Krista Tippett, whose Twin Cities-based public radio show “On Being” scrutinizes “the mysteries of human existence” and whose listeners nationwide range from faith adherents to atheists, is one of 10 recipients of the 2013 National Endowment for the Humanities Medal.
The medals will be presented Monday by President Obama in the East Room of the White House, the endowment announced Tuesday. At the same ceremony, the National Medals of Arts also will be awarded. A reception with the president and First Lady Michelle Obama will follow for both groups of honorees.
The endowment explained in its announcement that Tippett is being recognized “for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence. … Ms. Tippett avoids easy answers, embracing complexity and inviting people of all faiths, no faith, and every background to join in the conversation.”
Tippett, who lives in St. Paul, began regularly hosting the show — originally called “Speaking of Faith” — at Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media in 2001. Now an independent production from Loring Park in Minneapolis, “On Being” is heard on more than 330 public radio stations across the nation.
She said Wednesday that the show’s name change “was a reflection not only on how our content had changed” and grew beyond faith-based issues, but it better applies to the “hugely diverse group of people” who listen, whether they follow a religion, are agnostic or atheist.
Tippett said the endowment informed her of the honor about a week ago, and “it was completely unexpected. I was not very articulate on my end of that call.”
She insisted that meeting Obama next week won’t tempt her to break her rule about not interviewing sitting politicians, explaining that “they are bound to represent a group and can’t speak in truly revealing ways. But I will certainly plant a seed for after [the Obamas] leave the White House.”
In a 2006 interview with the Star Tribune, Tippett described herself as “a person of faith and a person with a theology and with a religious history, and that’s important to how I connect with my guests of every tradition. I am a journalist, but I’m not a journalist who’s in there as a skeptic, but as a person who wants to understand it.”
Tippett, 53, grew up in Oklahoma, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher. She studied history at Brown University and went to Bonn, West Germany, in 1983 on a Fulbright Scholarship to study politics in Cold War Europe. In her 20s, she lived in divided Berlin for most of the 1980s, first as a New York Times stringer and a freelance correspondent for Newsweek, The International Herald Tribune, the BBC and Die Zeit. She later became a special assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany.
She returned to the United States and graduated from Yale in 1994 with a master of divinity.
She then came to Minnesota and conducted an oral history project for the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville.
Her show first aired on Minnesota Public Radio in a series of pilots in 1999 before going full-time in 2001, when the Sept. 11 attacks unleashed numerous topics for dissection, among them, the spiritual fallout of 9/11, the spirit of Islam, the power of fundamentalism, the problem of evil, revenge and justice.
This year’s other medal recipients are: literary critic M.H. Abrams; historians David Brion Davis, Darlene Clark Hine, and Anne Firor Scott; East Asian scholar William Theodore De Bary; architect Johnpaul Jones; filmmaker Stanley Nelson; radio host Diane Rehm; and the historical organization the American Antiquarian Society. For more about the honorees, visit: www.neh.gov.
The endowment explains that its medal “honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.”
Since first given in 1996, there have been 154 medal recipients. Nina Archabal received a medal in 1997 for her work as director of the Minnesota Historical Society. Others include Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, essayist Joan Didion, novelist John Updike, Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
The National Endowment for the Humanities was created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, whose mission is to support “research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities.” Its funds are distributed based on peer-reviewed proposals from across the nation.