I admit that when approaching William Lobdell's Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace (HarperCollins, 2009), I expected the standard debunking treatment that is so familiar in news and entertainment media these days. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find a balanced and engaging narrative that mixes accounts of the stories Lobell covered while a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times with details of his own journey into, then out of, faith.
Lobdell's journey and reporting
Lobdell's journey began in his late twenties, when he first attended the Mariners Church, a nondenominational megachurch in Orange County. Ironically, that church is located just a couple of blocks away from the Newport Beach Temple. [The Mariners Church very kindly allowed their parking lot to be used for overflow parking during the public open house tours provided prior to the dedication of the temple in 2005.] Lobdell slowly grew in the faith, recovered his health, improved his marriage, got a big salary bump, and gained a spiritual mentor and friend in Hugh Hewitt, the blogging law professor and conservative commentator. So far, so good.
Still in search of what he called "The Moment" (when an Evangelical has that born-again experience), Lobdell attended a weekend retreat at Hewitt's urging. Lobdell's account of that weekend alone merits the price of the book for any LDS reader. Lobdell describes a "cycle of singing, testimony, preaching, sharing and praying [that] repeated itself Saturday morning, Saturday evening and Sunday morning" (p. 19).
By design, the weekend left us emotionally raw. Cut off from our regular lives, our facades broke down under the assault of song, prayers, worship, honest sharing and sleep deprivation. With real emotions exposed, I could see that the other guys were as screwed up as I was. ... There was nothing these guys wouldn't share: addiction to pornography, affairs, mistreatment of children, failed business ventures, and alcohol and drug abuse. And they all found comfort and direction in Jesus. (p. 20)
Does that sound cultish or what? Before the end of the weekend, Lobdell had his Moment. I'm not suggesting every Evangelical gets born again through this sort of manipulation, of course. But nothing like this happens in the LDS Church. We don't do retreats. Converts need to go through a series of lessons and attend church prior to being considered for baptism into the LDS Church. Every convert goes through a relaxed but sober and straightforward interview with a local LDS leader to confirm that individual's' understanding of and belief in the basics of the LDS faith before being baptized into the Church. It is the polar opposite of the cultish approach used by some Evangelicals as described by Lobdell.
It is worth noting that Lobdell the author, looking back on the experience of Lobdell the believer, did not discount, bracket, or ridicule his own earlier experience. It was a sincere spiritual experience — he said it was "what I can only call a vision" (p. 22). He deserves credit for passing up an easy opportunity to criticize his prior actions and beliefs (and, by extension, religion and religious conversion in general). Later in the book he reflects more generally on how he now views his earlier belief.
Religious ceremonies I once thought were exquisitely beautiful ... now seem almost comical to me, what with the incense, the holy water, the costumes and the freshly minted priest prostrate on the floor. But then I remember where I was a short time ago, viewing nonbelievers with sadness because they didn't know the Lord. With all that has happened to me, I don't feel qualified to judge anyone else. (p. 271.)
Lobdell was eventually hired by the Los Angeles Times, where he soon began covering religion stories. His timing was good, as a big Catholic priest abuse story was just breaking in Orange County. He recounts the details of this expanding story over several chapters. He also summarizes his reporting on other stories, including a series on the escapades of a popular televangelist, the faith struggle of an attorney representing sex abuse victims, then finally his own struggle and eventual loss of faith. His short explanation to a colleague: "I lost my faith on the religion beat" (p. 260).
The series of personal essays published in the Times recounting Lobell's loss of faith generated a tremendous response. "This kind of response was completely unexpected. ... There were people across the religion spectrum who had serious doubts. Many said they felt reluctant to express them. Their stories ... poured in. More then 2,700 of them, in the end" (p. 268).
Encounters with Mormonism
Chapter Nine, "The Golden Rule," recounts the stories Lobdell did on Mormonism, including his experience as part of a wagon train trek reenactment. That story produced an invitation to the first Exmormon Conference, which he described as "60 ex-Mormons gathered in a small, dingy meeting room at a second-rate hotel." But he could feel their pain: "rejection by Mormon spouses, children, and relatives; the disappearance of Mormon friends; the end of a social life; and sidetracked careers" (p. 130-31). And so forth. Given the many positive stories Lobdell authored on Mormons, one can hardly accuse him of animosity, but I think he was a little too willing to take the stories he heard at the conference at face value. One Exmo who regularly sported a "Have You Hugged an Apostate Lately?" t-shirt complained about "having problems in her marriage." Okay, I can see that.
Lobdell saved the most interesting section on Mormons for the last chapter. After publishing "Bedrock of a Faith is Jolted," a story on DNA and the Book of Mormon in 2006, he was invited to speak at a Sunstone West conference in Southern California. I'm not sure he really understands Sunstone: "The lecture hall was filled with devout Mormons, and I was the only non-Latter-day Saint on the panel" (p. 280). He anticipated criticism of his story, but didn't get any ... until the last panelist, Clifton Jolley, unloaded what Lobdell called "a bizarre, occasionally funny, often angry 45-minute tirade" (p. 281).
Lobdell chalked up Jolley's "out-of-proportion response" to insecurity, "the result of someone trying desperately to defend a faith that had one too many fault lines running through it" (p. 282). I find that response ironic on two counts. First, few Mormons would consider a Sunstone speaker to represent the LDS response. The Sunstone response to the DNA issue might be insecurity; the mainstream LDS response is to simply ignore it. Second, it's odd to see Lobdell, who had recently lost his own faith, criticize someone who energetically defends his faith rather than surrendering, as did Lobdell.
Maybe Mormon roots grow deeper than Evangelical roots and Lobdell's loss of faith did not prepare him to understand the Mormon response to contrary evidence. I can't blame Lobdell for losing his Evangelical faith; I understand Jolley's defense of his Mormon faith. In any case, that was certainly an interesting choice for the last story in the book.
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Originally posted with comments at Times and Seasons.