a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

This American Life

by Peter Manseau

This American Life host Ira Glass
This American Life host Ira Glass

Despite his well known status as a staunch—if friendly—atheist, the radio producer and iconic black-framed-glasses wearer Ira Glass has used his program This American Life to delve into people’s spiritual lives with a sensitivity unique in media coverage of religion. As specific and eclectic as its stories are, the show’s frequent treatment of religious subjects seems to bring out in Glass a desire for transcending particular beliefs that approaches an orthodoxy all its own.

Beginning with the premiere episode of the program that would become This American Life, broadcast on November 17, 1995, Glass framed his new enterprise in explicitly nostalgic terms. Even the show’s name—at the time it was called Your Radio Playhouse—self-consciously tweaked the anachronism that storytelling on the radio already evokes. Complete with tinny jazz music that sounded as though it were playing on vinyl, Your Radio Playhouse was every bit as backward-looking in its appeal as Charles Fuller’s Old Fashioned Revival Hour had been sixty years before. And Glass, likewise, used this first episode of his fledgling program to deliver a sermon of sorts.

“One great thing about starting a new show,” he says in his distinctive rapid-fire nasal delivery, “is that it’s an unchartered little world…”

No one hearing my words is saying, “Remember that show back when it used to be good?” Actually, that force, that human desire to say that, to say “I was there when the show was good,” is so strong, is so basic to who we are as people, that I know that, two minutes into the new show, there are one or two people out there who are saying, “Sure, I used to listen to that show in the first thirty seconds, back when it was good.”

It is a cheeky, knowing sort of monologue, full of stammers and reversals that at the time—before Glass’s awkward delivery became the lingua franca of public broadcasting—would have made most radio professionals cringe. But it establishes immediately a mode of storytelling perfectly suited to the kinds of spiritual narratives This American Life would tell.

For the first act of this first episode, Glass offers something of an upended conversion tale, the story of a young man lost and found. “Kevin Kelly spent most of his twenties wandering around Asia,” Glass explains. “He was a freelance photographer. And he found himself photographing a lot of religious ceremonies. He found himself drawn to religious ceremonies. He was confused about what he believed.” Kelly’s voice then comes in:

I would get twisted and caught up, and these things were sort of in the background, consuming me. And actually I found that I could think about little else, for many many months. That behind all that I was doing there was always this unresolved question: Was God real? If he was real, then how could we ignore him? And if we were trying to not ignore him, what would we do?

While pondering these questions, Kelly finds himself in Jerusalem, where he falls asleep inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the night before Easter. When he wakes up, he is convinced of two things: first, that Jesus Christ died and rose again, and, second, that he has just six months to live. From that moment on, he explains, he acts as if his days are numbered. When Kelly’s story reaches its climax, it is six months later. After living daily with the feeling that his death was near, he returns to his parents’ home to spend what he thinks will be his last night on earth.

I went to bed that night—which was a very difficult thing to do, because I was fully prepared at that point never to wake up again. I had been praying, I’d gotten everything arranged. At that point I’d fully gone through in my own mind, my own soul, all the things I might have regretted, and I had righted as many of those as I thought I could, through letters, and I was prepared, as much as anybody could be prepared to die.

The next twenty seconds of airtime seem as orchestrated for spiritual uplift as any of Charles Fuller’s old hymns could be. As Kelly speaks, long breaks follow each word, letting the emotion he feels come through.

And, the next morning I woke up… And… The next morning I woke up and it was as if… The next morning I woke up and it was as if I had the entire, my entire life again… I had…The next morning I woke up and I had my entire life again… I had my future again.

Like Glass’s framing of the episode, it is a poignantly awkward narrative, suspended often by silence, second-guessing, and repetition, all of which serve to heighten the drama of the telling.

“There was nothing special about the day. It was another ordinary day,” Kelly concludes. “I was reborn into ordinariness. But…” Here Kelly’s voice breaks audibly, as if he is fighting tears until finally he lets out the story’s closing words with a small sob: “What more could one ask for?”

After a beat, Glass provides a coda about what became of Kelly. “Nearly two decades after that happened,” Glass says, “Kevin Kelly is now the executive editor of a magazine about the future, Wired Magazine.” Like a puzzle piece dropped into place, identifying Kelly this way highlights the apparent contradiction of the editor of a forward-looking technology publication choosing to tell this story on a self-consciously nostalgic radio show. Only then does the listener realize that the conversion narrative just experienced through Kelly was not what was expected. As framed by Glass, Kelly’s story is not of a conversion into belief, but out of it, a rebirth “into ordinariness.” Kelly begins with confusion, finds faith, and then moves beyond it. The narrative arc of religion on This American Life may run through particular beliefs, but it ends with the non-sectarian sanctification of the everyday.

In this and in other religion stories featured on This American Life, it is clear that Glass is not after Come-to-Jesus moments. The point of Kelly’s story was not to tell how a young man found God. Rather, Glass creates radio experiences that, in current NPR lingo, have become known as a “Driveway Moments”: suspenseful epiphanies that forge such a bond through the airwaves that the listener cannot pull away. As explained on “What is a Driveway Moment? You’re driving home, listening to a story on NPR. Suddenly, you find yourself in your driveway. Rather than turn the radio off, you stay in your car to hear the piece to the end.” A Driveway Moment occurs when one wants nothing more than to be alone with the radio.

As ordered as any liturgy, This American Life leads inevitably to this kind of communion. As Glass once explained:

This is the structure of the stories on our show: There’s an anecdote, a sequence of events. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. And the reason why that’s powerful… is because there is something about the momentum, especially in a medium where you can’t see anything… that you just want to know what happens next. It’s irresistible…

Then, there’s the part of the story where I make some really big statement like, “There’s something about the kindness of strangers.” Because you can’t just have an anecdote. It’s got to mean something. You can have people read the little story from the Bible, but unless you tell them, you know, the lesson they’re trying to draw from it, it’s not a real sermon.

A Driveway Moment is a perfect cocktail of anecdote and meaning. Considering that the creation of such moments has also become a measure of a radio program’s success, it may be that while broadcast technology promises to relieve one type of isolation, it simultaneously increases another. “The mission of public broadcasting,” Glass once said, is “to tell us stories that help us empathize and help us feel less crazy and less separate.” It may be that stories of other people’s lives can be told so well that we never need to leave the car to hear them.