NPR, Neil Conan and the Voice of God (or, How to Reach That Crowd)

I grew up listening to National Public Radio. With that, awakened an early love for the modern, progressive, thoughtful existence that Democrats dream and preach about. My old man, more than any, instilled a handful of progressive ideals into my young soul—respect, tolerance and civic engagement. Driving me to school—slurping his fair trade coffee from a reusable Alcoholics Anonymous mug that rested perfectly on the dashboard of our Subaru—he’d fine-tune the dial to the soft-sounding voices of NPR commentators such as Neil Conan, Robin Young and Robert Siegel.

If NPR and TED Talks are church for the progressive mind, then I was raised in church.

God sounds like Neil Conan, right?

I loved NPR’s Neil Conan the most. His voice sounded like God; or, at least, what I imagined God might sound like at that time in my life. I’ve heard that people raised in fundamentalist churches have a hard time shaking the image of an angry, disapproving God.

I’ve never had to shake that image. For me, God was like Neil Conan—nice, thoughtful, nonjudgmental, progressive, humble, passionate and, like the classy radio hosts during a pledge drive, hated asking for money.

God, in those years, was nice and didn’t seem to involve Himself much with our day-to-day lives. He was always super ticked at Christians for their closed-mindedness, judgmentalism and hypocrisy. But when it came to addicts and sinners and non-Christians, God never judged them. Nor did he judge me. He let me do what I wanted to do. Kind of like my grandpa who lived in Montana. Grandpa always gave me money to go the candy store and took me fishing during the summers. Yes, God was like grandpa—senile, distant and benevolent.

But, through a series of bizarre providential events, I experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity at 16.

An awkward conversion
I first started giving Christianity a good deal of thought after a guy named Matt at the YMCA told me late one evening that if I didn’t believe in Jesus, I would go to hell. As a cradle progressive, I was naturally offended. All ways lead to God and God doesn’t judge, I assumed. I rode the bus home that evening and thought about what Matt said. I was fascinated by the idea that there were people in our world who actually believed that there was a God who had something to say and wanted to be in relationship with people. His words also caused me to consider hell, judgment and the afterlife. Oddly, the idea of hell produced within me a real hunger; hunger for truth, for God and for answers. The NPR God that sounded like Neil Conan was a nice God to have around, but didn’t seem to really care about dealing with the real issues in my life: the emptiness of a 16-year-old’s soul.

One day, as they say, I got saved. I found a church, started reading my Bible and burned all of my non-Christian CDs after hearing a sermon about the evil of the secular world. For a time, I swung to the opposite of my upbringing and became staunchly conservative.

Telling my parents about my conversion was difficult. Neither of them knew exactly what to do with my new thoughts or behavior. One time, for instance, I fasted for four days. My mom worried I’d joined a cult. I told her I was just doing “what Jesus told me to do.” That didn’t ease her concerns. Telling my dad was even harder. I can only imagine it compares, to some tiny extent, to the pain a gay kid experiences coming out to his conservative parents—I just happened to be a Christian coming out to his liberal parents. They both loved me, and still do, but it was awkward.

Since my conversion, I’ve longed to translate the gospel for liberal, progressive people. By saying this, I don’t mean to imply that the gospel is necessarily absent from “liberal” thought, or present in “conservative” thought. In fact, progressive Christianity, as I’ve observed, actually practices Jesus’ social ethics of loving the poor, caring for the widow and fighting injustice better than anyone. Yet, conservative Christianity, for all its problems, still actually talks about the atoning work of the cross for a sinful world. Painting with broad strokes, one movement emphasizes orthopraxy and the other orthodoxy. Both, of course, are essential for Christianity. But in our current context, many Christians with strong orthodoxy need to learn how to speak to liberals.

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AJ Swoboda
A. J. Swoboda (PhD – Birmingham, UK) started and serves the Theophilus church community with his wife, Quinn, in the Hawthorne District of Portland, Oregon (www.theophiluschurch.com). Before moving to Portland, he served as a campus pastor at the University of Oregon. Currently, he is a professor of biblical studies, theology, and Christian history at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, LIFE Pacific College, Canby Bible College, Eternity Bible College, the Episcopal Academy of Formation, and Concordia University.

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