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Notes on Season One of Passages

December 22nd, 2021 | 10 min read

By Joshua Heavin

notes on season one of Passages

A number of listeners have reached out to us with various questions about the first season of “Passages.” So even though the season wrapped up several months ago, we wanted to take the time to answer some of the most common. We hope this is helpful. Thanks so much to everyone who has listened, shared, and reviewed the show so far!

How did you initially become interested in or come up with the idea for the show?

Caleb – About a year before going to seminary, I began listening to some of the standard investigative journalist podcasts and the entire genre instantly piqued my imagination. I grew up listening to the radio and various shows were played in my home every day. Because of that I’ve always been interested in the unique communicative ability of audio and it’s own use of rhetoric and storytelling. I loved discovering later in life that there were widely ranging genres of audio shows that combine elements of interviews, storytelling, music and sound design. During seminary I realized that church history, along with all of its poor caricatures and many misconceptions had powerful stories that might be well-suited for a narrative podcast. I began working on other conversational podcasts in and out of seminary and at the beginning of 2020 I began speaking with Jake Meador at MereO about the idea for a narrative show. We threw around a few periods of church history that might be interesting, but when we invited Joshua on board, it became really clear that the Nicene Creed and its council would not only be a good story to tell but that it would capture a certain theological posture and ethos that Joshua and both on our own have gleaned from ancient church figures. I had no idea how production on the show would act like a life-preserver throughout 2020.

Josh – During my M.Div. I was able to take four church history classes from excellent teachers whose assigned reading was heavy on primary sources. During those classes I realized that I knew very little about everything; I also discovered that many of the same problems in my own personal life and many of the trends in the church or society that I found troubling had long ago been wrestled with by very thoughtful brothers and sisters in Christ. Reading those texts (some of which we covered on Passages) deeply gripped my imagination. Later, during my PhD studies on the Apostle Paul I had a routine sense of displacement. I was greatly disturbed by some un-helpful trends on the doctrine of the Trinity within contemporary American evangelicalism, but I wasn’t sure where else I might fit in. Other scandals and disappointments I observed in a range of churches led to a time of confusion and loneliness as I was unsure where or how I fit into the church or the Christian faith. At this time, inspired by reading John Webster’s essays, I came to increasingly value the testimony of those who went before us in the faith, and not merely because we might learn things from long-departed historical figures. If we believe in “the communion of saints,” then these brothers and sisters united with Christ become our contemporaries, urging us by their writings and example to take up our cross and follow Christ. That said, early Christian literature is often difficult and confusing. On Christology and early trinitarianism, the scholarship of John Behr, Lewis Ayres, and Khaled Anatolios proved invaluable guides to me, but at this time I had no presumption that I was preparing materials for others. Really, I was just struggling to find a way through the darkness and cleave to Christ amidst my own problems, sin, and the discouragements of life and death in this weary world. I found the integrated life of trinitarian doctrine, worship, and practice among the Cappadocians extremely compelling, and something that did not seem to readily map onto our available categories. I began to wonder if they offered a fresh counter-testimony that might re-frame some of our ailments today. But, even if not, I became determined to appropriate in my own life what they had sought to pass onto others. Around this time much of the themes that would be covered of Passages season 1 began to come together, but I had no idea at the time. Upon talking with Jake and Caleb to see if I might be interested in helping create a narrative-structured podcast on the Nicene creed, I realized that this was not only doable but that it might actually be helpful for others.

What were things that made you excited and nervous about producing the material that’s on the show?

Caleb – To have the opportunity to not only unravel misconceptions about the Creed and its creation but to try recast the beauty of orthodoxy through this medium was incredibly exciting. I was really excited to 1) work on something I truly believe in and 2) combine all of the elements of writing, audio production, and story-telling, things that I enjoy on their own, into one great project. I grew more nervous as production went on because with projects like these, there’s so many variables that can and do go wrong. Joshua and I both work full time and have our own unique responsibilities and obligations, so fitting in a project of this size on early mornings, oftentimes from 4am – 6am for me, or late nights, made it seem like there wasn’t much room to experiment and fine tune. To be frank, my stomach was in knots through the entire process. But every time I clicked “Export” on a session and out came an episode, it felt incredibly rewarding. The production experience spanned feeling immense frustration and grief over minute technical pieces to tears of joy at the sound of how certain elements came together.

Josh – There are so many memes and internet jokes about there being too many podcasts already, and I did not want to be yet another noisy gong or banging cymbal. I think Passages succeeds on that point because we worked extensively to script not only each individual episode but the entire season in a deliberate master-plan that built up to the final episode. We recorded and re-recorded and re-recorded our audio, the guests we interviewed are world-authority experts in their fields, and Caleb and Aaron put real blood, sweat, and tears into the show’s high-production value. I am so extremely thankful to all of the guests we interviewed took the time to talk with us while not yet fully knowing what exactly we were up to and for sharing their insights with us. But probably the single greatest thing that I was nervous about related to Passages is that I am not a patristics specialist. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the apostle Paul within the field of New Testament studies, not on Gregory of Nyssa or Athanasius or Macrina within the field of early Christian history. There were many very late nights reading and re-reading the primary sources and many very early mornings spent revisiting scholarship on the fourth-century, Cambridge companions, and Oxford handbooks. I am thankful to have lived close to the theological libraries at Southern Methodist University and Dallas Theological Seminary while recording the show. While this show is not itself a work of scholarship, I wanted our material to be at least informed by and conversant with scholars who focus on this field. We tried to strike a balance there, in being conversant with or popularizing some recent scholarship on early Christian history, while striving to remain accessible to non-specialists and interested lay listeners. Whether you are in the checkout line at Wal-Mart or listening to a sermon in the pew, it is fairly common for people today to hear misconceptions or outright fables about the Nicene creed and early Christian beliefs and practices. The fundamental goal of this podcast was to encourage everyone everywhere to read early Christian literature for themselves. An ancillary goal was to popularize and make more accessible research on pro-Nicene church fathers by scholars such as Ayres, Behr, and Anatolios that has still not found its way to the popular level yet. We didn’t make this show because someone was funding us; we did this on our own time and expense. The tremendous amount of time and effort that went into making Passages was a sincere labor of love, undertaken because, in the words of the creed, “we believe…” and we hope to invite others to believe, to inhabit the Nicene faith as a hospitable haven and home in this often heartless world.

What was the creative and work process like for you?

– Josh – It was very difficult! Above I noted that in many ways I was preparing my entire life to help write Passages. But when it came to scripting the episodes, a huge amount of reading and re-reading had to be done on primary sources and secondary literature on all of this material. Something especially difficult in planning each episode was that I did not have a ready-made template from another show that I was working off of, and I really had no idea what the final product was going to sound like. Passages is not a set of academic lectures, nor is it an un-unstructured conversation full of informal banter and awkward pauses, nor is it an audiobook, nor is it only historical storytelling. I was trying to imagine something very unique that could share with others what I had learned in my own theological sojourning; we were like Abraham going out, “not knowing whither.” One of the hardest things in writing the series was in deciding how to programmatically structure the season; should we work line-by-line through the creed and discuss how various interpreters thought about those articles? Should we operate in a strictly chronological order, which might become repetitive? The course we chose to pursue strives to narrate the story of the Nicene faith by doing three things at the same time. We tried to cover the material in the Nicene creed from its beginning to end, move chronologically from the New Testament to the end of the fourth century, and devote individual episodes to introducing key figures who distinctively contributed to early Christian understanding of the article of the creed in question. Talking back and forth with Caleb for some time gave me a tacit sense of what the show might look like, but it was still difficult to imagine, even while writing and recording it alone late at night and early in the morning before and after work at the day-job.

Caleb – Immensely difficult, but incredibly rewarding. Joshua and I outlined the episodes, we knew which texts were going to focus on which episodes, and then we researched and read a lot. Joshua would then record and write the bulk of the material, send it to me, and then I would edit his audio and listen to it thinking where I wanted to add my recordings and where to add other audio and interview clips. People rightly appreciate narrative shows, but the amount of work that goes into finding audio clips for sound design, leveling the sound in an episode’s transitions, finding pertinent pieces of interviews, and researching and writing for the narration is a massive amount of work. By the time we were finishing production is when I started to really get the hang of putting episodes together. I had to learn a lot of things in the process the hard way but now feel like I have a real strategy on how to work on a project like this. In many ways it felt like climbing a mountain, daunting at first, but every bit of it was wonderful. Even if the show was ours, it felt like a strange honor, to read aloud these ancient texts and talk about them in ways they haven’t before.

It is always difficult to evaluate your own work. Nonetheless, what are things that you think Passages does well, and what are things that you think might be weak or at least could be stronger?

– Josh – A serious challenge in telling these stories was selecting which figures and texts to cover and which had to be excluded. For Passages to be accessible and listenable it could not be a comprehensive overview of everything in early Christianity; I wish we could have devoted more time to the Apostolic Fathers and the first three centuries, but the project would have become unwieldy at that point. Hopefully future seasons of Passages will pick up the centuries that follow.

I think a strength of Passages is that we tried as much as possible to break up the denser material and hopefully keep listeners engaged and aware of why all of this matters for the Christian life today. From matters related to poverty, slavery, prayer, liturgy, baptism, death, and more, all of this material deeply touches the realities of our daily lives, whether mundane or horrible or wonderful.

Caleb – Aside from little technical tweaks, I would say that the tape could have been edited more precisely. Because of time constraints, editing was the hardest part of post-production.

I think the greatest strength of the show is how it shows the necessity and beauty of orthodoxy. Joshua and I were working on the material and producing the show at a time where it ministered to us in each of our lives at that time and I hope that that serves others. It really served as a life support system for me through 2020. I think some of that comes out in the show. There’s a temptation for disillusionment with the church and it’s councils and controversies, modern and ancient, and this really helped to anchor my heart, at least, in that what we confess encompasses that bereavement. It acknowledges what we feel cynical about but draws our eyes to beauty and hope instead. The material on Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Macrina, all brought me to tears at various points.

What is one hope you have for the show?

– Josh – A probably obvious hope is that Passages will pique listeners’ interest in early Christian history and promote the reading of early Christian literature. But the real hope I have for the show is that all of this would issue forth in praise and glory to God from people captivated by Jesus Christ.

Caleb – I hope that it not only helps to unravel some of the misconceptions about Nicaea and classical theism, but I hope that those who are burnt out would hear this material and be struck anew about the unique wonder of the Triune God. I really just want people to hear it and feel intrigued and invigorated again about the church and theology. What I did not entirely expect was to hear multiple stories about non-Christians listening to the show and finding something they didn’t expect in ancient doctrines. Something appealing. That was in the back of my head but I wouldn’t have expected to hear these folks hanging in there through discussions about inseparable operations and eternal begottenness and pre-modern hermeneutics, but I was just speaking with someone today who was doing that exact thing. He never grew up in a religious context, has never heard a sermon, and shared with me that this show was the first to introduce him to the idea that sin was about disordered loves (Joshua mentioned Augustine’s description of sin a number of times in the show). So I suppose I hope that more folks who aren’t Christians who are intellectually curious hear the show and see the comprehensive account that the Nicene tradition gives us about who God is and what he’s done.

You asked the guests you interviewed to give a “soapbox” moment—if you have one that didn’t make it on the show what would it be? What do you wish others listening to Passages would know or grasp?

– Josh – I hope someone who listens to Passages is inspired to translate texts from Christian history into contemporary English. There are still a huge number of Latin and Greek texts which have never been translated into English, or whose translations did not come from critical editions of the text, or that haven’t been translated into English for hundreds of years and are in need of updates. Skillful – and even beautiful – translations are as much an art as a science, and can be a tremendously valuable and long-term contribution to the church and to the academy. Translations are not only a valuable tool for recovering or retrieving forgotten or mis-remembered wisdom from the past but can also open new worlds today and in the future.

– Caleb – In contemporary discourse about church, theology, and culture, we have a tendency to take our moment too seriously. There’s a myopic view we have about everything we are involved in and I think our regular media consumption reinforces that and causes us to feel panicked about every current issue. In light of that, I hope that this piece of media, this podcast, gives a broader perspective of not only the truth and beauty of the religion and it’s orthodox traditions, but of their resiliency in the face of our own shortcomings and the encroachment of cultural trends. If people come away from listening to Passages feeling lighter and more calmly confident in their confession than they were before I would be immensely happy.

Joshua Heavin

Joshua Heavin (PhD, Aberdeen) is a curate and deacon at an Anglican church in the Dallas area, and an adjunct professor in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Christian University, and at West Texas A&M University.