Why Serial Captivates Us

This year's most captivating, engaging, and talked about story isn’t a TV show, a book, or a movie; it’s a podcast called Serial. Even though Serial was only released back in October, it’s already the most downloaded podcast in history and considered by many to be the greatest podcast ever made.

But what is Serial?

According to their website:

Serial is a new podcast from the creators of This American Life, hosted by Sarah Koenig. Serial will follow one story - a true story - over the course of a whole season. We'll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won’t know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us.”

The first season of Serial investigates the 1999 conviction of Adnan Syed, a then-teenager from Baltimore, for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Sarah Koenig, the podcast's host, was drawn to the case because of conflicting stories surrounding the trial and a lack of physical evidence against Syed. And for the last eleven weeks, Koenig has dug up old court files, talked to dozens of involved parties, and worked her way (often in minute detail) through the case, much to the fascination of millions of listeners.

Serial has been dubbed “this year’s best crime drama” even though it doesn’t have any famous actors, professional screenwriting, love stories, or outlandish twists. So why is Serial so popular?

In The Stories We Tell, author and pastor Mike Cosper offers an answer:

“Storytelling—be it literature, theater, opera, film, or reality TV—doesn’t aim at our rational mind . . . It aims at the imagination, a much more mysterious and sneaky part of us, ruled by love, desire, and hope. When people, against their better judgment, find themselves hooked on a show, we can trace the line back to find the hook in their imagination. And as [philosopher James K.A. Smith] says, “When our imagination is hooked, we’re hooked.”

Serial has captured millions of imaginations because it's a powerful combination of truth and hope.

The Power of Truth

Serial is captivating because it is a true story. As Cosper writes,

“The storyteller’s raw material is the stuff of ordinary, everyday life: relationships, conflicts, love, loss, and suffering. Behind that raw material is the bigger picture of which we’re participants. We live in a world that was meant for glory, but is now tragically broken. We hunger for redemption, and we seek it in a myriad of ways.”

Serial deals with real people and tells stories that actually happened, which gives it an unmistakbly true and relatable quality.

The Hope of Resolution

Serial has also hooked readers because of how it taps into our basic hope for resolution and justice. Things are not as they should be and we are eagerly awaiting the day when all things on heaven and earth will be made new (Rev 21:5). The excitement that comes on Thursday (or “Serial listening day” as some have dubbed it) for Serial listeners is tied up in the hope that the case of Adnan Syed will be resolved. Serial listeners are longing for answers, and in doing so, reflect humanity’s universal longing for ultimate meaning and final resolution. What’s more, this universal longing is inextricably related to the gospel:

“The gospel tells us that life, indeed, is heading somewhere. There’s an end to the story, and it’s an end that by God’s grace can be an experience of the greatest good and the most satisfying glorification that we’ll ever know.

Only that embrace will truly satisfy us, in that moment when sin’s stain is removed and, as Lewis puts it, ‘The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.’

May we never settle for anything less.”

The Christian and Serial

Serial offers us insights into our culture’s longings, revealing God’s truth in the world around us. As Cosper reminds us, a story is never just a story—it’s a window into our gospel-shaped longings:

“As Christians living in the midst of these stories, we have an opportunity to both learn and bear witness. Stories teach us a lot about ourselves and our neighbors, and they provide windows into how our world is wrestling with the effects of the fall. They also present opportunities to respond with the truth. Just as Paul walked into the Areopagus and showed how a love song to Zeus was actually a cry out for the real, living God, we can look at the hope offered in the world’s stories as signposts to the true Hero of history.”

The season finale of Serial comes out tomorrow (12/18). If you’re listening, remember that the longing for resolution and the desire to know the truth are evidence that you were created by a God who will one day restore all things.

Nick Rynerson is a marketing & communications coordinator at Crossway. He is also a staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture.

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.