Podcasts rose to cultural prominence with Serial: a true crime podcast. Since then, more and more people are accessing a wide range of podcasts; podcasts with various lengths, degrees of polish and covering topics from rollerblading to the collapse of ancient civilisations. For Christians, podcast shows have totally eclipsed the late-2000s popularity of listening to a church, preacher or organisation’s sermon podcast feeds. While video content is also extremely popular, the appeal of podcasts for many people (like myself) is that they don’t require a screen open and some degree of visual attention: you can listen to a podcast while you walk the dog, wash the dishes, drive the car or lie on the beach.

One very powerful genre of podcast, that builds on the Serial formula, is basically the long-form radio documentary. At its best, the long-form documentary podcast draws on a range of different disciplines: academic experts, sociological analysis, in-depth interviews, vox pops and, usually, a significant degree of personal disclosure from the host themselves, as they go on a journey along with the audience.


The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

One of the most impressive Christian examples of this genre, which understandably attracted an enormous audience around the world, was Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, created by Mike Cosper. This excellent podcast could very easily be turned into a unit for a theological college, as it draws in historical reflections on revivalism, the megachurch movement, the Jesus movement, governance, ethics and eschatology, abuse, gender politics, sexual ethics and more.

Some people found the experience of listening to this podcast harrowing; others found it unnecessarily in-depth; some feared it might function as a kind of ‘failure porn’: slowing down to gawk at a car crash, so to speak; some saw it as evidence that modern evangelical Christianity is broken, or even rotten to the core.

But for many, it was extremely valuable: it put the Mars Hill story in context, and it pulled together all the different bizarre and shocking and wonderful pieces of the puzzle in one place. And it did more than that. It provided an opportunity for those of us who have been hurt, disappointed, betrayed, baffled, outraged, depressed or confused by wave after wave of failure and controversy among evangelical leaders and organisations to debrief. It helped us reflect on some of the alarming tendencies of church culture, helped us to be alert to the ways that we might fail in our own church cultures. It also put Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll in the context of larger movements of history and theology. It helped us get some historical context on our current cultural moment. In doing this, I believe, it has the benefit to make us all wiser.


The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling

A recent podcast has a lot of similarities to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill in terms of style and ambition: the Free Press’s The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling, created by Megan Phelps-Roper. This podcast is not primarily focussed on evangelical Christianity and Christian ministry, although there are plenty of points of overlap. The content, especially in the fifth episode, does get very graphic, as multiple sexually explicit and violent tweets are read out. But as with The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, this podcast is not merely salacious scandal-mongering.

Phelps-Roper is an apostate from the notorious, arch-fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church—in fact, she was formerly a very active and outspoken member. She no longer calls herself a Christian, as far as I am aware, and expresses a desire to examine how it is that people come to sincerely hold manifestly bad beliefs, just as she did.

The centre of The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling is the controversy of J. K. Rowling’s opposition to various forms of trans-rights movements. But it goes far beyond that. Like The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill it puts this controversy into a larger social context: giving us a tour of the last thirty years of Western popular culture, examining matters like the Rodney King riots, feminism, 1990s gothic music, evangelical opposition to the Harry Potter books, Rowling’s personal experiences of domestic violence, a historical and sociological analysis of the fear of witches, the rise and influence of internet subcultures such as 4Chan and Tumblr, and more. It really is a great way to orient ourselves to what we have been through as a culture in the last few decades!

When it comes to transgender issues, Phelps-Roper appears to have sympathy for Rowling’s point of view, giving her a large amount of uninterrupted time and the final right of reply. To her credit, Rowling herself comes across as a very thoughtful, personable and compassionate woman. On the other hand, episode 6 focuses entirely on the opinions and experiences of two trans people, and gives them extended, uninterrupted time. The two guests, Natalie and Noah, speak articulately and persuasively, with humility and pathos. This episode is enormously helpful for giving people on the conservative side of this debate an opportunity to hear some very different perspectives, beyond soundbites and gotchas and cheap accusations.


Maybe It Is Still Possible to Have a Respectful Conversation?

Not only is The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling a fabulously entertaining and informative listen… it also makes me dare to hope. Is it still possible to have a respectful conversation? Even on something so heated as transgender issues? This podcast demonstrates what that might look like.

No doubt many on the ‘liberal’ side[1] will find the whole project appallingly compromised, another example of ‘hearing both sides’ of an issue that society has deemed beyond debate. Many will find Phelps-Roper an unreliable host, skewing the podcast’s presentation in favour of Rowling.[2] Perhaps some on the ‘conservative’ side will find it too—what is the right word?— nuanced? Perhaps they will be frustrated by Rowling’s feminism and sexual ethics, by Phelps-Roper’s abandonment of any version of Christian faith. As has already been said, many people will be understandably repelled by the explicit nature of episode 5.

That being said, I hope that many will find in this podcast, and perhaps other conversations like it, a way to continue to talk in a more careful, collaborative, attentive, respectful way about controversial matters like transgender—or feminism, or witchcraft, or Christianity for that matter!

[1] Although, as the podcast points out, increasingly ‘liberals’ are no longer very ‘liberal’ in their approach they are actually censorious and illiberal. One might also point out that there is also a new brand of so-called ‘conservative’ who are anything but conservative in the traditional sense of the term, but are more a kind of right-wing radical.

[2] I haven’t done any research on The Free Press. Who knows who else they platform? Perhaps that could likewise be seen by some as a reason to be suspicious of the podcast.