Are fitness chains modern-day cults? Should efficiency be a moral value? How is our obsession with weight connected to Adam and Eve?
Few, if any, of these questions would occur to the average American. As religious affiliation has continued to retreat in the U.S., so has the religious literacy that once informed how we interpret our culture. But Zachary Davis, M.T.S. ’19, a producer at HarvardX and host of the podcast “Ministry of Ideas,” would like to change how we understand religion’s place in the 21st century. And he’s doing it, one episode at a time.
An initiative of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, “Ministry of Ideas” has garnered the acclaim of outlets such as BuzzFeed and The Guardian, the latter calling it “Simply the best podcast out right now.” Now halfway through its second season, the podcast releases 15- to 30-minute episodes every other week, each tackling a significant idea in society.
Davis sat down with the Gazette to discuss his podcast and how religious literacy can help everyone from Evangelicals to atheists be better citizens.
GAZETTE: Tell me about your path to the Divinity School.
DAVIS: I grew up in a devout Mormon home in southern Utah. There are no paid clergy in Mormonism, it’s all volunteers from the congregation. No one goes to seminary or divinity school. In fact, I was taught that divinity schools were places of dangerous speculation on the road to atheism.
At 19, I went on my two-year mission to southern Spain and afterward I went to Brigham Young University to study political science. My first job out of college was the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Junior Fellowship in Washington, D.C. For a full year, I was surrounded by a lot of really smart, formerly hopeful people who would work their whole lives on a hoped-for policy goal and then see it smashed with an election loss. That reoriented me to try to live a meaningful life that didn’t depend on forces that I can’t control. I decided to become an educator, to help provide intellectual tools so that people could empower themselves.
That all aligned when I started working at HarvardX. My first project was with Divinity School Professor Laura Nasrallah. I didn’t really know what the Divinity School did, but when I started working with her and Diane Moore, who is the director of the Religious Literacy Project, I started realizing that I was drawn to that way of thinking and their commitment to applying their knowledge for the betterment of the world.
GAZETTE: How did you come up with “Ministry of Ideas”?
DAVIS: At HarvardX, I saw firsthand the power of technology to expand access to knowledge across the globe. I’d been thinking for years about the best way I could expand access to humanities education, and the joy and excitement of working with Harvard faculty inspired me to start an educational podcast.
When I first came up with the idea for the show in December 2016, I pitched it to the Boston Globe Ideas section as a simple interview show. One of the editors, Alex Kingsbury, had a background in radio, and he encouraged me to make the show more scripted and sonically rich. The Globe also helped me come up with the name, because they got a kick out of the fact that I saw the spread of important ideas as an almost religious ministry. They publish essay versions of our episodes and generally help promote the show to their audience.
The show is in part a response to President Trump’s election, because his whole campaign, I thought, was founded upon bad ideas. We need to have a better grasp of where our ideas come from and how they are manipulated by other forces, so that when we are called to evaluate something, we’re ready to do the duty of a citizen. Being a citizen is a sacred calling, and we can’t be faithful to it if we don’t have the historical knowledge and intellectual tools to exercise good judgment.
GAZETTE: What makes a podcast ideal for teaching religious literacy?
DAVIS: Mass media is the primary vehicle to communicate wisdom, knowledge, and community, and this is especially true for podcasts. They preserve the power of the spoken voice, with all of its rhetorical and performative qualities; they let you feel an intimacy with another human being wherever you are. You can be listening in the privacy of your headphones while at the same time there can be thousands and even millions of other people listening to the same thing. So it does create a community, and podcast fans can be cult-like in their devotion. There’s something going on there that I think is pretty interesting about how much more connected people can get to ideas when they are delivered through the voice. After thousands of years of textual primacy as the vehicle for knowledge, we’re returning voice as an important form of academic learning. That’s the hope, that we can marry academic rigor with sonic pleasure.