They Call Her the “God Girl”: A Q&A with Newest Patheos Blogger Cathleen Falsani

They Call Her the “God Girl”: A Q&A with Newest Patheos Blogger Cathleen Falsani November 7, 2014
Journalist Cathleen Falsani, aka “God Girl”

“Thirty years later, I’m still looking for God in the places some people say God isn’t supposed to be found, and I’m still as fascinated as ever.” — Cathleen Falsani, award-winning journalist, author and blogger

The Progressive Christian Channel at Patheos continues to grow and flourish each month as we add some of the smartest and spirited bloggers on the ‘net. Just this fall, we welcomed the wonderfully-diverse voices of theologian Michael Hardin (Christianity is Changing); campus minister Morgan Guyton (Mercy Not Sacrifice), Eat With Joy author Rachel Marie Stone; and most recently, LGBTQ advocate (and mom) Susan Cottrell of FreedHearts.

This week, we’re thrilled to add yet another leading voice in the progressive religion space: religion and pop culture journalist Cathleen Falsani, and her popular blog The Dude Abides.

Cathleen Falsani, also known as the “God Girl,” is an award-winning religion journalist and author of the critically acclaimed The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public PeopleSin Boldly: A Field Guide for GraceThe Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen BrothersBELIEBER: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieberand the newly released  DISQUIET TIME: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels (edited with co-author Jennifer Grant.) Falsani’s been covering the religion and spirituality beat for 15 years, after graduating from Wheaton College (she and Rob Bell were classmates), and earning master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University as well as a master’s degree in theological studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She’s written for such prestigious newspapers such as the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post, and online media such as Religion News Service and  Sojourners. After a brief stint as the Faith & Values columnist at the Orange County Register, Falsani is happily planted in in southern California with her family, where she writes, speaks and consults/coaches other writers.

To introduce you to Cathleen, we sent a few questions her way. Read on to learn about the favorite interviews of her career, why she loves writing about religion, and the unusual spiritual gift she boasted of her first year of Seminary. Welcome to Patheos, Cathleen!

People call you God Girl– when and how did you pick up this distinguished alias?

It was a few weeks before Christmas 2002 and I had just come off of a 10-day reporting assignment traveling with Bono across the American Midwest with his organization DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) — the precursor to his ONE Campaign — where I spoke to him at length about his faith and the effect it had on his activism. Those stories ran off the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times (where I was the religion writer at the time) for more than a week and garnered a ton of attention and response from readers. One night after work, I walked into a Chicago tavern popular with media creatures like myself and from the back of the bar I heard a familiar voice bellow, “WELCOME BACK, GOD GIRL!” It was my dear friend, the author and journalist Bill Zehme (whom we call “Tall Guy”.) That was it. The nickname stuck. And I love it, mostly because of its backstory and my enduring affection for the fellow who bestowed it upon me.

Youve been a journalist in the religion and pop culture space for more than 15 years, writing for publications as diverse as Rolling Stone and Christianity Today to The Washington Post and The Harvard Divinity School Bulletin. Tell us a little bit about the arc of your career. What keeps you writing about faith and spirituality today?

I’ve always been fascinated by religion—my parents tell stories of me at age five or six sitting on the floor of our family room pouring over a coffee table book of world religions, with its pictures of whirling dervishes, Muslim women in hijab, Hindu girls with hennaed hands, gilded icons of Russian Orthodoxy, and giant Japanese Buddhas. Religion was a huge part of my life growing up, first in Roman Catholicism and then in the strange new land of evangelical Protestantism. I was — and am — a believer.

But in my teens, I became consumed by the idea that spirituality could be expressed just as articulately, perhaps even more so, outside a house of worship as in it, and that faith could be lived in radically different ways. Thirty years later, I’m still looking for God in the places some people say God isn’t supposed to be found, and I’m still as fascinated as ever. It’s what motivated my decision to study journalism as well as theology in graduate school with the intention of becoming a reporter who covers the diverse world of religion and spirituality in culture broadly and for a specifically secular audience.

For the better part of 20 years now as a working journalist, I’ve been blessed to have been able to cover the “God beat” almost exclusively and it has been a joy. Fresh out of seminary and journalism school, I started as an interning reporter at the Chicago Tribune, where I was part of a team that covered the last days and death of the city’s beloved Roman Catholic archbishop Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. In 2000, I began my decade-long tenure at the Chicago Sun-Times, where my “religion” assignments took me from venues as far afield as Vatican City, Vedic City, the West Indies, Western Montana, Mexico City, Jamaica, Germany, Ireland, and the slums of Nairobi, to the West Wing, the dugout at Wrigley Field, afternoon tea with Anne Rice, a yoga class in lower Manhattan where I interviewed hip hop mogul Russel Simmons while literally standing on my head, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel’s study, David Lynch’s screening room in Hollywood, a private mosque owned by an NBA star in the suburbs Houston, and even the infamous grotto at the Playboy Mansion. Each one of those places became sacred space through the conversations I had with (perhaps) unlikely people who weren’t afraid to be honest with me about their spiritual lives.

Writing books grew out of my work in newspapers — in fact, my first book in 2006, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, began as a series in the Sun-Times. I’ve now written five nonfiction books and am at work on a sixth. I find that my journalistic endeavors continue to go hand-in-hand with my book projects. For instance, my next book will be about Pope Francis — the kernel of an idea that first appeared in the pages of the Orange County Register, where I was dispatched to Rome for Pope Francis’ election a few weeks after I joined the paper as its staff religion columnist. That gig ended last January when the Register’s owners imposed what was to be the first in a series of layoffs and downsizing. But it was fun while it lasted!

I’ve been based in Southern California since 2009, which has served only to deepen my interest in and access to world of popular culture, particularly film and television, because of my proximity to Los Angeles. Once again, I feel tremendously blessed to have opportunities to spend quality time with filmmakers, actors, writers, and other creatives talking about eternal concerns at the intersection of faith and culture, something I hope to expand on even further here at Patheos.

Youve interviewed dozens of celebrities in your career, from Bono to Barack Obama. What have been one or two of your favorite interviews?

It’s really difficult to pick just one or two because each has been special, surprising, and even startling in its own way. Certainly my now decade-old interview with Barack Obama — still the lengthiest and most in-depth he’s ever granted about his spiritual life and faith — was pretty special, even though the idea he might someday be President wasn’t even a twinkle in David Axelrod’s eye at the time. Something really remarkable — spiritually important — happened during that conversation, perhaps one of the last he’d have with a reporter where he arrived without a security detail or handlers of any kind. A truly candid conversation. After we parted ways on the sidewalk on South Michigan Avenue, him walking south, me walking north, once he was out of earshot I took out my phone and called my father back east. My dad, who passed away two years ago, was from New Hampshire where politics is the most popular spectator sport and he was probably the most important influence on my choice of journalism as a career. When he picked up in Connecticut, I said, “Daddy, I think I just met the first black President of the United States.” This was in March 2004, months before he entered the national imagination with his debut speech at the Democratic National Convention. It’s the closest I think I’ve ever come to being what some people might say is prophetic.

A year or so ago, I had a phone interview with Robert Duvall — one of my all-time favorite actors — on the occasion of the release of a truly terrible movie that even he couldn’t redeem. But we got to talking about matters of faith and he was so genuine and wise. It was a surprising and precious conversation.

Every conversation I’ve had with Bono, and there have been many over the years, has been life changing, for me and for others. He is such a gift.

But perhaps my favorite of these sacred conversations I’ve described also happens to be included in The God Factor. It took place in a deli in my then-hometown just outside Chicago with the actor John Mahoney (aka the dad from Frasier and the father in Say Anything), to whom my husband is related by marriage. In addition to being part of our extended family, John also was a neighbor of ours, living just a few blocks away from us. So I knew him a little before we sat down for a formal interview about his faith. I love it when I’m wrong — at least when it’s an enlightening revelation. I thought I knew what John would tell me about his spiritual journey and how he sees the world. But what I knew was an anemic sliver compared to what he shared with me about himself that day in the deli. It’s one of my favorite conversations with anyone, ever. And it’s my favorite chapter in that book. I still think about something John told me in that interview every single day. To paraphrase, he said there’s nothing we can do that could ever make God love us less and there are infinite chances for forgiveness. John, if you’re reading this, thank you and I love you.

Tell us a bit about the title of your blog: The Dude Abides.

All the Lebowski fans out there will know this, but for the uninitiated, it comes from a line in the 1998 Coen Brothers’ film, The Big Lebowski, and serves as the guiding ethos for the “religion” that has grown from the cult movie’s fan base — The Church of the Latter-day Dude, aka Dudeism. (Full disclosure: I am a duly ordained Dudeist priest and have presided at two weddings in my clerical capacity. Both couples are still happily married.) But in all honestly, I love the line, “The Dude Abides,” mostly because it reminds me of Jesus. In the film, The Dude (played by Jeff Bridges) is the quintessential antihero, a holy fool or what the Jewish mystical tradition describes as the lamed vavnik — the 36 “righteous souls” in every generation who keep the world from imploding. No one knows who they are, they don’t know who the other lamed vavniks are, and they don’t even know that they’re among the righteous ones. But without them, we’d all be in deep shit. “The Dude … takin’ er easy for all us sinners.” I love that image, that idea, and what it says about the embodiment of grace. So when I started my blog in 2003 — six years before I wrote a book of the same name about the spirituality of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films (they are the filmmakers behind Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Saving Arizona, etc).

What do you have in store for your blog at Patheos? What kinds of stories and interviews might our readers expect from you in the weeks to come?

The Dude Abides, my blog, has been somewhat moribund for the last couple of years, while I was on staff at the Register and in its aftermath, but at Patheos I hope to usher in a renaissance for The Dude, blogging daily and focusing the bulk of my attention on columns and packages about the busy intersection of faith and culture, including expanded coverage of film, television, music, and cultural trends such as the sea-change in attitudes about LGBTQ issues in the evangelical Christian community.

What do you hope to bring to Patheos, and to religion blogging in general?

My “A” game, first of all, and an unquenchable curiosity about why people believe what they do and how that affects the way they live their lives, interact with others, make the choices they do, and create the things that they do. I’ll bring a trained, experienced, journalistic eye to what I write but also will continue to be honest with readers, open a vein when necessary, and always try to write with integrity, passion, and a love of language and ideas.

9781455578825_p0_v1_s260x420Youve just released a new book, which you co-edited with Jennifer Grant, called Disquiet Time. Tell us about the book – what inspired it and who did you write it for?

Honestly, it began as a joke between Jen and me on Facebook one Sunday night last year. The notion of “disquiet time” stemmed from the fact that, despite growing up in and around a religious milieu where “quiet time” was de rigeur, neither of us ever had been particularly good at it. If memory serves, we discussed how nervous-making that requisite “quiet time” was and how much of the time, in our experience, it was anything but spiritually/emotionally/mentally “quiet.”

Hence “disquiet,” which is, I believe — if we’re truly honest about it—   the experience many of us have when we study or reflect on the Bible. Our intention was not to knock “quiet time,” but rather to cast it in a different, and for many of us more genuine, light. If you read the Bible there’s a lot that’s confounding, unsettling, and, yes, disquieting. And that’s OK. That’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.

We wrote this book for a wide, general audience — the kind Jen and I were used to writing for as newspaper columnists. That’s long been my favorite audience to write for and one that I miss now that newspapers are a shadow of their former selves. But I digress…Disquiet Time is written precisely for the folks we describe in the subtitle: the skeptical, the faithful, and more than a few scoundrels.

We want explicitly to extend the invitation to engage with Scripture to EVERYONE. Too often people believe that you have to be learned to understand the Bible, have training, skills, the right set of beliefs, or a whole host of other prerequisites. That’s just not true. The Bible, as I understand it, is a living, breathing document written by a diverse group of humans over several thousand years that chronicles God’s relationship with humankind. One of the ways we can enter into and understand our relationship with and to God today is through Scripture. God wants to have a relationship with every one of us, not just the “chosen” ones or those of us who have learned the theological secret handshake or the holiest among us. And following in the rich, august Jewish tradition of wrestling with God and holy writ, we know that God wants us to do just that — come as you are; bring all your doubts, fears, anger, joy, sorrow, delight, questions, comments, vitriol, and praise. Bring it. Don’t hold back. God can take it. We promise.

Everyone is welcome to join the conversation in Disquiet Time just as everybody is welcome at God’s banquet table. And, as one of my Episcopal priests used to say: What part of EVERYONE do we not understand?

What else would you like to tell us as a way of introducing Cathleen Falsani, aka God Girl, to our readers?

I have a teenage son who is a freshman in high school, four grown step children (and four step children in law), five step grandkids, and a six-month-old puppy named Elaine Stritch with whom I am hopelessly besotted. (Search for #missstritchie on Instagram for more details.) My son is from Malawi, Africa and issues related to poverty, disease, and justice in Africa are among my passions, so you’ll see them come up on The Dude Abides with some regularity. I think Eddie Izzard is the funniest man on the planet and am fairly obsessed with all things Wes Anderson (who can do no wrong, artistically, ever.)

What else, what else … OK, I know. During orientation my first year in seminary, the new students were asked to fill out a brief bio questionnaire that was posted with our photographs on a big bulletin board outside the school cafeteria. One of the last questions was, “What is your spiritual gift?” My answer was: “Can tie a cherry stem into a knot with my tongue.” So that happened.

Check out Cathleen’s blog, The Dude Abides, here.

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