Dark night of a reporter’s soul

09064 2The editors of the Los Angeles Times made an interesting decision when they decided to give page-one play to religion reporter William Lobdell’s soul-searching essay, “Religion beat became a test of faith — A reporter looks at how the stories he covered affected him and his spiritual journey.”

That headline is actually stating things rather mildly.

This is a first-person account in which Lobdell describes his journey from born-again Protestantism (and his prayers that God would let him cover the religion beat) to his near conversion to the Roman Catholic faith and finally into a state of dismay and what certainly appears to be, at the moment, a tragic loss of faith. He also says his trials on the religion beat have led him to ask that the editors give him a new job.

This is not a news story, so it is hard to give it a standard GetReligion critique. Although there are moments when the reporter in me wants to ask questions, that is hard to do when you are reading a story as painful and gripping as this one. This is a spiritual reflection, not journalism. It is hard to tell Lobdell that he is wrong — even though many readers will question his conclusions, for reasons of their own.

Essentially, this is an essay about ancient questions linked to theodicy — putting God on trial for the painful reality of evil in this world. Although the writer mentions several issues that pushed him over the edge, it certainly appears that his fury is rooted in his attempts to cover sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic priesthood and the cover-up by many bishops. Lobdell cannot come to terms with this. Who could?

That leads to the heart of the story:

As the stories piled up, I began to pray with renewed vigor, but it felt like I wasn’t connecting to God. I started to feel silly even trying.

I read accounts of St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” a time he believed God was testing him by seemingly withdrawing from his life. Maybe this was my test.

I met with my former Presbyterian pastor, John Huffman, and told him what I was feeling. I asked him if I could e-mail him some tough questions about Christianity and faith and get his answers. He agreed without hesitation.

The questions that I thought I had come to peace with started to bubble up again. 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?

In one e-mail, I asked John, who had lost a daughter to cancer, why an atheist businessman prospers and the child of devout Christian parents dies. Why would a loving God make this impossible for us to understand?

He sent back a long reply that concluded:

“My ultimate affirmation is let God be God and acknowledge that He is in charge. He knows what I don’t know. And frankly, if I’m totally honest with you, a life of gratitude is one that bows before the Sovereign God arguing with Him on those things that trouble me, lamenting the losses of life, but ultimately saying, ‘You, God, are infinite; I’m human and finite.’”

John is an excellent pastor, but he couldn’t reach me. For some time, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I saw, but I was losing ground. I wondered if my born-again experience at the mountain retreat was more about fatigue, spiritual longing and emotional vulnerability than being touched by Jesus.

And I considered another possibility: Maybe God didn’t exist.

REM tableau 2What can you say about a page-one article of this kind?

Actually, I have more questions that I wish I could ask the editors than questions I would ask Lobdell.

Don’t get me wrong. There would be much I would say to him in person, most of it rooted in the idea that it is better to wrestle with eternal faith issues in the context of a living, vital faith community than on one’s on. But that is hardly a journalistic comment either, now is it? As C.S. Lewis noted in The Horse and His Boy, there are times when God tells each person his or her own story and others simply have to urge them to listen. We cannot hear their story or claim to know what they should be hearing.

I have only known one or two professionals who felt their faith was threatened by covering religion news. I have known people who found faith on the beat — one or two (I will name no names). I have known people whose faith changed while on the beat. And, as I have said many times, I have known excellent religion writers who had a fierce intellectual interest in religious issues and events, but no faith at all.

This is journalism and there are all kinds of people who can do this journalistic work with skill and integrity.

The question, for me, is why this story ended up on page one, rather than in a Sunday feature section, a pullout magazine or some other part of the Times that carries essays, rather than news features or breaking stories.

Were the editors trying to say something about journalism? About faith? A warning about what happens when people of faith work on this beat? That, to me, was the mystery linked to this piece.

Photos: REM’s “Losing My Religion.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joseph Fox

    William Lobdell writes: “Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don’t. It’s not a choice. It can’t be willed into existence. And there’s no faking it if you’re honest about the state of your soul.”

    As I see it, that is the kernel of wisdom in this story. It resonates with my experience in a career of science and public service. And it may have resonated within an editor of the LA Times.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    So you do not believe in free will at all? There is no ghost in the machine?

  • ira rifkin

    Would the Times give similar play to a sportswriter who asked off the beat because he/she became disillusioned with the sports industry and his/her part in heaping adulation on overly pampered/overly paid, ego-driven athletes?

    Or an ex-politics reporter who couldn’t get themselves to vote anymore after losing all faith in the politial system because of the hyper-hypocrisy he/she saw on the beat?

    I doubt it on both accounts.

    This essay did not belong on page one.

    And, speaking of journalism, are we supposed to take the writer’s account of his process as “fact?” I have no reason to doubt that this is not a sincere account of one man’s search for meaning, and more power to him for exposing himself as he has.

    But the reader has no way of knowing what, if anything else, was going on in his life that might have contributed to his reaching this point.

    My gut tells me the story was played as it was, at the very least, as a slap at Cardinal Mahoney, the LA archbishop, and everyone else the editors consider to be religious charlatans, of which Southern California, as elsewhere, has its fair share.

    Given current publishing fads, a book contract offer can’t be far off.

    In any event, I wish Lobdell the inner-peace he deserves.

  • William

    On the journalism issue, I think this would fit better in a religion section.

    On the free will and choice issue, I believe in free will (as a matter of faith with no good evidence) but I believe that faith is not a choice.

    From my experience, I cannot through will alone change my beliefs. I may be able to persuade myself because of emotional/spiritual experiences or reason but that is different from just choosing without impetus but with will.

    If you believe that atheists could choose to have faith and then miraculously they would have faith, have you ever seen this happen? If you believe that Christians could choose to surrender their faith and then instantly they would have no faith, have you ever seen this happen?

    If you have seen either event happen, I would assume that the individual had been faking lack of faith (or faith) before this turning point.

    Now, so that I’m not misunderstood, I do believe an individual can choose to keep an open heart/mind to faith and then be persuaded into that faith but this is very different from choosing faith.

  • http://orthodoxinparsonsks.blogspot.com/ Will Harrington

    William. From another of the same name. I think your close. I think belief is not a choice. You either believe or you dont. This can can change. but it is not an individuals choice. Faith is. If you believe in God, you can still have no faith, and that is a choice, just as faith is. Faith is the act of trusting and sometimes its harder than others. Likewise, if you don’t believe in God, There are still things you can choose to have faith in such as a spouse, or technology or what have you.
    As far as the artical, its not news, its about news. What makes it page one material?

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  • Joseph Fox

    I certainly believe in free will but it can be manipulated with honest discussion (when one participant is not as mentally competent as the other) AND with dishonest propaganda (when false information is used to persuade). One of the problems with journalism today is the subject matter in many articles are outside much of the readers sphere of experience and the writer’s agenda is not clear or is intentionaly hidden. ( I like Washington Post’s comment section where the readers try to expose errors or writer’s agenda)
    I do not know Mr. Lobdell or what his agenda is, but I appreciated his article as an uncommon presentation of religious news that is clearly having an impact on our culture. Fortunately for me, I am not of any of the denominations he discussed and do not have to use any of his information in a personal manner.

  • http://mcom.biola.edu Mike Longinow

    Bill Lobdell is a journalist of insight and one who knows how to report thoroughly. I’ve seen it up close as a subscriber to the L.A. Times over the last couple years. He’s also troubled by some very real problems among those, in this country, who are in positions of influence and power in both Protestantism and Catholicism. Does his despair and fury at God, and at people, make his ranting a wrong thing — something we should bury inside? I don’t think so. I, too, question why editors put his piece on page one, given their readership demographic. But at the same time, I’m glad they gave it the ample space that his profound self-scrutiny required. Long as this piece was, I sensed he’s not done. And my hope is that as he continues writing, questioning, and seeking the hope that I believe he knows is there, Bill Lobdell will find God waiting. Maybe not with answers, but with the assurance that He is good. I hope, too, that Lobdell’s email is not clogged with attack emails. C.S. Lewis drew criticism for the diary about his dying wife. When it was published, publishers titled it “A Grief Observed,” and critics used it as evidence that Lewis never knew God. How could someone who loved Christ scream with such a primordial venom? How indeed.

  • Cole

    Free will is, here, something of a red herring.

    It’s one thing to say we can freely choose our actions. But it’s quite another to say we can freely choose our beliefs. I’m not paralyzed, so I can voluntarily raise and lower my arm. But I can’t voluntarily turn my beliefs off and on, or change my mind back and forth.

    With influencing our beliefs, the best we can do is read certain books, talk with certain people, dwell on certain thoughts, visualize certain possibilities, etc. And these are rather indirect methods of influencing our beliefs. If we give it our best shot, but the beliefs we wish for never do arrive, all we can do is persevere and hope for the best, or else give up and manfully accept defeat. Free will only goes so far.

    Maybe the emotions provide a good analogy. If you genuinely loathe someone, there are steps you can take to make your attitude more positive. But it’s hardly plausible that you can voluntarily adore this person. If you give it your best shot, but the most you manage is leavening your loathing with vaguely kind-hearted pity, again, there’s no free will to save the day.

  • corita

    This article is a step even further than the recent trend toward putting more “mushy”, opinion-type pieces in parts of the newspaper, which I think has contirbuted to a blurring of the line between reporting and analysis.

    (An example: In the Balt. Sun’s recent coverage of the new Archbishop, there was a piece about said Archbishop entitled, “Conservative stance on Gays.” I didn’t even recognize the name of the guy who wrote it– I think he was the Style editor, for pete’s sake.)

    Page one?? This is NOT a news story, but a memoir! And an unfinished one, at that. I think the L.A. Times doesn’t know, or care, what the real story is here. It just wants to use William Lobdell’s piece to be sneeringly provocative.

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    Two points.

    When I saw the first two paragraphs of tmatt’s piece here, I said to myself “The guy must have wound up an atheist”. When I saw he had started out born again, I knew it. For a brief second as I read I though “Perhaps I am wrong! Perhaps this is about his conversion from Protestantism to Catholicisim… how interesting for the L.A. Times to run this! How unlike the image I have of them as a biased, liberal, badly written, piece of fish wrap…” then I finished reading the sentence and saw that he HAD lost his faith and the L.A. Times had reaffirmed my opinion of them. I for one don’t question why editors put his piece on page one at all.

    Can anybody really see the L.A. Times even publishing, much less page one-ing, a piece by a reporter who had gone the OTHER direction? If Mr. Lodel had started out as a “Secular Humanist” who had taken the job as a religion reporter just for the money, but then been so moved by what he saw that he became a Catholic, or a born again Christian, or an Orthodox Jew… would that make page one? would it even make the paper? Heck, would he even keep his job if he became, say, a deacon in his local Catholic Church? He’d have lost his objectivity….it would be like he was sleeping with the Mayor of L.A. while still … oh wait, that’s been done already….sorry.

    Secondly, as for faith, faith is a lot like courage. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, courage is feeling afraid and going ahead anyway… inspite of the fear. You think the guys who got off the landing craft at Omaha Beach wern’t afraid? They just didn’t let it stop them.

    Similarly faith is not the absence of doubt, faith is NOT understanding or having all the aswers, faith is when you say “This does not make sense to me, I can not understand this, I can not square this with what I have been told about God being good and loving and just… but I know that God IS good and loving and just no matter what this evidence says and regardless of if I can understand it or not, I CHOOSE to believe.” Just as the guys at Omaha CHOSE to go forward, even though they were afriad.

    Lastly, I have to ask. Is anyone here familar with the idea of “cause and effect”? It is central to the universe. Without cause and effect, there is no rationality or reason, much less justice. Without cause and effect, science, math, logic, predictability, reason, even rational thought itself breaks down. The world becomes totally random and surreal.

    I raise this point because it plays directly into Mr. Lobdell’s problem with God.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    The flip side of this reporter woud be the case of Lee Strobel (The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, The Case for a Creator). He was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and was atheist. In his work with the newspaper he came into contact with people of faith. Fortunately he came to faith then used his reportorial skills to investigate the claims of Christ and the Bible.

    It is interesting that the crux theologorum (the cross of the theologian) comes into play: “Why are some saved and others not?” Free will? Faith as a gift from God that we can’t resist? Or something in between? Or do we simply give evidence of our faith and let God work in the background?

    An appeal of Roman Catholicism (and Lutheranism) is that the liturgy is grounded in Scripture. Almost all of the liturgy/mass is word-for-word from Scripture. The ardent Protestants that become or flirt with Catholicism usually have a remark in this regard that the mass is very Scriptural.

  • Stephen A.

    While I don’t doubt the reporter’s sincerety here, I question the front page decision.

    It’s too bad that he lost his faith, but that’s not “news.” I found the rehash of the Priest abuse scandal gratuitious here. It seems as if the reporter was simply seeking out negativity to reinforce his decision. Sure, televangelists are hucksters. Also not news.

    I’d love to see some in-depth reporting on the perniscious doctrine of irrestistable grace, and how it has affected Christianity, from prosperity preachers, to weepy (but ineffective and meaningless) conversions, to the de-emphasis on work/”works” to the point of demonizing human effort and minimizing human abilities. But then again, that would be real religion reporting, not navel-gazing by reporters.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    Two things: first, I’ve seen pieces by elderly reporters who were retiring, alerting readers to a change in personnel and summing up their work. I read the article and it seems to me to fit nicely into that category.

    Second, the writer has only temporarily and seemingly lost his faith in God. He has appropriately lost his faith in a corrupt institution and some corrupt individuals. The real problem here is that this institution, these individuals, claim exclusive access to the Sacred — which is obviously untrue. They lied about much else, why not about that? Maintaining that illusion supports their corrupt purposes.

    The Sacred has revealed itself to humanity in many different forms in many different times and places and is always accessible to all.

    When he learns that there are many other valid Paths, he will find a deeper and a realer faith. May that blessing come to him soon!

  • Joseph Fox

    My subconcious woke me last night–free will exists only for a portion of our population. There is a portion of our population with mental problems (genetic origin as well as otherwise)for which free will is not operative.
    I am not wise enough or knowledgeable enough to explore the impact of this in the religious use of the term “free will” but personal experience tells me its a tough one.

  • Mark Kirby

    I’m moved by this reporter’s dark night of the soul. Perhaps if he had persevered in his romance with Catholicism he might have found some peace. A genius of Christianity is the Mysterious meaning it finds in human suffering – uniting the individual’s sufferings with those of the Incarnate God’s. I find the sentiment more alive in the ethos of Catholicism than in those of “our separated brethren” – particularly in the prayers of the Latin Mass.

    Hoping our reporter may see them, I pass along a couple of quotes I heard in a Good Friday sermon a dozen years or so ago and have kept in my wallet since.

    The first is from Paul Claudel: “God did not come to take away suffering but to fill it with his presence.”

    And from Karl Rahner: “When we look at the face of the crucified Jesus we know that we will be spared nothing.”

    Some time spent with a crucifix might help.

    As for the front-page placement of the story, I suspect the worst – that it’s there as an exemplary journey from illusion to enlightenment, however soul-searing the transition may be (secular humanists are fond of their own courage, naked of the props and comforts available to believers).

  • Dan

    “Although the writer mentions several issues that pushed him over the edge, it certainly appears that his fury is rooted in his attempts to cover sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic priesthood and the cover-up by many bishops. Lobdell cannot come to terms with this. Who could?”

    I can. What many (in the press and elsewhere) refer to with the highly-charged term “cover-up” were in fact unilateral decisions to leave a priest in ministry usually as the result of either giving to little credence to a claim of sexual abuse or too much credence to the efficacy of therapy. It is without question the case that some bishops made serious errors in judgment, failed to be proactive in preventing sexual abuse, and at times did not show sufficient care for the safety of children. But “cover-up” suggests an intention to thwart investigation, which would be a criminal offense, and I am not aware of this ever happening in the Church at the bishop level.

    The Catholic sex abuse scandal was a grave scandal. The way the LA Times covered it is its own scandal.

  • Gordon

    I can’t help thinking that if William Lobdell had been able to fellowship regularly with other Christian journalists the outcome of his story would have been different. Don’t be a Lone Ranger, be a part of a community of fellow believers. Matthew 18:20 still works.

  • plunge

    I think most of you just seem upset at seeing a real human story that doesn’t bend to the ends or lesson you think every story should end with (and frankly, you get your way the vast majority of the time, which makes the complaint and concern seem a little, well, obsessive).

    The reality is that the reasons why people gain and lose faith are pretty personal and emotional.

    Telling people that to successfully believe, they need to try harder to believe, or work to get other people to help them believe, isn’t exactly enlightening in contrast. You can make an excuse or alternate explanation for anything. But ultimately, faith beliefs come down a lot to whether someone has the force of will and the desire to keep working on developing and defending those excuses. Sometimes, getting a glimpse at the possibility that existence may be lot bigger and complicated than the same pat story you’ve stuck to can shake things up.


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