On the Religion Beat: Talking — and Not Talking — About God

On the Religion Beat: Talking — and Not Talking — About God March 24, 2015

Clippings from the Contra Costa Times newspaper, California, of stories by religion reporter Barbara Falconer Newhall. Photo by Barbara Newhall

When I was a newspaper reporter on the religion beat at the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, California, I talked to a lot of people. We talked about the church budget, the vacation Bible school, the new stained glass window.

But we didn’t talk about God. Not really. My religion beat interviews, by necessity were short and formal. An hour at most and then it was back to the paper to write up a quick twelve-to-twenty-inch story.

There was little time to ask deep questions about anybody’s heartfelt thoughts and feelings, let alone express them in twelve inches.

Some of the questions I wanted to ask:

  • What was it like to be a Jewish mortician tending to the bodies of the dead?
  • What was behind the faith of that political activist who so adamantly opposed legislation protecting the rights of gays and lesbians?
  • How could a woman — a pastor — hold on to her faith in God when she’s just lost a baby to stillbirth?

When repetitive stress injuries to my hands and arms made it impossible to continue as a newspaper reporter, I finally had my chance to ask some of those questions. I began conducting the lengthy, in-depth interviews, about fifty in all, that ultimately led to Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith.

I wanted to be the Studs Terkel of the religion beat. I’d long admired Studs’ books, especially WorkingThe Good War and Hard Times. I was intrigued by the way he managed to capture voices, the individual, distinctive voices of Americans at work, at war and in the throes of the Great Depression.

At first I titled the book Voices. The idea was to record those all those disparate voices I was hearing and create a chorus. I’d see if I could get them to harmonize. I’d listen for the music of the spheres.

As the years went by, I wound up interviewing fifty or so people in all. Of those fifty I managed to transform a score of them into the stories of doubt and faith that you’ll find in Wrestling with God. The book, newly released by Patheos Press, can be found wherever books are sold.

The cover of Barbara Falconer Newhall's book, "Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith," shows two red chairs in opposition to one another. Cover design by Michelle Lenger. Publisher Patheos PressI hope you’ll get a copy, listen for the music of the spheres — and let me know if you hear it.

Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith, by Barbara Falconer Newhall, Patheos Press, 2015, $14.99 paper, $7.99 ebook.

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