes on to demonstrate this tension by citing examples of statistical errors that are completely natural in storytelling, like the conjunction fallacy.

Journalism, to me, seems to be the attempt to reconcile that tension by finding common space between the data and the narratives. Do you think there is an inherent difference in how we mentally approach statistics and stories? Or is it a tension which can be bridged?

Image above: The dodecahedron, from the children’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth,” has 12 faces each showing a different emotion. (illustration by Jules Feiffer)

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Rembrandt’s Divinely Inspired Light: An Unheard Cut from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Rembrandt's 'Portrait of a man'
Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a man, half length, with arms akimbo” (1658) (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

"Sometimes you have to kill your puppies." This is radio producer insider baseball talk for cutting your most precious, beloved bits of tape — the ones that aren’t serving the bigger story you’re trying to tell. Such was the case with Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a masterful storyteller appearing in our recent shows "Pursuing Happiness with the Dalai Lama" and "The Dignity of Difference."

On stage at Emory University with the Dalai Lama this October, Sacks told a story about Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine. When the First World War broke out, he was stranded in Switzerland and later made his way to England. There he found solace in the company of Rembrandt’s paintings at The National Gallery in London.

In the clip above (mp3, 01:31) that never made it into the show, Sacks points out that Rembrandt’s subjects weren’t all that beautiful, but his paintings nevertheless reveal their “inner radiance.” He invites us to find beauty where it’s not immediately obvious, and to expand our perceptions of what’s beautiful.

Rabbi Kook commented on Rembrandt’s masterful use of light in this 1935 interview with The Jewish Chronicle:

"I really think that Rembrandt was a Tzadik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the legend about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one and of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty.”

And these lines from Rabbi Sacks’ short reflection about art, timeless beauty, and Rabbi Kook’s particular love of Rembrandt resonate:

"Art which aims to shock, shocks only once, while art which aims at beauty never fades. Art as sensation eventually deadens our sensations, while art as wonder wakens them."

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Leaving for a Promised Land, An Ex-Con’s New Life

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Exodus is a story of longing and loneliness, redemption and new horizons. Diana Ortiz, a 45-year-old woman who was incarcerated for 22 years for second-degree murder, tells the story of her conviction, rehabilitation, and the need to show others released from prison the journey can start anew.

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Hummingbirds and Outrage Fatigue

by Anne Breckbill, associate web developer

"I think there is such a thing as outrage fatigue. … Because statistics like that and numbers like that, scenarios like that, are as prone to make people throw up their hands and say, well, then, you know, I can’t do anything anyway."

During her interview with Bill McKibben, Krista suggests that all the bad environmental news and surplus of data can be overwhelming. What a common human response to a challenge that seems insurmountable! Because we cannot do something big, we are tempted to not even take the small, manageable actions that are well within our power. We feel inconsequential, completely forgetting about the cumulative impact of each person who cares for the Earth. This headline from The Onion captures the poignancy of this sentiment: “'How Bad for the Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?' 30 Million People Wonder.”

Listening to “The Moral Math of Climate Change” also brought to mind the 2009 Sundance Award-winning film Dirt! and the optimistic parable of the hummingbird as told by Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Here’s hoping that the 30 million of us who wonder about the impact of one plastic bottle can adopt the tenacity and courage to be hummingbirds.

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