One way I can tell whether a nonfiction book has met its goal is if, after
finishing it, I want to call the author and invite him/her to lunch. I have to
say that nothing would make me happier than spending a quiet spring afternoon
sipping a nice sauvignon blanc and chatting with Bill Lobdell. I feel just that
close to him. More than that, I feel we are kindred spirits; battered souls on a
quest to make sense of a confusing world. Better yet, I think there are more
people who have a lot more in common with Lobdell (if truth be told) than might
be ready to admit it. Because who among us does not have a personal story of
love gained and lost? And what is religion if not organized love targeted toward
a spiritual entity? In view of that, who has sought enlightenment and something
to believe really believe in, only to feel sand-bagged when the recipient of
our faith turned out to have feet of clay?
It happened to Lobdell -- but he is not bitter. It is what makes his account so effective. He relates the story by employing the excellent reporting skills that made his column so popular in the Los Angeles Times. The details are intimate. Intimate? How about almost painfully personal? He admits that as a young man he was a rascal; leading a life more directed toward something resembling self-destruction than toward a promising future. Many young people struggle to find their way and Lobdell's struggle, characterized by excesses, a failed marriage and a dead-end job, caused him and his family heartache and embarrassment. Then - around the same time he learned that his girlfriend was pregnant with his baby - he became a seeker.
Like many, he'd abandoned the religion of his parents when he was a teenager. But that didn't keep him from feeling there was something seriously missing in his life. Over a decade later, with a brand new if unanticipated family he still felt lost. A friend invited him to a weekend retreat. It marked the beginning of what would become a quest for spiritual fulfillment. Convinced that what he really sought was God through religion he began to become more and more involved in a Christian church and the Bible.
His luck started to change. He took better care of himself. His acne cleared up. Money even started coming in. He landed a job at the LA Times and ultimately became their religion columnist. Lobdell dutifully thanked the God he believed genuinely cared about him on a personal level. Everything he prayed for seemed to materialize. Moreover, all the great things he wrote about for his Times column reinforced his faith. As he says, believers see God's hand everywhere. Eventually he gravitated toward Catholicism. He and his wife began studying to become Catholics.
The good thing about being an LA Times religion columnist is that you are kept at the forefront of the very latest news about God and religion the world over. The bad thing is that you are still at the forefront when there is scandal within religious circles. Thus even before general news outlets broke the story of alleged child abuse committed by Catholic priests, Lobdell had details of the first lawsuit on his desk. At first he tried to ignore it, or at least play it down. It not only threatened everything he believed in but everything he'd based a lifelong career on. But the truth would not back down. It demanded to be heard. The crimes, the sins, the cover-ups, the corruption, the secrecy, the collusion; betrayal mounted on top of betrayal. He was disgusted.
Like the paint on a religious statue in an ancient church, Lobdell's faith began to chip and peel. The questions and doubts tormented him as he neared the day he was slated to be baptized a Catholic. Finally he decided he could not go through with it. How could those despicable people not be struck down by the God of what was supposed to be the one true Church? In light of his knowledge of acts of blatant fraud, misrepresentation and malfeasance among protestant clergy and televangelists he concluded, "I just couldn't find any evidence within Protestantism or Catholicism that their religion made them ethically or morally any better than atheists."
Even though in hindsight he found logical explanations for all the good luck he'd previously attributed to God and even though he is now a religion writer with no religion translation: jobless he has managed to find peace. At least he knows he can make good things happen in his own life. QED, this fine book that ought to provoke thought and self-reflection for the masses (like me) who have also loved and lost.
More about this book at BookBrowse, and also at the author's website.
This review is from the April 22, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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