Los Angeles Times
Living with a hole in his heart
William Lobdell, a former religion reporter for The Times, writes about conversion and loss of faith.
At age 27, journalist William Lobdell hit a low point and, like many of us, began a search for God. At the urging of a friend, he attended an evangelical mega-church and liked what he saw. He started to “yearn to be part of this appealing club,” he recalls in “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace,” “to get some of what they appeared to have — simple happiness.”
He fell in love with a God who loved him perfectly. He publicly pronounced Jesus Christ as his personal lord and savior. He prayed for $50,000 and, sure enough, $50,000 came in. He began to attend church every Sunday morning with his wife and children and even to tithe. He began to wonder, “Why were so many stories about Christians negative or dismissive?” He had an epiphany. He heard the voice of God saying, “Why don’t you become a religion writer?”
Lobdell prayed, with fervor, for a religion writing job at this newspaper, and in 1998, that materialized too. He very reasonably became interested in writing about people who lived as if the Scriptures were true. He found much to admire in billionaire philanthropists Susan and Henry Samueli and mega-preacher Rick Warren. He visited the Orange County branch of the Catholic Worker movement and found that the couple who ran it “believe in Christ as much as they believe in breathing.” He was intrigued by people who had made sacrifices because of their beliefs, by people who had been beaten down by life but still didn’t blame God. The whole “God thing” seemed to be working for him.
Lobdell felt a growing attraction to the Catholic Church, the childhood faith of his wife, Greer. He was intrigued by “its complex 2000-year-old history, its stories of the saints, the breadth and depth of its theology, its beautiful liturgy.” He decided to convert but without believing in the church’s central tenet: the Real Body and Blood of Christ. “I planned on being a Cafeteria Catholic,” he writes, “picking which parts of church doctrine I would keep and which I would ignore.”
Meanwhile, he asked with increasing urgency: Where are the holy people? Where are the men of principle? Instead of finding them, his work led him to uncover priestly abuse. As if the injury done to the children weren’t enough, the cardinals were cowardly, the priests corrupt. The more he investigated, the more he found: lies, cover-ups, bishops alighting from limousines to have their rings kissed. He mentally lobbied to bring the concept of hell back, so God could send the pedophile priests there.
Lobdell began to win awards for his stories, but he was increasingly troubled. Men of God were not what they claimed to be. God was not who he had thought. A baby born prematurely first rallied, then died: Was this not cruel? Of the 2004 South Asia tsunami, he notes, “It made no sense. . . . What kind of God would allow so many people to die, and create so much heartbreak and so much misery?” Like most of us, of course, Lobdell shied away from misery in his daily existence. “I liked my life,” he writes. “It was comfortable. I had money and a nice home. I didn’t live among the poor and sick; visiting once in a while was enough.”
His doubts began to gnaw at him. He found validation for his “dark night” in Mother Teresa: “These saints had struggled with faith just as I was now wrestling with it.” He conducted research and found no scientific evidence in favor of prayer — for an amputee’s limb to be regenerated, for example — concluding that the “most logical answer to why God won’t heal amputees is that either God doesn’t care or doesn’t exist.” He studied statistics on evangelicals and was discouraged to find that “Christians, as a group, acted no differently than anyone else, including atheists.”
Lobdell tried to “pump up” his faith, but the feel-good music, the testimonies, the small-group sharing no longer did it for him. Instead, he wound up losing his faith, drifting away from the God for whom he once yearned. “Losing My Religion” tells the story of that experience.
I understand that Lobdell’s heart is broken, as all human hearts must be broken if for no other reason than that we must die. I sympathize down to the bone with his hunger for the world to be holy without quite being able to be holy himself. But I can’t help wondering what would have happened had Lobdell stepped out of his journalist’s role. I wonder if he would not have discovered that even the best of us contribute to the suffering of the world. I wonder if he would not have discovered that conflict, uncertainty, paradox, doubt are the beginning of faith, not the end of it. I wonder if he would not have realized that an anonymous author wrote a variation of this story 2,600 years ago — about a man named Job.
There is one holy man, one saint in Lobdell’s book. His name is Peter “Packy” Kobuk, and he’s a 48-year-old Alaskan, in jail, troubled by drink and a violent temper. He carries a rosary, its beads strung together with fish line. As a child, he was sexually abused by a priest — horribly, unforgivably — over a period of years, as was a generation of Catholic boys in his area of the state. Kobuk prays for the priest who raped him. He asks for him to be accepted into heaven. He gets down on his knees in his cell, though the other inmates ridicule him, and prays for his children. “I just want to heal,” he says.
The cover of “Losing My Religion” shows a just-extinguished candle against a background of black. May we all find some light in the unbearable, convicting flame of Packy Kobuk. King is the author of the memoir “Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Sanity and the Peace That Passes All Understanding.”