I love to listen to podcasts. In fact, I spend far more time listening to podcasts than I do watching TV or movies. There are some incredible resources available for free on iTunes (or any podcasting app – I use Downcast) if you just know where to look.
That said, the place to look is not the “Christianity: Top Podcasts” chart, though, it does say something interesting things about what Christians are interested in.
The chart is generally dominated by three types of content.
First (and most dominant), there is the prosperity-tinged, self help stuff. Preachers promising 5 easy steps to take your life to the next level.
Second, there is the “guru” stuff. Men (it’s always men) peddling a strange mix of internet-conspiracy theory and end-times theology.
Third, there is the firmly conservative stuff. Men (again, always men) yelling a lot and getting very angry about a bunch of different threats to conservatism.
A common theme is that most of this content builds a cult of personality around one person, as the one with all the answers.
Another observation is that we Christians seem to be overly keen on preaching as some kind of “cheat code for life.” Like Popeye’s spinach, we’re looking for something concentrated that will allow us to live more successful lives, or unlock the secrets to the universe, or know all the answers to all the difficult questions in what is a confusing world.
There isn’t a lot of stuff focused on equipping people for the long, slow obedience that is what life as a Christian should be. There are lots of easy answers, but not so much to help Christians think critically for themselves.
The good news is, there is a some good content if you dig a bit deeper. Here are five of my favourite podcasts, which you can grab with a simple search of the iTunes store.
You’re Included. Look past the terrible music and cheesy name (you’ll be practiced at that if you listen to many Christian podcasts!) This is the most academic podcast on my list, but it’s still fairly accessible. I like You’re Included because it’s full of interviews with really reputable theologians, mostly with a Trinitarian or Barthian bent. C. Baxter Kruger, various Torrance’s, Andrew Purves and Gordon Fee have all been on the show. It’s a great podcast for anyone who wants to think more deeply about theology.
Unbelievable. Hosted by the affable Justin Brierly, this show looks at various issues from a theological perspective. Often, it pits two people from opposing positions against each other in a debate. These debates cover subjects like Atheism and Christianity, women in ministry, and why God allows suffering. What sets Unbelievable apart, is that for the most part these debates are balanced and respectful. While Brierly is a Christian, his style is very moderate, and he allows both sides of each debate a fair hearing. My favourite episodes, though, are often the one-one-one interviews. Brierly has interviewed Rob Bell about his latest book, Alister McGrath about the life of C.S. Lewis, and Brother Guy Consolmagno, a highly qualified scientist who works for the Vatican.
This American Life. This isn’t a Christian podcast, but it’s probably the best insight available into educated, Western culture. In fact, it hosts some of the best journalism in any form of media right now. Each show follows a theme. For example, recently the theme was “Plan B”, exploring the lives of various people for whom work/life “Plan A” had not worked out. The results are often fascinating. Sometimes, however, the show takes on a more investigative journalism slant, as it did with a two part episode on gang violence at Chicago’s Harper High School, which was one of the more moving journalistic pieces I’ve ever come across.
Timothy Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian). Keller is a well known author, and many of his sermons are available for free. His style leans more towards topical than expositional preaching, and he is one of the best at what he does. While I don’t agree with his every theological position, his manner is so calm and winsome, he is fantastic to listen to. His sermons are often thought provoking and convicting, but beyond that, one of the biggest things I find helpful with Keller is that he is so good at speaking to people who don’t agree with him. Being a pastor in New York, he assumes there are always people like this listening to him, and he preaches accordingly.
Jonathan Martin (Renovatus). Martin just might be my favourite preacher right now. He’s hard to classify: a Pentecostal who reads N.T. Wright and Henri Nouwen. A preacher who speaks in a Southern drawl but condemns much of the hyper-fundamentalism that occurs in the States. His sermons are smart and passionate: his recent sermon on Obscurity was absolutely amazing. Martin does tend to go long (over an hour is not uncommon), and I almost always come away thinking his sermons would benefit from editing, but they are still well worth listening to.
Worth a mention… Will Willimon, John Ortberg, various lectures and sermons by N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Roger Olson and Ajith Fernando. I’ve also appreciated cherry-picking Mars Hill (led by Kent Dobson) and the Gospel Coalition from time to time.
I’d be interested in recommendations… especially of any New Zealand podcasts.