A few months back, I had the privilege of discussing Hamilton with Chris and it was great. We had a blast talking about its beautiful music and nuanced details, as well as stretch some of Chris’s US-history muscles! And if you’re a regular listener to Truce Podcast you’ll know he loves talking and dissecting not only the history of the United States, but also it’s passive unity with modern church history.
Chris Staron is an absolute delight! If you didn’t know, now you know! It’s that delight that inclined me to reach out about this interview, and hopefully Chris didn’t mind me asking some tough questions. But, to the glory of God, I was mightily encouraged by the way he wrestles with and expresses his faith throughout this interview, and listeners to Truce Podcast won’t find that a surprise at all! Chris does it every other week with his listeners, after all.
Be sure to plug into the Truce Podcast for some encouraging words on Christianity and our witness as it relates to US politics and history, and may the Lord encourage you with this interview as He did me!
Chris Staron! I know who you are, I know what Truce Podcast is, but those reading may not! Tell us who you are and tell us about Truce!
Truce is a history podcast that looks inside the Christian Church to see how we got here and how we can do better. Every other week I release a new episode that explores the stuff that gloms onto Christianity from pyramid schemes to political campaigns. One of the goals of the show is to get us to see our assumptions about modern Christianity from a new angle.
Sharing my own biases immediately, I love Truce Podcast and the way it constantly orients me to Scripture and Christ. Your brave faithfulness is perceived near immediately, especially for those who tune into Season 3, as you tackle the nuanced and often dangerous marriage between Christianity and the American experiment. Personally, what’s it like to engage and research this ideological relationship?
On a personal level, it can be quite convicting. I often find myself wrestling with big questions when producing episodes. I have frequent conversations with my roommates, pastor, and friends to see if I’m way off base or close to the truth. Sometimes if feel like I’m swimming upstream, and I have no intention of being disagreeable or picking fights. But I usually start researching where I see a pinch point where we as the Church are meeting up with some objections or getting tied up in knots.
I’ve been saved for almost 28 years. I’ve gone from being a Pharisee-like figure in high school, to one of the few kids in college who believed in God, to working in the secular film industry, and now to being an independent media creator. Each new environment reveals an idol I’ve been grasping. I grew up believing the United States was a Christian nation, but not knowing our history or the ramifications of that designation. Once I started learning our history I had to grapple with a lot of questions: If we tell the world we are a Christian nation and then we behave in an evil manner, how does that impact our witness? What are we saying about Jesus with our foreign policy? With our treatment of women and people of color? When we use drones to bomb other countries? Our political decisions tint the way people see the gospel. That was a revelation for me, and is something I’ve wrestled with for decades.
Has there been a topic you’ve investigated that completely changed your way of thinking about the unity of American/Christian worldviews? If so, which one and how?
Almost all of them! There is an episode coming up where I examine issues around school prayer. That one still keeps me up at night even though I finished it a few weeks ago. I grew up in pretty conservative churches and listening to Christian radio that leaned toward fundamentalism. I’m thankful for that experience, but there was an expectation that some things were beyond questioning. School prayer is one of those things. Of course we’re supposed to have prayer in schools!
But then I started reading Supreme Court cases, especially the majority opinion in Engle v. Vitale. The argument against prayer in schools went back to the founding of the Church of England. Kings and queens in the 1500s fluctuated between Catholic and Protestant. Whenever they switched, they murdered people who disagreed with them. The founders of the US had that history in mind when they wrote the constitution. The problem with Protestant prayer in public schools is that there is then nothing stopping future administrations from using that precedent to establish Muslim, Hindu, or pagan prayers if the population sways that way. We might want mandatory prayer now because it agrees with our religion, but we don’t like to think through what it could lead to in the future.
My mind changed in that I began to see the trouble we get into when we abdicate our personal responsibility to educate our own children in the ways of the Lord. We want to make our government institutions responsible for spreading the gospel, when that is really our duty as believers. We want to set up public monuments to our faith, but we hesitate to share with our coworkers. Sometimes doing the right thing for the country is different than doing the right thing for our specific religion. That is hard to admit. Honestly, this episode really troubles me, but I think it is valuable. It’s weird to make a show that troubles me so much.
Looking outward, what’s it been like for your listeners to have their American/Christian perception challenged? Are your listeners receptive to your message, or have you received the occasional email looking to refute or debate your investigations?
Most people are receptive. I get a lot of encouraging messages. But I’m dealing with controversial subjects, so I know that not everyone is going to be on board. The most controversial episodes were the ones examining the personal faith (or lack thereof) of the core 8 founding fathers of the United States. I entered into controversy when I decided not to include arguments from people like David Barton who claim that those men were Christians. I had him booked to talk on the show, but I found his written arguments to be so convoluted that I cancelled the interview. I wanted to offer counter arguments to my thesis, but none held up to scrutiny. So I didn’t include them.
We want to believe that a journalist’s job is to offer all sides of an argument. But it really should be to offer good information. If one side has bad information, then it does not make sense to give them a soapbox. That idea in itself is controversial.
The trick with those episodes is that I was trying to draw a distinction between the public “ceremonial deism” of those men and their private beliefs. Anyone can drop the word “God” into a speech. It’s a whole other thing to actually believe. That fine line was hard for some people to accept. It actually hurt my funding a bit because the head of the missions board at my church decided they couldn’t finance my show partially based on those episodes. But I stand by them.
On the whole, though, when people disagree with me they generally continue to listen. I did lose a few listeners when I made episodes about Christian involvement in workers rights movements. Some of my libertarian friends stopped listening because I didn’t denounce unions. My goal with those episodes was not to convince people of an economic model, but to simply discuss the historic link between Christianity and unions. Some people couldn’t handle that. It’s the risk I take with every episode. I don’t intend to offend people, but I know it’s going to happen. History is offensive on its own because it demonstrates time and again the principle that all of us have fallen. Every ideology has produced negative consequences. If you go into reading history hoping to show that your side has always been righteous, then you will certainly be disappointed. The challenge is to see those mistakes and to learn from them.
Do negative emails bother you?
Yes. Very much! I’m a people pleaser at heart. I’m not proud of that fact. I wrestle with it. Still, people have proven me wrong before. Others have given me tips on my mixing, editing, and structure. Those hurt too, but I’m trying to do my best to pull out the gems while discarding the waste. I have to remember that I’m one man doing the job of 5 on this show, so not everything is going to be perfect.
Has your work on Truce encouraged a softer, empathetic approach to those who unite their Christian faith with the American dream? Likewise, have you had to battle apathy for those who fall into that dangerous trap?
I sure hope so! Look, it’s tough out there. All of us are biased by our personal experiences and preferences. I’m no better. We want to bond things we like with our faith, whether that be our country, hobbies, politics, or even workout regimens. We all want to believe that our lives are the norm, that the way our world works is the way it works for everyone. We want to believe that Jesus approves of every little thing we do.
For every trap I see in someone else, I’ve got a comparable one I’m stuck in. I’ve struggled with so many things in my own life. So many! It’s easy for me to judge, but it’s way better for me to have empathy.
The Christian America thing is not hard for me to empathize with. My major “judgy” self comes out when thinking about Christians and our relationship to money. That’s what I’m constantly wrestling with.
Each episode of Truce ends with a charge, an encouragement to take the Christian faith more seriously and the love we have in Christ more joyfully. With this in mind, what do you hope to encourage in our readers?
Read the Bible for yourself, but do it with with freshest eyes you can muster. Pretend that you haven’t heard any sermons on those familiar verses. What do they actually say in their context? What did they mean in the time and place where they were written?
So much of the junk that gloms onto Christianity is backed up by misreading the scriptures. For example, multi-level marketing companies prey on people (especially low income women) using Proverbs 31. The chapter refers to the feminine ideal as being productive and providing for her family. MLMs use those verses to lure people into a business model where over 99% of those who get involved will lose money. They set a trap with scripture that can then destroy peoples faith when they realize the business model can’t work.
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Melvin Benson is the Founder, Editor-In-Chief, and Lead Host of Cinematic Doctrine. He’s written fiction and nonfiction for over a decade with short stories featured on the Creepypasta Wiki and Wattpad. His novelette Ethereal Temptation, a teen drama with a tinge of magical-realism, can be read for free here. His hope is to see King Jesus glorified as far as the east is from the west!