Idle times are upon us. Traffic jams, holiday commutes, and New Year’s resolution jogs were once the stuff of nightmares, but fear not: there exists a medium so captivating, so perfectly tailored distract us during mundane tasks, that you just might stave off holiday depression.
I’m talking about podcasts! Podcasts are digital audio files that can be streamed on the web or downloaded straight to your smartphone (think radio meets YouTube). Low overheads have made podcasting a diverse and democratic medium, attracting everyone from established radio programs to Christian pastors and stand-up comedians.
To help you make it through the holidays I’ve compiled a list of this year’s best podcasts about religion. My criteria were strict, my methods thorough: I’ve been listening to a ton of podcasts this year so I went back and picked my favorites, then solicited additional nominations from fellow podcast fans and Religious Studies scholars. The results are in, with two runners up and one winner in each of three categories. Many were nominated, only nine could win, and I guarantee that every episode below is worthy of a download.
Category One: Explorations of the Uncanny
Numerous scholars of religion have associated religion with the “uncanny,” an ambiguous, eerie feeling that something is both strange and familiar. This year quite a few podcasts explored this paradoxical experience.
The Runners Up. First up is the excellent podcast Radiolab, a radio program about science and culture whose Halloween episode “Haunted” tells the real-life ghost story of Dennis Conrow, who hired paranormal investigators when his dead parents seemed to be haunting their former home. This episode deftly recounts Conrow’s struggle with skepticism and belief.
Second is 99% Invisible a popular podcast about design and architecture that produced two eerie episodes this year. “O-U-I-J-A” offers a fascinating and textured history of the iconic game, weaving together design, cognitive science, and American religious history. “Ten Thousand Years” documents the federal government’s attempt to label an underground nuclear waste repository that will continue to be dangerous for 10,000 years. Are there universal symbols of death and prohibition? Download to find out!
Category Winner. Do yourself a favor and subscribe to Here Be Monsters, a self-described “podcast about the unknown.” Creator Jeff Emtman created the show to face his fears. This is reflected in his willingness to embed jarring stories within rich and chaotic sonic landscapes. Most episodes are short and sweet. Get started with “The Grandmother and the Vine of the Dead,” which was Slate’s pick for the 25th best podcast episode of all time. After that check out “A Goddamn Missionary,” an empathetic vignette of a Bipolar Disorder sufferer and religious figure, and “Do Crows Mourn Their Dead?”, a mind-bending tale of creepy human masks and the “cacophonous aggregations” that crows create for their dead. Here Be Monsters is as close to shamanistic trance as a podcast can get.
Category Two: Interviews and Confessions
Podcasts can be digital confessionals, virtual booths for expressing fears and desires. Listening to a podcast is itself an intimate experience, not unlike being third party to a personal conversation.
The Runners Up in this category are both known for using humor to explore otherwise difficult experiences. RISK! by Kevin Allison asks people to “tell true stories they never thought they’d dare to share in public,” and it has quickly become the podcast of record for deep, dark secrets. “Into the Mystic” is a collection of three stories about mystical experiences and crises of faith. It’s also a great introduction to the power of storytelling.
The second runner up, You Made It Weird, is ostensibly a comedy podcast where stand-up comic Pete Holmes interviews fellow comedians. Relevant to our purposes is Holmes’ unabashed interest in each guest’s religious upbringing and spiritual disposition. Visit the You Made it Weird channel at Nerdist.com to pick from any of a wide number of fun and thoughtful interviews. For a crash course on Holmes’ own religious beliefs you can listen to this interview with Emergent Church pastor Rob Bell.
Category Winner. When it comes to conversations about religion, Krista Tippett’s On Being is the gold standard. The Peabody Award-winning radio program is also available as a podcast, and subscribers can access uncut interviews in addition to weekly episodes. Tippett’s interviews—which she deems “conversations”—explore 21st century human life across a range of topics, from the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois to Ramadan to The Science of Attention. Smart, generous, and empathetic, Tippett has fostered some of the best conversations that this medium has to offer. For insight into the “sacred space” of the interview booth, check out her conversation with StoryCorps founder David Isay. Then go to the episodes page and take your pick. You can’t go wrong.
Category Three: Secular Intersections
There is no clean divide between religion and the secular. A number of podcasts have covered contemporary intersections between religion, politics, and society.
The Runner Up. This list’s second Peabody Award winner is On the Media, produced out of WNYC. OTM offers some of the sharpest media analysis and most sophisticated investigative journalism that you can find today. January’s “Secrecy at the Border” was initiated after OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman was detained, without explanation, by US Customs and Border Protection while trying to return home from Canada. The resulting investigation revealed a shocking lack of transparency and oversight in this government agency.
Category Winners. We have a tie! Two podcasts produced equally striking coverage of religion and politics this year, both produced by the same team at This American Life. If you only have an hour to spare want some volatile local politics, explore no further than “A Not-So-Simple Majority,” which documents a school board dispute in East Ramapo, New York. This stunning account of a political war between an Orthodox Jewish community and their Latino and African-American neighbors is a case study in religious pluralism (or the impossibility thereof).
Our second category winner is the most popular podcast in history, the This American Life spin-off Serial, which just wrapped up its first season. Over twelve episodes Serial untangles the 1999 murder trial of Adnan Syed, a 17-year-old Baltimore Muslim who was accused of killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Serial probes pre-9/11 American attitudes towards Islam, which played a significant role in Adnan’s unjust imprisonment. We at RD became obsessed with the podcast, and even live-tweeted the finale. If you haven’t listened to it, go do it now. I’m not going to risk any spoilers.