I enjoyed this book immensely. William Lobdell is an award-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times, and formerly covered the "religion beat" for that paper. In this book he tells his personal story of moving, over a 20-year period, from becoming a "born again" Christian at age 28, through gradual disillusionment, and ultimately to complete unbelief. In doing so, he draws heavily upon interviews and research he conducted during that time as a journalist reporting on religion-related stories. These stories revealed aspects of religion as actually practiced in America, uncovering behind-the-scenes activities that are less-than-flattering, to put it charitably.
Lobdell begins his book writing "By age 27, I had screwed up my life." If not as poetically expressed as the opening of Dante's Inferno, he has still set the stage for a personal odyssey through Christian faith, slowly increasing doubt, and ultimate abandonment of those beliefs. At this personal low point at the beginning, he met an old friend who told him that what he needed was God. Lobdell promised to go to church. He had been exposed to Christianity and church as a child, but had been turned off by the vengeful nature of the Old Testament God, and he abandoned religion as a teenager. Now, perhaps out of desperation to salvage his life, he found a home at a southern California megachurch, where the message was much more positive and life-affirming. Still, it took him a year to really begin to feel at home there and get into the spirit of the worship services, the music in particular. At about this time, some good things began to happen to him, such as becoming the editor-in-chief of a local newspaper, and improved health. The tipping point for Lobdell came at a spiritual retreat he went to at the urging of a friend, where in a moment of emotion he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and savior. Things really began to take off in his personal and professional life after that. The most remarkable event was receiving a $45,000 check from a former boss, whose conversion to Christianity made him realize he had probably cheated Lobdell out of a fair share of his magazine company when he sold it. What made it seem amazing was that Lobdell had prayed to receive that amount of money, and now God had apparently answered his prayer!
The real break, which he also attributed to God's intervention, was a job as religion writer that was created for him at the Orange County Edition of the Los Angeles Times. He interviewed many people of faith and documented how their lives had been transformed by the miracle of God's love. Some of the selflessness of his subjects rubbed off on him. He began tithing. He was inspired by those whose faith in God was not diminished by personal tragedy. His personal fortunes increased again when he became the full-time religion writer for the Los Angeles Times.
In November 2000, Lobdell first learned of a lawsuit against a Catholic priest, Fr. Michael Harris, who was accused of sexual abuse. At the time, the story did not seem particularly like something he wanted to pursue. He was busy interviewing people like billionaire Henry Samueli and Pastor Rick Warren. He also wrote feature articles on the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Judaism, and was impressed with their single-minded dedication to God. But he also wrote about corruption in Christian author Hank Hanegraaf's radio ministry.
He felt himself moving in the direction of Catholicism as his faith deepened. But even as this was happening, the case of Fr. Harris reared its head again as a settlement was to be announced. As Lobdell studied the documents and interviewed people, a picture began to take shape of widespread sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, the cover-ups by the Church, and the blind loyalty (or avoiding cognitive dissonance) of parishioners who refused to accept that their priest could do such things. He considered this story a "spiritual body blow" whose effect on his faith he would not feel until later.
Lobdell also felt attracted to Mormons, because they "believed deeply in their faith despite its challenges to rationality," a position with which he could empathize. He realized that the Bible itself, with its apparent contradictions and inaccuracies, was itself a challenge to rationality that could be overcome only by a heavier dose of faith. But at the same time, he got to know some ex-Mormons, and learned how severely they had been ostracized--cast into outer darkness--by the LDS church. He thought that wasn't a very Christian thing to do.
As a result of going deeper and deeper into the Catholic sex scandals, Lobdell began to have doubts about religion. These were first manifested by his deferring the decision to become a Catholic, and by ceasing to attend church regularly, then by not going at all. Why was it so hard to hear God's "gentle whisper" and follow His ways in the face of doubt? But in the midst of this doubt, he began also to obsess about Hell and the thought that he might be headed there--even though he wasn't quite sure that Hell exists at all. He was more certain of Satan's existence and his influence in the world. He began to think that God wanted him to become a healer of the Church--through his investigative reporting, he would force the Church to face up to the corruption within.
In 2003 Lobdell met Ole E. Anthony, a man of strong faith whose life passion is exposing fraudulent televangelists. Lobdell also interviewed one of the biggest (and wealthiest) of the televangelists, Benny Hinn, and investigated the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which programmed the Hinn shows. The story he wrote about Hinn, however, did nothing to tarnish the latter's reputation or income. And his hope that the TBN expose would bring needed reforms also came to nothing. As a result, he came to the conclusion that God had in fact not called him to root out the church's corruption. Lobdell was beaten down by people who couldn't allow the truth to weaken their blind faith in their religious leaders, and by people who were so deeply entrenched in their organizations that they risked their livelihood if they were to speak out.
Even after all this, Lobdell still wanted to salvage his battered faith, and against his better judgment allowed his best friend of a dozen years to talk him into attending a men's spiritual retreat. But it didn't help--amidst the testimonies, prayer, and music, he felt like a stranger in a strange land. Still searching for ways to rekindle his faith, Lobdell considered recreating some of the spiritual journeys of saints; but he would not do so before finding some evidence that Christians as a group were "measurably different" from other people. To his surprise, he learned that they are not. He also learned that well-conducted studies show that prayer doesn't work. This led him to consider--I think for the first time--that perhaps the reason God doesn't regenerate limbs, heal the terminally ill, prevent natural disasters, etc., is that He doesn't exist!
Lobdell tells of three more events that drove the final nails into the coffin of his Christian faith. The first was a visit to St. Michael Island, Alaska, where Joseph Lundowski, a Catholic missionary, systematically abused all the Alaskan Native boys in the town over an 8-year period. Following this, Lobdell realized that he no longer believed in a personal God, but he faced an abyss without the comfort of God and the church to bolster him up.
The second was seeing Julia Sweeney's monologue "Letting Go of God." As he listened, he felt that he truly had been through many of the same mental and spiritual struggles that Sweeney had. The words that hit home the most to him were when Sweeney said that ultimately she had to accept "what was true over what I wished were true." The play had changed his perspective from one of irreconcilable loss to the serenity of being free from an illusion.
But he was still a religion reporter. Following his last story, on the trial of Father Uribe, he realized that he could no longer find fulfillment in religion reporting, even of the investigative type. This was the final straw. He started to work on getting a new job with the paper.
One thing remained--how to tell his story? That is the subject of the final chapter.
For me, the book was a very honest look back on Lobdell's entry into Christianity. It describes his early successes and feelings of growing in his faith and continues through the beginnings of doubt and his attempts to dispel it. It climaxes on the final crumbling of his belief system and the void it left until he realized that, like Julia Sweeney, he need not feel empty as a human being without God at all, but rather liberated from the bonds of an illusion. While at times I wanted him to cut short the narratives about sexually abusive priests and phony evangelists, I understand that those narratives are important to him and were necessary to flesh out the picture of his 20-year journey from believer to non-believer.
This is an important book that both believers and non-believers can learn from. Thanks, Bill.