Losing My Religion by William Lobdell

Losing My Religion is William Lobdell’s memoir of becoming an evangelical, then a Roman Catholic, then a reluctant atheist. It is an engrossing and quick read. And unlike Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, Lobdell is not vicious. He disagrees with believers, but he does not despise them.

Lobdell is an award-winning journalist who covered the religion beat for the Los Angeles Times. As a one-time resident of Costa Mesa, California—where Lobdell lives—and a former reader of the Times, I personally know some of the people Lobdell reported on, and I remember reading some of his stories. His reportage on the sins of Paul and Jan Crouch and their Trinity Broadcasting Network sticks in my mind even to this day.

The book begins with Lobdell’s life in a mess. A friend tells him he needs God, and he ends up going to Mariners Church, an evangelical megachurch pastored by Kenton Beeshore. As he matures in his faith, he switches to St. Andrews Presbyterian, pastored by John Huffman. Eventually, however, he finds himself drawn to Catholicism, and he and his wife enroll in catechism classes.

At about the same time, he begins to cover a clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Orange Diocese, involving Father Michael Harris, the longtime principal of Mater Dei High School. In 1996, a one-time student at Mater Dei named Ryan DiMaria sued Harris and the Diocese and won a judgment of $5.2 million dollars. DiMaria also successfully forced the Diocese to reform the way it handled clergy sexual abuse cases.

Lobdell was disheartened at the way the episcopal hierarchy covered for abusive priests and vilified their victims, using strong-arm legal tactics to silence them. Even more, he was utterly shocked by how pliant congregations rallied to the side of their abusive priests rather than to the side of the children those priests had molested. As he began reporting on clergy sexual abuse in other dioceses, Lobdell saw the same pattern of cover-up, vilification, and strong-arm legal tactics play out over and over again. This pattern delivered a “spiritual body blow” to Lobdell’s faith, which never recovered. (And despite completing catechism, Lobdell decided not to join the Catholic church after all.)

Losing My Religion is memoir, not apologetic. Lobdell narrates his story of “de-conversion” rather than offering airtight arguments for disbelief. Nevertheless, the corruption of the Catholic church, not to mention the sinfulness of television evangelists, is the main reason he offers for his loss of faith. If the Christian God exists and does what the Bible says he does, surely Christians should be better than they are. He raises additional objections based on the problem of evil, the ineffectiveness of intercessory prayer, and the hard-to-believe stories of the Bible.

As the pastor of an evangelical church who is trained in both philosophy and theology, I find Lobdell’s arguments less than convincing. They are the standard objections to Christianity for which the standard replies suffice, at least in my opinion. But as I wrote above, Lobdell’s narrative is engrossing. I cheered his initial conversion and mourned his (hopefully not final) apostasy. I’m quite sure that Lobdell’s story is the story of many a parishioner who wants to believe but can’t because of the sins of the church.

As an Pentecostal pastor, I recommend reading this book as a spiritual discipline. Christians can be too smug in their beliefs and too self-righteous in their actions to see the incredible evils that are taking place right under their noses within their own churches. And if the church doesn’t live according to the Bible, why should it expect anyone else to

Authority (Matthew 7.28–29)



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In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush dated April 23, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson wrote, “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.” Attached to the letter was a brief “syllabus” comparing Jesus to Greek and Roman philosophers and to the Jews.

According to Jefferson, Jesus’ “doctrines” included the following: (1) monotheism, (2) “universal philanthropy,” (3) an emphasis on attitude and not just action, and (4) “the doctrines of a future state,” which Jefferson believed to be an “important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.”

Notice what doctrine Jefferson conspicuously leaves out: Christ’s divinity.

For Jefferson, one should separate what Jesus said from what was said about Jesus. What Jesus said was morality. What was said about Jesus was theology. The former is historically authentic, but the latter is not.

Jefferson’s view is a common one. The notion that we can separate the morality Jesus taught from the theology others taught about him appeals to many who want a Christ-less Christianity. Proponents of this separation usually point to the Sermon on the Mount as Exhibit A in their case. Here, Jesus taught about morality, but said nothing about himself.

But that’s not quite right, is it? Notice Matthew’s description of the crowd’s response to Jesus: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7.28–29). What impressed the crowds was not the sublimity of Jesus’ moral teaching, but his indisputable authority. Throughout the sermon, Jesus keeps calling attention to himself. Consider:

  • Jesus blesses those who are persecuted “because of me” (Matthew 5.11).
  • He teaches that he is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets (5.17).
  • When he says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago…. But I tell you…,” he both defines the true meaning of the Law against Pharisaic misinterpretation, and he deepens the application of the Law beyond what the letter of the Law requires (5.21–22, 27–28, 31–32, 38–39, 43–44).
  • The phrase, “I tell you the truth” hints at Jesus’ authority to reveal truth about God and his will (6.5, 16, 25).
  • And the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the wisdom of the person who “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (7.24).

Admittedly, none of these clues is an outright statement of Christ’s divinity. And yet, they assume a far greater authority of blessing, interpretation, and revelation than a simple teacher of morality would ever make, lest he overstep the bounds of humility. Jesus was humble, but that humility included the recognition, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28.18).

At the end of the day, as we read the Sermon on the Mount, we have not understood it correctly if we simply admire the beauty of its moral message. We must go further and make up our minds about who Jesus is and why he has the authority to tell us how to live. And that, I would suggest, pushes us closer to the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, which Jefferson tried so hard to avoid.

Therefore (Matthew 7.24–27), Part 2



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A few years ago, after months of rain had softened the ground beneath them, houses on Blue Bird Canyon in Laguna Beach began to slip their foundations and slide down the hills. For the homeowners, whose dreams and fortunes slid with those houses, it was an agonizing experience. For us, it is a vivid picture of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7.24–27).

Life is difficult. It is filled with any number of “storms.” Marital arguments, problems with children, conflict at work, ill health, financial difficulties, and spiritual doubt all challenge our faith. Consequently, the question we must ask ourselves is whether our faith has a strong enough foundation to withstand the storms.

There’s another storm on the horizon, and it is the “perfect storm” to test our faith. I’m talking about death. Each one of us will die, and when we die, we will stand before God in order to give an account of our life. Using the image of a refiner’s fire, Paul writes: a man’s “work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Corinthians 3.10–15). Who will be able to endure the storm of death and judgment?

Interestingly, Paul answers the question using the same image as Jesus did: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” According to Jesus, the strongest foundation of life is his “words,” that is, his teaching. According to Paul, the strongest foundation is Jesus himself. In the end, there is little difference between the two, for there is a perfect integrity between what Jesus says and who he is.

So, as I wrote yesterday, we are faced with a choice. We can choose to follow Jesus Christ and obey his teachings, or we can choose not to. But now we see that our choices have consequences, both in this life and in the life to come. We can choose to have a faith that withstands life’s storms and that carries us through death itself. Or we can choose to face life and eternity, having built our houses on some other foundation. The difference between a wise and a foolish builder lies solely in this choice. So choose wisely.

Therefore (Matthew 7.24–27), Part 1



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Whenever you read the word therefore in Scripture, you should ask what it’s there for. Consider the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, which concludes the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

What’s therefore there for? It is there to remind us that we have a choice with regard to following Jesus and that there are consequences to our choice. Today we’ll look at the choice; tomorrow, the consequences.

First, we have a choice whether or not to listen to Jesus. We live in an age in which a myriad of voices shout out spiritual advice to us. Some of the advice is good and much of it is bad, but the cacophony of voices can be very confusing. To whom should we listen? Who is telling us the truth? Whose words illuminate the path to heaven?

When I was young, my mother would take me to the shopping mall with her. Inevitably, as she looked at clothes and I played among the racks, I would become separated from her. It’s a scary thing to be six years old and lost. And there were so many adult voices talking and laughing in the store. But if I listened carefully, I could always hear my mother’s voice saying, “Have you seen my little boy?” To this day, I can pick out my mom’s cough, sneeze, laugh, or voice in a crowded auditorium. I have developed the ability to hear her (and her alone) among the crowd.

Similarly, as we hear a myriad of voices competing for our souls, we must choose to listen to Jesus.

Second, we have a choice whether or not to do what Jesus teaches. There are many lovely words in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as many hard ones. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5.1) has a nice ring to it. But “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.44) is not easy to do. But if we are to experience the blessings of heaven, we must love our enemies. The two are flip sides of the same coin. The first describes what God gives, and the second what God expects. You cannot have one without the other, any more than you can have a coin with heads but no tails.

Therefore, what do you choose to do with Jesus?

Watch Out for False Prophets (Matthew 7.15–23), Part 3

What is the fate of a false prophet?
Jesus provides the answer in Matthew 15.21–23:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
With these words, Jesus identifies two false paths to salvation. The first consists of theological orthodoxy without ethical change. The earliest Christian confession is, “Jesus is Lord.” According to Romans 10.9, “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” First Corinthians 12.3 teaches that the difference between a truly spiritual person and a falsely spiritual person is the ability to confess, “Jesus is Lord.” And, if Philippians 2.9–11, the reason why God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand is so that “every tongue [would] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” So, the confession of Christ’s Lordship is the essence of saving faith, the mark of true spirituality, and God’s eternal purpose for humanity.
And yet, Jesus says, some will call him “Lord, Lord” but not be saved. Why? Because they have not understood that confession involves obedience. Jesus Christ is not your Lord unless you do what he says. That is why the first group does not enter the kingdom of heaven. They have not performed “the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
The second false path makes an equal but opposite error. Here, people come to Jesus having performed all sorts of spectacular good works. “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” But their impressive performance masked a lack of personal relationship: “I never knew you.” And notice that these people’s deeds were works of impressive spiritual power, but not obvious moral conversion. They prophesied and exorcised, but did they love God and neighbor?
It should go without saying that Jesus wants all people to confess that he is indeed Lord. But that confession—if it is to be truly meant—requires moral change and inward devotion. As Paul put it in Galatians 5.6: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Not orthodoxy without ethics, not impressive deeds without personal relationship—God wants the whole shebang.
What, then, is the false prophet’s fate? It is separation from God. “Away from me, you evildoers!” There is no hope for the “prophet” who confesses Jesus as Lord but doesn’t act like it, from the heart. But then again, why focus only on prophets, for Jesus’ warning is equally applicable to us non-prophets as well.

Watch Out for False Prophets (Matthew 7.15–23), Part 2

In Matthew 7.15–23, Jesus gives us a warning against false prophets, a test for recognizing them, and a description of their fate.
A prophet is a spokesman for God. For example, Isaiah begins a prophesy by saying, “Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the Lord has spoken” (1.2), and “Hear the word of the Lord” (1.10). He ends it with these words: “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (1.20). He often prefaces other prophecies with the words, “This is what the Lord says…” (18.4; 21.6; 31.4; 37.6, 33; 38.1; 45.1, 14; 49.8, 25; 50.1; 52.3; 56.1, 4; 65. 8; 61.1, 12). In the New Testament, Peter writes, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1.20, 21). What the prophet says, in other words, God said before him.
Because a prophet purports to speak for God, we must be able to distinguish true prophets from false ones. A true prophet is a person who speaks an authentic word from God. A false prophet does not. Unlike in Isaiah’s day, or Jesus’ or Peter’s, there are not a lot of “prophets” running around today. But there are a lot of people who make claims about God, Jesus, and salvation. How do we evaluate their claims? In two ways: The coherence of the message and the character of the messenger.
Does the message of a “prophet” (pastor, teacher, or popular author) cohere with the biblical message? For example, Deuteronomy 13.1–5 warns against worshiping gods other than the God “who brought you out of Egypt.” And 1 John 4.2–3 says, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” If someone invites us to practice another religion or deviate from biblical orthodoxy, that person’s message is a false prophecy.
The other major test is the test of character. “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7.16–20). “Because a true prophet speaks for God, his character will reflect God’s character. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5.22–23).
So, the next time you hear someone making a claim about God or Jesus or the way to heaven, ask yourselves two questions: (1) Is this person walking the well-beaten path of biblical orthodoxy? And (2) does this person’s character reflect God’s holiness?

Scientific Mythologies by James A. Herrick


We live in an age that describes itself as spiritual, not religious.
In The Making of the New Spirituality (2003), James A. Herrick traced “the historical trajectory in popular religious discourse of a set of religious ideas that, though once considered exotic or even heretical, now hold sway in the Western religious mind.” These ideas included biblical criticism, rationalism, naturalism, evolution, pantheism, Gnosticism, shamanism and pluralism. He called this set of ideas “the New Religious Synthesis” and compared and contrasted it to traditional Christianity, the religion of “the Revealed Word.”
Scientific Mythologies[*] continues the work of The Making of the New Spirituality by focusing on “how science and science fiction forge new religious beliefs,” as the subtitle puts it. Its purpose is “to explore the various ways in which the Western world’s present spiritual needs are being addressed by a new mythology, an emerging canon of transcendent stories that provides meaning to our lives and that organizes and directs our individual and social decisions.” It thus enlarges on the chapters in Making that traced the influence of naturalism and evolution on popular spirituality.
Many Christians associate the word spirituality with traditional Eastern Religions or their ersatz New Age offshoots. One of the great strengths of Herrick’s book is to demonstrate the spiritual implications and aspirations of science and science fiction. These implications and aspirations are not recent, however, but deeply rooted in the scientific revolution of the past four hundred years. Scientific mythologies did not begin with Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, or George Lucas. Rather, they began early as European scientists peered through their telescopes and pondered the existence of life on Mars.
Herrick examines seven specific myths that have arisen from the intersection of science and science fiction, and illustrates them with examples drawn from the works of popular science writers, works of science fiction, and science-fiction movies. They include:
  • the existence of benevolent extraterrestrial beings
  • outer space as the place where human destiny will be achieved
  • a new and better humanity that arises from technologically directed evolution
  • a future of limitless progress that results from scientific knowledge
  • a spiritually superior race of human beings at the vanguard of social evolution
  • an enlightened religion practiced by extraterrestrials
  • an “alien gnosis” that derives from extraterrestrial knowledge of the origin and end of creation
These myths arise from a naturalistic worldview that contradicts traditional Christianity. This natural worldview sees the cosmos as self-contained rather than created. If there is any divinity at all, it is immanent within humanity, not transcendent over humanity. Rather than a fixed created order, nature is an evolving reality. Human beings are not objects of God’s redemptive plan; they are subjects of their own salvation. Many readers of science fiction are simply unaware of the spiritual implications of what they’re reading, proving C.S. Lewis’s statement that “any amount of theology can now be smuggled into the reader’s mind under cover of a good romance, without their knowing it.”
Knowing the spiritual implications and aspirations of science and science fiction, what should Christian readers do? One response is apologetic. We should actively refute the spiritual pretensions of science. But another is cultural. C.S. Lewis responded to the scientism of his day by writing science fiction himself (the so-called Space Trilogy). What people are looking for is not merely an intellectual presentation of the Christian faith, but a spiritually and emotionally resonant one.
Why is this apologetic and cultural strategy so important? Because, as Herrick points out, the stakes are high in the conflict between traditional Christianity and scientific mythologies. “The central question facing us is this: Are the combined forces of science and imaginative narratives of the type found in science fiction and some new religions capable of producing a reliably humane moral outlook from within a sacralized naturalistic framework, an outlook capable of withstanding any amount of commercial, political or social pressure?” Given that scientists and science fiction authors have in the past argued for eugenics, among other evils, the answer to this question is most assuredly no. Indeed, given that evolutionary science explicitly underwrote the eugenics project, we have adequate reason to worry about the triumph of scientific mythologies.
All of us have benefited from the tremendous scientific advances of the past four hundred years. But in the words of Scripture, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Changing the human heart is not the work of scientific technology, nor can it be accomplished by further evolution. Why assume, after all, that the Super-Man will be morally better rather than morally worse?

[*] James A. Herrick, Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008).

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