Radio Theatre and the Problem of Evangelical Art
October 5th, 2020 | 20 min read
Either you’ve never heard the name John Avery Whittaker, or you recognize it like an old friend’s. In fact, his friends call him Whit. You’ll like him immediately, and the more you learn about his story, the more you’ll like. A former business magnate, he now slings ice cream for kids in a shop he affectionately calls “Whit’s End,” a wonder emporium of interactive inventions not unlike a craft-heavy alternative to 80s arcades. His greatest invention is the Imagination Station, a virtual reality program (not a video game!) to rival the Matrix and which mostly imitates time-travel. Whit is funny, can be sharp when warranted, is wise, generous, a good storyteller, and rich. He’s the American bootstraps ideal softened by grace and improved by a creative temperament that, in the wake of his wife’s death, has consecrated his business bent. He’s a combat veteran who doesn’t own a TV.
He’s also fake, of course, a character in Adventures in Odyssey, the crown jewel of Evangelical audio drama. Set in the eponymous small town of Odyssey, the series centers on Whit and Whit’s End and the various regulars who more often than not find themselves enacting uncannily specific Christian morality plays. Categorizing the show can be difficult given its longevity, but its default is light, usually lesson-oriented comedy. For 90s Evangelical kids especially, the radio program was part of a cultural landscape that featured Family Christian Bookstores, VeggieTales, DC Talk albums, WWJD bracelets, lacquered cross-ornaments in the bathroom, and t-shirts that said “Abreadcrumb & Fish” instead of “Abercrombie & Fitch.” For Evangelicals raised in this surround-sound of niche consumerism, maturation of taste can often feel like moral or spiritual development, and the critical edge they develop often leaves no room for objects of childhood embarrassment.
But for some, Whit is fake in the same hallowed way that, for generations of young (Christian) readers, Aslan is fake. He and Adventures in Odyssey stand out, in memory at least, from the Evangelical consumerism in which they thrived. Whit himself isn’t a Christ figure, but rather the proverbial Christian, not an allegory, but a model for every boy and girl who wants to be an adult believer. His, and Odyssey’s, best stories center on fractured relationships or the self in crisis or outsized re-tellings of once-dry history lessons. Offerings that go beyond typical Evangelical cultural entrenchment and which are grounded in character studies and pulpy call-backs rather than polemics. As such, peak Odyssey is a success not unlike the kind enjoyed by many post-Evangelicals’ parents.
Whether you’ve become everyone’s favorite socialist Episcopalian or returned your Presbyterian congregation to liturgical splendor or washed the glitter of Thomas Kinkade from your life with the grit of Jamie Quatro—if you’re a Christian who was raised by Christians, and whether they recognize it or not, you’re honoring your mother and father. Odyssey is similarly a product that both validates and subverts its Evangelical parenthood: Focus on the Family. As a media outlet, Focus on the Family has not only been the sole producer of Odyssey its entire run, but the sole producer of almost all Evangelical audio drama for the last thirty years.
What’s surprising about Evangelical audio drama isn’t that Christians in the 90s could or did write well, but that the best of Odyssey and Whit and all his Radio Theatre cousins came directly from the heart of a cultural apparatus which neutered almost every other type of media. For most of its existence, Focus on the Family’s various tentacles of opinion have been stripping art into discrete categories of objectionable content, such that the primary effect of outlets like Plugged In on parents and church leaders is to emphasize a Victorian approach to art as the most essential.
At a moment when everyone is concerned about “cancel culture,” and more than likely over-concerned about the wrong cancellations, the history and legacy of Evangelical audio drama clarifies what it means to embark on genuinely creative endeavors despite overwhelming, often self-imposed pressure to prioritize a moral framework above all other instincts. This is a timely question not just for Christians, but for a literary and creative mainstream that increasingly trucks in self-conscious moralism. The extent to which Odyssey and other audio dramas have any success, and without drawing the ire of their hardcore Evangelical fanbase, is thus a case-study in navigating the cross-pressures of artistry and ethics.
Any argument for Odyssey, the most important representative of Evangelical audio drama, should begin with its tonal range, a feature and symptom of its longevity. For example, in one memorable two-parter, “The Mortal Coil,” Whit re-codes the Imagination Station for a glimpse of the after-life. He goes into a coma from a death-wish—all his loved ones are there, waiting for him—and his brainy, atheist assistant glimpses hell. It’s no fire and brimstone tactic (or not only that), but a chilling contemplation of life alone, life denuded of its earthly and heavenly goods.
Always ambitious, the series attempts spy romps, secret-room mysteries, divorced-family drama, rom-com reversals, childhood farce, and a multi-year saga of good versus evil that can only be called Suburban Epic. Since Odyssey is a small town stricken with spirituality, though, the most intense of these standoffs have a Stephen King—er, I mean, Frank Peretti—edge. Given the show’s lengthy run and breadth of characters, it might also be the closest thing to The Simpsons that Evangelicals can call their own. The show has been on-air since 1987 and recorded over 900 episodes.
In truth, though, comparisons with other contemporary media mostly fail. As an audio drama, it’s had almost no direct competition with non-Christian media for its entire run. Whereas VeggieTales vied for the same time kids were devoting to, say, The Animaniacs or Histeria!, Odyssey has been sui generis by default. When I was listening in the 90s, it wasn’t competing with Saturday morning cartoons, the latest Disney fare, Goosebumps, or any other equivalent kid-pop artifact. While it often parodied or invoked certain contemporary trends, its true influences were all outdated, from the Andy Griffith Show and it’s quaint setting of Mayberry to the radio serials that invented the game Odyssey was now playing all by itself.
This lack of competition, of a secular equivalent, is vital. Christian media generally, 90s Evangelical entertainment especially, and Focus on the Family programming without fail have all thrived as alternatives. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is Contemporary Christian Music, summarized immortally by John Jeremiah Sullivan in 2004: “Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian offbrand,” the priority of which is “to play something proven to please…while praising Jesus Christ.” The music might work as worship, but not because the form is music-driven. Rather, the music is at best a stage upon which a church can stand together and profess their adoration. More often, though, the tunes are background noise—Christian Muzak—that a dad can play while driving his young kids around. It’s about what it’s not, derivative as art by definition.
This “parasitism”—John Jeremiah Sullivan’s word—of Christian media isn’t alien to the Odyssey empire, which inspired spin-offs in the form of mid-grade fiction and a misguided Saturday morning-esque cartoon. Both Odyssey and the separate, but related, Focus on the Family Radio Theatre catalog suffer from many of the slip-ups and pratfalls of Evangelical art-making, which isn’t surprising or disqualifying! Radio drama in the 90s and early 2000s was necessarily sentimental as a form; the show’s creation in 1987 even makes it a contribution to that decade’s 50s craze. The small-town isolation of Odyssey residents is, at times, even metonymic of the Evangelical bubble mindset. If you wanted—and many still do—you could bury your head in the sand of Evangelical news, radio, TV, music, books, jewelry, soda (beer!) koozies, and more. Likewise, the characters in Odyssey are always stumbling through the world (school, work, visits from divorced dads) only to be pulled back to their feet by the all-encompassing design of Whit’s End, replete with dining, a small library, the “Little Theater,” games, playground equipment, even sage counsel—a world unto itself. To the extent that Whit’s End also replaces 80s arcades, it represents almost too well the parasitic mindset of the Evangelical marketplace: a wholesome alternative, not an original endeavor.
The show has too many eras and ups and downs for perfectly static symbolism, but at least one reading of Whit’s End betrays Evangelical desire for retreat as too often an Evangelical desire for comfort. Problems of social pressure are exaggerated into persecution and often exist outside of any other cultural conundrums, most obviously racism. There’s also the usual Christian radio hobbyhorses, including fear of evolution in schools (the 90s!), godlessness on the tube, Vietnam draft dodgers, and more. One arc about a role-playing game called Castles & Cauldrons goes after Dungeons & Dragons. The story is either a concession to hysteria (“actual occultism!”) or a backdoor job to make D&D sound as cool as possible (“actual magical powers!”). That Odyssey could outpace and transcend, even for a time, the very cultural norms in which it partakes is what makes it special.
In fact, peak Odyssey and riskier, adult projects like Paul McCusker’s Father Gilbert Mysteries were ahead of their time formally. Thanks to podcasts, audio drama is back, a return that’s part of a wider trend of old radio habits regaining former glory. Popular podcasters like Bill Simmons begin and interrupt their shows with personalized ad-scripts in an echo of Golden Age commercial reads, while Welcome to Night Vale and Homecoming and countless other audio narratives are now big-money ventures. The saturation is so complete, podcasts are probably the next online media to be swallowed by conglomeration.
Yet from what I’ve listened to, almost no current audio drama is as well produced or as well-acted as Odyssey at its best, to say nothing of the even glossier Radio Theatre productions. The sound-mixing, the sound effects, even the grand scope they risk in story and design embarrass almost all modern audio drama relatives. Before Homecoming was hiring A-listers to underact or overact, Odyssey was letting voice wunderkinds like Walker Edmiston imbue simple conversation with extraordinary depth and range. (Edmiston played both the lovable hick “Tom Riley” and the crooked New York knockoff “Bart Rathbone.”) Indeed, Focus on the Family’s Radio Theatre employed Andy Serkis as the voice of Screwtape years before David Schwimmer decided Gimlet Media was a hot career move.
Audio drama is the only Evangelical niche literally ahead of the moment, failing or succeeding on its own terms rather than how well it recreated its secular betters. If not final proof of artfulness, it’s at least proof that art—original work that’s intrinsically meaningful—was possible.
Which brings us, thankfully, to Dorothy Sayers. That I never heard anything like Odyssey while growing up is an indictment of whoever has the rights to the production of Sayers’s The Man Born to be King. Written for radio, it’s a twelve-play cycle about the life of Jesus that originally aired on BBC Home Service in the 1940s. Published as a complete text, it’s a strong forerunner to Odyssey’s seminal episodes, “The Imagination Station Parts 1 & 2,” wherein a young boy uses Whit’s invention to participate in a fictional version of Christ’s last days. The interplay of Biblical rhythms with updated lingo, and not just from the modern POV character, is strikingly reminiscent of Sayers’s work. Both plays even love the patronymic “bar,” as in “Jesus bar Joseph,” and use it variously to formalize and personalize more than one character.
Having written such an evangelical play (in the broad sense), a play that by its content alone must force the question of the Christian gospel, Sayers was aware of the dangers of “Christian art.” Addressing persistent pitfalls, she gets to her point quickly in the introduction to the plays’ text:
A work of art that is not good and true in art is not good or true in any other respect, and is useless for any purpose whatsoever—even for edification—because it is a lie, and the devil is the father of all such. […] What this means is that the theology—the dogma—must be taken by the writer as part of the material with which he works, and not as an exterior end towards which his work is directed.
A good play, for Sayers, can be written about Christians and their faith, but not with the purpose of turning anyone into a Christian. A conversion story can be a good story, but it must be a story about a character for whom it makes sense to convert.
As for the bigger question of art, what gets to be art and what is relegated to less-than-art, such a conundrum will never die or be fully resolved. The idea of “bad art” and “good art” implies that art is some kind of object, a thing in the world that has gone right or has gone wrong. A bad novel is a story of fake people that feels fake, maybe. For most, it will always be easier to say what art isn’t, and even then not without exceptions. What almost no one denies is that art’s antithesis is propaganda. Two unlikely allies converge on this point. In his short essay, “The Fantastic Imagination,” George Macdonald insists that “a genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. …It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning.” Or as Zadie Smith puts it, “the world is weird and various, comic and tragic,” and if “mixed reality can’t always be fully admitted while standing on soapboxes…it should at least be allowed an existence in novels.”
That Odyssey isn’t mere propaganda, at least not always, comes back to form. Audio drama is not television or live theater. As a medium, it nullifies immediately the worst fears of Christian, and especially Evangelical, audiences. Without the specter of these fears, without all narrative goals bending to a few moral qualms, story and complexity and nuance have a chance. In 2003, to give a negative example from the contemporary era, the CCM artist Jaci Velasquez once showed her upper thigh in a movie no one saw called Chasing Papi. Velasquez’s appearance, both in the movie and in the revealing clothes, was deemed a “not-so-small matter” by Plugged In. Such sensitivity, in any iteration, too easily re-routes otherwise intelligent minds. Yet the specifically image-based puritanism of Evangelical circles is immediately neutered by audio.
For example, one of Odyssey’s main characters is a transplanted California teen named Connie who misses her beach parties and easy West Coast life. If Odyssey were a TV show, there’s a 100-percent chance her introduction gets pruned and, worse, that the horizon of the entire series is continually warped by the gravity of such concerns. What’s more, the fact that peak Odyssey’s pedantry was aimed at children (who are supposed to be taught!) and its airwaves context patrolled by the FCC (the most Evangelical of language-users!) allowed it to clear typical content hurdles without an artificial or self-imposed myopia. Artistic priorities were free to be priorities because the moral questions were resolved before the writing began.
But that’s not all. There’s violence in Odyssey. There are trips to Chicago and the Middle East and, again and again, pseudo-time travel in the Imagination Station. There’s a kid with a drunk father, and it’s not played lightly—imagine the cartoon rendition of that! Perhaps episode to episode the idea of Odyssey being art is ridiculous. Even the best episodes might fail under such an august and vague burden. But as an audio production, Odyssey is a bodiless parade that is given license by its detachment, which is radio’s proper glory.
Freed from certain budgetary logistics, the Golden Age radio serials were so popular partly because movies, and eventually TV, were still so limited. The big spectacles of film were growing in size during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, but they weren’t regular and they obviously weren’t (for most of that time) broadcast in anyone’s home. Only radio could fill out impossibly big and pulpy stories with human actors on a monthly, much less weekly, basis. The airwaves offered the canvass of a novel, but incarnated the urgency of actual humans. Radio can go small, too; that’s the beauty of the human voice. Two people talking, or even one person, is inherently intimate, and the lack of bodies or sensory overload invites the listener to fall into the story almost as a participant, as someone overhearing people you’ve come to know.
As such, it’s no coincidence that all of Odyssey’s best arcs are essentially years in the making, seasons built on seasons and characters humanized by their industrial (and often excellent) actors—characters built, quite literally and not unlike musical themes, by familiar sounds marking the time. What peak Odyssey lacked wasn’t salient because the limits of Evangelicalism fit neatly into the limits of radio, and what it offered wasn’t just another purified replacement. There’s no kids TV show as immersive or wide-ranging as Odyssey, and there never will be. Odyssey is a radio program, and succeeds as a product of that art form alone.
Insisting on “peak” Odyssey, however, isn’t an accident. To praise Evangelical audio drama, with however many qualifications, means praising the artists behind its narrow success. Hal Smith as Whit, Katie Leigh as Connie Kendall, Will Ryan as Eugene (as well as dozens of others), and Alan Young as Jack Allen are essential to Odyssey’s best outings. But to praise Christian audio drama, including and beyond the scope of Odyssey, is to insist on Paul McCusker as one of the most important Christian writers of the last thirty years. He’s not only penned the most Odyssey episodes to date and served as Producer and Executive Producer for its best years, but in the late 1990s he also helped create Focus on the Family’s Radio Theatre. His legacy is diffused by radio’s collaborative nature, to say nothing of the missteps all popular writers produce, but in an age of resurgent audio excellence, his status as a forerunner extraordinaire shouldn’t be ignored.
As prolific a writer as they come, McCusker is continuously pumping out books and stage-plays and screenplays and currently writes and produces audio drama under the auspices of Denver’s Augustine Institute. His life of St. Patrick features Jonathan Rhys Davies, among others. At minimum, he’s proof of quantity being necessary for quality. If he veers onto weaker narrative ground—a story essentially designed to deliver a pro-life punchline; that is, propaganda—he won’t stay there long. He’ll try something else, and eventually he will hit the mark again. I mean that as the highest praise. Hitting the mark is all any writer can hope for, and most of us hope for just the once. His strengths, quantity enabling quality and witty humor, mirror and explicate Odyssey’s own.
Interestingly, McCusker was also received into the Roman Catholic church some years ago. However in tune he might remain with Focus on the Family regarding American culture, his own journey tracks the liturgical trajectory of many Evangelicals over the past twenty years, a journey that I suspect is often as much a matter of taste as it is theology. That McCusker has pursued his work and the faith beyond the scope of Focus on the Family or Evangelicalism isn’t an ad hominem shortcut to praise—i.e. he always had good taste while running Odyssey, it just finally showed up in his place of worship.
Rather, his conversion is a testament to how his interests and commitment have always outpaced the Evangelical Consumerist Complex in which he first found great success. Creating Radio Theatre with Focus on the Family in 1999, McCusker immediately started producing Miramax complements to Focus on the Family’s regular Disney fare (a 90s analogy!), and none better than Father Gilbert Mysteries. A former London detective, Father Gilbert is an Anglican priest in a small English town. He’s nothing like Father Brown as a type, but he is like a lot of English detectives. Not that all English detectives are the same, but rather he seems to comprise many of them all in one person. He’s probably Paul McCusker’s masterpiece, and as such the climax of Evangelical audio drama’s potential.
In Father Gilbert’s best dramatic episode, and probably the best episode overall, the Evangelical listener is confronted with suicide, porn peddling, and an actual demon. It’s thoroughly Christian, not a theological toe put out of line with regard to Evangelical orthodoxy, but it isn’t safe. Neither is the episode about a vengeful, beautiful ghost who haunts a military base and either possesses or inspires soldiers to kill their wives. (That this could be an allegory for lustful fantasies and wet dreams inside a somewhat menacing ghost story perhaps captures the core of its artful Evangelicalism.) When I heard the “The Grey Lady” at a fairly impressionable age, it was one of the first times a Christian authority ever admitted that, actually, we don’t really have much of a position on ghosts. They’re, uh, ghosts! And McCusker’s ghost is scary! If one is hoping to build a case for audio drama, whether constricted by Focus on the Family’s involvement or not, Father Gilbert’s best episodes are unbeatable originals. They’re Masterpiece Theatre for road trips, and topped only by McCusker’s adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia. They’re art about Christians and even Christian values that don’t confuse a moral point of view with an authorial mandate to protect one’s listeners from a world in which they already live.
Of course, the fact that Odyssey and other Evangelical audio works usually bake their puritanism into the pie, so to speak—or have chosen a gluten-free medium for their gluten-free consumers—might be a reason for condemnation rather than praise. After all, audio drama that mostly features kids shows and adapts Victorian classics, Christian classics, and sanitized Christian history is more likely part and parcel of the Evangelical bubble than I’ve allowed. Certainly, if you’re within the Evangelical bubble they don’t always stand out as audacious visions likely to mature one’s faith or investigate cultural priors. But from where I sit on the uncomfortable fence between the wider world of literary storytelling and the niche world of Evangelical consumerism, the best of Radio Theatre and Odyssey protrude as if by accident from their monolothic foundations.
Whether it’s the Imagination Station time-travel gimmick, the ever-rotating focus on different characters and families, or the big stories possible on little budgets, all of Odyssey’s best outings exploit audio’s potential. When the original voice actor for Whit died, Odyssey got creative with long-form arcs, including an entire volume that was one continuous story, and ended up producing a concentrated dosage of its best work. Without the didactic safeguard of Whit, they let the form dictate more and more of their tasks, knowingly or not. They let other characters regularly assume the teaching role, which made the role less about teaching and more about character. The original purpose of Odyssey, lessons from Whit and Whit’s End, loosened into a baggier version of its best, most nuanced self. For artists who do anything worthwhile, every problem they grapple with must submit to the strengths of their chosen form. That’s the old, but always surprising lesson of audio drama. When the opportunities of form are foremost in your mind, a surprising amount becomes possible.
Such a triumph from within the marketplace of purity apologetics is perhaps more vital now than ever. Injustices of race and gender, and apparently the tweets of J.K. Rowling, have inspired new wellsprings of cultural puritanism. The Identitarian Left and the Evangelical Right surely deplore being compared in the usual horseshoe-theory pablum, and they should. It too often elides real differences in the name of often superficially similar faults. Still, I spent my whole adolescence submerged in purity culture, and what too few remember is how convincing the testimonies could be. Lives utterly ruined by mean-minded sex, by pornography—wasn’t avoiding all sex scenes and nudity a way to cut off your right hand and avoid hell, even hell on earth?
Likewise, does anyone doubt that racism and sexism and the general bullying of cultural outsiders still abound? Couldn’t the incessant and even subtle misuse of marginalized voices by dominant groups—white, male, nonreligious, or otherwise—be its own slippery slope? Honestly, probably. Worries about lust-fueled backsliding or worries about cultural erasure may be misplaced, or misdirected, but the pit of each is hard to dislodge. For readers or listeners or audience members, the answer is perhaps simpler than for artists, most of whom are obsessive and drama-drawn, who want to tinker with the tools of imagination, to fit the right story to the right form; who take risks in an effort to produce something novel. Or who should, no matter their context or beliefs.
Radio Theatre and Odyssey fail plenty, and maybe too much for any truly neutral observer to overlook. But when I listen to Father Gilbert crumple under the sins of his former tragedy, or Trumpkin the dwarf crack one-liners under his breath, or Eugene Meltsner whisper “Yes” to his own past’s flurried witness of faith, I remember a writing professor answering questions about transgression in the world of literary fiction. She gave the issue fair hearing every time it arose. “Should so-and-so be writing in this voice or about these topics? Isn’t this appropriation?” Her discussion was always generous and receptive, but her own conclusion a concession to art’s stubborn will to surprise: “If it’s good, it’s good.” The same for Odyssey and Father Gilbert and all Evangelical audio art; when it’s good, it’s great, and it had no right being good in the first place.
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