Losing Religion; Finding Art and More

    

Yesterday, my husband and I attended a book signing by former L.A. Times  journalist William Lobdel . The signing took place at a book store in historic Clinton, New Jersey .  The book (Lobdell’s first) is Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace . We were late for the noon event because we love Sunday worship so much, we were unwilling to skip it or tear ourselves away before communion as we’d planned. I note this because it illustrates how good people who go through similar crisis of faith often come out of them with very different conclusions. 

Lobdell’s book is dedicated to both his family (a wife and four sons) and those wounded by "the church." He and I lost our [investigative] religion journalism virginity simultaneously, though not collaboratively. We both thought we’d do God’s work by reporting on (or informing on) the seamier underbelly of American Christianity … only to find that corrupt subjects and their supporters often seemed empowered by the exposes’ written about them while we and their victims were accused of being tools of the devil.  

I read with interest his article on Trinity Broadcasting Network when I literally lived around the corner from the media giant’s world headquarters. I had visited the glittery venue myself for an essay on television indecency , and was consequently excoriated for inferior faith by Joni Lamb , one of TBN’s competitors. I noted Lobdell’s disillusionment with evangelists Greg Laurie and Franklin Graham when he wrote the L.A. Times  essay about his loss of faith  that led to Losing My Religion . Lobdell wondered how these and other reputable evangelicals regularly appeared on TBN despite the blatant charlatanism and allegations of sexual misconduct by its founder. I wonder about such things too. I wonder also what these evangelists and their Catholic counterparts think their role is in the deconversion of the Lobdells of this world.

During the Q&A, I asked about his wife, whom he followed from evangelicalism into Catholicism. He said that as he began to come home with increasingly egregious stories about her denomination, she too abandoned faith. As to their four children, I don’t know. One assumes their parents’ deconversion means something to them.

"Crunchy Con" Rod Dreher  also reported on the Catholic pedophilia scandals (as a Catholic) and later converted to Orthodoxy . Recently he opined that it may indeed be better for some scandals to remain hidden because exposure is so destructive to the faith of ordinary believers. I disagree with him for reasons Lobdell mentioned yesterday. Complicit silence breaks faith with victims, both those who speak up and those who don’t. As Christians, we are especially called to care for "widows and orphans"—in other words, those most vulnerable to abuse (James 1:27 ). We are also called to walk in the light (1 John 1:7 ); I take this to mean a commitment to truth, not lies.

Lobdell said that he’d inevitably be contacted by other alleged victims after his stories would run. They’d be particularly incensed if a perpetrator publicly downplayed his guilt. Dreher writes that he’s been tempted to report on Orthodox corruption, but has decided that his own and his family’s faith can’t handle it. This is a luxury many are not afforded: police officers, pastors, teachers, nurses, parents, other idealistic religion reporters. I trust that God will make right in the end that which is not made right in this world. I eagerly await the day when mercy and justice will visibly kiss. I know they did so on the Cross, but I long for faith to be made sight.

On the jacket of Lobdell’s book is an endorsement by John Huffman, chairman of the board of Christianity Today  and a hero of Lobdell’s. Huffman writes,

William Lobdell has written a heart/mind/soul-wrenching spiritual autobiography. He has been inspired by followers of Jesus who have served their Lord with integrity. But he has also been devastated by observing, up close, the ugly, sinful underbelly of a critical, self-serving, institutional and individual religion. This is a must-read filled with warnings and wake-up calls to those of us in leadership positions. I respect Bill for his honest reporting of his odyssey to this point and pray that someday there may be a future book, just as honest, with a grace-filled conclusion.

Lobdell said that before he lost his faith, he requested a change of assignment at the L.A. Times . He "couldn’t take another story." When he publicly confessed his deconversion, he expected criticism. Instead he received 3000 emails, the most his newspaper had ever received. Many of them expressed empathy and support. Mine was among them.

I’m glad to finally possess a copy of Losing My Religion . I think I’ll find it oddly comforting. Along with it, I’ve just begun reading Becky Garrison’s 2007 offering, The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail: The Misguided Quest to Destroy Your Faith . Garrison is another journalist who shines her spotlight on holy dirt. In this book she turned it outward. Lobdell doesn’t fit within her field of vision though. He is more a Materialist than an anti-Theist and, despite the blazing A  logo on his blog, he sounds more pink agnostic than bright red atheist. Could there yet be a reconversion sequel in his future? Believing supporters are praying so. If our prayers evaporate unanswered, no harm done, right Bill?

In addition to these atheist tomes that coordinate nicely with A Secular Age , I’m reading a book Christianity Today editor-at-large Rob Moll sent me some months back. Rob and I became friends after he wrote an expose’ on my former church group  and was excoriated for it in the blogosphere. We lost our Christian [investigative] journalistic virginity together on that one. Although he’s much too young for such a heavy topic, Rob is now writing a book about Christian dying that will no doubt be excellent. His research led him to send Jeff and me Walter Wangerin Jr.’s Mourning into Dancing . I find most grief books beside the point, but I do pick this one up sporadically and glean some comfort from this pastor’s experience with those who’ve suffered devastating loss. Anger and disillusionment are common features of grief. People of faith cannot thrive there though. Nor can they thrive in a religious gutter. It’s good for them us to climb out and breathe air that’s fresh and clean.

I felt on the verge of tears through much of Lobdell’s talk. His story tapped into a place of deep pain for me. The betrayal. The lost idealism. The impact on my family (with loss of hope and life rather than collective loss of faith). He described the molestation victims he had gotten to know through his work as having "hollowed out souls." I resonate with that description. My mother and I were talking recently about that part of us that died with Gabe. How, in some measure, we’re just biding our time now until this life is over. Lobdell believes that when it’s over, it’s over. There will be no reunions. No justice. No mercy. I find those thoughts both unbearable and untenable. Unbearable for obvious reasons, untenable because there is too much mystery and beauty in the world to believe it has no ultimate meaning.

After the book signing and a simple, satisfying lunch of lentil soup and egg white/asparagus/Swiss cheese omelet, Jeff and I happened upon the Hunterdon Art Museum , which is housed in an old stone mill. The building itself is a work of art and the "Cutters" exhibit was literally inspiring. When we came home and showed our son photos of the various cut paper and steel art objects, he got out the previously neglected daily origami calendar I had bought him for Christmas and produced a collection of his own. I was thus prompted to thank God not only for art, but for honesty, comraderie and faith. These are gifts that science may describe, but which it cannot explain. Sorry Bill.

 

Update: The Library Journal description of Mourning into Dancing as found on Amazon.com :

Wangerin, a Christian minister and imaginative theological writer, provides a splendid description of death, grief, and the feelings of those who mourn the separation. Wangerin includes four types of death: the primal fall or original sin over which human relationship with God was broken; the numerous "deaths" we each suffer on earth, as typified by the biblical story of the prodigal son; individual bodily death; and "dying absolute," or spiritual death. His primary focus, however, is the small deaths in daily life as typified by one family’s grief. Wangerin depicts human feeling convincingly; his theology that all death is related to the first (primal fall and original sin) supports his hopeful and confident faith in the purpose of grief as leading to renewal, healing, and resurrection. For public and seminary libraries.

Update 4/8/09: My review of Losing My Religion is here, at Her.meneutics .

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