The long-running radio show (and popular podcast) This American Life is known for its unique mix of documentary stories, which tackle everything from politics and current events to human interest pieces and personal profiles.
But no matter what subject they’re covering, TAL manages to do something that’s increasingly rare in the age of mass media—they take time to let stories unfold. And because they aren’t subject to the normal time and form constraints of conventional media outlets, the result is often gripping, detailed stories that capture moving looks at our American lives.
Over the years, they’ve been known for covering matters of faith with the same objective lens as they do with political or news stories—but the end-product is often the same: Real stories of real people, with an authenticity that can’t be found anywhere else in the media.
Here’s our look back at four This American Life stories every Christian should hear. (Editor’s Note: We’ve linked each story to the show page on the TAL website, where each piece is streaming for free.)
(Full Show, Episode 304)
First Aired Dec. 16, 2005
Before Rob Bell’s Love Wins ignited a debate about the existence of hell, sparked accusations of universalism and made many evangelicals evaluate their feelings on grace and the afterlife, there was Carlton Pearson.
As Ira Glass explains in the introduction to Episode 304, “Heretics,” Pearson was a “rising evangelical megastar” that “at the height of his popularity, became involved in a scandal: He stopped believing in hell.”
The episode dedicates the entire hour to telling Pearson’s story, that any many ways foreshadowed a coming movement in larger evangelicalism. Pearson rose from humble beginnings to become an influential pastor. But after believing he heard from God—telling him to embrace a new way of thinking about grace and challenging ideas about hell and sin—Pearson’s world came crumbling down. He lost his church, his followers and his influence, but never his sincere faith that he was acting out of obedience.
For Christians, the episode is especially challenging. It humanizes Pearson and forces you to see beyond his theology. But more than the personal story of Carlton Pearson and his relationship with orthodox Christianity, the episode offers an interesting glimpse at the culture of modern American evangelicalism, theology and “heresy.”
(Act 2 of “Faith”: Episode 202)
First Aired Dec. 21, 2001
On a remote stretch of highway that cuts through Groom, Texas, there stands a 190-foot steel cross that can be seen from miles away. In 2001, reporter Josh Noel visited the unique landmark to try and find out why it was built and why hundreds of people pull over every day and begin praying.
The cross was originally erected by a millionaire Texas businessman who wanted to create an advertisement for Jesus that could compete with the XXX signs of local strip clubs. But what started as essentially a massive billboard turned into a sacred place of prayer as drivers began stopping their cars and falling to their knees.
The story itself begins with an almost cynical tone. Even for a Christian listener, the monument sounds like more a of an example of religious kitsch than a place of sanctuary. But as Noel begins interviewing the people who regularly pull over to pray and seek ministry there (the cross now has a staff of ministers who meet travelers looking for prayer), it’s clear something deeply profound is happening at that 19-story cross in the middle of the desert. Even the Texas oilman has a powerful—and emotional—story about why he wanted to create a place for people to meet with God.
The result is an incredible story about faith, prayer, grandeur and hope on the side of a Texas highway.
(Act 1 of “Pray”: Episode 77)
First aired Sept. 26, 1997
Another piece that serves as an interesting look at evangelical history, in this now famous story, a skeptical TAL reporter, Alix Spiegel, visits Colorado Springs to investigate the city’s growing prayer movement. While there, she interviews the leaders of New Life, the megachurch home of Pastor Ted Haggard.
What starts as a journalistic look at the culture of evangelical “prayer warriors” turns into a first-person spiritual crisis as Spiegel (who describes herself as a secular Jew) begins to believe the prayers are having an effect on her. As she encounters passionate Christians (and is exposed to the full lexicon of Charismatic Christianese), goes on intense prayer walks and interviews pastors in the area (including Haggard), Spiegel contemplates giving her life over to God.
The episode not only presents a compelling personal spiritual conflict, it’s also an interesting look at evangelical sub-culture from an outsider’s perspective. Also, in what is now a somewhat ironic twist considering the scandal that led Haggard to later resign, at one point in the story, Spiegel meets a former member of New Life church who openly struggles with his own homosexuality and his relationship with his former church.
Like many TAL pieces that deal with faith, the story is told from a “secular” perspective, as the reporter visits with an unfamiliar community. But, also like many stories on the show, it remains open-minded and manages to humanize the people behind the movement.
(Act 1 of Kid Logic: Episode 188)
First Aired: June 22, 2001
From 13:10 to the 17:00 minute mark of 2001’s “Kid Logic” episode are four of the most compelling minutes of radio you’ll ever hear.
Unlike many of the other stories on this list, this brief piece is part of a larger collection of stories in which adults explain the simplicity of “kid logic.” At 13 minutes into the episode, frequent TAL contributor Jack Hitt tells about the time his 4-year-old daughter first started asking questions about Jesus.
After being fascinated about the origins of Christmas, Hitt’s young daughter wanted to learn everything she could about Christ. Together, father and daughter read from a children’s Bible each night, and the young girl became enamored with Jesus’ message of loving your neighbor as yourself.
But the story isn’t just about explaining the revolutionary message of Christ to a child; she had no problem understanding that. Rather, Hitt’s story takes an emotional turn when he’s forced to explain human nature to his daughter, and tries to tell her why her hero (and others that carried His message of love like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) was killed for preaching something so difficult for many adults to comprehend.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.