Christians, Their Media Portrayal & Myth

What we can learn from Ira Glass’ statement about Christians in the media.

Ira Glass is a great storyteller not because he’s looking for the “big stories,” but because he’s able to find the small ones.

Over the years, millions of listeners have gotten to know the public radio personality through his popular weekly radio show (and podcast) This American Life. The NPR program offers a mix of long-form journalism, radio documentaries, interviews and even occasional short stories. Though each week the show’s different stories, which are broken up into “acts,” are all loosely connected to a theme, This American Life can be a different, unique program week-to-week.

This American Life often features a variety of formats and topics, but the one constant is Glass. His likable, good-humored personality opens each show with introduction commentary, and listeners instantly get the impression that no matter how ambitious the topic that week’s episode is tackling, the show isn’t really about a topic. It’s about people. It’s about individuals of different backgrounds, beliefs and values who have a story to tell.

Like all good storytellers, Glass understands that “themes” don’t make good stories—people do.

What This American Life has figured out is that stories are what make us human. Good stories connect people, ideas and “topics,” but great stories help us understand each other. And great stories are often the small stories.

That’s why Glass' comments on the media and Christianity are so insightful.


Ira Glass is an atheist. As he explains in this interview with author Jim Henderson —which took place in October of last year but was spotlighted this week on the culture and education site OpenCulture.com—Glass grew up going to Hebrew school, but he embraced atheism during his teen years.

To hear Glass tell it, he didn’t have any animosity toward faith. He simply reached a point where atheism made more sense to him than God and the Bible. “I feel like there wasn’t even like a moment of revelation,” he told Henderson. “It was a dawning on me that the story of the Bible didn’t really seem to add up.”

Glass wasn’t hurt by the church or religion. He didn’t have an ax to grind. He simply didn’t believe.

But for Glass, a man whose career has been predicated on seeing people not just for what they profess to believe but instead by the stories their lives represent, Christians are just like everyone else. They’re real people, with real stories to tell.

In the interview, Henderson asks if the reason This American Life often features stories about Christians is because Glass is “intrigued” by them.

The exchange is telling. Both because of what Glass says and the follow-up questions Henderson (who is a Christian) asks.

Glass: Well, I feel like Christians are really, horribly covered by the media. Like Christians seem like a really ripe target of opportunity.

Henderson: You don’t think Christians deserve this?

Glass: What do you mean?

Henderson: The political involvement, and the public stances that they take. You don’t think it’s well deserved at times?

Glass: That they’re covered badly? No.

Henderson: You don’t?

Glass: No.

Even Henderson seems to at least suggest that, at times, Christians deserve to be depicted unfavorably.

Glass goes on to say many groups in America feel the media covers them poorly, but Christians seem to get it “especially bad.” He says while making This American Life, he noticed many television shows and movies would depict Christians “as these hot-head, crazy people.” This depiction didn’t match his own experience with Christians he knew personally.

Often times, the line between defending your beliefs and apologizing for your fellow believers can simply be found by living your faith.

“The Christians in my life were all incredibly wonderful and thoughtful and had very ambiguous, complicated feelings in their beliefs. And seemed to be totally generous-hearted and totally open to a lot of different kinds of people in their lives,” he says.

He says Christian co-workers, some of whom kept Bibles on their desks and would invite him to see “rapture movies,” were kind, genuine people. “There were Christians in my life, who I felt close to and adored, that were nothing like the way Christians were being portrayed.”

At one point he says, “What Christians really are is not being captured by the press.”

For Glass, what helped him see the media depiction of believers was unfair wasn’t how well the Christians he knew defended their beliefs—it was their actions. It was the way they lived their lives. It was their stories. He may disagree with the principles of their faith, but the Christians he came to know lived lives that told stories of kindness and generosity. It's hard to argue with those stories.

There are two tendencies among Christians when confronted with someone who disagrees with their beliefs. One of them is to defend the faith by pushing back against accusations. The other is to defuse tension by apologizing for for perceived wrongs. And, the truth is, there is value in both of these actions—but is there a way to do both?

Often times, the line between defending your beliefs and apologizing for your fellow believers can simply be found by living your faith. The reason the media finds so many bad stories about Christians is because these tendencies—to defend our faith or apologize for other believers—both lend themselves to negative perception.

By doing what the Christians in Glass’ life did—maintaining a nuanced and steadfast worldview, but also living a life of kindness to people of all beliefs—we can tell stories that are different than the headlines.

Christians sometimes are the victims of bad press. Some media outlets will always look for attention-grabbing sound bites and sensational behavior. But faith isn’t about the big headlines. It’s about the small stories.

13 Comments

Rich Douglas

6

Rich Douglas commented…

Loved your take on this piece of news Jesse, thank you for covering this. And you're right, the stories that Ira mentioned are going to go so much farther in communicating the Christian message than theology alone. It would be really interesting to get Ira Glass and Don Miller to sit down together and talk about the value of stories. In fact, do you think Relevant may be able to have Ira on the Relevant podcast or in the magazine one day?

Erik Pasco

3

Erik Pasco replied to Rich Douglas's comment

I second this request! Would love to hear more from him.

R-Squared Comicz

1

R-Squared Comicz commented…

Great article...and although intuitively I know what's important is our actions...in practice my initial reaction is to apologize for fellow believers past and present. This article's a good reminder for me to keep things in their proper perspective.

Steve Cornell

210

Steve Cornell commented…

This is one reason why we have to be careful not to buy the effort some make to persuade people that "EVERYONE" sees Christians negatively. The "everyone" thinks this way approaches should send a red flag about the possibility of an agenda (no matter how many polls are used).

David Zirilli

29

David Zirilli commented…

There are seven very interesting stories that I have had the privilege of telling. I did some research into the spiritual development of children raised in churches and church culture. The interviews I did are so compelling and tell so much more than I could capture in my dissertation, I am turning them into blog posts. Today's is the first installment of seven.

http://stillwatersthewatermark.blogspot.com/2013/06/1-christina-search-f...

It illustrates for me, the power of story, the power of a life.

Gail Saenz

1

Gail Saenz commented…

Thank you first to Ira Glass for defending Christians and telling the truth about a lot of us who are NOT represented. It is unfortunate that the Christians who ARE portrayed in mainstream media are usually extremist and unfortunately not educated enough on the Bible. They are given the opportunity to speak for all of Christianity which is really sad because there are so many of us Christians who are not represented and truly try to make a difference in our communities. Whether it be feeding the homeless, volunteering in a nursing home, showing love where there is no love etc...these are the things that Christ taught...he told us to love one another that this was the greatest commandment!! Believe me when I say that there are so many Christians out there like me who really want to strive for world peace, human love and compassion, and want to make this planet a better place but unfortunately I feel the media, in its own war to keep the ratings up use us all as their puppets to get their stories out and in the process have become the very machine that is tearing the world apart!! :( But I still have hope that one day will see MORE peace MORE love and MORE compassion from all of humanity! This is my hope! :) Thanks again to Ira Glass and the many of you who had beautiful things to say about Christians! <3

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