Dark night of a reporter's soul

09064 2The editors of the Los Angeles Times made an interesting decision when they decided to give page-one play to religion reporter William Lobdell's soul-searching essay, "Religion beat became a test of faith -- A reporter looks at how the stories he covered affected him and his spiritual journey." That headline is actually stating things rather mildly.

This is a first-person account in which Lobdell describes his journey from born-again Protestantism (and his prayers that God would let him cover the religion beat) to his near conversion to the Roman Catholic faith and finally into a state of dismay and what certainly appears to be, at the moment, a tragic loss of faith. He also says his trials on the religion beat have led him to ask that the editors give him a new job.

This is not a news story, so it is hard to give it a standard GetReligion critique. Although there are moments when the reporter in me wants to ask questions, that is hard to do when you are reading a story as painful and gripping as this one. This is a spiritual reflection, not journalism. It is hard to tell Lobdell that he is wrong -- even though many readers will question his conclusions, for reasons of their own.

Essentially, this is an essay about ancient questions linked to theodicy -- putting God on trial for the painful reality of evil in this world. Although the writer mentions several issues that pushed him over the edge, it certainly appears that his fury is rooted in his attempts to cover sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic priesthood and the cover-up by many bishops. Lobdell cannot come to terms with this. Who could?

That leads to the heart of the story:

As the stories piled up, I began to pray with renewed vigor, but it felt like I wasn't connecting to God. I started to feel silly even trying.

I read accounts of St. John of the Cross and his "dark night of the soul," a time he believed God was testing him by seemingly withdrawing from his life. Maybe this was my test.

I met with my former Presbyterian pastor, John Huffman, and told him what I was feeling. I asked him if I could e-mail him some tough questions about Christianity and faith and get his answers. He agreed without hesitation.

The questions that I thought I had come to peace with started to bubble up again. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when he's never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord?

In one e-mail, I asked John, who had lost a daughter to cancer, why an atheist businessman prospers and the child of devout Christian parents dies. Why would a loving God make this impossible for us to understand?

He sent back a long reply that concluded:

"My ultimate affirmation is let God be God and acknowledge that He is in charge. He knows what I don't know. And frankly, if I'm totally honest with you, a life of gratitude is one that bows before the Sovereign God arguing with Him on those things that trouble me, lamenting the losses of life, but ultimately saying, 'You, God, are infinite; I'm human and finite.'"

John is an excellent pastor, but he couldn't reach me. For some time, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I saw, but I was losing ground. I wondered if my born-again experience at the mountain retreat was more about fatigue, spiritual longing and emotional vulnerability than being touched by Jesus.

And I considered another possibility: Maybe God didn't exist.

REM tableau 2What can you say about a page-one article of this kind?

Actually, I have more questions that I wish I could ask the editors than questions I would ask Lobdell.

Don't get me wrong. There would be much I would say to him in person, most of it rooted in the idea that it is better to wrestle with eternal faith issues in the context of a living, vital faith community than on one's on. But that is hardly a journalistic comment either, now is it? As C.S. Lewis noted in The Horse and His Boy, there are times when God tells each person his or her own story and others simply have to urge them to listen. We cannot hear their story or claim to know what they should be hearing.

I have only known one or two professionals who felt their faith was threatened by covering religion news. I have known people who found faith on the beat -- one or two (I will name no names). I have known people whose faith changed while on the beat. And, as I have said many times, I have known excellent religion writers who had a fierce intellectual interest in religious issues and events, but no faith at all.

This is journalism and there are all kinds of people who can do this journalistic work with skill and integrity.

The question, for me, is why this story ended up on page one, rather than in a Sunday feature section, a pullout magazine or some other part of the Times that carries essays, rather than news features or breaking stories.

Were the editors trying to say something about journalism? About faith? A warning about what happens when people of faith work on this beat? That, to me, was the mystery linked to this piece.

Photos: REM's "Losing My Religion."

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