The Fourth Estate Meets the First
We became familiar with the L.A. Times journalist William Lobdell when his biographical article, “He had faith in his job“, came out in July of 2007. In this article, Lobdell tells the story of how covering the religion beat slowly eroded his faith in the church. He has since expanded this article into a new book: Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — And Found Unexpected Peace.
Since we’ve all read the article by now, I’ll skip the full review. As a young reporter, William Lobdell was having severe life issues and became a born again Christian. He went on to cover religious stories for the LA Times. He wrote a lot of stories about people living out their faith in inspiring ways. He began to drift from evangelical Christianity to Catholicism. Then the clergy sex scandal hit.
Pullquote: He wrote a lot of stories about people living out their faith in inspiring ways. He began to drift from evangelical Christianity to Catholicism. Then the clergy sex scandal hit.
Over the next few years, he covered the abuses and cover-ups of the Catholic hierarchy. He began to doubt, but decided that perhaps he could help reform American Christianity by reporting on these scandals. In addition to the abuse trials, he reported on folks like Benny Hinn and the Crouch family of TBN. But his stories didn’t provoke the reactions he expected. Instead of holding religious leaders accountable, congregants rallied around their abusers.
And so Lobdell burned out. He stopped short of converting to Catholicism and left the religion beat. Despite what his friend Hugh Hewitt might think, Lodbell has not become one of the “new atheists.” And despite what Rick Warren thinks, I doubt he’s getting rich. In fact, while Lobdell has a journalists desire to label things, he flails a bit when attempting to label himself. He seems drawn to more genial atheists like Julia Sweeney more than the strident Dawkins or Hitchens. He might be more comfortable with Nica Lalli’s personal label: nothing. A blank slate to start over from.
Who Can You Blame When There’s No One There?
Pullquote: We are promised divine guidance and holy wisdom. But all we have is each other.
It’s common in these circumstances to hear people say that one shouldn’t mistake the church for the religion, or mistake the priest for God. These statements come up a few times in the book. But this ignores what our friend Deacon Duncan calls, “The Undeniable Fact and its Inescapable Consequence”
“What we have, then, is a God who does not show up in real life, and in His absence, men are putting their faith in the things men say and think and feel and imagine about God, even though those things are not consistent with what we find in real life.”
One of the most striking scenes of the book show congregants turning on Lobdell for being the bearer of bad news. They continue to defend their priest against the charges of child abuse, even after the priest has confessed. When all we know of God comes from the words of a man, it’s a short jump to associate that man with God. By threatening the reputation of that man, you threaten the very underpinnings of some believer’s faith in God.
Whether you turn to a priest or the Bible, you still place your yourself in the hands of other humans. To borrow a phrase from Buddhism, we try to follow the finger pointing towards the moon. But following that finger, we find that it’s pointing to another finger, which points to another, and so on.
We can’t escape the Undeniable Fact. We are promised divine guidance and holy wisdom. But all we have is each other.
Vorjack is a librarian/archivist and a public historian, living with his wife in history-soaked Albany, New York.