Wesley Hill: Ira Glass and Errol Morris on the "self"

Strangely Christian thoughts about humanity from two masters of "the interview."

Chances are you’re already familiar with Ira Glass, host of NPR’s endlessly charming radio show and podcast, “This American Life.” Each week Glass interviews a variety of normal, not-famous, “average” Americans, often with poignant and heartwarming results. His knack for asking just the right question gently draws out stories and anecdotes from the folks he talks with, eliciting just the right mix of humor and transparency. It’s astounding, really -- his skill in engaging people that many of us in leadership would give our right arm to have. A friend of mine recently listed as one of his life’s ambitions to be able to “ask questions like Ira Glass!”

Not long ago, Chuck Klosterman interviewed Glass, along with the filmmaker Errol Morris, best known, probably, for his 1978 movie “Gates of Heaven” (about the pet cemetery business) and 2008’s “Standard Operating Procedure” (a harrowing exposé of U.S. military prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib). Sitting down with both these artists, Klosterman asked them about how they manage to talk to people so well. “How do you make interviewing work?” As Glass remembers the conversation, he offered some pat answer: “I just think that people open up because they sense that somebody’s really interested. It’s just a natural human thing.” Morris, on the other hand, shot back: “I doubt whether we know ourselves, and the act of being interviewed is an act of asserting a self which we hope is true.”

Glass evidently wants to believe that genuine communication is possible. One human self connecting to another human self is achievable, however fleeting and incomplete the encounter may be. Listening and engaging with another is something we can actually do! Morris conversely thinks -- as Glass recalls him saying -- “There is no self.” We can project an ideal self. We can talk with an interviewer about who we think we may be, or who we’d like to be. But we can’t ever know ourselves, really (“Only the shallow know themselves,” Oscar Wilde once quipped. Sorry, Socrates.).

Reading this exchange between Ira Glass and Errol Morris got me thinking about -- of all things -- Christian spirituality. It seems there’s a bit of both Glass and Morris in the rich reflection on discipleship we have in the Christian tradition. On the one hand, Glass is right: we do have a self -- a “new self” (Colossians 3:10), recreated in Christ (Ephesians 2:10). Because of that, we’re able to know and love both God and neighbor. But on the other hand, Morris catches something equally true: our new self is something we don’t yet have, at least not fully. We’re growing up into Christ (Ephesians 4:15). We’re not yet fully mature, so we need other selves -- other saints -- to help us become the selves we want to be. “Imitate me, just as I imitate Christ,” Paul said (1 Corinthians 11:1), offering himself as an example for others who want to go on learning as disciples. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God,” counsels the letter to the Hebrews. “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7).

There’s a lesson here for all of us -- congregants and leaders, saints and sinners. Next time I slip on my headphones and press the “play” button on the latest, “This American Life” podcast for my morning walk to the office, I’ll probably ponder it again. The self we have already and the self we don’t have yet: both are real. Both painfully, beautifully, tantalizingly real.

Wesley Hill is a PhD student in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University in the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter at @wesleyhill.