Christians Go To Podcasts To Say Things They Can't Say in Church

Matt Carter, Toby Morrell, and Joey Svendsen recording the Bad Christian podcast.

Jeanne Mitchum/Courtesy of Toby Morrell

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Jeanne Mitchum/Courtesy of Toby Morrell

Toby Morrell curses and talks about sex on his podcast. Mike McHargue talks about evolution and LGBTQ issues on his. These things would be typical on most podcasts — but McHargue and Morrell’s audiences are almost entirely Christian.

A study by the Pew Research Center, released in 2015, shows that millennials have been leaving Catholic and mainline Protestant churches in droves from at least 2007 but they don’t necessarily lose their belief in God. In fact, more than half say they’re still religious or spiritual.

That’s the type of audience that’s tuning in to McHargue’s podcast The Liturgists and Morrell’s podcast Bad Christian.The Liturgists has about 1 million downloads a month for some episodes and according to its Website, 250,000 subscribers.

Bad Christian is sponsored by a few corporations not generally known for their religious affiliations. Among them are Lyft, Casper, Stamps.com.

These two podcasts aren’t unique in their approach. Similar podcasts include The Robcast, hosted by ex-pastor Rob Bell, who left his church after saying God doesn’t send people to hell, and Drunk Ex-Pastors, where the hosts take a shot of an alcoholic beverage before every show.

McHargue and Morrell say they grew up as Christians who didn’t feel like the institutional church allowed them to question and explore their faith. They spoke with NPR’s Michel Martin on All Things Considered about why they left the church, how that changed their faith, and how podcasts like theirs could be affecting Christianity.


Interview Highlights

Mike McHargue, author and co-host of The Liturgists.

David Tosti/Courtesy of Mike McHargue

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David Tosti/Courtesy of Mike McHargue

On why he left the church

McHargue: A lot of people have a lot of anger toward their past, but I actually loved being a Baptist. But as I grew as a person, and started to face challenges in my own life — in my particular case, my parents got a divorce after 30 years of marriage — I started to look to the Bible for answers, and the way I was taught to read the Bible started to fall apart.

Morrell: My grandfather was a pastor, so I grew up in this church that was very conservative. They were so conservative, they split from other churches because they thought the other churches in the South were too liberal, and I was like “What in the world?” Christianity, in general, I would say, never represented me — I always felt like I was on the outside. The only time I felt like I was represented was actually within the Scripture. Some terrible people were heroes in the Bible. You saw some really terrible things about people’s lives and personalities within the Bible, but when I was growing up in church, everybody hid that. You don’t do this, this, this and that makes you a Christian.

On why he turned to podcasting

McHargue: As I explored this middle space between faith and skepticism, I found that there were a lot of people stuck in that gear too. People for whom the church was too dogmatic, but atheism was too dismissive of their need for mystery and, frankly, things spiritual.

Morrell: As I got older, I realized there were people just like me. And so [Joey Svendsen, Matt Carter and I] ended up doing this podcast just because we wanted to represent, “What is it like for three friends to get together and just be as brutally honest as we can?”

On criticism from Christians

Morrell: We get a lot of criticism and I think that is good. That’s one of the biggest critiques we have of the church — is that you can’t critique it. That pastors would be hidden when they have moral failures. … The church does a really poor job of respecting people’s minds. They want to just give you everything in a pretty little package, and that is what your Christianity is. I think what we’re doing is opening up a door where people go, “No, I own my faith. I’m wrestling with God.”

On if the future of Christianity will be church services or podcasts

McHargue: I think that the future is both. I think you’ll continue to have institutional Christianity, and I think you’ll continue to have sort of a church in exile. My work is about acknowledging the validity as both as ways to know and follow this historical figure Jesus, and figure out what that means. I think everywhere people gather together around a table, God can be present.

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It's Their Grief To Live Through, Not Ours To Question

Carryn Owens, wife of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, is recognized as U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress last Tuesday.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

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I want to go back for a minute to Carryn Owens, who made such an impression at President Trump’s address to Congress last Tuesday night.

Her husband, Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, died in Yemen in January.

It was the first such mission approved by the Trump administration and the first ground mission in Yemen in years.

According to the White House press secretary, the president decided to invite Carryn Owens to his speech when he called to offer his condolences.

After giving it some thought, she decided to attend.

By now a lot of other news has pushed this story from top of the mind but she is still on my mind for a number of reasons: Her obvious grief and her obvious strength were a vivid reminder of what we mean when we thank military men and women for their service; truly their families serve and sacrifice as well. But she is also on my mind because she reminds me that all who have lost someone too soon — to war, to suicide, to murder, to accidents — are bonded by a grief that is personal and yet universal. Her tears are ours; they fall from her eyes into the river of our own grief. We weep for her and for ourselves.

I tried to imagine what she was going through in that moment — what that long ovation that must have felt like. An embrace? A tribute?

Was it painful? Did she know that that brief time the spotlight was on her was a rare moment that brought forth empathy in this poisonous and polarized political moment?

But then, of course, the politics and the poison did come: A Trump official felt the need to question whether some Democratic officials stood up long enough during the ovation. A blogger who reports on defense and intelligence matters reported that veterans he follows on social media were offended by what they saw as Trump’s exploitation of a widow for his own benefit. A self described Democratic volunteer tweeted something mean and lost his job because of it. And on, and on like that.

Now, some of that was likely set off by the president himself who went beyond acknowledging the loss of Chief Owens to use the speech to validate the mission itself — calling it highly successful and saying it generated vital intelligence. Others, including Chief Owens’ father Bill Owens, question whether that is true. The elder Mr. Owens has called for an investigation into whether the raid should have gone forward at all in part because of questions over whether the President gave the matter his full attention and sufficient consideration. For his part, Mr. Trump has said he deferred to the military leadership. Those are fair questions and substantive ones. It is fair for any American to question any matter of policy carried out in the name of the American people.

What is not fair — in my view — is to question the choice that any person makes, short of harming herself or others, about how to live through her grief; whether that person is Cindy Sheehan who camped out near President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, in August 2005 to protest her son’s death in Iraq, or the parents of Captain Khan who spoke at the Democratic convention last summer against anti Muslim rhetoric, or the parents of Trayvon Martin, who have begun organizing the parents of other teens killed by violence for weekends of mutual support — or Carryn Owens, who chose to accept Donald Trump’s invitation to attend his first speech to Congress to accept the thanks of elected leaders.

It is as if in this bizarre political moment, in which so many of our leaders strike us as inauthentic and perpetually performing, it is assumed that everyone else is too, and thus, anyone can be critiqued as if they were on stage in a play. But these families are not in a play. I bet they wish they were. I bet they wish that they could put down their programs, put on their coats and walk out the door and their respective nightmares would be over. But their nightmares will never be over. And it seems to be that the very least we can do is remember that fact and let their grief be their own.

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Amid Kim Jong Nam Furor, South Korea Hikes Reward For North Korean Defectors

The North Korean flag flaps behind barbed wire at the North Korean Embassy on Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images

For the first time in two decades, South Korea is increasing the reward money it’s offering North Korean defectors for classified information. And the hike in the cash reward is no pittance: The South Korean government is quadrupling the amount, from roughly $217,000 up to $860,000.

That sum would be paid to “people who provide intelligence and knowledge that can enhance South Korea’s security,” the Yonhap news agency reports.

As NPR’s Elise Hu notes, the boost to reward pay is intended to alleviate the financial burdens of defection. “Defecting from North Korea is not only dangerous,” Elise tells our Newscast unit, “it’s expensive, as many defectors rely on networks of human smugglers and brokers who demand large payments.”

“One of the biggest reasons why North Koreans are hesitant about defecting is because they are fearful of making a living after they come to South Korea,” an official with South Korea’s Ministry of Unification explained, according to Yonhap. “The planned changes can alleviate such worries to a certain extent.”

And South Korea is interested in obtaining North Korean military equipment, too. The country is offering payouts to North Korean soldiers who turn in weapons such as armored vehicles and artillery.

The move comes as the complicated saga surrounding North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s half-brother continues to unfold. Malaysian officials, who have been investigating Kim Jong Nam’s Feb. 13 death at Kuala Lumpur’s airport, have been whittling their list of suspects in what they believe was an outright assassination.

Malaysian authorities recently released a North Korean chemist from custody because of a lack of evidence then deported him, according to The Associated Press. After his release, the wire service reports the chemist, Ri Jong Chol, accused Malaysian police of threatening to kill his family unless he confessed.

Malaysia also says it is expelling North Korean Ambassador Kang Chol, declaring the man “persona non grata” and giving him 48 hours to leave the country. The expulsion is intended as a reprisal for Kang’s accusations that “the Malaysian government had something to hide and that Malaysia has colluded with outside powers to defame” North Korea, Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said in a statement, according to the AP.

Malaysia, which was once one of the few countries friendly with North Korea, has had a significant falling out with the hermit kingdom over the death of Kim Jong Nam. Malaysian authorities say Kim was killed with VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon, and they have arrested two women who appeared to accost him in the airport’s surveillance footage.

Pyongyang, for its part, disputes this account, saying the man — whom North Korea has not officially recognized as Kim Jong Nam — “probably died of a heart attack because he suffered from heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.”

The U.S. and South Korean officials attribute Kim’s death to North Korean agents.

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To Austin, With Love: Previewing The Songs Of SXSW

The Colombian band Tribu Baharú is scheduled to perform at this month’s SXSW music festival.

David J. Gaar/Courtesy of the artist

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David J. Gaar/Courtesy of the artist

To download individual songs by any of these five artists — or to download The Austin 100’s entire 100-song bundle as a 900MB zip file — click here.

The annual South By Southwest music festival kicks off March 13, bringing with it more than 2,000 artists performing at dozens of clubs across Austin, Texas. Winnowing all that music down to a digestible list of recommendations is a months-long endeavor, but now NPR Music has launched its annual Austin 100 — a downloadable 100-song playlist highlighting some of the festival’s most exciting discoveries.

In this conversation with NPR’s Michel Martin, that list gets whittled down to an even-leaner five: Tribu Baharú, a relentlessly joyful Colombian band; Jealous Of The Birds, an Irish singer who layers her voice beautifully; Manu Delago, a Bjork collaborator whose haunting songs are built around a drum called the Hang; Tunde Olaniran, a Michigan singer and rapper who practically bursts with ideas; and Weaves, a zingy and inventive rock group led by commanding singer Jasmyn Burke.

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Moving Toward Understanding Consciousness

Consciousness can't be understood from understanding the workings of an individual cell alone, says Alva Noe.

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If you stop and think about it, the idea that you could understand a complex system by detailed description of one its parts is crazy on the face of it.

You are unlikely to get too much insight into the principles organizing flocking behavior in birds by confining your attention to what is going on inside an individual bird. And you aren’t very likely to figure out how birds fly in the first place by studying properties of the feather.

The second example is due to vision science pioneer David Marr, and was advanced by him in the context of his rejection of neural reductionism in the theory of vision. To understand how we see, he believed, you need to think about what an animal does when it sees. What is the task of vision? What is vision for? Only then, given a description of the phenomenon couched at the level of the animal and its needs and interests, can we intelligently ask: How might we (or how might nature) build an animal or a machine capable of performing or implementing this function? And only then would we be in a position to ask, of individual brain cells, what sort of contribution do they make, or do they fail to make, to the achievements of the whole.

It is amusing that Marr’s book was published just as David Hubel and Thorsten Wiesel won the Nobel Prize for their work on information processing in the mammalian visual system. Their achievement — building on the work of generations of scientists — was to discover receptive fields of cells in the cat and monkey. In lay terms, they found that different cells were tuned to be more responsive to one kind of stimulus rather than another (lines, bars, motion). They neither asked nor answered the looming question: How do circuits of individual neurons manage to give rise to conscious visual experience? That the question has an answer — that some version of the reductionist story can be made out — was probably taken for granted not only by Hubel and Wiesel, but by those who judged their work worthy of the highest prize in science.

In fact, we still don’t understand how visual consciousness arises in the brain. And we can return to Marr’s book for an understanding of why this might be. You just can’t read off the achievements of the whole — not the brain, or the whole organism — from facts about what is going on with individual cells. A lot of conceptual spade work needs doing before facts about receptive fields can be taken to contribute to the understanding or explanation of anything at all.

I and others have been making this argument for some time with little discernible influence on the general hype. (See here, here and here.) The Year of the Brain, the Decade of the Brain, the Connectome, the Brain project, etc. So it is an event of considerable note — maybe one of genuine historical importance — that a group of top neuroscientists from around the world have recently come together to write an opinion piece in the journal Neuron calling on neuroscience to “correct its reductionist bias” and embrace a “more pluralistic neuroscience.”

Hubel and Wiesel, remember, won their prize for single-cell electrode studies on the brains of cats and monkeys. The only other tool for studying the brain then available was post-mortem autopsy. Since then, there has been an explosion of techniques and technologies for studying the brain of living humans and other animals: fMRI, PET and other imaging tools, but also even newer techniques of genetic manipulation and ontogenetic circuit control. Join these new technologies of discovery with big data and increased computing power and you’ve got, in a way, a perfect storm — or, rather, a recipe for a theoretical or explanatory dead end. More information is not the same as more knowledge, and data untrammeled by understanding, by sound theory and by the big picture is just noise. Actually, it’s worse than noise. It’s noise masquerading as insight.

Everyone knows you can’t find consciousness in the individual cell. But we now have tools for modeling temporally and spatially distributed ensembles of cells. Surely we’ll find the key to mind there, in those larger groupings! Until we know what questions to ask, we’re unlikely to find anything. (Or rather, we’ll find something but lack a clue what it is, as when Columbus landed in the Americas but thought he’d made it to India. I give this example because Hubel compared his research with Wiesel to Columbus’s explorations in his 1981 Nobel Prize lecture.)

John Krakauer et al, who wrote the piece in Neuron, are not pessimists — not any more than Marr was. To move forward and understand the human mind, or the minds of nonhuman animals, they propose, we need to look outside the brain at the animal’s behavior, that is, at how animals live, what they do, what problems they face, and what the circumstances are in which they thrive. There’s more to biology than molecular biology, and there’s more to cognition and consciousness than neural activity. We won’t understand how the brain enables mind until we think more carefully about behavior.

Philosophy is not — and has never been — the cognitive property of philosophers. Science needs philosophy, both in the sense that scientists ought to pay attention to what philosophers are doing, but even more importantly in the sense that scientists, at least sometimes, maybe in moments of crisis, need themselves to do philosophy. They need, themselves, to question their presuppositions and do the hard conceptual spade work to set themselves on more reliable foundations. I applaud these scientists for their appreciation of the value, for their science, of the need to frame and better contextualize their own research methods.

Science has never been just about information or data. Science aims at understanding, at knowledge. By calling for a rejection of simple-minded reductionism and by encouraging brain scientists to think again about the conceptual puzzle of understanding the relation between the life of an organism and what is going on around it, as well as inside of it, these neuroscientists are taking important strides towards setting up an adequate neuroscience of cognition and consciousness.


Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebookand on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Thomas Starzl, Trailblazer In Organ Transplantation, Dies At 90

In this 1989 photograph, Thomas Starzl oversees a liver transplant operation at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Starzl won a National Medal of Science in 2004.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

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Gene J. Puskar/AP

Thomas Starzl, the doctor who pioneered liver transplant surgery, has died at the age of 90. In an announcement on its website, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said Starzl died peacefully at his home on Saturday.

“His work in neuroscience, metabolism, transplantation and immunology has brought life and hope to countless patients, and his teaching in these areas has spread that capacity for good to countless practitioners and researchers everywhere,” his family wrote in a statement issued Sunday by UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh.

“With determination and irresistible resolve, Thomas Starzl advanced medicine through his intuition and uncanny insight into both the technical and human aspects of even the most challenging problems.”

Chancellor Emeritus Nordenberg on the passing of Dr. Starzl: “He became a hero to countless patients.” pic.twitter.com/DJVuC02Gng

— Pitt (@PittTweet) March 5, 2017

By the time he died, Starzl widely enjoyed a towering reputation in the medical profession — but this was not always the case. The doctor, who eventually became known as the “father of transplantation,” drew his fair share of criticism when he began experimenting with transplants.

“Transplanting was hardly even thought of as a possibility then,” Starzl once said. “I was working blind.”

In 1963, Starzl led the team of surgeons that performed the world’s first liver transplant. The patient, a child who had been born with half a liver, did not survive that operation due to excessive blood loss.

Undeterred, Starzl attempted the operation again just two months later on another patient who suffered from liver cancer. This time, it appeared to be a success — until the man died three weeks afterward, this time from blood clotting.

Still, Starzl kept working, also researching drugs to block the human immune system from rejecting its newly implanted organ. And by the late 1970s, the survival rate for patients undergoing liver transplantation had risen to roughly 40 percent.

When in the early ’80s he left the University of Colorado for the University of Pittsburgh, where we would go on to spend more than three decades, Starzl and his surgical team had already transplanted more than 1,000 livers. Under his leadership, UPMC would go on to become one of the world’s foremost transplant centers.

During his time there, he became known as a prolific publisher. In fact, as UPMC notes, the Instituted for Scientific Information identified Starzl in 1999 as “the most cited scientist in the field of clinical medicine.” The ISI estimated that for a time he was averaging the publication of one paper every 7.3 days, according to UPMC.

For his achievements, the school renamed its transplant institute after Starzl in 1996.

By that point, however, Starzl had retired from performing surgery. Following his own coronary bypass surgery in 1990, he decided it was time to give up the scalpel — much to his personal relief, as it turns out.

“I was not emotionally equipped to be a surgeon or to deal with its brutality,” Starzl acknowledged in his 1992 memoir, The Puzzle People.

Despite Starzl’s achievements at the operating table, his family says he should perhaps be best remembered as a teacher and a friend.

“Even more extraordinary [than his medical advances] was his ability to gift that capacity to those around him, allowing his students and colleagues to discover the right stuff within themselves,” the family said in its statement.

“Nobody who spent time with Thomas Starzl could remain unaffected.”

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Sikh Man Shot Outside His Seattle Home, Told To 'Go Back To Your Own Country'

For the second time in less than two weeks, an Indian-born man in the U.S. has been shot by an attacker who, before firing, allegedly shouted, “Go back to your own country.” Deep Rai, a Sikh man, was wounded in his Seattle area driveway on Friday night.

Authorities have not yet found the unknown assailant, who has been identified by Rai as a stocky white man about 6 feet tall.

“I am sorry to know about the attack on Deep Rai a US national of Indian origin. I have spoken to Sardar Harpal Singh father of the victim,” India’s external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, said in two tweets Sunday. “He told me that his son had a bullet injury on his arm. He is out of danger and is recovering in a private hospital.”

I am sorry to know about the attack on Deep Rai a US national of Indian origin. I have spoken to Sardar Harpal Singh father of the victim./1

— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) March 5, 2017

He told me that his son had a bullet injury on his arm. He is out of danger and is recovering in a private hospital. /2

— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) March 5, 2017

The Seattle Times reports that Rai, a U.S. citizen from India, told police a masked man accosted him in the driveway to his home on Friday night. A scuffle broke out between the two men, at which point the assailant broke out his weapon and shot Rai in the arm.

Police are investigating the shooting in Kent as a possible hate crime, according to CNN.

#breaking Kent Police speaks out on shooting of Sikh man @KIRO7Seattle@PatranyaKIRO7@LizRoccapic.twitter.com/WRrHY91HF0

— Bill Skok (@billskiro7) March 4, 2017

“We are treating this as a very serious incident,” Ken Thomas, police chief in the Seattle suburb of Kent, told reporters Saturday.

“We need our national leaders to make hate crime prevention a top priority,” Rajdeep Singh, interim program manager at the New York-based Sikh Coalition, said in a statement, according to the Times. “Tone matters in our political discourse, because this a matter of life or death for millions of Americans who are worried about losing loved ones to hate.”

As NPR’s Julie McCarthy reports for our Newscast unit, this is the second time in as many weeks that an Indian politician has wished a full recovery for a shooting victim in the U.S.

“This latest incident follows the targeted shooting in Kansas that killed one Indian national and injured another. The FBI is investigating it as a hate crime,” Julie notes. “Shaken by the violence, many Indians here say they are thinking twice before traveling to the U.S.”

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