A Window into the Faith of Religion Reporters
Faith celebrated. Faith lost. Faith inspected and detected, from neurological research to relics of saints venerated in exotic shrines.
We talk to four journalists who, drawn to write about religion, make their explorations personal in their new books.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty
"Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality"
The religion reporter for National Public Radio is nearly naked in her new book. Spiritually naked, that is.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty's scientific exploration of spirituality research weaves in her faith history: a devout Christian Scientist who shifts to evangelical Christianity, then develops a gnawing desire to answer the question "Will science get the last word on God?"
She visits neuroscientists who scan the brains of people in prayer and meditation; interviews the "God spot" researcher who says there's no such spot; hears the tales of people transported by visions; and investigates the power of prayer, where her own faith began.
"Fingerprints" is also funny. Bradley Hagerty describes being trapped in a tent for an all-night peyote ceremony where she's observing, not indulging. A two-week meditation experiment just makes her cranky, "a poster child for meditative failure."
Ultimately, she circles back to an idea from her Christian Science youth: that prayer really does shape your brain, as some scientific research suggests. "You can find peace and calm and a sense of unity with the universe that other people cannot usually get to," she says.
Although no scientific experiment proves the existence of God, "that doesn't mean science won't come up with one."
Until then, "we have no facts about God. We only have beliefs about God," says Bradley Hagerty, who still believes.
"Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead"
Peter Manseau has made — from teeth and whiskers, fingers and ribs — a globe-traveling tale of the one thing all humanity shares: the body.
In "Rag and Bone," he takes a world tour of relics.
St. John the Baptist's finger. Mohammed's whisker. St. Francis Xavier's toe. Even Buddha's teeth are "politically active" as "tools of piety and power" in Myanmar.
"Every religion is a banquet of holy lives: These are the leftovers," Manseau writes after traveling from Jerusalem to Goa, Kashmir to Paris.
The Washington, D.C.-based author, who also edits "Search: The Magazine of Science, Religion and Culture," originally wanted to be an archaeologist, "digging around for the material of who we are. I became a writer about religion because it was a way to be digging around the stories we tell. Religious stories tell who we are as well," he says.
Manseau's first book, "Vows," was a memoir of his early life "in a parallel universe" as the child of a Catholic priest and a nun who married but refused to renounce their vocations or to be officially laicized.
Perhaps that was part of the attraction of relics: a deep, defiantly personal take on holy symbolism.
"Authenticity is irrelevant," he says. "The power is always in the hands of the believers, who decide what they are. And we become religious objects ourselves, material that someone else will deal with when we are gone."
"Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace"
Journalist William Lobdell had the classic Christian story — sinner saved by grace — until his born-again fervor led him to become a suburban religion columnist and eventually a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
He gives the ending away in the title: "Losing My Religion." At first, he delights in upbeat stories of people living lives of faith. "Believers see God's work everywhere, and the God things I saw all around me cried out to be covered," he writes.
But the snake in the garden appears early. Someone gives him files on a priest who sexually abused minors. Lobdell sets the papers aside, "distracted" by other work, 14 months before the abuse crisis hit nationwide in 2002.
By then, Lobdell had encountered other troubling issues: believers who distorted their faith with hypocrisy, selfishness, zealots who turned their backs on family.
"I've always admired people who live out their faith. But a lot of people are 'cultural Christians,' who don't really believe or live the teachings," Lobdell says.
His faith gone, Lobdell bowed off the beat with a bang — a front-page essay, which led to the book.
And yet, now, as a freelance writer and a comfortable unbeliever, he says he still prays. "Maybe it's fundamental to the human condition: We're the only species that knows we're going to die." Or maybe, he says, it's "a human wish for more than what is here, for what is true."
"Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace"
Anyone scanning the spiritual horizon for flashes of faith's quietly splendid moments might use this bird-watching handbook for grace.
Cathleen Falsani, the Chicago Sun-Times religion columnist and blogger (The Dude Abides, at falsani.blogspot.com), tells personal stories to illuminate its sights and sounds — the "audacious, unwarranted, and unlimited" gift from God — on the wing.
For her first book, Falsani interviewed celebrities about their spiritual lives. For this one, she turned her journalistic skills on herself.
"I started thinking about &hellip where I experienced grace, and then I set out for new experiences, confident that grace would show up. Grace always shows up — if you have eyes to see it."
What doesn't show up in the book is theology or doctrine. It is filled with art, music and movie references.
"It takes art to talk about grace. It's always more eloquent," says Falsani, whose favorite T-shirt says, "Jesus is my mix tape."
Falsani goes "gracespotting" from Montana to Malawi.
In Africa, she was so taken by an AIDS orphan with a heart defect that she spent a year orchestrating life-saving surgery for him. Falsani later learned that the Swahili word on the boy's T-shirt the day they first met translated to "grace."
"It reorients your whole being to see the grace in life. It makes me grateful, more compassionate and hopeful — all so important to embrace in this nervous world."