This interesting and well-written book gives believers and unbelievers alike an opportunity to reflect. It is the story of the spiritual journey of William Lobdell, who went from unbeliever to evangelical to Catholic, worked as religion reporter for a major US newspaper covering the Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal among other things, and subsequently lost his belief in God. As a Christian of the reformed and evangelical stripe, I found Lobdell’s journey fascinating, sad, and instructive. Let me take those in turn.
Lobdell is an experienced writer and that comes through on every page. As one who has struggled through many a book full of good ideas and poor writing, this was a nice surprise.
I did not expect Lobdell’s move from the shallow evangelicalism of his conversion and early Christian experience to the Catholic Church, but it does make sense in hindsight. Nothing seems to drive Protestants to Rome like the rootlessness of contemporary evangelicalism, which so often puts emotion and experience in the driver’s seat, despite the fact that emotion is a terrible driver and experience an even worse navigator. With them in control, there’s no telling where you might end up: Rome or somewhere worse. I will return to the roles of emotion and experience in the last section.
The quality of Lobdell’s storytelling comes through in the middle section of the book when he really starts to dig into the underbelly of the corruption of institutional religion. This made for riveting and stomach-turning reading. The two main targets of his investigative reporting are the Catholic Church and the Prosperity Gospel industrial complex. Now while I have a measure of appreciation for the Catholic Church, despite fundamental and important differences, I have no appreciation at all for the prosperity gospel and its preachers, those misery-sowing peddlers of a false and damning gospel. Ahem. Where was I? Oh right.
This brings us to the book’s sadness. Lobdell has his heart and soul crushed by the steady willful evil of a cold church bureaucracy and the unfathomable suffering of many innocent, vulnerable people. I felt the anger welling up as I read the stories of these atrocities; I can’t imagine what it would have been like to sit with these victims and hear their stories. I don’t know how anyone can handle that emotionally. So I have a lot of compassion for how hard this would have been.
What is also sad is how theologically unprepared he was to grapple with these realities. It seems, from a distance, that the kind of Christianity Lobdell was discipled into was very acclimated to the comfortable affluent Southern California world. This is probably the norm, but it does leave one totally unprepared to relate to the majority of Christians in the world today, not to mention the majority of Christians throughout the ages, who have and who are suffering in all kinds of ways. Oh, and the Bible, which in many ways is a pretty brutal book.
From very early in his journey, Lobdell expressed doubts about the character of God as revealed in Scripture. However, he never seems to doubt the certitude of the moral assumptions that give rise to his doubts and questions. There is a lot of sentimentality there. The justice and judgment of God, which the author found so hard to accept, are the very things that would have anchored him in the face of such unimaginable evil as he encountered. Theologian Miroslav Volf, who hails from the Balkans and has seen his share of human evil, is right that without a God of judgment, the cycle of violence goes on and on, because only earthly justice is left. Likewise the sentimentalist is utterly unequipped to face the depth of evil humans are capable of. The imprecatory Psalms are an embarrassment to the sentimentalist, but they are a lifeline to the victim or troubled bystander of injustice and evil.
To return to my previous point, the assumption that emotion and experience are fundamental arbiters of truth is never questioned: ‘If I experience something, then my interpretation of that experience is true.’ Near the end of the book, he even says something about “his truth.” Oprah couldn’t have said it better – and it has all the objective solidity of an overcooked spaghetti noodle.
These are deeply modern (even post-modern) assumptions, shaped by the prevailing philosophy of our time and culture. Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor famously calls ours a Secular Age, in contrast to previous ages. Where once it was well-nigh impossible not to believe in God, given the available explanatory frameworks, now we are 200 years downstream from the enlightenment and it is, culturally speaking, pretty well impossible to believe in God. Unless one is able to zoom out a bit and see these things as the passing fancies that they are, it can be extremely disorienting and even destructive to one’s faith, as in Lobdell’s case.
In the last portion of the book, the author makes some attempts to voice his doubts and see if anyone can give him satisfactory answers. The questions and problems he raises however contain deeply embedded assumptions that again are never questioned. He decides to weigh the truthfulness of Christianity in part by measuring the moral quality of those who identify as Christians. In America. I almost laughed out loud.
This approach might work in Afghanistan or in China, where there are no massive cultural incentives to identify as Christian. But in America, even twenty years ago, Christianity was such a cultural expectation that these studies are basically useless. The shortcomings of these famous Barna studies were known even at the time, although perhaps not widely enough.
Consider what has happened since: the fastest growing religious identification is the “nones”, as in, no identification. The ‘mushy middle’ of cultural Christianity, which was made up of mainline denominations and weak evangelicalism, basically hollow and doctrinally and morally indistinguishable from the surrounding culture, is quickly evaporating. What we are left with increasingly is a hard secularism on one side and a committed convictional Christianity on the other. It is even more like this in countries where secularism is more advanced, such as Canada where I live. Not too many people left here still claiming to be Christians if they aren’t personally committed to Christ. More recent and better-designed studies measuring the moral behaviour of believers has yielded different results, but I would still argue that this is a pretty terrible way to go about deciding if something is true.
Regarding the nature of prayer and of God’s providence, Lobdell again makes an assumption which renders the question essentially impossible. He assumes that the pattern of answered prayer and the observable fortunes and sufferings of people’s lives should immediately reveal to any observer the validity of God’s existence by vindicating his claim to love his people. In fact he seems to demand that this be the case. It’s difficult to know where to begin with an assumption like this, other than to say it is utterly foreign to the whole thrust of the New Testament, but utterly consistent with a very unreflective North American way of thinking.
His friend John, a Presbyterian pastor, hits the nail on the head with this comment on page 239:
“The fact is that [God] has not chosen to reveal everything to us. I can whine and complain that He hasn’t, demanding that God make it possible for me to understand everything. But when I do that, I’m getting pretty close to self-worship, lifting myself to the position of God, or perhaps even to a position superior to God, demanding that God function on my ground rules instead of me, humbly in worship, functioning on His.”
And that more or less describes what is going on in this book. In the end, Lobdell opts for a kind of unbelief that happily keeps all the moral and ethical capital of a Christian worldview while rejecting the Source of that morality and ethic. And since it can take a couple of generations for those fumes to dissipate, it’s quite possible he will live on borrowing happily and thinking all is well. His is a very Christian kind of atheism.
I am sure that many unbelievers and questioning believers will take encouragement from this book. It is a very human thing to find comfort in companionship. As a believer, I think it is a clarifying and revealing tale for anyone concerned with the state of Christian discipleship.