The origins of Hinge, a popular podcast about faith, doubt, and the mystery of Jesus, go back to October 2015, when Drew Sokol, a pastor living in Los Angeles, heard an argument about intelligent design on a Christian radio show called Unbelievable.
Cory Markum, an atheist, was delivering a passionate defense of the theory of evolution, yet conceded that once he dug deeper into creationist ideology, there was "much more to it" than he'd thought.
Sokol, who had gone through a faith-shaking experience about a year earlier, felt compelled to track down the man on Facebook.
"I was just like, 'This guy would be a great conversation partner.' "
Facebook messages led to phone calls, and by 2017, the new friends had moved to Philadelphia, where they raised more than $20,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to fund their digital audio show. Within a week of its launch in December, Hinge had taken the No. 1 spot on the iTunes Religion & Spirituality charts. It has been downloaded more than 80,000 times, according to Sokol.
The 10-episode podcast merges narrative storytelling with conversations that explore faith and the lack thereof (think NPR's Invisibilia but about theology). In the first episode, Sokol, 32, tells his personal story about the unraveling of a belief that had shaped his life since childhood.
It happened on a Sunday morning in summer 2014 inside a Santa Monica high school where congregants of Pacific Crossroads Church gathered every week. Sokol, then an assistant pastor, was 10 minutes into a sermon about truth, standing on stage under the auditorium's bright lights with more than 800 people staring at him.
"I just had this feeling come over me: I don't believe this is true anymore and I'm telling all these hundreds of people right now how true this is and how they can build their lives on this truth," Sokol recalls in the podcast. "I started to think, none of this can be real. This feels fake to me."
He felt like a fraud, despite having worked 18 months on the pastoral staff of the Los Angeles-area Presbyterian church, completing in-depth scriptural study in Greek and Hebrew, and earning a theological degree required for pastoral leadership.
"I had no desire to finish this sermon," he said by phone. "On the outside I held it together, but on the inside I was having a complete existential crisis." As soon as he got off the stage, he broke into tears, went into the bathroom and threw up. He realized he didn't believe anymore.
Sokol, whose mother's home in New Orleans was destroyed by Katrina, was used to obstacles. Throughout his short tenure in a large church, he often stood face-to-face with a host of hardships that became his burden, silently eroding belief. There were deaths, suicides. A friend — a single mom, not even 40 years old, with two young daughters — was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When he prayed for them, he wondered: "Is there really this good and loving God when this mom and her two daughters are suffering like this?"
He was preaching about truth on the day his faith was shaken on stage. Nearly two years later, he would leave his job and follow his wife to Philadelphia, where she was accepted to grad school. Now, when he talks about that time, he refers to it as his "season of doubt."
"It kind of unraveled from there for about six to eight months, and eventually I kind of came back through a gradual process of recovering my faith," he said. "But it'll never quite look the same."
Sokol realized that to find something that will always be true requires a journey one must not take alone. For him, the path turned out to be public and antithetical. Enter Markum.
He grew up in Illinois in a nonpracticing Christian family where, Markum says, the existence of God was assumed. After a high school friend died in a car crash, he bristled at platitudes like "She's in a better place." He felt angry. "I was a 'militant atheist' and I wanted to argue and debate anyone that I could and prove them wrong."
What began as an angst-filled response to suffering deepened into an intellectual crusade. "Rather than wanting to burn the bridges down, my motivation was to build those bridges in the first place," says Markum, 31, who writes a blog on Atheist Republic. "I wanted to have conversations with people I disagreed with. I wanted to understand their viewpoints, even perhaps more than that, I wanted them to understand my viewpoints."
Markum and Sokol express an open-minded vulnerability not always heard among people who disagree about the existence of God or the divinity of the Bible. There's no feuding, no aggressive judgments. Hinge is not about two men trying to persuade each other to abandon his beliefs.
Sokol is still a pastor (now at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York). Markum is still an atheist. The podcast, streaming through March, is an open journal chronicling a search for answers and evidence, in which each host shares personal stories, as well as the experiences of others who find themselves at a turning point on the path of doubt to belief (or the other way around).
Creating a story-driven podcast was important to the pair, but they also load up on historical facts, interviewing hundreds of experts and regular folks "to explore the topics of doubt, identity and the real Jesus." Over 2.2 billion people believe in Jesus Christ, the world's largest religion, according to Pew Research Center. The philosophers-turned-podcasters want to know why people believe, as well as why they don't, and beyond that, whether or not proof exists for either side.
"One thing about the podcast that will become clear over the course of the season is I think we have a pretty good idea of why we go our own separate ways in terms of beliefs," Sokol says.
Sokol hopes to gain a complete picture of why they come to different beliefs when looking at the same set of facts. He believes they're even addressing a need in our society. "Especially as we entered this season of our culture where things just got so polemic and polarized," he says. "I'm a big believer that vulnerability and humility … [are the keys] to opening up conversation."