Mikaela* here! If you have been perusing our blog at all, you should all know that HDS is full of amazing people doing wonderful things. I was fortunate enough to interview one of these people for you, dear readership. What follows is an interview with HDS student Zachary Davis, whose podcast, Ministry of Ideas, was featured in a BuzzFeed article titled “27 Podcasts You Need To Start Listening to in 2018.” Read on to discover the web connecting Zach, HDS, the Religious Literacy Project (RLP), and his podcast, Ministry of Ideas.
*I’m a current MTS student, a Graduate Assistant at the HDS Office of Admissions, as well as a regular contributor and point-person for this blog. You can find one of my more recent posts here.
Mikaela: So, I’m thinking we should start with broader questions and gradually delve into more specific details about the podcast. First, can you briefly introduce yourself?
Zach: I grew up in Saint George Utah, which is located in the very South-Western most border of the state. It is surrounded by red bluffs and national parks. I was raised in a devout Mormon home and was always very committed to my faith. I served a two-year mission in Southern Spain, and as an undergraduate, I studied international relations and philosophy. In a lot of my political science research, my professors would often get exasperated with me because I kept wanting to know the deeper motivations and meanings behind many of the phenomena that we studied. I didn’t know it at the time, but I really wanted to go to a divinity school.
Mikaela: What program are you in here at the Divinity School and what are you studying?
Zach: Now, I am an MTS student studying philosophy of religion with a special focus on the origins of modernity. I’m interested in the role that religion or the lack of it has played in shaping our self- perception as modern subjects. I’m curious about why disbelief became widespread in the West, the consequences of that disbelief, and what sources of meaning, community, and comfort are available in the absence of traditional religious institutions.
Mikaela: Can you speak to the general inspiration for Ministry of Ideas? How does the podcast relate to your time and your studies at Harvard Divinity School?
Zach: I was interested in taking some of the ideas I was encountering at the Divinity School and making them available to a public audience. I am particularly interested in how understanding the historical context of ideas better equips us to understand and critique the assumptions we often take for granted. My hope is that the show might empower people to have faith that they can change their circumstances, that history is not inevitable, but that we can in fact change our destiny as individuals and as communities. I like to think that the episodes are historically-informed secular sermons.
Mikaela: I know Ministry of Ideas is an initiative of the Religious Literacy Project, could you speak to that as well?
Zach: We are part of the Religious Literacy Project because I am convinced that understanding religion is absolutely essential to building the kind of pluralistic society that we should all be striving for. Religion is everywhere. Even if you live in a totally secular bubble, religion still shapes a huge amount of our traditions and contexts. It also continues to have a huge influence in politics. So many things that seem mysterious about American politics can be better understood when you have an understanding of some of the religious assumptions or beliefs that underpin them. For example, opposition to environmentalism is not a purely political or economic issue, it is a religious issue. There are many Christians who don’t believe that God would allow the planet to come to some kind of irreversible harm, and so understanding religion is essential for developing strategies that can lead to compromise and shared solutions.
Mikaela: What factors go into choosing individual topics for the podcast? Does your time at the Div School affect what sorts of topics you decide to discuss?
Zach: I do see this as my ministry, to use history to change the world for the better, to empower people to be more informed and engaged citizens, and to bring religious ideas and concepts to a wider public that often never has a chance to encounter them. I tend to choose episode subjects based on some kind of matrix between the urgent and fascinating and try to meet somewhere in the middle. Not all of the episodes are explicitly about religion, but we almost always find ways of bringing religious insights into the topics. One of the things that I am dedicated to in the show is to resist the way that religious studies is often pushed to the side and sort of left isolated from the rest of contemporary issues and concerns. As I mentioned before, it needs to be tightly entwined with the rest of our methods of analysis.
Mikaela: Why choose the platform of a podcast when there are so many ways you might reach an audience?
Zach: One of the reasons a podcast is powerful is that you can bring in other people’s voices. The model of scholarship that I am drawn to is one that is collaborative and dialogic, and so rather than pretend to be an expert, which I’m not, I interview people with expertise and allow them to explain in their own words these issues of great concern. I also think the spoken voice is a powerful medium for conveying emotion and enthusiasm, and as anyone has attested, reading a sermon and hearing a sermon are two different things. It’s also a way to reach people where they are. And many people are getting information and education through podcasts these days. I think that scholarly communication is undergoing exciting changes, and I’m very happy to be involved in some of those new developments. I think HDS can continue to play an important role in communicating research through these new forms of media.
Mikaela: How does HDS support you in this project?
Zach: I have been unbelievably supported by my mentor Diane Moore who is the director of the Religious Literacy Project. The spirit of the show reflects the wisdom and guidance I have received from her over the past two years. In addition, HDS has built a new recording studio, which we use to record our episodes. We are very excited about continuing to think of new ways to work together with faculty and students to highlight their research. I am currently working with students in a class called “Religion, Conflict, and Peace” taught by Diane Moore. As part of the course, she has given her students the option of developing a Ministry of Ideas podcast episode as their final project. I am working with five of them and we have begun setting up interviews and teaching the production skills and the writing format for putting together podcast episodes. My hope with Ministry of Ideas is that it becomes an active learning lab for audio documentary storytelling, a way to highlight new research in compelling and engaging ways.
Mikaela: I am a huge fan of the episode “(In)efficiency,” and was just wondering what inspired you to produce that particular episode? And, for our prospective student audience, do you have any advice about the cult of efficiency in graduate school?
Zach: Many if not most of the episodes are probably confessions of my own sins, and it’s almost impossible to resist the cult of efficiency in contemporary life. I was driven to understand why we constantly feel so rushed and compressed with time, and why so many decisions about life are arbitrated by its degree of efficiency, usually economic efficiency. Working on that episode helped me to realize the importance of resisting the logic of the market. That we are not human capital, we are human beings, that we need contemplation and slowness, that what we call wasting time is often the best use of our time, that we should do more useless things like going on walks with friends or learning to play the ukulele.
While you’re at it, check out the Religious Literacy Project’s 2018 Religious Literacy Summer Institute for Educators. Please note that applications will be accepted until April 2nd, 2018.
MTS Candidate 2019, Buddhist Studies