Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reviewing "Losing My Religion" By William Lobdell

While much of this book was a difficult read, it was refreshingly honest and genuine auto-biographical writing about the faith journey of a well known journalist for the L.A. Times. To summarize, William Lobdell was raised a nominal Christian as a child but did not carry this faith into early adulthood. Through the influence of some evangelical Christian friends William became a “born again Christian” later in life. He experienced God working in small and big ways in his life and felt that his faith had turned his tumultuous life around. Because of the influence of faith in his life Lobdell desired to write about faith as a journalist. He became the “religion beat” writer in a small local newspaper and eventually graduated to the L.A. Times. During his first few years as a “religion beat” journalist he enjoyed writing stories about people of great faith who did great things because of their faith. His stories were uplifting and encouraging as he found ordinary people of faith doing extraordinary things. At the same time that his career was expanding Lobdell was also continuing along his faith journey. He started at a non-denominational mega bible church in Southern California, transitioned to Presbyterian and finally landed in the Roman Catholic Church.

Coincidently during the same time he was transitioning into the Catholic Church and going through adult catechism classes the sex scandals of many Catholic priests were beginning to break in a major. Because Lobdell was a religion beat journalist these stories were allocated to him. This is where the difficult read began in the story. Lobdell was on the case of numerous, serious sex scandals involving priests and minors. After the first few cases were uncovered it was shocking how many more cases came out of the wood work. What was even more shocking and disturbing than that, was the extent that powerful church leaders went to cover up the scandals and even allow them to continue occurring. Lobdell wrote about many priests who were known by the higher church authority to be pedophiles and continued to be protected by the church. They were moved to unsuspecting new parishes where new scandals inevitably arose. The more and more stories Lobdell wrote about the Catholic priest sex scandal the more and more disillusioned he became with faith. He interviewed and witnessed first-hand the scars that permanently damaged the victims of the numerous scandals. He saw first-hand the lengths the church went to cover up the scandals and the cruelty with which they treated the vicitims of their abuse in order to protect the reputation of the holy institution. As Lobdell sat in support groups for recovering victims of sexual abuse by priests his heart broke and his faith began to waiver. As he further uncovered the corruption of one of God’s oldest institutions he began to question the validity of the faith even more.

As much as Protestant Christians would like to hope the corruption stories stopped there, they did not. Lobdell did extensive stories on corruption cases within other denominations as well. He wrote about the financial corruption of TBN as well as other immoral actions that had been hidden by the Christian super power. Similarly, he wrote about the misleading ministry of Benny Hin and the hundreds of sick people who gave up their life savings in order to be healed by Hinn, but were left devastated and hopeless in seats of a large stadium, unhealed at the end of Hin’s promised “healing service”. The greater question raised here above and beyond the corruption of one or two Christian organizations, was the continued support of these organizations by so called “faithful Christians”, in addition to the lack of action on the part of Christians to protest or stop the seeming deceptive work of these organizations.

Without reading the book yourself it may be hard to see how reporting about these things could lead to Lobdell’s loss of faith. But Lobdell writes in a very honest and genuine fashion as he details how he suffered a severe emotional toll after interviewing several abuse victims whose stories had been covered up and dismissed by the Catholic Church. Lobdell writes with blatant honesty about his spiritual journey of yearning and fighting to hold on to faith amidst the evil he witnessed in the people of God and the institutions of God. During this fight to maintain faith Lobdell sought out to find those Christians that displayed the righteousness you would expect from those who claim to follow Christ.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! ...We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” “If the Gospels were true, then shouldn’t I be able to find plenty of data that showed Christians acted differently – superior in their morals and ethics – from the rest of society? I wanted to see that people were changed in fundamental ways by their belief in Christ. This was a new task for me (198).

In this search he unfortunately did not find what he was looking for, and I think this is one of the main points Lobdell brings up in his book – if God really exists then why aren’t his people, on average, more exemplarily of his character, and even more so, why is God’s glory and righteousness not clearly seen in his institutions. Here is what Lobdell found in his research:

It was discouragingly easy – though incredibly surprising – to find out that Christians, as a group, acted no differently than anyone else, including atheists. Sometimes they performed a little better; other times a little worse. But the body of Christ didn’t stand out as morally superior. Some of my data came from secular institutions such as the Pew Research Center and Gallup Poll, but the most devastating information was collected by the Barna Group, a respected research company run by an evangelical Christian worried about the heath of Christianity in America. For years, George Barna has studied more than 70 moral behaviors of believers and nonbelievers. He contends that statistically, the difference between behaviors of Christians and others has been erased (204 – 205).

Lobdell brings up two good points here. First, why is it that as Christians we are not on average living morally superior lives as a result of the indwelling and power of the Holy Spirit? This is a question that we need to discuss openly. Is it that for far too long we have been too busy fighting over trivial doctrinal issues and disagreements rather than focusing on living out our faith in changed lives? Second, Lobdell also questions why there aren’t more genuine, faithful Christians standing up against those in the Christian community who are corrupt or not living morally exemplarly lives? Lobdell experienced on numerous occasions the parish or group of parish members who openly supported their priest who had been convicted as a pedophile and fought for him to not be punished or removed from the church. Similarly, Lobdell questions why more Christians don’t stand up in opposition to seemingly corrupt and deceptive organizations like TBN or ministries like that of Benny Hinn. I am guilty myself of being willing to distance myself from these organizations, but have taken no steps to stop the corruption or deception that injures others.

Some, like me, will inevitably respond to Lobdell by purporting that this line of thinking simply gives credence the power of sin and therefore, we cannot claim that God does not exist because of the power of sin in the lives of his imperfect followers. Here is Lobdell’s response:

My piece did receive criticism, the most consistent being that I had witnessed the sinfulness of man and mistakenly mixed that up with a perfect God. I understand the argument but I don’t buy it. If the Lord is real, it would make sense for the people of God, on average, to be superior morally and ethically to the rest of society. Statistically, they aren’t. I also believe that God’s institutions, on average, should function on a higher moral plain than governments or corporations. I don’t see any evidence of this. It’s hard to believe in God when it’s impossible to tell the difference between His people and atheists (271).

In my mind this significantly emphasizes the teachings of Jesus which proclaim that his followers are now the living and active body of Christ, showing Christ to the world – and it seems we have not done a very good job of living out this mandate . It is my contention that churches need to spend far less time arguing over trivial doctrinal issues, for example, the validity of praying in tongues, premillennial vs. postmillennial , egalitarianism vs. complimentarianism etc, and start focusing on being transformed by the grace and love of Jesus Christ so we can share that love and grace to the world. The world needs to see transformed lives lived out through our daily, loving actions towards others. The church needs to stop being inward focused and begin to take seriously the job of being the “ambassadors” of Jesus Christ.

Although I can see how the lack of changed lives in believers could warrant significant doubts about the validity of the Christian faith, I believe that there was a deeper reason for Lobdell’s eventual relinquishment of faith. I believe at a deeper level it was due to the great pain he witnessed in the lives of those who experienced evil and suffering at the hands of so called “righteous” followers of God. It seems to me, it eventually came down to the age old question of the problem of evil and suffering. When really struggling with this issue Lobdell emailed back and forth with a pastor he knew and respected. The following is some of the questions and responses given by Lobdell.

Does it bother you that God seems to get a pass no matter how a prayer turns out? If the prayer is answered (and someone recovers from a grave illness, for example), then God is said to be a loving Lord who cares about His children’s wishes. They asked and they received. But then when the prayer doesn’t get answered (the person dies, for example), the Christian will say: Well, it’s God’s will. Or the prayer was answered, but not in the way we expected. Or we simply can’t know the Lord’s mysterious ways.

So the seeming randomness of God’s blessing and intervention isn’t random at all, but we can only understand the bigger picture after death? In the meantime, the crooked, atheist businessman will prosper and the child of the devout Christian parents dies. Why would a loving God make this impossible for us to understand? What’s the point of that?

I felt angry with God for making faith such a guessing game. I didn’t treat my sons as God treated me. I gave them clear direction, quick answers, steady discipline and plenty of love. There was little mystery in our relationship; they didn’t have to strain to hear my “gentle whisper.” How to hear God, love Him and best serve Him shouldn’t be so open to interpretation. It shouldn’t be that hard (160-161).

To all the questions and concerns that Lobdell raised, the pastor gave very solid answers that Christians would expect and respect. To summarize, he maintained that God was not random in his blessings or lack of intervention, but we simply did not understand because we are finite beings. He argued that just because we are people of faith does not mean we are exempt from pain and evil which are the consequences of sin on this earth. Additionally, the pastor appealed that God mourned with the suffering of those who suffer on earth, but that our suffering here on earth is but a “pinprick” compared to eternity. To all of this Lobdell responded:

[The Pastor] was a stubborn optimist, facing all the same challenges to logic and emotion and believing in spite of them. He wasn’t falling back on an impersonal, transcendent God in the background; he was insisting on a God who could intervene and often chose not to stop the pain. It all sounded so empty to me, even as I admired him. For years now, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I had seen, but the battle was lost. I couldn’t keep ignoring reality. I couldn’t believe in Christianity any more than I could believe that two plus two equals five (243).

The laws of nature, circumstance and coincidence make more sense than the divine. A friend of mine reached the same conclusions as I did, but said the knowledge was a “major psychological catastrophe.” It nearly drove him insane that no loving God was protecting his children. I had the advantage of seeing too much on the religion beat. I knew of many times when faithful Christian parents lost their children. I hadn’t seen any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that children were safer with God watching over them. At least now when I see injustice and suffering – my guitar teacher’s beautiful boy, all of three years old, died of a brain tumor the day I’m writing this – the randomness is just that. A God in heaven didn’t sit by while the little boy died. To simply know that tragic stuff just happens is a much more satisfying and realistic answer (276 - 277).

In my opinion this is one of the biggest issues Christians need to re-think and find a better answer. That is, how do we maintain an all powerful, personal, loving God who we are commanded in scripture to pray to with our needs and concerns, but who also biblically(the rain falls on the righteous and the wicked) and logically, cannot, and will not answer all of our prayers, or more realistically, maybe not even a majority of our prayers. How can we tell Christians to pray to God with their deepest needs and concerns while knowing that God cannot “be counted on” to answer? How long can we expect someone to keep lifting up prayers that go unanswered before they give up hope and faith in prayer, or worse, a God who is personally concerned with their lives? The typical Christian answers: you didn’t pray with the right motives, or God is mysterious and we just don’t understand his ways, or it is a blessing in disguise, or keep praying because prayer is meant to change you and make you a better person, not necessarily give you the answers you are looking for – do not cut it in for most people struggling with these deep seeded questions. If we continue to give these same answers while maintaining the biblical mandate of prayer and an interpersonal God who cares about our daily needs and desires, atheism is going to continue to look more and more appealing to many.

Would Christianity be easier to believe if we believed in a more deistic God who allowed sin to take its course in the world and intervened to show us his love by giving us a way out, salvation and eternity through Jesus Christ? Other than that, God is hands off, allowing the world to run its course and showing his face and his love only through Christians who have Jesus living and active in them? In other words, he intervenes, through the lives of believers, not by answering random prayers and denying the rest? Therefore, if Christians do not act in love as God commands them to do, then we suffer the consequences of sin in the world. These are just my random efforts at a possible better answer, which I know has many “questionable” theological flaws.

As much as I wish I did, I unfortunately do not have the perfect answers to these difficult questions. My faith in a loving and caring God remains and I myself have come to grips with the fact that evil, horrible, painful things may happen to me and my family and I do not hold God responsible for them or expect that I should be exempt from suffering. These difficult questions about prayer and an interpersonal God remain difficult to me as well, so I leave it open to, you, the reader, to add your suggestions and thoughts.

The last thing that I would like to mention that I gleaned from Lobdell’s book is a bit about doubt. I believe there are many people out there like Lobdell, who desperately desire to have faith, but at the end of the day (or probably more like, end of many years of wrestling) simply were not able to maintain faith. As a person who has had many questions and doubts I have an understanding and appreciation for skeptics, but Lobdell gave me even more insight. As people of faith I think we tend to be too critical of people who have “lost their faith”. We tend to judge and dismiss them as a person who gave up or made a choice to stop believing. While this may be the case for some, I believe that many people who were once religious and walked away from faith, probably have a similar story as Lobdell. From my experience people who genuinely had faith at one time, but were later inundated with doubts, went through extreme pain, anxiety and emotional/intellectual wrestling to hold on to their faith but were ultimately unsuccessful. And for this I think we need to have understanding, acceptance and respect, and continued faith in an ultimately good God. To give a better understanding of someone’s personal struggle with faith and belief, let me leave you with a few last words from Lobdell’s faith autobiography.

Spiritual suicide infers that people make a conscious decision to abandon their faith. Yet it isn’t simply a matter of will. Many people want desperately to believe, but just can’t. They may feel tortured that their faith has evaporated, but they can’t will it back into existence. If an autopsy could be done on their spiritual life, the cause of death wouldn’t be murder or suicide. It would be natural causes – the organic death of a belief system that collapsed under the weight of experience and reason (141).

Christians often talk about Pascal’s Wager, which argues that it’s a good bet to believe in Christ. If you’re right, you’ll spend eternity in heaven. If you’re wrong, you’ll just be dead like everyone else. But it seems to me that to indulge Pascal’s Wager, you actually have to believe in Christ. The Lord would know if you were faking. I could no longer fake it. It was time to be honest about where I was in my faith (213).

Let us continue to hold faith as a gift and a blessing, and respect the skeptics, agnostics and atheists around us, learning from their questions and devoting ourselves to finding better answers – not just in thought and word, but with our actions and lives.