What We Need to Confront About Christianity

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What We Need to Confront About Christianity

Collin Hansen interviews Rebecca McLaughlin


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Collin Hansen: Do you sense that Christianity is in decline? If so, you probably live in the West, probably in a more affluent and highly educated urban locale and you would be wrong. At least statistically speaking from a global perspective. Christianity is actually growing contrary to popular perception, then it’s not likely that the world’s largest religion will fall into eclipse anytime soon. Shouldn’t skeptics then take seriously what hundreds of millions around the world practice and believe? Rebecca McLaughlin answers 12 hard questions for Christians in her new book, “Confronting Christianity.” McLaughlin holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. She is a regular contributor to The Gospel Coalition and former vice president of content at the Veritas Forum, where she spent almost a decade working with Christian academics at leading secular universities. She published “Confronting Christianity,” in partnership with The Gospel Coalition for Crossway. I had the privilege of working with her as an editor. And this book is now my go-to resource for popular level apologetics. So if you enjoyed and learned from Tim Keller’s, “The Reason for God,” you need to pick up this book. So I’m especially eager to host Rebecca on “The Gospel Coalition” podcast as we talk about the hardest questions facing Christianity. Thank you, Rebecca, for joining me.

Rebecca McLaughlin: Thanks so much for having me, Collin.

Hansen: All right, so let’s talk about some of the differences between the United States and Great Britain. Are the challenges to Christianity different in those two locations?

McLaughlin: Gosh, yes. This is one of my favorite things, talking about U.S., UK differences and making massive generalizations on the basis of small samples of evidence. So my husband is from Oklahoma City, and I’ve lived for the last decade of my life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So I have some sense, I think of the range of challenges to Christianity in America. And I don’t want to over-represent that as one monolithic thing, though I certainly still speak as an outsider to American things. I think I’d summarize the U.S., UK distinctions like this. So first in the UK, there is no such thing as cultural evangelism. We have cultural Christianity for sure. We have plenty of old church buildings and nominally religious schools, but no one in England is gonna describe themselves as a born again Christian and not be fully engaged in church. So when my husband moved from Oklahoma State to Cambridge University for his Ph.D., he found this both startling and refreshing because on the one hand, at Cambridge, no one was impressed that he went to church or read the Bible every day. It’s totally weird behavior for somebody in England. But on the other hand, once you showed up at church, there was nobody who was there because it was a cool place to be. So everyone was paying a social cost to be there. And partly for that reason, everyone was engaged in evangelism. And I think that’s probably the second difference and the thing that I most miss about church back home.

So evangelicals in England, at least in my experience, are trained for mission. If someone you don’t recognize shows up at church on a Sunday, you absolutely make it your business to welcome them. And you assume that they may not be a believer and, you know, you look to be their bridge into Jesus. We here are part of a wonderful gospel focus church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a wonderful gospel hearted pastor. But over the years, I’ve noticed that evangelism is not part of the DNA of every Christian who shows up to church here, particularly, if they’ve come from more culturally Christian parts of the country. So whereas, a proportion of evangelicals in the UK is far smaller than in the U.S., I’d say the drive towards mission is generally stronger. And I think a third important difference and one that’s relevant when it comes to apologetics is that, whereas, the main problem of Christianity in England has been liberalisation, I think the main problem with Christianity in America has actually been anti-internationalization. So in 1994, historian, Mark Noll, wrote this devastating book called, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” And he began with these words, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” And I think in America, we have made the foolishness of the gospel an excuse for intellectual laziness. And we have lost sight of the fact that Christianity is the greatest intellectual movement in all of history. And so we have conceded many, many things that we shouldn’t have conceded. We’re actually underselling the riches of the gospel to our friends and neighbors.

Hansen: So that’s some of the differences across the Atlantic Ocean. Let’s talk about some of the differences and the challenges to Christianity that have changed with time since you’ve been a Christian, since you’ve engaged in professional ministry, since you’ve been an active member in the church. Have there been certain concerns that have receded and others that have emerged? What does that scene look like?

McLaughlin: Yes, I think without a doubt that the greatest challenge to Orthodox Christianity in the West today is our failure to speak well to questions of sexuality and gender. I’ll get a bit personal here. I actually started writing “Confronting Christianity” back when gay marriage was first legalized in the U.S. and all my friends were turning their Facebook profiles rainbow and, you know, wanting to make statements about that. Now, my non-Christian friends, from their perspective, Christian resistance to gay marriage was morally repugnant. It’s a massive barrier to them considering Christ. And I think the same is true, if not more so today. Now, my memory to that time was recognizing that I had been primarily attracted to women all my life. I’m happily married to a man who is the father of my three kids, so you wouldn’t necessarily pick me out of a crowd as same-sex attracted. But as I sometimes joke to my husband, he’ll never have to worry that I might leave him for another man. So as the challenge of these LGBT questions came to a tipping point, I was deeply distressed by what a mess we Christians were making of it. So on the one hand, I was seeing a phenomenon you could call sort of straight Christian guilt, whereby Christians who’d grown up in churches that were legitimately homophobic, i.e. where there was a deep fear and mistrust of gay and lesbian people, were realizing that their attitudes were ungodly and needed to be repented of. And they were all too often throwing out orthodox theology on this question of the process.

Often no one had given them a holistic picture of how the Bible’s teaching on sexuality hangs together or what the big Gospel story of it is. And so they were left with these sort of seemingly random prohibitions that were overwhelmed by the strong emotional pull of justice based appeals being made around them. And on the other hand, there were Christians who were, you know, quite happily sticking with their homophobic attitudes and doubling down on an us versus them mentality, which left them holding onto the scriptural prohibitions but using them as sort of ammunition in culture wars. And both of these reactions really broke my heart because I saw, not only how destructive they were within the church, but also what an obstacle they were to non-Christians considering Christ. So, I mean, and what I firmly believe needed to happen then and what I think we’re seeing now actually is for God to raise up men and women for whom same-sex attraction is a deep personal reality and have them speak for the church and to the church on this issue. So I felt the need to play my tiny part in that. But more importantly, in the last five or so years, I’ve been massively encouraged by the ways in which God has been raising up these people. So I think of Gospel Coalition folks like, Sam Allberry, and Rachel Gilson, and Jackie Hill Perry, who are speaking from deep personal experience and are engaging at a really refreshing, honest, and biblically-oriented level. So I think…

Hansen: ..which is itself a change. I mean, that’s something… I mean, I don’t think when I started… Well, definitely not when I started in professional journalism in 2003, but I think even when I started at The Gospel Coalition in 2010, I’m trying to remember when Rosaria’s first book came out, I was trying to remember that timeline, it just was not common for same-sex attracted Orthodox Christians to be upfront and public about their stories.

McLaughlin: Yeah, yeah. And I think we need to stop seeing this as a crisis for Christianity and start seeing it as a gospel opportunity. But in an age where who you are determines what you have the right to say, we also need to stop fielding straight white men. No, you know, apologies to folks like you, Collin.

Hansen: I’m interviewing you on this podcast. You’re the one with the mic.

McLaughlin: So I think we need to get behind our brothers and sisters who have deep personal experience in same-sex attraction. And for whom that means they cannot be dismissed as homophobic bigots who just don’t get it. And I think those people are in our churches. They’re in your church and they’re in my church. We need to find those people. We need to love them. We need to encourage and empower them. And my prayer for this next few years, actually, is that God will do the same work of raising up Christians who were born intersex or struggle with the gender dysphoria to speak for and to the church on those issues and from a position of deep biblical orthodoxy.

Hansen: So we know that sexuality and those questions are going to be among the most pressing questions toward us. They’re gonna be one of the first things that we encounter. I think, what we all have to expect at every different level, no matter how learned you are, when it comes to these apologetic issues. But I’m wondering, how much would you encourage the kind of Christian who’s gonna pick up your book to actually become conversant and to engage at a deep level on those topics or, as opposed to say, try to shift the terrain towards something like the resurrection? Because in some sense, let’s say you are able to persuade somebody of the Christian sexual ethic, you still haven’t necessarily seen them come to Christ because ultimately, you haven’t even begun to approach that issue. And then at the same time, when you go and you confront the person, the work, the resurrection, the miracle of Christ, then all of a sudden the authority issues follow. I’m still processing how I’m supposed to think that through. Help us to understand how we should encounter that. What do we do in those situations?

McLaughlin: So I think you’re bringing up a really important question there, Collin. Our aim should never be to, for example, convince someone of the biblical sexual ethic as an end in itself. So my non-Christian friends who are in happy heterosexual marriages are no closer to Christ than friends who are engaging in promiscuous relationships with males and females. In fact, you could probably argue from the New Testament that those who are in the sort of less respectable sexual circles are actually pretty closer to the Gospel, you know, perhaps more right to Christ than those who are in more seemingly respectable setups. So we certainly shouldn’t see convincing people of our ethics on various questions as an end in itself.

However, I think if we are in any meaningful way, representing Christianity on these issues, we will necessarily be driven to the Gospel. So as I understand it from the Scriptures, the main point of what God has to say about sexuality is actually a Gospel focus point that marriage between male and female is a representation like a living metaphor of Christ’s relationship with the church. And so I have no way of responding to some of these questions about sexuality without going straight to the Gospel. Now, having said that, I think if we essentially dodge hard questions in conversation with non-Christian friends and only want to talk about things that feel like comfortable territory for us, you know, perhaps the evidence for the resurrection, I think we’re underserving them. I think we should be willing to engage with those questions. And I think for most of us, probably for all of us, that will require us doing a fair bit of homework in order to be able to represent these questions well.

Hansen: I think so many of us because of the sexuality questions because of so many different revolutions that we could identify both in the UK and in the United States in the last half-century, at the very least, and I think going back much further there, we feel like we’re so much on the defensive. But when you look back historically, you talked about the intellectual power of Christianity and it’s impossible really to imagine anything that we know and love about the West apart from the influence of Christianity. So I’m wondering, how do we shift this conversation from feeling like we’re on the defense to being more on the offense of not being offensive to people, but be more confident in what we believe and the goodness of Christ and then the gospel for this world?

McLaughlin: Yeah, yeah. So I agree. I think we are playing far too defensive of a game. We talk as if the U.S. is predominantly secular as if the world is becoming less and less religious and as if Christianity is no longer viable in the modern world. Like, even if we don’t want to believe that, we sort of slightly suspect that that’s probably the case. So we might as well batten down the hatches and retreat into our safe evangelical bubbles. None of that is in fact true. And I think there are multiple ways in which we need to shift our thinking. So first, and perhaps challenging the Christians in the U.S., I think we need to recognize that immigration is the best thing that’s happening to the U.S. church right now. While white Americans are becoming less religious, evangelical Christianity in this country is being quietly revitalized by immigrants of color, and I see this in my neighborhood. So I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in the adjacent city of Somerville, English is now the third most commonly spoken language in the evangelical churches after Spanish and Portuguese. So we need to be rejoicing in immigration and the brilliant impact that it’s having on the church.

Meanwhile, you know, black Americans have long been far more likely to be Christians that white Americans by about 10 percentage points. And the reason we think that Christianity is declining in the modern world is because we over-index on white men. So I think, we need to make some mental shifts around diversity and around racial and cultural dynamics to recognize that actually, what sometimes feels like a kind of cultural onslaught to folks who grew up… I mean, like, my husband grew up sort of white American evangelicals, may actually be God’s opening up gospel opportunities around us. So I think we need to feel less defensive there and more excited by the work that God’s doing. Secondly, I think we need to raise our intellectual game. I think we need to combine intellectual rigor with a respectful and inviting posture. And I think often, we’ve actually done the reverse. We’ve not done our homework. We haven’t really had the facts to hand and we’ve come into the public square or into conversations with non-Christian friends with slightly aggressive point scoring tone. And I think we need to flip that around and do more of our homework with less glibness and, you know, discover the real competence that we can have without it being a sort of point scoring hostile engagement.

Hansen: You clearly, Rebecca, came into this book, having learned, having studied, having taught these things around the world, but what was something as you continued to research this book that really stood out to you? Maybe an argument you hadn’t considered before or one that you found to be very effective or encouraging. Take us behind the scenes in that research process.

McLaughlin: Yeah. So there were two chapters in my book that really required me to do some extensive research and thinking that I honestly hadn’t done before. The first was addressing the question, “Doesn’t religion cause violence?” And the second was responding to the challenge, “Doesn’t the Bible justify slavery?” I learned a ton in both these areas, and I’m certainly still learning on both those fronts. But I was actually struck by an interesting connection between the two, which I’ll share with you now. So in the violence chapter, one of the things I did was to dig deeply into how, in the world, a supposedly Christian country like early 21st century Germany could have given rise to Hitler and the Holocaust. And in fact, how large swathes of the German church could have enabled and embraced Nazi ideology. And while there’s no simple answer to that question, except for the sheer depravity of the human heart. I think an important part of the answer is that German theologians were selling out on Scripture. So if you look back at the history, over a period of time, the Nazis managed to construct something they called “Positive Christianity,” which was actually an entirely alternative religion with the Old Testament cut out, the New Testament, radically edited and revised, and with Hitler replacing Jesus as the Messiah. And if you think I’m exaggerating, go read some of the prayers that Hitler used towards praying, you’ll see it’s pretty clearly what happened. And as soon as we start to cut out parts of the Bible because they don’t fit with our preferred beliefs and agendas, we actually make ourselves vulnerable to this kind of shift, which clearly what happened in Germany was the most abhorrent version.

And as I dug into the Scriptures on the question of slavery and looked at how the Bible was in the history of America use just by race-based slavery, I actually found kind of a parallel move because, of course, if you read the new testament as a whole, you’ll find that it’s the greatest treatise against racism of all time, and that Christianity insists not just on people of different races and cultures and ethnicities coexisting, but on radical love across these differences. What’s more, I think, you know, if you look at the Old Testament, the story of God’s people is a story of emancipated slaves. In the New Testament, you see Jesus as a slave whose followers are slaves of Christ. So if you want to use the Bible to justify race-based slavery, you’d have to take a scalpel to it, pretty much like the Nazis did. And you have to cut out passage after passage, until it’s left pretty much unrecognizable. And that’s, of course, precisely what white Americans seeking to justify slavery did. And I think that to me, teaches us an interesting lesson for today because some people would argue today that, you know, just as Scripture was used to justify slavery in a bygone era, and we now realize that was wrong, so today, we should be willing to ignore passages of Scripture that say culturally uncomfortable things, and in particular, about sexuality. I actually think we need to learn the opposite lesson from history that when biblical truth is countercultural, we need to cling to the whole of the Scriptures for dear life.

Hansen: That’s powerful and profound, and something that I’ve seen as well and been challenged by consistently. A few more questions here. Let’s just… A couple of these will be little bit kind of straightforward. Who is your favorite non-Christian to read? Someone who sheds light on your faith or makes you to think more deeply by challenging what you believe.

McLaughlin: You know, the answer to that question that comes to mind first is actually someone you previously interviewed on this podcast. So Jonathan Haidt is an atheist, secular liberal social psychologist, and he’s one of the most intellectually honest public intellectuals alive today. So as a starting point, I’d recommend people read “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.” Yeah, I mean, he explores there the findings of modern psychology through the lens of various faith traditions. And I think he’s the kind of friendly atheist I’d suggest digging into. For an unfriendly atheist to challenge your thinking, I’d probably recommend Harvard psychology professor, Steven Pinker. So I think Pinker doesn’t do the homework on Christianity that he should do in order to make the claims that he makes. But if you want to expose yourself to someone who looks at relevant data through a non-believing lens and is frankly a cut above the likes of Richard Dawkins intellectually, then I think Pinker is a great place to start.

Hansen: Yeah, well, that gives me some homework there to do. I have not read Pinker. I think I’ve covered the whole Haidt… You know, I’ve covered everything he’s done and interviewed him twice actually on this podcast. So you can tell, I think, there’s a lot we can learn from him even where we disagree with him pretty significantly. Okay. And I understand that sometimes people don’t like the question, so they challenge the question, but go with me on this one. Let’s say, you could only grow as an apologist for Christianity by either reading more books or by spending time with non-Christians, I’m creating the dichotomy there because I think different people incline in one direction or another. And it seems like, you know, maybe that’s okay, but just help us to process that. I mean, how is our time better spent when learning how to engage with the beliefs of our non-Christian friends and neighbors?

McLaughlin: So I think that is like asking, “Is it better to train as a doctor by studying medicine or treating patients?”

Hansen: Okay. All right, that’s fair, that’s fair.

McLaughlin: If you spend all your time with patients, you’ll be able to learn about their symptoms and build relationships and show them love and compassion, which is a really important aspect of what doctors do, but you’re actually not going to be ultimately saving your patients’ lives or helping them much if you haven’t read the medical textbooks. So I think it has to be at both ends. And I think you’re right, that probably some of us lean more toward one than the other. And, you know, it’s easy for those of us who are into books to spend a lot of time with books and, you know, neglect the actual people that God may have placed in our lives. So I’d never want to do that. At the same time, I think many of us engage in intellectual laziness and don’t actually bring the resources that God has given us access to to bear on questions that might be highly relevant to our friends. So yeah, it would have to be a judgment call for each individual person, but I don’t think we can get away with neglecting either.

Hansen: Yeah. Okay, that’s fair. That’s fair. All right, it’s a good way of handling that one. All right. Okay. So this is the one I’ve been saving for last. This is a question that I like to cut to the chase with people. And which objection to Christianity do you find the most difficult to answer?

McLaughlin: So the last chapter of my book is titled, “How could a loving God send people to hell?” And honestly, I think that is by far, in a way, the hardest objection to Christianity. And I think the Bible is quite clear about the reality of judgment. And I think anyone who thinks we can excavate Jesus from the dross of what the Bible says about judgment, you know, maybe by downplaying the Old Testament or circumventing pool, and who simply hasn’t paid attention to Jesus’ own words and doesn’t understand the cross. But I think this question is genuinely hard. And it’s certainly the one I struggle with the most personally. So now, I think some of the ways that people misunderstand God’s judgment on the basis for salvation are easy to address. For instance, a lot of people think salvation by faith in Christ is really arbitrary and unjust. You know, God randomly decides to forgive people over here because they believe that someone innocent over there died an unjust death in their place. I find those kinds of questions relatively easy to address and to explain the fundamental logic of the cross, and how hell isn’t so much a place to which people are sent as a relational state of being rejected by God and falling under his judgment. But we are left with a reality of hell and the bitter reality that people we love, who are not in Christ will face God’s judgment.

So I personally, I find this orders of magnitude harder than questions around science or sexuality or abortion or any other hot button issues. And yet, it’s also the question that most forces us into the actual gospel conversations because, you know, it’s easy for us, it’s easy for me to present a sinless judgment-free gospel to our friends. And you’re telling someone they’re stuck under the wrath of the God and they have no help of saving themselves is deeply, painfully offensive. But I think, unless we’re willing to talk about God’s judgment, we cannot present the beauty of Christ or the urgency of responding to His rule. And I don’t know about you Collin, but I really like to be liked, so I hate talking about hell, but I’d rather talk about it now than let my friends discover the truth about it later when their hope of salvation is gone.

Hansen: Yeah, yeah. No, I hear you on that. And I think one of the more influential Christian apologists in my reading life has been Fyodor Dostoevsky. And I think that’s one reason why his writing in “The Brothers Karamazov” is so powerful because the combination of innocent suffering, specifically, of children in these sites in Brothers Karamazov, and then the reality of hell are the issues that he goes straight to. And in the end, I think you’re exactly right that it also is the spot that brings us closest to the cross, and closest to the identity of Christ Himself.

McLaughlin: Yeah. I actually think that suffering I find much easier to speak to. It’s an odd comment in some ways, but we sometimes, act or speak as if suffering is a sort of embarrassment to our worldview that Christianity is really for the shiny, happy people and when suffering comes, it’ll all crumble in our hands. But really suffering is staked right at the heart of Christian faith. You know in Jesus, we see the God who enters into our suffering in the most profound and visceral way, supremely at the cross, of course, but also throughout Jesus’s life and ministry as he reached out to embrace the lonely, and the broken, and the bleeding, and the diseased. So I think, you know open your Bible now, and there’s not a page of it that doesn’t speak to suffering people, except perhaps the Song of Songs. I mean, maybe that’s the sort of the happy unsuffering section of the Scriptures. And there’s also not a page that wasn’t written by suffering people. So to me, suffering is not an embarrassment of Christianity, it’s the greatest apologetic for Christian faith there is.

Hansen: Well, and isn’t there an opportunity right here, Rebecca, to be able to go from defensive to offensive? Because sometimes we’re so aware of, maybe, some of the weaknesses, of perceived weaknesses of our point of view, but suffering is one of those that’s easy to flip around. I remember talking with a friend not too long ago, who knew a man from his church who had suffered all kinds of just horrible things, thing after thing, after thing, after thing. It would just break any of our heart. And in the end, he was leaving the church and he was abandoning his faith. And one of the things that I talked about with this friend was his beliefs do not change anything about his circumstances here. He does not escape these circumstances by now abandoning his faith. The only thing that’s happened here is that he’s lost the only hope for some kind of purpose or explanation or ultimate redemption within his suffering. That’s it. Hasn’t changed this condition. And I wonder, do you think the same thing is true of hell? Because, yes, we’re very conscious of how difficult the doctrine of hell is, but there’s no doctrine of hell without the possibility of eternal life with God, a reunion, not only where we see God face to face, but a reunion with all these who we have known and loved as well. Whereas, without that doctrine of judgment and justice, which we could also get into there, there’s nothing, there’s just the end. That’s it.

McLaughlin: Yeah, I think on many of these questions, we are tempted to think that we’re comparing Christianity with all its crazy supernatural beliefs and demanding moral strictures to another perfectly coherent, secular alternative, that will do all the work we need to do, but without the crazy stuff. And that is simply not the case, whether we’re talking about life after death, whether we’re talking about suffering, whether we’re talking about ethics, whether we’re talking about science. I just this morning finished reviewing a book by Notre Dame, sociologist, Christian Smith called, “Atheism Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver.” And in that book, which I highly recommend you read, Smith takes prominent intellectual atheists to the turf on claims that they’re making about the moral implications of their beliefs, so particularly the claim that atheists can undergird or atheism can undergird our belief in universal human rights and equality and care for the global poor, etc. The bottom line is that contemporary atheists are simply not able to offer compelling reasons why we should uphold these kinds of ethical beliefs that are pretty core to our hearts even as we fail to live up to them. And I think on this and many other questions, if you compare Christianity with the actual alternatives, rather than with some sort of mythical belief system to which any sensible person could agree, and which does all the work we need it to do, you find that Jesus really shines. And I personally come back to when Jesus asked his disciples if they were planning to leave him to and Peter replies, “Lord to him shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And I think that’s as true today as it was 2,000 years ago.

Hansen: Yeah, well, Rebecca, you know, that I could keep learning from you and talking with you for much, much, much longer, but I do appreciate that everybody listening and I hope they have a good feel for what you cover in your book “Confronting Christianity,” where you deal with these 12 hard questions for Christians. Again, my guest in “The Gospel Coalition” podcast has been Rebecca McLaughlin. Rebecca, thank you for writing this book. And thanks for being my guest today.

McLaughlin: Thanks so much, Collin.

Do you sense Christianity is in decline? If so, you probably live in the West, probably in a more affluent and highly educated urban locale. And you would be wrong, at least statistically speaking from a global perspective.

Christianity is actually growing. Contrary to popular perception, it’s not likely the world’s largest religion will fall into eclipse any time soon. Shouldn’t skeptics, then, take seriously what hundreds of millions around the world practice and believe?

Rebecca McLaughlin answers 12 hard questions for Christians in her new book, Confronting Christianity. McLaughlin holds a PhD in renaissance literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. She is a regular contributor to The Gospel Coalition and former vice president of content at the Veritas Forum, where she spent almost a decade working with Christian academics at leading secular universities. She published Confronting Christianity in partnership with The Gospel Coalition for Crossway. I had the privilege of working with her as an editor, and this book is now my go-to resource for popular-level apologetics. If you enjoyed and learned from Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, you need to pick up this book. So I’m especially thankful she joined me on The Gospel Coalition Podcast to talk about the hardest questions facing Christianity.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.