Monday, August 31, 2009

The Book in Hand – Losing My Religion, Part 1

.When I visit my public library, I usually stop at the new book shelf, where the library staff has assembled many of their newest acquisitions. Most often, I seek out titles I’ve never heard of, such as Timothy Brook’s engaging book Vermeer’s Hat, which I reviewed HERE. Sometimes, though, I end up choosing books I’ve heard about through reviews or interviews. That’s what happened recently, when I came home with Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace, a memoir published earlier this year by William Lobdell.

In this nicely-crafted book, Mr. Lobdell, a distinguished journalist, documents his journey toward spiritual and psychological maturity. Once a member of a mainstream Christian church, Mr. Lobdell experienced a “born again” conversion to evangelical Christianity during a low ebb in his personal and professional development. As his faith strengthened, he felt called to shift his professional focus from general journalism to exclusive coverage of religion, and he was able to obtain a satisfying position as religion reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, he was drawn to membership in the Catholic Church, the “mother” of all Christian churches. Coincident to his conversion classes, Mr. Lobdell was deeply involved in investigating and reporting the systematic sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the devastating repercussions of the Church’s largely-successful efforts to conceal the rapes and protect their employees (the priests) from prosecution.

Is it any surprise that Mr. Lobdell’s Christian faith and his new love for the Catholic Church diminished and eventually disappeared altogether? Well, of course not. To be honest, though, I was never convinced of the depth and authenticity of his faith, so I wasn’t surprised that it eroded so readily.

Now, when I question the authenticity of his belief, I don’t mean that his faith was not real for him; rather, I question its origin and how integral it was to his spiritual and psychological self. My doubts have their origin in Mr. Lobdell’s story of how he came to embrace hard-core evangelical Christianity. His conversion was not an impulse that originated within his heart or from his own spiritual seekings. Rather, it was the result of pressure from a friend who insisted that Mr. Lobdell “needed” stronger Christian faith. This “friend” essentially bullied him into attending a weekend mountaintop “retreat” where, unsurprising for one in a fragile emotional and spiritual condition, he was “swept away” (page 203) and succumbed to pressure from the group and its spiritual leader to be “born again.” His new-found faith seemed pasted on, and therefore was easily detached, disowned, and discarded once he learned more about the religious institutions in his life. That’s not a criticism; it’s just my observation.

Throughout his story, especially as he moved toward the Catholic Church, I sensed that Mr. Lobdell was choosing a religious life because it seemed the “right” thing to do, rather than living a life of faith inspired by a natural, irresistible belief in God. His faith, and his religion, seemed to be external moldings attached to his life rather than internal frameworks on which his life was built. He describes his quest, carried out in extensive research over a period of years, to find a Christian philosophy that suited his interests and leanings; as a result, he became attached to a series of saints and theologians, moving from one to another as his thinking evolved. On page 170, he described how during his years as a believer, he “gathered information about my faith from carefully written books, inspiring sermons, classes taught by and filled with fellow Christians, and well-choreographed church services.” He longed for the Catholic Church, confessing (on page 84) his attraction to the rituals and traditions of this sect, even though he admitted discomfort and even direct opposition to many of its doctrines to which he was supposed to adhere.

As it happened, he was deeply engaged in the catechism and indoctrination required for membership at the same time that he began to understand the enormity of the sexual perversions that the Catholic Church had hidden for centuries. It is no surprise, then, that when his investigations revealed the extent of the rottenness within the Catholic Church, his faith, which had rested so strongly on the institution, its leaders, and its traditions, was shaken and ultimately destroyed. He found that he had built his house on sand.

Jump to part two of this essay:

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