There are few media (besides this magazine, perhaps) in which you could find former Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw, social activist Shane Claiborne, and the late Orthodox theologian Jaroslav Pelikan discussing the mysteries of Christian faith back to back. But the radio dial between K-LOVE and the oldies station is a good place to start. There, on more than 200 National Public Radio stations every week, broadcast journalist Krista Tippett hosts On Being (formerly Speaking of Faith), a show dedicated to "tracing the intersection between theology and real life." While many guests are outside the Christian tradition, the show has arguably helped demolish the misinformed stereotypes about evangelical Christians sloppily dispersed by other media.

Tippett recently spoke with CT managing editor Katelyn Beaty about how her faith informs her work—what she calls "a ministry of listening rather than of preaching"—and why the best Christians today doing the most loving, faithful work in Jesus' name are the ones we'll never read about.

On Being went to a weekly national format in 2003. In the past decade, how have you seen the public discourse about religion in America change?

I'd go back a little bit. I had been a journalist in Europe and then went to divinity school in the early 1990s, and came out as somebody who had the perspective of a journalist and was now also theologically educated.

At that point, you had Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson speaking not just for evangelical Christianity or Christianity; they were the voices of religion in America. They made for great sound bites; they were exciting in that way.

That was a big piece of the motivation for me: This [religious] part of life is so much bigger and more diverse than that. Evangelical Christianity is more diverse than that. That was my starting point.

Now, there's no cookie-cutter voice. The story I'm trying to tell is that evangelical Christians have a whole range of issues they care about—poverty and the environment and sex trafficking. That's the story of what's happened in the past decade, this broadening, expansive application of core values and virtues. It means even things like Christianity Today's This Is Our City project—I don't think it would have happened 10 years ago, but it's very organic, and it absolutely makes sense.

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I think leaders of an earlier era thought that to be a Christian in the public square meant to wield power, to dictate policy and cultural change. It seems like today Christians are more willing to work across boundaries and share power, in order to pursue the common good.

It's less possible now for voices to be privileged in the way Falwell and Robertson were privileged. [In an earlier time] you could have a Reinhold Niebuhr. You could be this authoritative voice on the cover of Time magazine.

That era is over. There are authoritative voices, but they don't have the sweeping command of attention. The old forms have stopped working, but we still don't yet know what's going to come in their place.

I'm interested in recovering the idea of public theology. Ten years ago, when you would talk about Niebuhr, people would say, "Well, who is the Niebuhr of our day? It's all fine and good to talk about how great Niebuhr was, but we don't have Niebuhrs anymore. Whom can we point to?"

There can't be any more Niebuhrs. I don't even know if we could have a Martin Luther King now. The change makers are dispersed and plural; they're in local communities, and they're not all white Protestant guys.

Public theology is very different. We have to look for it a little bit more. It's not just going to declare itself and be anointed on the cover of Time. But that's good, because it puts all of us back in the equation, both to be leaders and to seek out the people who we want to have that authority.

The other paradox now is that because of technology, what is small and local can be amplified in some amazing ways that weren't possible in the era of the monolithic, powerful figures at the top.

There is a pragmatism now in up and coming generations that I see as the successor to the 1960s idealism that ended up embittered. Niebuhr would say that even when we are reaching our highest ideals and in our moments of greatest accomplishments, there we will sin, too. I think the 1960s idealism of "we're going to change the world" has been replaced by, "I'm going to change the world that I can see and touch."

Your approach is very first-person in that you are lifting up the voices and experiences of particular people. What do you imagine the role of the "first-person" religion journalist to be in our time?

Until very recently, journalism was doing an almost uniformly terrible and superficial job of covering religion. When I started the show, and we would be doing a show with a Jewish boy or a Buddhist boy, the editor would say, "Okay, so at the top, I need a list of what they believe."

Also when I started the show, George W. Bush was President. Because there was a big electoral mobilization of Christians, places like The New York Times were paying attention to evangelical Christianity for the first time in living memory, and you had these stories that were just so silly.

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I remember one that was on the front page. It showed a couple of college students, and it was like the story was one of shock, horror. The headline was, "Evangelical Christians Are in the Ivy League." [Laughs] I mean up until 50 or 60 years ago, the president of those places was always a minister.

On the one hand, it was so uninformed even when they seemed to be doing something in depth, or it was very much focused at the power level—only bishops, ministers, the heads of seminaries would be interviewed.

The talking head.

Yes. But people are less interested in that kind of coverage. There's a hunger for things to be humanized. Words like transparency and authenticity express spiritual values that manifest our desire to see the humanity of things.

I like to say that I'm tracing the intersection between big ideas and human experience, between theology and real life. It's not such a radical concept, but it hadn't been done much before.

You have that ability in print as well. In print, I think what used to happen is you would have the "what's journalism?" issue, and the idea that if it's journalism, it must be critical, suspicious. The human story was really sidelined. The New York Times, I think, is still really primitive about this. It's like some of the traditionally best places are the last to get it. But there are a lot of good people coming up, and a lot of great stuff going on online.

You write in your book Speaking of Faith that your own starting point and perspective is Christianity. What is it like as a religion journalist to identify with a particular religious tradition and also to step foot into these other traditions by way of your show?

This would probably be one of those old taboos [about journalism] that needs to be broken down. I don't know why we would think a business journalist was qualified to do what he does if he didn't have his own bank account, or a political correspondent who didn't vote.

I make no apologies for the fact that I have a religious life of my own. I'm speaking as a Christian because I'm speaking as myself.

When I first started this, there was a young Catholic reporter who was excited about the show. I'd just done something with the Dalai Lama, and she said, "Do you feel you get converted by talking to these amazing religious leaders?" The truth is, I don't.

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When profound encounter happens, it has paradoxical effects. At one and the same time, you are able to appreciate and even to learn from this other person and their tradition. But the other thing that always happens—and I've honestly never heard of a story that it hasn't happened in—is that you become more richly planted where you are. You become a better Christian.

I think that some of the most deadly phrases in the English language are ecumenical and interfaith. They're so boring, but the experiences people have are not boring, and the experiences are transformative, and they're not relativistic.

We did some audience engagement research a couple years ago, and there was wonderful stuff in there about how people really use On Being. A majority said they're able to have conversations with people they couldn't have had conversations with before. The same kind of huge majority said it had deepened their engagement with their own tradition, and that is the way it works. That's a long answer to say that it works for me, too.

One word that has come up time and again within This Is Our City is vocation: the calling on a person's life toward a particular path as well as gifts and talents and perspectives that someone can use to give to the world. How does this word describe your own work as a journalist?

Vocation is one of the words I want us to revive and use more often. Culturally that word has been conflated to mean your work or your job, and it's so much bigger and more generous than that.

I know that the calling of being a mother has been for me really primary, as much as my job. [Vocation] is not interchangeable necessarily with the work we're being paid to do.

I was once speaking at a Lilly Endowment thing, and someone said that they considered my work to be a ministry. That is the word that at least publicly, I would hesitate to use as a public radio host. But the way I think about it, and privately, I do, is: There's absolutely ministry in what I'm doing; there's absolutely a sense of calling in it. It's simply a ministry of listening rather than of preaching.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a great voice for us now as somebody who under totally different circumstances watched the essence of Christianity sit uncomfortably with the structures. He talked a lot about how if you're never listening to your neighbor, at some point, you won't be able to listen to God either, and that is the death of the spiritual life.

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To me, there is a deep virtue in listening that probably would be a good thing for some of us to excavate in theology in years to come.

Let's talk about the Civil Conversations Project—the On Being project that promotes civility around key and often divisive issues. You've said that Gabe Lyons, the founder of the Q conferences, is doing public theology. You also had Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, come on as well. How do these and other evangelical Christians contribute to the common good?

First, Jim Daly was a revelation. Even long after James Dobson is not the head of Focus on the Family, the mainstream media haven't picked it up. It was like a new story to people that Daly wasn't Dobson—and he shares, I would say, most of Dobson's core theology, but what he's choosing to emphasize is so radically different. People were blown away.

When I think about Christians, conservative evangelical Christians, doing good, loving people, feeding people—that's mostly what's happening. They have always been so much more prominent than the strident voices.

What I value is knowing that there are a lot of people who are not in the spotlight, who are not good at self-promotion. What gets noticed and taken seriously, and even defines how the world is, are people who throw themselves in front of cameras and microphones: they are either promoting themselves or they drop a bomb—they do something really dramatic and destructive.

But the irony is that a defining characteristic of a faithful Christian is humility. The most faithful people among us, the people living most deeply, are going to be the last people to throw themselves in front of microphones and cameras.

I also think we need people like me to shine a light on it when we can. This kind of initiative you're involved in [at This Is Our City], which is just connecting people so that faithful people can become parts of webs and networks and their impact amplified—that's really important, too.

Katelyn Beaty is managing editor of Christianity Today magazine.

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