A little while ago, my friend Justin gave me a book to read. “Read this,” he said. “It’s kind of messing me up a bit. I want you to read it and tell me what you think.”
This worried me. You see, Justin is one of my favorite people in this world. There are certain people in this world who I think are made of the same fabric. That’s Justin and I. He and I think very similarly about life and faith. We’re followers of Jesus for nearly the same reasons. Our stories, our backgrounds and our personalities are eerily similar and the things that drive us UP THE WALL about Christians the Church are also nearly identical. If I were Filipino, and could dance, I would swear we were related.
So when he said this book was “messing with him” I knew I had to read it.
Outsiders vs. Insiders
Now, I’ve read lots of books critical of Christianity. Some are written by “outsiders” who point out some glaring faults with religious systems. They really dislike church, and think the world would be better if most religious people just stopped breathing.
Some of these books are written by “insiders” who are equally critical, but from a reformer’s perspective. They love the Church, and want to see it live up to its ideals. They see the problem as a cancer that can and should be excised. Both groups throw stones, many of which are well-deserved.
That being said, I don’t tend to sympathize with the “outsiders” very much. As Augustine once said, the church might be a whore, but she is my mother. And you don’t talk about someone’s mother that way. The sense of disrespect from those outside the community of faith was too palpable. The anti-religious tenor of their works dismissed religious people using broad – and unfair strokes. They dismissed me so I felt justified – to a certain extent – in dismissing them.
Plus, anyone who makes blanket statements like, “religion is mythology” and “the world is better off without religion” is reframing human history in an inaccurate way. Their thinking is off. I’m not sure they’re to be trusted.
Like people who really like country music.
This was most decidedly NOT the story of William Lobdell.
Born To Write This Stuff
A brief background on Lobdell.
1. While in his late 20s, Lobdell faced a crisis in his own life. He was directionless, his marriage was in shambles, he was drinking and partying to avoid responsibility and to numb out on the pain of his own life.
2. A close friend talked to him about Jesus, and he started attending church
3. There, he encountered not only people of faith, but a story about a God who loved him and wanted to help him put his life back together.
4. Thirsty for more information about this God, he attended Bible studies for many weeks and months, listening to powerful, effective evangelical Pastors teach him everything they knew about the Bible.
5. He was in a men’s group, and attended men’s retreats where guys talked about their failings, and how Jesus could help them.
6. He thought hard about tough issues.
7. He read all the Christian classic books. Their arguments made sense to him, or at least, put forth a legitimate world view.
8. He finally gave his life to Jesus.
9. He attended church for years and was a member of an evangelical mega-church which he liked very much.
10. So did his kids.
11. He started thinking about his own life and purpose.
12. He realized as a journalist, there was a gaping hole in the LA Times’ coverage of religion.
13. Most religion reporters didn’t understand faith, or matters of faith, or people of faith.
14. Lobdell came to think that he could use his considerable mind and considerable writing talents to write about religion and cover matters of faith for the LA Times community.
15. Additionally, since the LA Times was filled with reporters and editors who were mostly unreligious or even anti-religious, it was an opportunity to not only balance out coverage of religious things in the Times, but also change the culture of the newsroom with his colleagues.
16. While covering religion during the mid-90s, Lobdell won several national journalism awards.
17. Lobdell began thinking that his purpose in life, the reason he was made by God, was to cover religion in an intelligent and sensitive manner for his community.
18. He encountered many stirring people of faith who did (and have done) many incredible things.
19. His own faith in God continued to grow and develop as he wrote story after story about how religion intersected the real world in powerful and profound ways.
That’s Me In The Corner
The point is, Lobdell was most decidedly an “insider.” As I read the opening chapters, I realized that I trusted this guy. He understood things. If he had something to say about Christianity and Jesus, then I was going to listen.
Which is why it surprised me, on page 213, after this long and stirring journey that was markedly similar to mine, that Lobdell stopped believing.
Right there on page 213.
Why Lobdell Lost His Faith
There were a number of reasons why Lobdell lost his faith.
Reason 1: He saw that Christians, as a group, don’t really act any differently than anyone else.
As a religion reporter and a Christian, Lobdell wanted to see that people were changed in a fundamental ways by their belief in Jesus. The Apostle Paul makes a number of claims in the New Testament about someone who chooses to follow Christ. One of them is that “you will be transformed.”
Yet, the more he studied it, the more Lobdell found that Christians (as a group) behave nearly identical to their non-Christian or non-religious counterparts. This has been widely documented by a number of researchers, most notably George Barna:
- Those who call themselves Christians are no more likely than non-Christians to correct the mistake when a cashier gives them too much change.
- Those who call themselves Christians are just as likely to have an elective abortion as a non-Christian
- Those who call themselves Christians divorce at the same rates as those who don’t consider themselves Christians.
In all, when the Barna Research Group did a survey of 152 separate different items comparing the general population to those who self-identify as Christians, they found virtually no difference in attitudes, in behaviors or actions.
Christian scholar Ronald J. Sider, in his 2007 book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” which won Christianity Today’s coveted “Book of the Year” award had this to say:
Whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a Biblical worldview, the polling data point to widespread, blatant disobedience of clear Biblical demands on the part of the people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians. The statistics are devastating.
The issue isn’t whether Jesus is true. It’s whether Americans are willing to put Jesus first in the lives.
The answer, overwhelmingly, is “no.”
Reason 2: He saw, first-hand, perhaps more than any other person alive, the evil perpetuated and then covered up by the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal.
If you are having doubts about God, you don’t want to find yourself on St. Michael Island, Alaska, where a single Catholic missionary raped an entire generation of Alaska native boys. You don’t want to find yourself in 12-step support groups filled with people whose emotional lives have been destroyed by abuse at the hands of clergy they trusted. You don’t want to hear the graphic stories.
But even more, you don’t want to go digging into the details about how the Catholic Church not only had full-knowledge of these predatory priests, but actively took steps to cover-up the abuses, quietly shuttling off the “offending priests” to other diocese, where the same cycles happened again.
This is the kind of thing that can give you serious doubts about those who act in the name of Christ. And yet – this is exactly what Lobdell did. He wrote story after story about the abuses. He career was defined and he won multiple journalism awards for his coverage of the scandal.
But this kind of thing takes its toll. An example. One of the chief prosecutors on the case was John “Mad Dog” Manly. His job was to track down witnesses and victims, then gather reports and testimony from people who had been abused to build a case against the Catholic diocese. Listening to story after story about these cases had long-term affects on Manly’s personal life.
His blood-pressure spiked to dangerously high levels. He couldn’t sleep at night. He descended into depression and a deep, seething anger that nearly ruined his family. He fled to alcohol and found no relief. While driving down the Pacific Coast Highway one day, Manly began planning how he would kill himself. He began working out the details, until he suddenly realized what he was doing. That realization scared him into an intensive, multi-year counseling program that saved his career, his family and his life. But it couldn’t save his faith.
When you spend that much time with that much darkness, you might have a hard time believing that there is really a God who cares. And this is what slowly happened to Lobdell.
Reason 3: Prayer of Righteous People Didn’t Seem to Work
The major issue that Lobdell wrestled with is “why don’t the prayers of righteous people cause bad situations to change?”
In the Book of Matthew, in the 21st Chapter, Jesus says, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
So why, Lobdell, kept asking himself, didn’t God do more physical intervention on Earth to help those who desperately needed His help? Psalm 97 says:
Let those who love the Lord hate evil,
for he guards the lives of his faithful ones
and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
So why didn’t that happen? Why weren’t the people he was interviewing who had been abused by agents of the church get protected?
Lobdell’s faith was shaken to even more extreme levels after the tsunami in 2004, in which 225,000 people died. People who survived thanked God for His providence. But what about the quarter-million people who died and God didn’t help?
For Lobdell, this was a deal-breaker of trust. It showed, statistically, that God really doesn’t show up to help His children.
And so there, on page 213, Lobdell lost his faith. A 10-year journey with God terminated in a dead-end. God was made up. He wrote:
It was becoming harder and harder for me to fit my idea of a loving, personal God into the reality of the world in which I lived. The simplest explanation kept boomeranging back to me: there was no God.
My Letter To William Lobdell
I wanted to say thank you for writing your book Losing My Religion. You are a skillful writer, and I found your honesty utterly refreshing. I don’t know if this matters to you as an author, but I found your story so compelling that I read the book in one sitting, highlighter in one hand, diet Coke in the other. I was hating life when my daughter woke up at 7:30 the next morning and I had to get up with her, but the book was so provocative that I didn’t mind.
Thank you for your transparency in telling the story of your faith
It’s funny: your memoir was so deeply personal that I felt as though I got to know you. This was fundamentally one-sided, of course. You don’t know me from Adam. So I guess, for this scenario, I’m Stan and you’re Eminem (only without the whole “drive the car off the bridge” thing).
So a few things about me. I’m a pastor at a pretty large non-denominational church in San Jose. I’m 39 years old. I’m married, and I have two kids. For four years in college, I worked at the campus newspaper, both as a reporter and an editor, and so I have a deep love for journalism. And I read your book. So I think I’m probably in a rare sub-set of people: pro-journalist Christian pastor who enjoyed reading a book about a guy who lost his faith in Jesus.
I wanted to write to you for three reasons:
1. Because I felt a connection to your journey, I wanted to articulate how much your book resonated with me and how much I appreciated it.
2. Because I wanted to offer some encouragement to you (in case you think that there are no religious people who “get you” or understand your situation).
3. Because I wanted to make a personal promise to you in light of your book and its themes.
The Last Thing The World Needs
As a pastor, the bulk of my life’s energies are spent attempting to convince people to take Jesus and his teachings seriously. This is very difficult, and the vast majority of people in my city decide not to follow the teachings of Jesus. Jesus makes many demands on our lives. “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found untrue,” the great British humorist G.K. Chesterton once said, “It’s that it’s been tried and found difficult.”
I lament (as you did) that so many people who self-identify with the name “Christian” live so cavalierly in direct disobedience of the teachings of the Bible and Jesus. In fact, I have largely stopped using the word “Christian” and I have stopped inviting people to be “Christians” without first explaining what this actually means.
Perhaps the word “Christian” has changed and morphed so that it no longer means “to live like Jesus.” It does not mean to sacrifice everything you are to see God’s dreams fulfilled. As it stands now, the behavior of non-Christians and those who profess to be Christians is not different. Who would want to be associated with that? The last thing the world needs is more Christians. It needs me (and all others who identify as followers) to take our creeds and lives more seriously.
A Reason, Not an Excuse
I wanted to offer you a reason for this. Not an excuse, mind you, but a reason. I think that the main reason for this is poor leadership within the church. You saw, in your time reporting for the LA Times, utterly atrocious leadership. Although I’ve never seen anything like this, I do know that the church has not always called its people and challenged its people the way that Jesus did. Jesus simply said, “Follow Me.” And they did. And the world was changed.
The Church needs to be better at proclaiming the messages and challenges of Jesus. There is much need for improvement in the American church in this area. Ghandi once said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” Even Richard Dawkins said that he wanted to start a group “Athiests for Jesus. So your observation that Christians are unlike Christ is an important one. This is also a great passion of mine, and one to which I will probably devote my life.
A Dream Deferred
One more thought, I came out to California in 2001 as part of Teach For America which recruited me from Ohio to teach in an under-resourced, under-performing high school in the San Jose Unified School District. I worked in a very difficult environment, professionally. Our school had a large number of students who were what I’d call actively resistant to learning. They’d had so many bad experiences with school and with teachers that they viewed school as only slightly less oppressive than prison.
And yet, there I was. In front of 30 chairs filled with 30 different students every hour on the hour, attempting to get them to care about American Literature. Or about literature or art in general. Or about themselves and their own minds and thoughts. Or about their own education.
This was a very tough job. And I didn’t often succeed. Most of my students never read a page of “Huckleberry Finn” or completed their essay on a personal epiphany.
But just because – by and large – I was unable to motivate the majority of my students to succeed or take themselves and their academic future seriously does not mean that the task was not worthwhile. Nor does it mean that the few who decided to run with me were not irrevocably changed. This is what teachers – and pastors – hang onto during the lean times. Just because so few follow doesn’t mean that the adventure isn’t breath-taking.
Life with Jesus really is incredible. If I were your friend, I’d continue to repeat this mantra as often as you’d let me.
A Question For You
Secondly, I wanted to ask you more personal question. It revolves around your profession as a journalist. I have always had a soft spot for journalism. All through college, my second home was the campus newspaper where I was both a reporter and an editor. I interned for a number of major newspapers, and always fancied myself being a good reporter.
In marriage, therapists sometimes talk about “disproportionate focus” where you spend all your time and energy focusing on what’s wrong with your mate. You fixate on the 15 percent that’s wrong instead of the 85 percent that’s right. And in the process, your perspective gets skewed.
I don’t mean to oversimplify, but I wonder if your experience with the Catholic Abuse Scandal was like that for you. It seems to me that you descended into the depths of human wickedness and spent a good deal of time there. Your friend and colleague John “Mad Dog” Manly nearly lost his sanity because of the same situation.
I wonder if that’s what caused you to lose your faith. In my profession, I see a lot of the bad stuff, but I also see some glorious moments. It’s probably about 70/30. But that 30 percent keeps me going. I wonder if in the process of becoming non-religious, you didn’t find those people or those moments, or if you stopped looking for them or if they were overshadowed.
I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m attempting to come up with a “pat answer” for why you lost your faith. I just wondered if you had any further perspective on it. You said in your book that faith wasn’t a choice…it was just something that wasn’t in you anymore. I just wondered if your experience being mired in that muck was something you considered a causal agent.
A Personal Promise to You
I wanted to do one last thing. It seemed only appropriate to do so, in light of your book. For me, by far, the most jarring and powerful paragraph in your book came on page 103, where you describe your battle with newspaper editors to use more graphic and accurate descriptions.
I learned that the media’s terms “sexual abuse” and “molestation” were far too neutral to describe what happened to most of these people. The church had even shied away from those terms, preferring instead such Orwellian language as “boundary violation” and “inappropriate conduct.”
The more descriptive words in my copy were always changed….I just think that the very idea of priests sodomizing a boy on an altar until he defecates, or plunging an aspersorium, used to sprinkle holy water, into a girl’s vagina, or a little boy hiding his bloody underwear from his mother was too much for even jaded journalists to consider.”
This paragraph made me weep. I had – for all the accounts I read of the scandal – never heard it put that way.
I believe that I felt – for a mere second – what you must have felt like for months and months.
So I wanted to make this promise to you. Because you were brave enough to write those words, I want to honor that with a promise to you.
Twice in my time volunteering with youth in the church and serving as a Pastor, I have encountered situations where teenagers have approached me in confidence about being sexually abused by adults. Twice, I have worked with the families and the local authorities to not only get immediate help for the victim through family and individual counseling, but also have worked with local law enforcement agencies to bring the offending parties to justice. Twice, I’ve testified or submitted signed affidavits and legal testimony. Twice, predatory adults were brought to justice and put behind bars. Twice, as a result of the trial, scores of other victims came forward and were finally able to begin the healing process themselves.
My promise to you is this: as a pastor, I have worked hard and will always continue to work hard to create a climate where two things are always happening:
- I will recruit highly moral, highly relational, background-checked adults who are willing to do the necessary leg-work to make sure that we all have built enough trust with teenagers that they are comfortably approaching us about any issue and that
- Those adults will see it as our sacred charge (by God) to protect our students and be an advocate for them.
As a result of seeking to create these two conditions, two sexual predators are behind bars. I’m not saying I’m a hero – the real courageous ones are the students who come forward – but I am saying that it’s possible for the church to act in precisely the way that honors the teachings of Jesus – in the exact opposite way that the Catholic Diocese acted.
My church is also filled with people and run by pastors and volunteers who consider themselves “mandated reporters of the law” and who view their role legally as agents of the state in cases of abuse. Our job is not to investigate the validity of the claims, but simply report to agencies that do investigate. We’ve done this many times as a staff and as a church.
We will continue to do so. That’s my promise to you. I need you to know that your outrage over the inaction of the Catholic Church is shared by me (and all of our pastors). We share that deeply held conviction with you. It’s important for me that you know that.
One Final Note
Lastly, you wrote in your book (on page 213) about a certain cognitive dissonance, where you couldn’t reconcile the pain you were seeing with the idea of an all-loving God. I feel as though page 213 is where you finally “lost your religion.”
I wonder if you have ever read the book “The Shack” by William P. Young. I’m not sure if you even have an interest in such things anymore, but it seems to me that the vast majority of your questions about Jesus and God center around wondering if God actually cares or acts. Young’s book centers around a man named Mack, whose daughter is kidnapped, then sexually abused and then ruthlessly killed by a serial rapist. The rest of the book is God attempting to reconnect with Mack to help him heal. God goes through extraordinary lengths to get to Mack, mainly because God very much loves Mack. Mack doesn’t want much to do with God. After all, he blames God for not protecting his baby girl, and that anger and distrust of his “heavenly father” was the dominant emotion driving his life. And it nearly destroyed him.
The book, which chronicles God’s encounter with Mack, is the best thing I’ve ever read to help answer the problem of pain in this world and God’s seeming inattention and apathy. Maybe it would help you. It certainly helped me.
At any rate, thanks for writing what you did.
David A. Tieche