Why We Love the Serial Podcast

For those of you who might have been living under a rock the past few months, or, for those of you who just haven’t gotten around to listening to it yet (what are you waiting for??) the Serial podcast is a spinoff of the popular NPR radio show This American Life. But Serial has taken the podcast world by storm, smashing iTunes records and quickly becoming the most downloaded podcast in history. The New York Times calls it a “breakout true-crime drama…like observing a lo-fi but formidable space launch.”

After each newly released episode, I turned over Asia McClaine’s statements, questioned all the pay phone “evidence” from Best Buy, and tried to get straight the web of cell phone records that were mentioned over and over again. “Do you think he did it?!” is the common question Serial listeners are asking each other. The hype around the Serial podcast has died down a bit, but I still find myself entering into hot debates about the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed.

Throughout the show’s twelve episodes, Sarah Koenig, the host/producer, explores the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, Maryland. We meet Hae’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was convicted of her murder at the age of 17 but who fervently maintains his innocence. Koenig goes back and forth based on details she uncovers throughout the show: Is Adnan indeed innocent? Or is he a cold-blooded murderer, playing all of us? Koenig masterfully creates a strange intimacy between the show’s real life characters and the listener. But what is it about this story that has captivated so many of us? Here’s some brief thoughts to add to the piles of opinion out there.

1. Serial taps into our intrinsic longing for justice.

Whatever we think happened, we know that something awful and morally wrong took place – a high school girl was murdered and even though I never personally knew Hae, I have a natural ache for the right person to be held accountable for her murder. And I have a natural longing to not want someone innocent to be put in jail for life. I long for justice to be done.

We have a sense that there is a right and a wrong. It matters if Adnan is innocent and is in jail for the rest of his life. If right and wrong weren’t present, why should we even care? Christianity would argue that we all have the law written on our hearts (Romans 2:15), given to us by God, the ultimate justifier. This longing within us comes from the way he has designed us.

2. Serial displays the intricate threads of our humanity.

Koenig beautifully portrays Adnan as a real person – not necessarily the portrait of a murderer. She says herself that after talking to both Jay and Adnan, she doesn’t know what to believe: “Can you tell, really? Can you tell if someone has a crime like this in him?” she asks on the “Rumors” episode. Personable, charming, funny. But both are probably telling some lies. And at least one of them is probably a murderer. There is a Dr. Jekyll side that can be hidden underneath. The sinful side of all of us is capable of more than we could imagine. Yet the image of God is present in each individual, alongside the depravity of the human condition. Francis Schaeffer called people “glorious ruins.” John Calvin wrote that men have a “perverted and degenerate nature [yet] some sparks still gleam.”

We also begin to grasp the fallenness, the humanness, of the criminal justice system.  We are forced to ask some hard questions: is the job of a prosecutor simply to build a case on the facts that will lead to a conviction – even if those facts aren’t disclosing the truthfulness of the story? Did that happen here? Our systems are necessary yet imperfect, and I’m reminded that my trust cannot be in our human efforts, even though we still are called to strive for truth and justice. Serial shows the messiness of humanity this side of heaven.

3. Serial reveals our longing for resolution.

There is something in me that wants all of the puzzle pieces to fit together beautifully, to form a canvas of The Truth. I want to be able to distinguish all of the lies from what really happened and for the story to unravel cleanly. But most likely, we’ll never have that. And there’s some disappointment that comes with that.

Stories should have an ending, right? The Great Story, the story of humanity, does go somewhere, and its narrative is coherent and complete. Serial reminds me that the ultimate story has a perfect and good resolution. God will resolve every question of justice, and he will restore the world to be as he intended it to be. We will be completely satisfied at the end – but we don’t have that yet.

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