A Podcast for the MedTech Age: An Interview with Zac and Sally Crippen

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Q: How would you describe your work at Vernacular? How does your work interface with the church and our MedTech age?

A: Vernacular has evolved quite a bit since we started it in 2015, but ultimately our mission remains the same. Originally our tagline was “the podcast for everyone,” and we were (and remain) driven by the conviction that even apparently ordinary people lead extraordinary lives. Across our first several seasons, we interviewed lots of people who were doing interesting things and had good things to say about living and living well. And these weren’t celebrities. They were “ordinary” people—the kind of people who don’t have millions of Twitter followers and who don’t get invited to the Oscars. And what we learned is that these people have profound stories and profound insights about what it means to be human.

The experience of those first few seasons prompted us to adopt our current tagline: “the art of being human.” And after we had some early episodes about various bioethics issues (CRISPR, abortion, surrogacy, and others) that were very well received, we decided to explicitly dedicate our entire current season to the question: “What does it mean to be human?” In a sense, that’s what our podcast has always been about, but right now we’re tackling the question head-on in 20-minute chunks.

Ultimately, the question of what it means to be human is fundamental to issues of bioethics: how we live and die is a reflection of how we conceive of ourselves in a universe. Are we high-functioning collections of atoms in a purely material universe? Are we simply the latest and greatest in a primate evolutionary chain? Is death natural? Our answers to these questions and others like them have tremendous importance for how we relate to ourselves and each other.

Q: How did you become interested in MedTech issues? What particular issues have captured your attention/imagination?

A: Sally has been interested in MedTech issues since high school, and in college Gilbert Meilaender was her professor and professional mentor. Her senior thesis explored the “hurt/harm” distinction in abortion, and her graduate degree focused on the intersection of bioethics and medical law, with a thesis that focused on surrogacy. Professionally, Sally’s work has touched almost all areas of bioethics. My own (Zac) interest in bioethics has been largely avocational and mostly inspired by Sally’s interest and work. My research tends to focus on abortion, transhumanism, food ethics, and medicine.

Q: Where do you turn when you research a particular MedTech issue?

A: The President’s Council on Bioethics, which was established in 2001 and disbanded in 2009, explored an impressive range of topics in thoughtful and rigorous ways. Their reports are still on the web in archive form, and although some of the resources are quite dated they remain good starting points for consideration. One virtue that the President’s Council on Bioethics has over the subsequent Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is that the former focuses on ideas rather than policy, and thus avoids some of the technocratic pitfalls that often mar contemporary discussions of bioethics. Another favorite resource is Wired, and even though we often find ourselves in disagreement with its editors on a particular issue, we find its writing to be engaging, thought-provoking, and generally fair.

Q: What resources should pastors begin with if they want to learn about particular bioethics issues?

A: We have several favorites.

  • Bioethics: A Primer for Christians by Gilbert Meilaender is a great introduction and framework for how to think about the issues.
  • The New Atlantis is great regular reading for shorter, accessible but thoughtful commentary on contemporary issues.
  • Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (who is not a Christian, as far as we know) is a fantastic exploration, even from a secular perspective, on how mortality is part of the human identity. It falls short in articulating the cosmic context for our mortality, but I think it’s still a useful primer for anybody who is thinking about aging and mortality.
  • Another one, from an explicitly anti-Christian perspective, is The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan (the “wager” is an atheistic inversion of Pascal’s Wager). Istvan is an eccentric who is always running for President or for Governor of California, and he is a mediocre writer, but his story captures what I think is a dominant view among several leading technologists today: that immortality is attainable, that the Church needlessly hinders technological progress, that God is the enemy of reason, etc. Although the book is quite far-fetched, it serves as a useful thought experiment for Christians.
  • And the final (and probably best) book of all is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which describes a world that is in many respects quite similar to ours today. No, we don’t hook ourselves up to pleasure machines and babies aren’t mass produced in factories, but the fundamental ideas behind those events—that bodily autonomy is the supreme virtue, that pleasure is the ultimate end of sexuality, that people exist as means, not ends—are animating ideas in our age.

Q: You mention Huxley’s Brave New World, are there any other science fiction films that you think should be on every Christian’s watch list? How does this movie help us attend to issues of medicine and technology? What should we watch for?

A: Andrew Niccol is a brilliant mind who has turned in some impressive work (Gattaca, In Time, The Truman Show), some promising work (Lord of War) and some downright duds (Good Kill, and the recent Netflix title Anon). But Gattaca and In Time are two of our favorite bioethics films: the former explores disability and the beauty of striving in an age of engineered perfection; the latter envisions a future in which life can be endless but only for those with the means to make it so. Gattaca is a bit more realistic than In Time, and generally I think better written.

Q: It seems to me that part of the problem with churches and a MedTech age is a lack of imagination for: 1) the issues themselves and 2) what God might be doing in a MedTech world. What ways can Christians stoke their imaginations for how the Kingdom might come near in a MedTech world?

A: You’re exactly right. And I think that to enhance that imagination, Christians should actively pursue activities that illuminate the truth, goodness, and beauty of human life. These three qualities are the “transcendentals,” and they correspond to the academic pursuits of science (truth), ethics (good), and aesthetics (beauty). We’re excited about what organizations like The Anselm Society and Word on Fire are doing to revitalize the Christian imagination. And if I can start with a simple prescription for cultivating an appreciation for truth, goodness, and beauty: read biographies, read myths, and read theology.

Q: Would you share about a time that a medical professional cared well for you or for someone within your immediate family? As someone who is attentive to human flourishing, how did you think/feel about this interaction?

A: Absolutely! A family member of mine has been battling cancer for over six months now, and her first medical team misdiagnosed the issue and generally made her feel unappreciated and undervalued. When she switched to a major research hospital, her new oncologist was warm, welcoming, looked her in the eye, answered all of her questions, and gave her a hug on her way out. It was a small gesture but it meant the world to my family member. And even small things like this—where a doctor lets a patient know that they are loved—can actually affect medical outcomes! Atul Gawande explores this in Being Mortal, the book that we mentioned earlier.

Q: What question should we have asked you but didn’t?

A: How to listen to Vernacular Podcast! We are on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Overcast, PocketCasts, Anchor, and pretty much wherever you get your podcasts. And we always love hearing from listeners, so please reach out: zacandsally@vernacularpodcast.com.