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For as far back as Joy Ladin can remember, her body didn’t match her soul. In her mid-40s, Ladin transitioned from male to female identity and later became the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution. She admits the pain this caused for people and institutions she loved. And she knows what it is to move through the world with the assumed authority of a man and the assumed vulnerability of a woman. We take in what she’s learned about gender and the very syntax of being.

Set in a coal mining community in Yorkshire, the movie Kes tells the story of 15-year-old Billy Casper, who is in many ways a victim of his environment: He’s picked on at school and at home, and the adults in his life have given up on him. But he begins to find freedom and refuge when he starts training a kestrel hawk. Podcast producer June Thomas, who grew up in a similar community to the one portrayed in Kes, says it’s this realism that helped her connect with her hometown in Northern England, even years after she left.

angel Kyodo williams is one of our wisest voices on social evolution and the spiritual aspect of social healing. She is an esteemed Zen priest and the second black woman recognized as a teacher in the Japanese Zen lineage. For those of us who are not monastics, she says, the world is our field of practice. To sink into conversation with her is to imagine and nourish the transformative potential of this moment toward human wholeness.

Coco is a heartwarming tribute to the spirit of El Día de los Muertos, the Mexican celebration of remembrance. The Pixar movie tells the story of Miguel, a young boy who dreams of becoming a musician. When his family forbids him to perform at a concert on El Día de los Muertos, he steals a guitar from the memorial of a renowned musician and finds himself journeying to the Land of the Dead, where he meets some of his ancestors — and learns more about the role they play in his identity. Writer and critic Monica Castillo was moved by the portrayal of family dynamics, forgiveness, and memory across generations that comes to life through the movie’s beautiful music and animation.

“Our discomfort and our grappling is not a sign of failure,” America Ferrera says, “it’s a sign that we’re living at the edge of our imaginations.” She is a culture-shifting actor and artist. John Paul Lederach is one of our greatest living architects of social transformation. From the inaugural On Being Gathering, a revelatory, joyous exploration of the ingredients of social courage and how change really happens in generational time.

The Exorcist is known for being absolutely terrifying, but film critic Mark Kermode argues that it’s also a masterpiece. He was too young to see the movie when it was released and had to wait six years before he could watch it in a theater. Decades later, he has made documentaries about The Exorcist, written long essays and a book about it, and even became friends with the movie’s director and screenwriter. But he says every time he watches the movie, he’s still taken back to the experience of transcendence and magic he experienced when he watched the movie for the first time.

Lennon Flowers and Rev. Jennifer Bailey embody a particular wisdom of millennials around grief, loss, and faith. Together they created The People’s Supper, which uses shared meals to build trust and connection among people of different identities and perspectives. Since 2017, they have hosted more than 1,500 meals. In the words they use, the practices they cultivate, and the way they think, Flowers and Bailey issue an invitation not to safe space, but to brave space.

What does it mean to be good? What does it mean if we aren’t good? Whose fault is it? These are just some of the questions that animate Amadeus, a fictional portrayal of famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his musical rival Antionio Salieri. These questions also inspire Sue Phillips, a Unitarian Universalist minister. She first watched the movie in the late ’80s, just as she was coming out and understanding her place in the world.

Writer David Treuer’s work tells a story that is richer and more multi-dimensional than the American history most of us learned in school. Treuer grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. At the time of our conversation with him in 2008, he was part of an ongoing project to document the grammar and usage of the Ojibwe language. He says the recovery of tribal languages and names is part of a fuller recovery of our national story — and the human story. And it holds unexpected observations altogether about language and meaning that most of us express unselfconsciously in our mother tongues.

Career Girls is a love letter to the friendships that shape us in our formative years, and the nostalgia that accompanies us once we’ve grown out of them. The indie movie follows Annie and Hannah, college friends who reunite for the first time since they graduated six years ago. Karen Corday, a writer, was the same age as the characters when she first saw the movie. She says it helped her feel seen and comforted to know that her experiences “just living as a person in the world” were worth exploring.

We’d heard Derek Black, the former white-power heir apparent, interviewed before about his past, but never about the college friendships that changed him. After Derek’s ideology was outed at the New College of Florida, Matthew Stevenson (one of the only Orthodox Jews on campus) invited him to Shabbat dinner. What happened next is a roadmap for navigating some of the hardest and most important territory of our time.

The movie Brown Sugar is, at its heart, a tribute to hip-hop — complete with a soundtrack featuring artists like Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Mary J. Blige. It follows Dre and Sidney, childhood friends whose love of hip-hop is what connects them throughout their life. This coming-of-age story celebrates how love and music feed one another — an idea that spoke to Nick George. From the first time he picked up the DVD at Walmart as a college student to his life now as a spoken-word poet and community leader, Brown Sugar has accompanied him as a grown-up in life, in art, and in love.

James Baldwin said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” Imani Perry embodies that prism. For the past few years, Perry has been pondering the notions of slow work and resistant joy as she writes about what it means to raise her two black sons — as a thinker and writer at the intersection of law, race, culture, and literature. This live conversation was recorded at the Chautauqua Institution.

Contact takes the sometimes opposing forces of science and religion and puts them in conversation. The movie is based on a 1985 novel by Carl Sagan about Ellie Arroway, a SETI scientist who discovers a radio signal that could suggest extraterrestrial life. During her search she encounters Palmer Joss, a Christian philosopher who challenges her convictions as a scientist. Ellie’s pursuit of meaning outside of religion — an oftentimes lonely endeavor — was an experience Drew Hammond had never seen portrayed in a movie before. A high school teacher, Hammond says the movie granted him permission to stay curious and pursue the questions he has about the world — and it continues to shape how he interacts with his students.

Science writer and reporter Erik Vance says today’s brain scientists are like astronomers of old: They’ve unsettled humanity’s sense of itself by redrawing our picture of the cosmos within our own heads. Vance has investigated the healing power of stories and the “theater of medicine” (white coats included). It turns out that the things that make us feel better are often more closely connected to what we believe and fear than to the efficacy of some treatments. In fact, most drugs that go to trial can’t beat what we’ve dismissively called the “placebo effect,” which is actually nothing less than an unleashing of the brain’s superpowers.

Black Panther made all sorts of history — as the first Marvel production to feature a primarily black cast and the first superhero movie to receive an Academy Award nomination. For Zahida Sherman, a writer and college administrator, taking her students to watch the movie in theaters felt like participating in a historical, cultural moment. “It was just black joy, all day long,” she recalls. In portraying a wide range of black identities — both superhuman and mortal — the movie offered Sherman permission to be herself and see that anything is possible.

Ta-Nehisi Coates says we must love our country the way we love our friends — and not spare the hard truths. “Can you get to a place where citizens are encouraged to see themselves critically, where they’re encouraged to see their history critically?” he asks. Coates is a poetic journalist and a defining voice of our times. He’s with us in a conversation that is joyful, hard, kind, soaring, and down-to-earth all at once. He spoke with Krista as part of the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival.

Ratatouille is a Pixar feast. The tale of Remy, a rat who dreams of becoming an excellent chef, is a delight to experience in all five senses. One particular character — Anton Ego, the restaurant critic — brings A. O. Scott back to the heart of his own work as a New York Times’ chief film critic. He says Ratatouille changed how he understands the work of criticism. This conversation is not just about food; it’s a reminder to return to our love for our craft — whether that’s food, movies, or something else altogether.

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