William Lobdell and the Undeniable Fact

by VorJack

The Fourth Estate Meets the First

William Lobdell 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.

  • http://www.twitter.com/measure76 Measure

    I read Lobdell’s book, and it was really great. It even had a chapter devoted to mormonism, which as an ex-mormon myself, I found quite refreshing.

    I say if anyone wants to know what gaining and losing religious faith is like, this is a great book to read.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    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.

    I know the Buddha was a smart guy, so I hope that lost something in the translation, because it just doesn’t make any sense.

    • vorjack

      Sorry, perhaps that was a bit obscure.

      The original line goes something like “All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond.”

      The teachings, the bible, the priest, and the liturgy are all just fingers pointing towards the moon. We’re supposed to pay attention to the moon, instead of fixating on the finger. In other words, we’re supposed to focus on the God that everyone keeps telling us about, rather that the person or persons who are telling us about God.

      But this is an artificial separation. We look, and there’s no God there. People point to the priest, but he’s not God. The priest points to the traditions, but that’s just other people talking, not God. The people point to the bible, but that’s just another set of people, again no God. We keep looking for God, but all we find are more fingers pointing this way and that.

      • JonJon

        You, sir, write very well.

        Thanks for a great article!

      • Siberia

        Yeah, Buddha seems to have been pretty big on the whole “don’t be an idiot and blindly follow every guru out there, look at what he’s teaching, not at who he is”.

        One of my favorite quotes of his:

        Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

        Pretty ironic (not surprising) considering a lot of Buddhists do exactly what Gautama advised them against.

        (for the records, I’m not Buddhist. I considered it after I gave up on Christianity and Wicca; I appreciate the philosophy to some measure, stripped of the woo. I studied it a bit, not enough or in depth, mainly because one of my best friends is Buddhist, so I figured I should look into it.)

        • nomad

          That is a good quote. Where is it found?

          • Siberia

            I found at Wikiquote, but it isn’t my first source; the first time I read it was at Buddha Net (or whatever was the name), a Buddhist site. Wikiquote attributes to the Kalama Sutta, translated in the American Buddhist Dictionary.

            • nomad

              Thanks. It’s going in my collection of quotes. Actually it’ll be the first.

            • Siberia

              Welcome!

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

    But his stories didn’t provoke the reactions he expected. Instead of holding religious leaders accountable, congregants rallied around their abusers.

    This always baffles me, especially when the explicit intention of a guy like Lobdell is noble, namely, accountability. I grew up in the Pentecostal movement, where the above happens far too often.

    I suppose there’s a name of this as a sociological phenomena, and I’m sure it’s been studied. But it’s still confusing.

    • cello

      I think it is similar to women who defend their own cultural mysogynist practices. There is something about us that looks to cultural group cohesion, even sometimes if it is to our personal detriment.

    • Aor

      It is similar to people who claim that belief in an afterlife is not a contributing factor in murder suicides, yet are aware that there are mothers who kill their children and mention in their suicide notes that they did it to send their children to heaven, but when challenged to concede that point they disappear from the conversation only to reappear elsewhere hoping nobody notices.

      It truly is baffling.

      • Aor

        Oh, and I think its called Denial + Willful ignorance.

      • JonJon

        O.o

        • Aor

          Did you have something relevant to add, or are you just stroking your ego by pretending to be part of the conversation?

  • John C

    How is it any surprise that “losing religion” is a liberating experience? The association between the institutional church (IC) and Christ is so strongly engraved in our collective mindsets that we are hard-presssed to separate the two from the true, non-comformist message of Christ. It’s an intoxicating illusion for sure. The sooner we discard this identification the better off we’ll (all) be.

    • MahouSniper

      Heh, something I actually agree with. Christ had a wonderful message. Love everyone except barren fig trees. If people would just forget all the stupid dogma that comes with it, then we’d all be better off.

      • Devysciple

        Maybe. But we’d definitely be all out of figs :-P

      • Janet Greene

        But jesus really hates those, doesn’t he (if I recall my NT correctly)??? Didn’t he create the trees himself? He must have a terrible self-image – he keeps trying to destroy his creation. According to the bible, we piss him off pretty badly. But at least he seems to get joy out of wiping people out so it’s not all bad.

  • claidheamh mor

    Don’t judge Jeeeeesus by so-called christians.
    He and the others in his congregations weren’t reeeeeaalllll christians!
    Losing an old dead religion is just losing dogmatic dogma; when you’re too illiterate or lazy to study the scriptures you love to quote, just say the real truth is in your spleen- er, heart!
    He just needs to talk to Jeeeesus more, he’ll come back to the flock.
    Nothing will ever shake my faith. William Lobdell just needs to grunt and strain and try *harder*. (Sounds like constipation of faith.)

    Did I miss any christian-cliches-o’-faith?

  • bn

    he is no different than a sleeze-ball journalist. He started with the right intension, but as he moved towards more provocative stories it turned his focus away from what the original story was about. If I had to talk about cleaning port-o-john’s all day long, of course your view on life is going to be different. Man is flawed, God is not flawed. Those who lose faith is always because, they look to a member of the church who fails. Simple as that.

    • Question-I-thority

      Man is flawed, God is not flawed.

      So if humans are flawed and you are a human, how can you know that God is not flawed?

      Those who lose faith is always because, they look to a member of the church who fails. Simple as that.

      This statement is not based in reality. There are many who have left faith for philosophical/theological/rational reasons. I’m one of them.

      • claidheamh mor

        Oh yeah! That’s another one!

        “Man cannot know God” – always said by some man who is spouting as if he knows about God!

        Like, um, how the hell would he know?

      • Siberia

        And those who never had faith in the first place.
        Like, y’know, me.

      • Jabster

        Man cannot know god only when it suits man, all the othertimes man seems to know exactly what god wants.

        • claidheamh mor

          Haha! Christian cliche-o’-faith ONE-UPPED ftw!

    • claidheamh mor

      Haaaaaaaaahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

      There’s christian cliché-o’-faith #1 right there.

      I forgot: “Gawd is flawless, people are flawed”!

      I did forget hostile, hate-filled name-calling from “loving” christians, (like “sleaze-ball”), but that’s probably ’cause it’s not a cliché. Even though christians do it often enough to make it a cliché!

    • claidheamh mor

      If I had to talk about cleaning port-o-john’s all day long, of course your view on life is going to be different.

      Non sequitur of the week.

      Or did the christian who prefers cliches to the hard work of thinking mean that if you research christians who are doing criminal actions and extreme harm to people, you are going to have an outlook on life that sees the harm these christians are doing? You’ll be unable to turn a blind eye to it or rationalize it?

      Um, yeah.
      DUH!

    • Roger

      You first have to prove the existence of this supposedly non-flawed “god.”

    • snekr

      Those who lose faith is always because, they look to a member of the church who fails. Simple as that.
      What? That makes no sense! I myself and several others that I know didn’t “lose faith” because of a member of the church who failed. I never lost “faith,” I just realized there is no historical evidence (outside of the bible, which has been proven to be flawed), and I realized the logic of a all powerful god is contradictory to reality.

      • Janet Greene

        I don’t look at it as losing faith. I look at it like gaining truth and insight. And I agree with you – so often christians believe it is failed humans who make atheists “lose faith”. This may make people question the veracity of the belief, but it would only be a start to searching for truth. I would think.

    • claidheamh mor

      Those who lose faith is always because, they look to a member of the church who fails. Simple as that.

      I agree, snekr, it is nonsense. BN posted christian-cliché-o’-faith #1 immediately after I listed the clichés.

      Maybe “bn” stands for “blind non-thinking”.
      bn is full of bs.

    • Janet Greene

      How do you know god is not flawed?

  • Olaf

    So where was this God or Jezus when the child got molested? And where was Jezus and God when the priest got rewarded and the child punished for beeing molested?

    Still more proof of an evil god!

    • Devysciple

      Jeebus, don’t you read this blog?! He was With You Always! ;-)

    • JonJon

      “still more proof of an evil god!”

      Congratulations!

      You proved God exists!

      =P