Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Book Review: Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace (2009).

Be careful what you pray for, you just might get it.

That's an ironic (if inadvertent) lesson of William Lobdell's Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace.

Lobdell prayed for over four years to get the religion beat at the Los Angeles Times.

He got the job. And lost his faith.

As a broader memoir, Lobdell begins well before his experience as a religion reporter and records how he became a professing Christian. Even though the "losing" aspect has been more celebrated, his "finding" of faith is just as rich.

Lobdell describes his conversion and growth into his Christianity with numerous Southern California references. For example, he talks about how his "best friend" (radio personality and author) Hugh Hewitt strongly encouraged him to investigate Christianity, and more particularly, to attend a men's retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains, where Lobdell had his "mountaintop conversion." He also chronicles his attendance at local churches, including Mariners Church in Irvine.

"By 1999, it had been seven years since my mountaintop conversion. I felt a growing muscularity to my Christianity. I was learning more and more about the Bible. I wanted to plunge deeper into belief, history and custom. I didn't need as much self-help as I had earlier; my life had long ago gotten out of intensive care and had stabilized. I started to feel claustrophobic at Mariners Church. The seeker-friendly services--which had drawn me so effortlessly back to Christianity--now seemed simplistic. I wanted to strip away the happy songs, the upbeat, black and white messages and the cappuccino machine. I wanted something more authentic, more raw, even. I was grateful of my time at Mariners, but I felt I had graduated. We stopped going as a family one day and slipped away. Nobody noticed. That was the blessing and curse of belonging to a mega-church. No one knows you've arrived and no one realizes when you've gone." (p. 54.)

Lobdell then attended St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. "With his booming baritone voice and sharp mind, [pastor] John [Huffman, Ph.D.] gave thought-provoking sermons with academic overtones for churchgoers who wanted to believe with both heart and mind." (p. 55.) Lobdell was more than a casual attender. "We started attending services in 1999 and put our three (soon to be four) boys in their youth programs, which they loved. We keep our tradition of attending church on Saturday evenings and stayed afterward for pizza and salad with friends. St. Andrew's also had a great Bible study on Wednesday evenings, along with a parallel children's program. Saturday and Wednesday evenings served as the tent poles of our family life." (p. 55.)

Thereafter, Lobdell began the process of converting to Catholicism. He attended "Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults classes." (p. 140.) Simultaneously, his work at the Times required him to investigate the Catholic sex abuse scandal which had a locus in Southern California. This tension wore on Lobdell. "Though I continued to work other religion stories, my editors wanted my primary focus to be the Catholic sex scandal. I began to live a dual life. By day, I investigated the local dioceses, dug up documents in courthouses, talked with a seemingly endless string of victims and interviewed bishops, their aides, attorneys and priests. In my off-hours, I put in my final months of training to become a Catholic."

Lobdell began to connect man's religious institutions with God. For example, Lobdell questions, "If an institution is corrupt, does that have any bearing on God? At the time, I thought the answer was obviously negative. But now I think I was wrong." (p. 136.) As these questions mounted, Lobdell asked Dr. Huffman if he would he would help. "I took John to dinner and told him about my crisis of faith. I asked him if I could email him some tough questions about Christianity. He agreed without hesitation. ...My questions were basic, verging on the cliched, but I desperately wanted some solid answers I could grasp so I could climb back up into my faith. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when He's never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord [sic]?" (p. 236.) Lobdell then reproduces their exchange (at least in part). (pp. 236-243.)

Lobdell's response to Dr. Huffman's gracious answers: "From a Christian perspective, his answers were nearly perfect. He was giving me the best Christianity had to offer, but I just didn't believe it anymore. I replied to John that though I appreciated his response, it was frustrating because I had seen too many innocent people live out lives full of tragedy and pain." (p. 240.)

It should be remembered this book is a memoir. It is not a philosophical or theological treatise (and doesn't indicate Lobdell delved into any with depth). As a result, it doesn't deal with great sophistication with the "problem of evil" or theodicy. Indeed, if Lobdell's reasons for leaving Christianity were his problems with certain religious institutions, such as the Catholic Church, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, or Benny Hinn, then he might be justified in distancing himself from them. However, he doesn't effectively bridge these complaints or concerns to an outright rejection of Christianity or even theism. Lobdell admits that his questions "verged on the cliched." (p. 236.) I think he's right, along with his conclusions. Nevertheless, Losing My Religion is a quick and engaging read that believers and nonbelievers could find beneficial.