Usually when I review books here on the blog they are one of two or three types: books on preaching, books which have been sent to me gratis with the request that I review them, or some things I have written myself.
Tonight I finished a book that has really made me think (which is a good thing!). It is “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace” (NY: Collins, 2009) by William Lobdell.
Lobdell was for many years a religion writer for the Los Angeles Times. He was not raised in the church, but at a very difficult time in his twenties, after a very painful divorce, was introduced to (and “accepted”) Christ. He took the path that I have recommended over and over to new believers…small group Bible studies, personal study, accountability groups, regular worship, finding a ministry to serve God. Bill Lobdell believed that his journalistic career was his spiritual gift. By using journalism, he could expose people to the benefits of faith in God (and further down his journey, he believed God had put him in this position to clean up the church through his journalistic endeavors). “For such a time as this” as Mordecai told Queen Esther.
Lobdell travelled a spiritual journey from the Mariners Church in southern California, (where he had accepted Christ, but as he grew in his faith he saw it as “too simplistic”) to St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA (a compromise between Bill and his Catholic wife, Greer) to being literally the night before he was to be baptized as a Catholic after a year of catechism. He backed out, because by the time his baptism was about to happen, his faith in God and the Church had pretty well been destroyed. To be baptized in the Catholic church seemed a betrayal of all of the victims of the church with whom Bill Lobdell had come in contact.
Several streams came together to overwhelm Lobdell’s faith:
The biggest of those was reporting on the Catholic priest sexual child abuse cases that have filled the papers over the past decade or so. Lobdell was at the forefront of the reporting on this great tragedy. Seeing the evil to which an amazing number of priests would stoop, and in so doing damage some of the most innocent members of their flock disgusted Lobdell (as it should all of us). But even worse than that was the cavalier and self-protective attitude of the priests’ superiors. The lies and the manipulation that was used to cover up the heinous behavior almost seemed worse (if that was possible) than the behavior of the child-molesting priests.
(My favorite Lobdell account was the one about the Archbishop here in Portland who defended a priest who had impregnated a young unemployed woman 13 years before. The Archbishop said that the pregnancy was the result of “the woman’s own negligence” because she had failed to use birth control. The irony of an archbishop chastising a woman for not using birth control, which is considered a mortal sin in Catholicism, was not lost on Lobdell).
He writes (as he discussed with his wife Greer, the extreme pain that this reporting was doing to his own mental & spiritual health), “Unbeknownst to us, it was leading to skepticism. We would find, in fact, a deep connection between faith in the church and faith in God.” (p. 145)
But Lobdell’s beat was not limited to Catholic priests. His religion responsibilities took him into the world of TBN (Paul & Jan Crouch) and Benny Hinn. The corruption of TBN and Hinn (and other evangelists like them) would make even Bernie Madoff blush.
Ironically, some of the most “moral” people Lobdell met were Mormons. But the belief system of Mormonism so lacks intellectual credibility that Lobdell wondered at the herd mentality of those who buy into it.
Bill Lobdell was asked to speak at one Mormon gathering, at a time when recently discovered scientific evidence pointed to the fact that the American Indians (whom Mormonism teaches are part of the lost tribes of Israel) have no genetic similarity to anyone from the Middle East, but are genetically similar to Asians. This genetic evidence simply destroys a basic tenet of Mormon “history” and theology. When confronted with the evidence, at least one of the speakers angrily declared “After we have been defeated and all our stories proven untrue, we will perhaps come to know the more important reason and the only question that ever is—not whether the histories are true, but whether we are true to our stories.”
Lobdell’s observation was that the speaker resorted to “a smokescreen of angry rhetoric, biting humor, sarcasm and clever phrases. I suspect [the speaker], like most of his Mormon brothers and sisters, believed his religion had a good thing going—the church members loved each other, looked after those who had fallen on hard times, raised good families—and he didn’t need outsiders, or science, to cast doubts on the operation. Mormonism worked, so leave it along. If too many people chipped away at it, if too much truth were revealed, the foundation that [he] and other Mormons built their life upon might give way.” (p. 282)
Earlier in the book, after listing out the bizarre and self-contradictory teachings of the book of Mormon and the “go with the winds of the moment” theological changes Mormon leaders have made doctrinally, Lobdell noted:
At the time I didn’t see any parallel between the Mormon’s fidelity to the claims in the Book of Mormon and my allegiance to the New Testament which included stories of a virgin birth, water turning into wine, two people rising from the dead, a coin to pay a temple tax bring found in a fish’s mouth, Jesus walking on water, five loaves of bread and two fish feeding 5,000 families, and Jesus and his apostles curing people of crippling and fatal illnesses. And that’s just the New Testament. The Hebrew scriptures talk about a global flood, people living well into their hundreds, a parted sea, a vast exodus not yet found in the archaeological record, bread falling from heaven daily for 40 years and a man living three days inside a whale before being spit out. The details of Mormonism are fresher, but not much more strange and mythical. I just happened to have grown up with the stories of the Bible. I was more used to them. (pp. 126-127)
Was there much difference between between the absurdity of Scientologists and their sacred E-Meters that allegedly trace the emotions of adherents, the Mormons and their belief that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, and the Jews and Christians and their belief that the sound of trumpets caused the fortified walls of Jericho to come rumbling down? (p. 271)
But the stumbling block that finally shipwrecked Lobdell’s faith was the behavior of traditional Christians themselves. What troubled Bill Lobdell (as it should trouble those of us in leadership responsibilities in the church) was the utter lack of impact that faith in God seems to have on the morality of (at least American) Christians. He notes the oft-quoted findings of George Barna, the Pew Research Center & the Gallup poll:
“Christians divorce at about the same rate as or even at slightly higher rate than atheists. White evangelical Christians are more racists than others. Evangelicals take anti-depressants at about the same rate (7%) as others. Non-Christians are more likely to give money to a homeless or poor person in any given year (34%) than are born-again Christians (24%). Born-again Christians are taught to give 10% of their money to the church or charity, but 95% of them decline to do so. The percentage of Christian youth infected with sexually transmitted diseases is virtually the same as the rate among their non-Christian counterparts.” (p. 205)
If God and faith cannot even get those who claim to be his most devoted followers to do what he teaches, is he really that powerful? If God cannot or will not protect the most susceptible members of society, but instead allow those who claim to represent him to be some of the biggest offenders and abusers, what kind of power can this god really have?
Lobdell (pictured, left) had an e-mail correspondence with his former pastor at St. Andrews, John Huffman, and he duplicates much of the correspondence in the book. Huffman doesn’t shy away from Bill’s hard questions, but in the end Lobdell isn’t buying any of it.
Finally, Lobdell, after realizing that he had totally lost his faith in God and the Church asked to be reassigned off of the religion beat and wrote an article for the LA Times chronicling his journey from faith to “reluctant atheist” or, at best, deist. He stated his motivation for the article (and, by extension, for the book):
“The darkest part of my heart wanted to show, in a very public way, how people who identified themselves as Christians had driven me away from a faith I loved. If someone with my desire for God could come away disillusioned by faith, then Christianity in its present form was in trouble,and someone should point that out to believers. I felt a little like the kid who declared that the emperor had no clothes, though I had no illusion that my revelation would open the eyes of others. It would be enough just to speak up for myself.” (p. 262)
So, why have I spent so much time detailing this book and why did I read it in the first place? Because I believe that there are many people in the church who are in the same position as Lobdell, but they have not had the courage or opportunity to simply walk away. Or there are even more (like me) who have seen the behavior of people who claim the name of Christ and yet act in ways that Christ would find abhorrent and who wonder, “Is it really worth the effort?”
If the Christian faith is true (which I am convinced that it is), then the matters that trouble Lobdell need to be seriously addressed by the church. Simply yelling claims that he was “never a believer in the first place”, or that he is “just looking at humans and not looking at God”, or “those problems are just limited to the Catholic church” are not adequate.
Grappling with the issues is the only way that the church can begin the long process of regaining credibility with people like Lobdell and the hundreds of thousands (millions?) like him, who do not have the pulpit of a world-class newspaper to broadcast their views.
I don’t have a lot of answers. I am very sad for Bill Lobdell. I am, however, also hopeful. On the back jacket of the book was a quote by John Huffman, Lobdell’s former pastor. In part Huffman says, “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.”
That is my prayer as well. For William Lobdell and for many, many others as well.