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NEBR's Mona Lisa Safai interviews Cathleen Falsani, author of The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People

Mona Lisa SafaiSafai: The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People is your first book. Were there any specific circumstances/events that prompted you to write The God Factor?

Cathleen FalsaniFalsani: Well, it started as a project in the Chicago Sun-Times where I’m the religion writer. I’ve worked here since 2000. [The God Factor project] started sometime in early April 2004. I was approached by some editors who wanted a religion series, a three-day religion series, basically for newspaper sweeps month, which is like television sweeps month. And that’s all they told me. They didn’t give me any further guidance. So, I started thinking about things I had done in the past that I really enjoyed doing that got a lot of response from readers.

One of the things I enjoyed doing the most, one of the best assignments I’ve ever had, also the biggest responses from readers I’ve ever had, was back in December 2002. I spent a week on the road with Bono of U2 when he was touring the Midwest and the South with his nonprofit group DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa) trying to raise awareness and call people to action to intervene in the AIDS emergency in Sub-Saharan Africa. And on that trip, I did go as a religion reporter, intentionally, hoping he would talk to me about his faith again, after being shy for the better part of a decade, and he did. We had great conversations, on buses, and in churches, and my alma mater, Wheaton College outside Chicago.

I was very fortunate that my editors gave it great play on the front page everyday for the better part of a week. Readers just ate it up and more just argued and wanted to know more and all that good stuff. I thought about that and other columns that I had written. One was with Studs Terkel and another with a fella named Kurt Elling — he’s a jazz musician. Kurt’s was the first column like this. It was back in 2001 a couple weeks after the bombings in September. It was the first time my husband and I had gone out, really, since 9/11. It was a really special experience. I wrote about that and talked to Kurt a little bit about his faith and his take on spirituality. He had gone to divinity school at the same time I did, but a different school. People really liked that. Again, my conversation with Studs was similar, about his faith, and the spiritual state of the world, in general.

So, looking at those things, I thought if they want a project, maybe I can see if we can get a few people with a similar theme to talk about their spiritual lives. We were at that point in the middle of a very hot Senate race. We’d just come through the primaries and it was Barack Obama on the Democratic ticket running against Jack Ryan on the Republican ticket. So, I asked those two guys, and Sen. Dick Durbin, who is our Senior Senator of Illinois, if they would talk to me about their faith or lack thereof or whatever it was. All of them agreed, some of them rather reticently. The first one that ran as a God Factor piece — that’s what we decided to call the series — was Barack Obama. Which was terrific. It was one of my favorite conversations. It was before he became this huge national personality. He was very candid, came by himself. He was completely relaxed and just sort of “hit me with whatever you got.” He answered all my questions. It was a terrific experience. From there, when we ran that series, we received a huge reader response. We thought we’d poke around from there and see if we could expand a little bit more. We did a couple other Chicago personalities: Mancow Mueller, the controversial shock jock here in Chicago but also a born again Christian; and then Dusty Baker, the manager of the Cubs.

At this point, one of my editors said “there’s probably a book in here.” I laughed at him. But I started to think about it more and more and as we went beyond Chicago and I went to LA to interview a few people. By that point, I had a book agent and sold the book not too long thereafter. It came out a few weeks ago. And, that’s the story of how The God Factor came to be.

If you want to back up a little before that, some people have asked me about my interest in religion and popular culture, in general. That stems from a lot earlier. I know you’ve read the book where I describe in the Introduction when I was 12, where I have epiphanal moment of hearing a U2 song for the first time, launching me into a trajectory to look at the culture the way I do, trying to find expressions of the faith I have in places that are counterintuitive, for some people, yet totally intuitive for me and for a lot of other people, in the places, as I say in the book, that “some say God is not supposed to be.” So, I love doing this. As long as I’ve been a journalist, pretty much I’ve been covering the ‘religion beat.’ I’ve tried to steer it in a direction more current and more visceral and more intersecting with popular culture, in a very broad sense. I’d much rather write about a musician or politician and what he or she believes and how it affects what they do, than cover some denomination’s national convention and what they’re voting and fighting about.

Safai: Where is the most unexpected place you have discovered God?

Falsani: (with a laugh) The Playboy Mansion, I suppose. It is not a place I ever expected I would go. Especially when I decided over a decade ago that I wanted to be a religion writer. What I discovered there was nothing I could have ever expected. It was one of most profound encounters with a human being I’ve ever had, in terms of meeting someone who is a stranger with a familiar face, who you thought you knew something about, and to a certain extent, you do, but then there’s this whole other life, this other existence for them. And, having to break through the barriers, that both of us construct, as we were able to do . . . it was a tremendous experience.

See, I’m never surprised by where God shows up. I don’t think God’s limited to one place or another. I think God’s everywhere. So, I’m never surprised when I find God lurking in a seedy corner of a nightclub or anywhere else.

Safai: Can you elaborate on how you came up with the title The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People?

Falsani: I can’t remember if it was me that came up the title or my editor. There’s a debate. When I was in seminary, I had a professor named Roy Larson, an ordained minister, but for a majority of his life he has been a journalist, and, in fact, the religion writer at the Chicago Sun-Times long before I showed up. He was teaching a portion of the graduate program on religion and media — how to cover it — that I was in. He said something about looking for the “G factor,” looking for the religion angles, looking for the spiritual angles, conversations about morals and ethics and values in political conversations, in sports, in business, in healthcare, in education. Looking for the themes. That was probably somewhere in the back my mind when we were trying to name this short series. And that’s where it came from. But, I just can’t remember if was me or my editor. I think it was him, and he thinks it was me. (laughing).

Safai: In your Introduction, you write that you are a Christian. Did interviewing any of these public figures make you question your own faith?

Falsani: No. Quite the opposite, actually. There’s a quote you may or may not have seen toward the beginning of the book from a professor of mine at Wheaton named Arthur Holmes, the philosophy professor, and it says, “All truth is God’s truth.” It’s something I learned when I was 19 and it’s stayed with me ever since.

So, basically, the opposite thing happened. When I had these conversations (and I continue to have these kinds of conversations with people, famous people, and not famous people), that whether they come from the same religious tradition as me, or not, or something vastly different, or something slightly different, or everything in between, if you talk to someone long enough about faith, or whatever practice they choose or how they want to label it, to a person everyone in the book said something, at least one thing, that I sort of carried away with me, and I’ve thought about, and I’ve ruminated on, and some of them daily. And some of them really changed the way I live my life in an intentional way, and that has enlivened my own faith. The conversations I had with these people were intentionally designed to be nonconfrontational. When I asked them to be in the book, I told them I was not going to make an editorial judgment about whether your faith or lack thereof is real or right or genuine or accurate; or any of those things. I just want you to tell me what you believe and I’m not going to judge you. And I did that.

A lot of people do not understand that. I’ve had a few critics say “Why didn’t you confront them on the disconnect between what they say and what they do?” I didn’t. I could’ve. I chose not to because that’s not the ground rules for our conversation. That’s not the ground rules for the book. And, I didn’t want it to become that. I wanted to give these people a safe place to talk about their faith, which for the vast majority of them, either very rarely talked about publicly or never talked publicly. So, I didn’t get into any great moral or theological debates with anyone.

Safai: Yes, that was one thing I noticed in each interview.

Falsani: I could’ve. (laughing)

Safai: Oh, of course. (laughing).

Falsani: A few people tried to lure me in. I wouldn’t do it. Like Billy Corgan. (laughing).

Safai: Yes! From his picture, he looked like he appreciated confrontation.

Falsani: Yeah, Billy wanted to have a dialogue. But, I wouldn’t because that wasn’t the concept. I hope someday we’ll get a chance.

Safai: That was what I enjoyed about your book. How you could turn the page and each person was explaining how their spirituality or religion or lack thereof affected their life. There was no confrontation.

Falsani: And, some people I thought were way off. But, out of respect, for the intentionality of what we doing, I didn’t say that.

Safai: But, that was a good thing for the reader because they could decide for themselves.

Falsani: That’s exactly right. There’s a fella named Lee Strobel, who is a very well known evangelical Christian writer. He was one of the pastors at Willow Creek Church, which is a megachurch out here for about 30 years now — the church, not him. In recent years he’s written couple of books. One called A Case for Christ, another called A Case for the Creator, I think. I’ve known him a bit for a number of years and he started out as a journalist here in Chicago, actually well before I ever I ever showed up in the Midwest, I think before I was in grade school, frankly. But, he has a show (I don’t know if it’s still on) called “Faith Under Fire” that airs on the PAX network. And, it’s a cross between “Hardball” and “Crossfire,” where he’s the moderator and he has two people on, sometimes three, and debates different topics. He said he’s gotten a lot of criticism from other Christians who’ve said “Why would you use your show as a forum to spout off about things that aren’t true and blah blah blah.” And he said, “You know what, if you think that Christianity is the truth, if that is your take, if you think Christianity is the one true way, why would you be threatened by other ideas? If you just put them out there and let people judge for themselves, the cream will rise to the top.” That was basically his point of view and I’m not saying that. But, there is something to be said for just … just putting it out there without commentary, about what you think is really true or not. Let them decide for themselves. Let them have an experience with these people in the book that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

I tried to get out of the way as much as possible. I never intended for me to be a character in the book. That was something that began to happen organically and my publisher encouraged me to do that when it felt right. And that’s why I’m in there sometimes and sometimes I’m not. I’m sort of a tour guide.

Safai: In their adult lives, over 80% of your interviewees choose to practice spirituality over religion. Do you think being spiritual gives individuals more freedom to believe without having to conform to rigid, organized rules of the Church or explain personal belief systems?

Falsani: Yeah, I suppose so. I’ve said this in a number of places but I don’t say it the book: There is an analogy I like to use to explain the difference between religion and spirituality. All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. And all religion is spirituality but not all spirituality is religion. So, when you say that they practice spirituality, everybody in the book practices spirituality, whether they believe in God or not. So, that’s a difficult question to answer. But, certainly, when you don’t confine yourself by a label or, by practice, to an institutionalized religion, whatever it is, you have a little more freedom to move around. That said, there are plenty of people who do give themselves a label, who do function inside an institutionalized religious tradition, and do attend services, at one congregation or several on a regular basis, who also give themselves the freedom to explore other things. So, I don’t think it’s an either /or.

Safai: So you think the boundaries are ambiguous or vague?

Falsani: Yes. Definitely. Take Michael Gerson, for instance, who was raised a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. He is a Christian. He was raised in one particular flavor of Protestantism. Now, he’s an Episcopalian. But, certainly gleans lots of things that, I don’t think I would not be overstating it if I said, “enliven” his faith, from lots of different traditions. I don’t know if this is in the book or not, maybe it is. One of the keepsakes on his walls is a picture of Pope John Paul II. And, he talked to me about how lots of different Catholic writers have had a significant effect on how he perceives his relationship with God. At the end of the chapter, he quotes Henri Nouwen, who was a big Roman Catholic. There is no splitting hairs there. There are many that would align themselves with Mike both politically and religiously as conservative evangelical Christians who have no use for anything Catholic. They don’t even believe that Catholics are Christians, “real” Christians. And, that’s just one example. Even when people pen themselves in, and I’m not saying that he does, the mind wanders and that’s a good thing in my estimation. Because all truth is God’s truth: You see? We come full circle. If it’s true, it comes from God.

Safai: When you interviewed atheists and believers as opposed to agnostics, did you tend to struggle at all?

Falsani: No. Not at all. I’ve been doing this for 10 years. So, I’ve been talking to all kinds of people. I try to listen, I try to be respectful. I try to meet people where they are. It doesn’t matter what they believe. It’s not going to change how I interact with them. In fact, it’s more difficult for me to interview somebody who is the same as I am because I am more critical. I am much harder on other evangelicals than I would be…than, say, on a Hindu. Lee Strobel, in that same conversation, after he was telling me about getting complaints about what he does, said something like “We Christians kill and eat our own,” or, “We shoot our own,” that’s what he said. Very true. I’ve gotten a lot of really wonderful letters over the years and I’ve gotten a lot of horrible letters over the years — really mean-spirited hate mail — and some of the worst has come from fellow evangelicals and of those, the worst of the worst, has come from Wheaton grads who often don’t realize that I am one, or precisely because they realize I am not expressing something the way they want me to.

Safai: Do you find faith strengthened or weakened during times of crisis? Why?

Falsani: In a time of great sadness or great joy, people tend to either go one-way or the other. To God, or have faith or spirituality or whatever you want to call it, or away from it. It’s either a solace or a burden. And I don’t think it’s a distinct pattern in terms of personality or anything like that that I can tie to, how that happens. Some people will say that if you’re a scientist or an intellectual or cerebral, then you’re more inclined to reason or disinclined toward faith. I don’t think that’s true at all. You know, Barry Scheck said something to me that I’ve thought a lot about. And, I haven’t decided if it’s true or not or how it works. But, he talks about how he just doesn’t “intuit” the presence of a God, the existence of a God. And, I think I have met people where just the God gene is just missing. Like it’s just a dominant or recessive gene or something. For certain people who naturally intuit a God like myself, I see God everywhere. It wasn’t something that had to be taught to me as a child. Now, the construct by which I was supposed to understand was taught to me. But, I’ve always sensed the Creator. [Barry] doesn’t. Neither does Jeffrey Sachs.

Then, there’s someone like Sandra Cisneros who was taught one thing and perceives God in a completely different way and perceives God, sees God, intuits God, feels God everywhere. So, I don’t know if that’s something that’s been pre-programmed in us or not. I haven’t decided what I really think about that yet. But, it’s one of those things that Barry said that stuck with me. I started thinking about everybody I know in my life who do or don’t believe or whatever and where that comes from.

Some people turn away because they’ve been injured by other believers. Bono’s brilliant passage — I think it’s brilliant — in his chapter where he talks about “religious life” being like a “mine field” for him. And, it is for a lot of us. When you are injured spiritually by someone else, it is a very difficult wound to get over. I sometimes think that that is often the factor (not always) that turns people away in times of crisis. Not God, but God’s salesmen, for lack of a better word. (laugh). If you think about what Barry Scheck says about what he remembers when his sister died in the house fire when that stupid rabbi asked if his parents were going to make a donation in his sister’s name.

On the same token, someone like Melissa Etheridge or Billy Corgan — more specifically Melissa because I knew it was a clergy person — but if I had to guess, because of what Billy talks about, that woman was probably also a person of faith. But he didn’t say this specifically, so we’ll deal with Melissa: When she was starting to come to grips with her sexuality, as a 19-year-old college girl and came home and her mother threw her out of the house and she went and talked with a chaplain at Fort Leavenworth. She says very explicitly that his kindness, his “kind words,” are at least one of the things, certainly, that have kept her from being an atheist. So, I think we have an effect on each other’s faith, for better and for worse, and that is sometimes a lot more pivotal than “God” doing anything. I think “God” is, and God is the way God says God is, and all that. But, I’m speaking as a Christian.

I read a horrible review of my book in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, written by another woman who is a born-again Christian, and it was so mean-spirited, in my estimation, and was so judgmental and snide and mocking of other people’s beliefs that she doesn’t share or understand, that it makes me absolutely mental. In the review, she says she’s a Christian. As if somehow Jesus is her co-author. And it just makes me crazy. As someone, who, in theory, will be sharing the same dorm room as her in heaven for all of eternity, I hope it’s a big room, and I hope she’s on the other end. That kind of gaaaaaarrgh! That kind of mean spirited judgmentalism has absolutely nothing to do with Christ. Or Christianity. A colleague of mine at the Sun-Times likes to say, paraphrasing something that has been said before, I’m sure: “Christianity is a beautiful religion and more of us would know that if anybody actually practiced it.”

Safai: I think that can be said for many religions if they were practiced they way they were intended to be practiced.

Falsani: Right. The wit and wisdom of Russell Simmons, in his profane, inevitable way, says if you’re going to be a Muslim, be a practicing Muslim. If you’re going to be a Christian, be a practicing Christian. A little bit of wisdom from unexpected places.

Safai: I have a friend, a practicing Christian who gets very frustrated the way you do because so much has been distorted…

Falsani: For a long time, I didn’t tell people, especially not in print, or anything around my job, where I was asked for a religious label, or that I was a born again Christian. But that’s exactly what I am. I’m not terribly good at it. As Bono says, “I’m a crap disciple . . . I’m the runt of the litter.” I’m not a very good advertisement for God, but I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to be more Christlike and everyday I fail. But I try.

As I understand it, the greatest command Jesus gave us was to love each other, to be that force of love in the world, and if we can’t get that right, who’s going to listen to any of the other stuff? And, it’s painful. And when you say to someone, “evangelical”—and ask them what’s the first thing that comes to their mind. And I’ve done this a lot. The first thing that comes to people’s mind is “judgmental,” “small-minded,” “mean.” Things like that. How did we get there? How did that happen?

Safai: Unfortunately, we had horrible Jerry Falwell, the brainwashing…

Falsani: Yes. The big bellicose voices that would make Jesus want to drink gin out of the cat dish, as Annie Lamott would say.

Safai: In your book, many interviewees “tailored” their spirituality or religion to suit their lives. Is this more apparent since September 11 th, 2001 or a common phenomenon existent in every generation?

Falsani: Don’t we all? In one way or another? I think it’s fairly common. It’s part of the human condition. Depending on what you’re practicing, you tailor your life to fit what you believe in the way you’re instructed to live. And, for better or worse, tailor what you believe to fit how you live. If you want to look at statistics and pollsters, keeping track since the early 1970s at least, there’s more people who will call themselves just “spiritual” and use a label today than you ever had before. It’s not a jump of 50% more, it’s more of a jump of 7 or 8 percentage points in a generation of people who say don’t ever go to a worship service or say they’re of no religion. There are more of those. But, we’re still, by in large, a country of people who like to affix a label to ourselves and the majority affix a Christian label of one flavor or another. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops in our generation here in Generation X, and in Y and Z coming after us. Or if, in turn, they will start coming back to more traditional institutional religions or if it’ll continue to be an ever broadening buffet of spiritual options that we assemble for ourselves. There’s a phenomenon that people call “Sheilaism.” It’s Sheila’s religion. It’s whatever she makes it. Some critics have criticized people in the book for being that. And I don’t think that’s necessarily fair for most of them. Certainly Hef has constructed something that I call the “Playboy theology.” It’s a little bit of this and little bit of that. The parts that he likes. But he tries to live by this thing he’s created for himself with a lot of thought. And, he’s 80, almost.

Safai: When readers turn the last page of The God Factor, what do you hope they will understand from the culmination of your book?

Falsani: That’s interesting. No one’s ever asked me that. I’m not exactly sure how to answer that. Isn’t it funny that no one has ever asked me that? Why was I doing this…why was I doing this? Well, I hope that people will be less judgmental and more willing to have conversations like this themselves. I also hope that people understand, and that’s why I explained something of myself in the very beginning of the book, that you can be a born again Christian and not be an asshole, and have respect for other people’s beliefs even when you don’t agree with them. You can have these sacred conversations without arguing and sometimes, perhaps, that accomplishes more than confrontation or dialogue — even the best-hearted dialogue. There’s certainly a place for that, but I wanted to try this. And I think it’s resonated with a lot of people and I’m very pleased when people get it.

I really didn’t have an agenda going into it other than what I’ve just expressed. But, if someone reads all the way through and gets to the very last page and flips over and sees a quote from June Young, who was the wife of one of my theater professors at Wheaton, where she says “None is worthy, but all are welcome.” I hope they feel that, too. A lot of people in the book talk about grace, whether they call it that or not. There are ideas that are mine, that I’ve learned over the years that I believe are true about what Christ was trying to say. And if people come away with those things, knowing they are loved by God, knowing there’s grace in the world, knowing we should love and respect each other, then I’m thrilled. Mission accomplished.

Safai: Since George W. Bush was re-elected into office, the U.S. has seen an extreme shift to the Christian Right. After writing The God Factor and interviewing such an amazingly diverse group of public figures do you believe that the Christian Right is an accurate portrait of the United States?

Falsani: No. And, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this. Because I thought — and “Christian Right” is not a very helpful expression —What is that? Who is that? Who isn’t it? It’s like pornography. We think we know it when we see it. But, we can’t really define it quite well. But, I know what you mean by that. It’s really a code word for something else that we haven’t quite defined well or come up with a different expression for yet, but I know what you mean.

And so, no. There is a perception out there that the only way to be a genuine valid person of faith is to hold their values and to act a certain way, to look a certain way, to behave a certain way, and I don’t think that’s true. We are a country of faith. That’s not changing. Its expression has changed. It’s certainly isn’t limited to one particular, political flavor. There’s a groundswell that’s learning to gain momentum among people, who like myself identify — self-identify — as born-again evangelicals, who are not politically conservative, who did not express themselves that way, who would never align themselves with the “Christian Right.” We are a nation where we have people of all traditions and none, and you can still be a moral person who holds values and ethics in high regard, and not be one particular religious flavor, believing one particular religious way.

It gets more and more narrow as you head over in that direction on the Right. The club gets smaller and smaller. And, I don’t think that’s what it’s all about.

Safai: Presently, do you have any new projects that you are working on?

Falsani: Yes. But, I can’t tell you or I’d have to kill’ ya! (laugh). I’m working on my column and for the newspaper, and I’m as fascinated as ever, if not more so.

Safai: Thank you so much for the interview. It was a pleasure to review and interview you.

Falsani: Thank you.


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