Tuesday, October 13, 2009

William Lobdell - Losing My Religion

William Lobdell is an American journalist. He rediscovered religion at age 29, became a "fully developed Christian", and got a job covering religion for the Los Angeles Times. As a reporter, he was exposed to the many misdeeds of organized religion, and in covering the religion beat, he eventually lost his religion - and wrote a book about it, called Losing My Religion (HarperCollins, 2009).

I wanted to like the book - but I didn't. Here's why.

1. The writing is clunky. Just because you're a journalist doesn't mean you can write a full-length book; the two crafts are very different. Reporters tend to write short, punchy sentences, and most don't have the time, inclination, or mandate to get deep into details. And reporters are always writing about other people, which means that when it comes time for self-reflection, they're often at a loss. The result is often self-indulgent (think of Anna Quindlen).

Here's an example:

So I began to pray. I asked God for a religion-writing job at the Los Angeles Times. I prayed for it in the morning, at night, and in between. On my weekly runs, I asked again. So did Hugh. We prayed and prayed and ran and ran -- and nothing happened. The prayers continued for four years. But my faith remained strong, and I didn't think about giving up.

And for a book by a reporter, there are surprising lapses. A Muslim football team is described on page 80 as being called the "Infitada". Where was the editor there?

2. Lobdell comes off as gullible and not particularly bright. I never got the impression that he thought deeply about his conversion -- or his deconversion. He calls C. S. Lewis "one of the great Christian minds of the 20th century", which doesn't convince me of Lobdell's acuity. And he actually liked The Screwtape Letters, one of the dreckiest books ever written. Lobdell writes that he was "moved" by the story of Charles Colson, former Watergate criminal who now spends part of his time lying about evolution and homosexuality.

He "eagerly read[s]" Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, a book whose entire premise is so clearly dishonest that any reporter should immediately be tipped off. Lobdell writes that Strobel's book "chronicles the author's spiritual journey from skeptic to devout evangelical as he investigates the scientific and historical evidence for Christianity". But this is a very misleading description of what Strobel does. In his books, Strobel typically doesn't present evidence on both sides of the questions he considers -- we get just one side, the evangelical Christian side. This dishonest presentation doesn't escape skeptical reviewers, but it seems to have entirely escaped Lobdell.

Lobdell's conversion seemed more emotional than rational, more about how religion and the church made him feel. And his deconversion (see below) was largely along the same lines.

3. Lobdell seems impressed by the argument from authority. For example, he writes "I needed to hear Christians more intelligent than I who had the utmost confidence -- and evidence to back it up -- in what the Bible said, even those uncomfortable passages that most believers skip or ignore." But why didn't he make any effort to seek out people who didn't have that confidence, and also had evidence to back it up?

4. Lobdell doesn't seem to understand the role of a reporter. The job of a journalist is to "print the truth and raise hell", to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". But not, it seems when reporting about religion. He writes, It's drilled into journalists that "if your mother tells you she loves you, better check it out." But such journalistic standards can't be applied to much of faith reporting. But it's precisely this mistaken belief that explains why so much religion reporting consists of little more than taking dictation from believers, instead of challenging them on their claims.

Here's an example: Lobdell writes, The worst a cynic could say about them [Billy Graham and Rick Warren] is that they encourage belief in things that might not be true. Really? That is the worst that a cynic could say about them?

Hardly. How about calling Rick Warren a clueless hypocrite who encourages his followers to vote against gay rights? Or that Warren's highly-publicized crusade against AIDS actually involves sidekicks who advocate burning condoms and arresting homosexuals?

5. His deconversion, when it comes, comes for the wrong reasons. He didn't give up Christianity because its claims are false or not supported by the evidence, but largely because of the wrongdoing of many Christians (especially Catholic priests). It wasn't an intellectual decision, but an emotional reaction to the wrongdoing by Michael Harris, Michael Pecharich, John Geoghan, and other priests. While we agree that the Catholic child abuse scandals are symptomatic of a unredeemably corrupt institution, I don't agree that these scandals are a particularly good reason for giving up Christianity. There are so many better reasons!

To be fair, there are also some things about the book that I liked. Lobdell appears to have done some genuinely good investigative work on Catholic child abuse scandals, and he wasn't scared off by the hostile reaction of many Catholics. He also broke the story on Paul Crouch's attempt to buy the silence of an employee about their sexual encounter. But in the end, I found the book unsatisfying. I hope that wherever his future career takes him, William Lobdell makes more of an effort to investigate claims skeptically, and to rely more on reason and less on emotion.


Joshua said...

This sounds interesing. I've been considering looking at this book and now probably won't. On the other hand, my opinion of C.S. Lewis is a lot higher than yours. I found the Screwtape Letters to be highly enjoyable, well-written, and funny at times. Indeed, I don't understand why modern Christian apologists can't write that well. I suppose there's a lot of subjectivity here but I'd be very curious as to what makes you label The Screwtape Letters "one of the dreckiest books every written."

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Joshua -

Well, for one thing, I can't stand books that are written in "epistolary" format. It is a really terrible way to tell a story, and I can only think of one author - Woody Allen - who has done a good job with the genre.

For another, I despise the whole disguised purpose of the book - to convert readers to Christianity. By contrast, I almost admire the straightforward honesty of someone like Jack Chick - at least you know where you stand with him.

And finally, I find Lewis's prose style insufferable. So twee, so pleased with himself. It makes me want to push a grapefruit into his face.

Gareth McCaughan said...

"The Screwtape Letters" isn't really telling a story. I mean, yeah, there's one there, sort of, but what interest the book has isn't anything to do with that story. You could shuffle the letters into a random order and it wouldn't make much difference.

I don't think the purpose of the book is to convert anyone; rather, Lewis expects it to be read by Christians for their own edification.

And the book's Christian agenda is hardly *disguised*. Unless you're suggesting that it's an evangelistic tract masquerading as a book for people who are already Christians. But that really doesn't seem credible.

I do agree about the smugness of a lot of Lewis's writing, though.

Blake Stacey said...

Calling C. S. Lewis "one of the great Christian minds of the 20th century" rather invites a cheap shot about fishes and ponds, or ruling in Hell versus serving in Heaven.

Joshua said...

Yes, his being pleased with himself does come across pretty strongly.

I don't think that the intent to convert is at all hidden. It seems pretty blunt that the intent is to convert and shore up the faith in the doubting.

Gareth, that's not quite true. The early letters start off with Wormwood's attitude changing. Wormwood's assigned human does change over time. He isn't a Christian initially, becomes Christian, then falls off before becoming Christian again and then falls in love before dying in a state of grace.

Some of the letters could have the order changed, but most cannot.

Gareth McCaughan said...

Joshua: yes, I know that there is a story, but the story really isn't the point. You're not reading the book to find out whether the "patient" gets saved or damned at the end, or because you're interested in the developing/degenerating relationship between Screwtape and Wormwood, any more than you're reading Plato's Symposium because you're interested in ancient Greek dining. (At least, when I last read the book -- which admittedly was many years ago -- I don't think I was.) The story's just a unifying device.