Questions and Ethics with Russell Moore Should a Christian listen to the Serial podcast?
Dan Darling: Welcome back to Questions and Ethics with Dr. Russell Moore. Dr. Moore, our question comes in today from Twitter. A fan of the podcast, Serial, which both you and I have listened to, has asked should our consciences bother us about this podcast given that it’s a real-life crime story, and they are obviously profiting off of this? How should we think through this? But before we get to that, I just want to know what do you think? Do you think Adnan is guilty? Do you think someone else murdered this girl?
Russell Moore: We have had this debate, and for those of you who are listeners, we actually had a really intense debate over this here in our ERLC offices in Nashville a week ago and another one today in our Washington, D.C., offices just this very day. And I think everybody is pretty much on our team coming down where I would expect that they would come down on this. So, Dan, I think you, after listening to this all this time, you think Adnan is innocent.
Darling: I do. I absolutely do.
Moore: Okay. And why?
Darling: I just think the state’s case is so flimsy. I think there is not any, you know, forensic evidence. I just think they are basing it on—I mean the timeline is shaky. Jay’s testimony is shaky. I don’t know. I am not saying Adnan is a guy I would want teaching my kids Sunday School, but—
Moore: He gives his cell phone and his car to somebody else and then just disappears and doesn’t remember where he was the entire day when his ex-girlfriend is murdered and then never calls her to check on her after she disappears? They have a record that he did not try to call her pager or to check on her. Who does that?
Darling: Yeah, I mean—
Moore: He’s clearly guilty.
Darling: That’s the strongest part of their case, to be honest with you.
Moore: That is the case!
Darling: I mean, the one thing that really bothers me—it’s just like I felt like there are leads that they didn’t pursue, or there are other angles. Like, for instance, you know, her existing boyfriend—it seems like they didn’t—
Moore: Her existing boyfriend has a solid alibi. He was at LensCrafters the whole day.
Darling: Yeah. I just feel like the case is so weak.
Moore: You just think he’s a nice guy.
Darling: I don’t think he’s a nice guy.
Moore: Be honest. You think he’s just too nice seeming to you on the telephone. You can’t imagine him doing it.
Darling: I just—if it was me, and I was innocent, and they had that much little evidence actually, and they convicted me, I would just like—that would be bad—
Moore: Well, but you are basing that on the evidence that they have that she is displaying in the Serial podcast. We don’t know that that’s what the jury has.
Moore: It could be—I mean they did convict him, beyond a reasonable doubt, so they could have had much more info. Now, what I would agree with you on is if I were sitting on a jury having to make this decision beyond a reasonable doubt, and all that was presented to me is what I have heard on this Serial podcast, which I’m not assuming is what the jury heard, but if that was the case I wouldn’t vote to convict based upon that amount of evidence. There are all sorts of situations where on a jury you can say I think somebody’s guilty, just on the basis of circumstance and on the basis of intuition, but that doesn’t mean that you vote to convict.
Darling: But the case is weak, yeah. And I think there’s a possibility that he is guilty but the case is weak.
Moore: Yeah, sure.
Darling: I mean, I’m open to that. He is obviously the lead suspect. So, let’s get to the question of should Christian consciences be bothered by listening to this? What do you think of Sarah Koenig and This American Life kind of doing this, taking a real story and serializing it for profit?
Moore: Well, this has caused a little bit of controversy, not in the way that this questioner is asking. I thought it was a good question to raise because it’s not something that I’ve heard anyone really grapple with previously. There has been some controversy over, for instance, Best Buy. For those of you who listen to Serial, part of the story is the question of the payphone at Best Buy. And they don’t have any evidence that there ever was a payphone at Best Buy from which the telephone call was made after the murder. Best Buy tweeted, “We’ve got everything you need this holiday season except a payphone.”
Moore: Yeah. And that was in very poor taste because I think Best Buy is—I think whoever did this in the Best Buy organization is just assuming that this is a murder mystery in the way that it’s easy to do. You know, we’re listening to this, and you and I talk about this case—I have a pastor friend in Alabama that I text back and forth with all the time after the new episode of Serial comes out as to whether or not—what do you think? My latest thing to him was to say I think this is going to end as a romance between Sarah Koenig and Adnan Syed because she seems to be really taken with him, so I just think it’s going to end with them breaking out of jail and going to Mexico. It’s easy to look at this, and it’s almost like you are just watching a multipart drama without reminding yourself, no, this is a real murder that was taking place. A real human being was killed, and a real human being is imprisoned. And so, I think that’s where the problem came in with Best Buy trivializing this. Having said that, I don’t think that there is an ethical problem with Sarah Koenig, with This American Life doing this broadcast, nor with Christians listening to this, for several reasons: One of them is it’s true, as this questioner says, that they are turning a murder into at least in some way a commercial product. They are selling advertisements. MailChimp is on there every time. Maybe for this broadcast MailChimp will advertize on our podcast. We will wait and see. They are making some money off of this. That’s clear. But, it’s not—I don’t think that what’s happening here is exploiting the murder. I don’t think that there is a glorification of the murder itself. I don’t think that the podcast is trying to appeal to people’s baser instincts in terms of bloodlust. I mean, there are certain genres that do that. They come awfully close to what was happening with the gladiator games that our Christians forefathers said were morally wrong. I don’t see any of that in here. There’s not a dwelling upon the darker aspects of this. I think instead what is happening is there’s a narrative that is being told that’s being walked through in order to try to help people to discern what the truth is. And so, in that, I actually think that there are some morally good things that are coming out in here. One of those is just the question of dealing with innocent people who are in prison. Now, again, I don’t think Adnan Syed is an innocent person who is in prison, but I think having the podcast working with The Innocence Project and saying what are the sorts of things you look at. How is it that people can be convicted when innocent? I think that’s a good and important issue to raise. Shining a light on it.
Darling: To me, that was one of the more helpful broadcasts when they talked to The Innocence Project and figured out kind of what they look like. To close, I think a good question would be what do you think podcasts like Serial and crime shows, what do you think it says about our desire to see justice in the world? That seems like it’s a natural human desire, right?
Moore: I think there is a natural human desire to see justice. I also think that there is a natural human desire to recognize what Proverbs says, which is, the one who justifies the wicked and the one who puts condemnation on the innocent, both are an abomination to God. Now, I think that is exactly—that intuition is there where you say that if you have people who are guilty of murder going free, there is something wrong about that. So, when we are listening to this podcast, we are like—we are sitting here thinking to ourselves who killed Hae? because we know, even though we don’t know her, most of us, we have never met her or even heard of her, something awful and morally wrong happened there, and there ought to be an accounting for that. And then on the other hand, there is this sense of people who are innocent shouldn’t be in prison. So, you are thinking through. No one’s thinking well, who cares if Adnan is innocent and he’s in jail. We are saying if he were innocent, and he is in prison for the rest of his life, that’s morally wrong. So, I think there is that intuition which of course as Christians we believe isn’t just about morality. It’s also ultimately about the gospel because Proverbs uses that language, he who justifies the wicked is an abomination to God, and then turns around in Romans, chapter 3 and 4, and talks about the God who does what? justifies the wicked. So, how is God not an abomination to himself? That’s Paul’s argument is that in the cross he punishes sin—every sin is accounted for and punished. So he is both just and in the life of Christ, who is innocent before the tribunal of God and righteous before God, he is the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. So, if I were talking to a non- Christian friend right now who is interested in Serial, I would want to talk about that and to say why does it matter if Hae is murdered? We don’t think this is a serial killer (no pun intended). So, we don’t think that there is a danger out there of anyone else. It’s been since 1999 since she was killed, so why does it matter if the person who killed her is brought to justice? And then by the same token what does it matter whether or not Adnan Syed is imprisoned and spends the rest of his life in jail? I mean, he was stealing from the Mosque. You know, he’s not by any account, he’s not a choirboy. And I think we all have that law written on the heart that would speak to both aspects of that, which then just needs to be developed into, well, why do you think that? Why does that matter?
Darling: That’s a good word. This could really provoke some good conversations with unbelievers about justice.
Moore: And I think the other part of it that is important is, you know, we are going to listen—this week is the final part of this season of Serial, and those of us who have been listening to it have been saying for some time it’s either going to wind up with just a shocking surprise turnaround, or it’s going to end up in a real disappointment if we go through listening to this. So, I think there’s this longing for resolution. We want to see things wrapped up. And I think that is rooted in a sense that we all want our individual stories and the story of humanity to be going somewhere, to have a coherent narrative.
Darling: This is why the crime shows always wrap it up neatly at the end of the hour. I mean, we all want to see that.
Moore: And that’s the problem that Sarah Koenig has is when you are dealing with real life you can’t wrap it up neatly in this life.
Darling: Well, that’s a good word. Thank you, Dr. Moore. And thank you for joining us for Questions and Ethics with Dr. Russell Moore. Again, if you have further questions that you’d like us to address, email us at [email protected].