Busted: God Girl

The God Factor author Cathleen Falsani talks about her spiritual conversations with celebrities ranging from Bono to Elie Wiesel

BustedHalo: Bono, who is the first interview in your book, is known for his charitable work but there was a time in the ‘80’s where he talked about his faith a lot more. Did he shy away from that for a reason?

Cathleen Falsani: Yeah. Absolutely. He got slammed from people on both sides. He was called Saint Bono and Holier Than Thou by people in the media. By the same token he has some Christians saying he wasn’t a Christian because he was in a rock band and had a pint in his hand. He couldn’t win, so he just stopped talking about it. The reason he’s the first chapter in the book, the reason he’s the longest chapter in the book, and the reason he’s the person I spent the most time with him is because–apart from the fact that he’s very indulgent as a human being and really kind in mind and spirit–but really the first epiphany I remember having was when I was 12 years old and heard the first cut, which is Gloria, off of U2’s album October. The song wasn’t just talking about the things I was hearing in church, it was actually using the words I was hearing in church a million times. I was raised in a very spiritual and religious and faith-filled home, and as I say in the book, my soul did a back flip [when I heard it]. It was like a lightning bolt went through me, and it’s twenty some odd years later and I still remember where I was standing, what I was wearing, what was happening outside the door. Everything. And I wanted to go looking for more like that and that’s way more interesting to me than what I was hearing in church, even though I was deeply involved in church and continued to be. But that sort of set me on this trajectory that I’m still on.

BH: And is that trajectory finding where culture and faith can mix?

CF: Yeah, I call it that now. I just went looking for God in real places. I’m not a pious person. I’ve never quite fit in the evangelical world, where I wound up shortly before I heard that album for the first time. But what I heard from their lyrics echoed what I was experiencing and some of the things I wrestled with. And even though I didn’t have a traditional doubt in the “Does God exist?” kind of doubt, I had plenty of “Am I a Christian? What does it mean to be Christian? Because if it’s like that, then I clearly am not.” What’s grace? Grace is the thing Bono writes about most. And grace and Jesus would be pretty much interchangeable. So, yeah, I’ve been absolutely drawn to and fascinated by their lyrics over the years because it touches me in that way and it moves me and challenges me. And I respond to music, any kind of music, way more than any other kind of stimuli. I just did an interview with a DJ in Chicago at WXRT, Lin Brehmer, and we both love music and we were talking about music and its unique power and he said, “The fastest vehicle to get you where you need to be spiritually is music.” And it is for me. So that’s what draws me to music in general and U2 and Bono in particular. And once he started talking about AIDS and Africa and kicking the butt of the evangelical church in the United States of which I call myself a member, although they don’t like to have me usually or him, that’s when I thought, “I wonder if he’s ready to talk about this again?”

BH: Did you find him forthcoming?

CF: Oh, yeah. Surprisingly so. And he continued to be. I kept coming back and he called me a pain in the arse as the Irish would say. But he’s been great. And we kind of understand each other a little bit. The last time I interviewed him a year ago, there’s this beautiful passage in the book where he talks about his religious life being like a hall of mirrors and what you see if a distorted image of yourself and you’re looking for that still, small voice and all you hear are these voices telling you you’re doing it wrong. He talks about spiritual abuse. Yeah. We kind of resonate.

BH: I’m a Smashing Pumpkins fan but I was surprised that Billy Corgan was so articulate on this subject.

CF: His articulateness and sharpness of mind I was not surprised by because he has a reputation of being like that. What did surprise me about Billy was how unapologetic he was about talking about God specifically and Jesus in particular. Because so many people may talk about Spirit or God in some amorphous way, not that we could ever talk about God in an accurate way. You know what I mean. But sort of God, the great Spirit, Higher Power. But he means God. Like how Catholics mean. I thought that was so great because it’s not hip at all. And he’s all about hipness. I actually said to him, “Billy it’s really refreshing how you talk about God.” And he said “Well I’m not going to beat around the bush. And say something else.”

BH: Your book goes from rock stars to a much more sober subject, Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor. It was a harrowing interview to me.

CF: He’s a harrowing person, but he’s an incredible human being to be in the presence of. I respect few people in the world more than I respect Elie. He is one of the most intuitive people I have ever met. When he looks at me, and I can’t speak to everyone else, but when he looks at me, he seems to look into me and know things about me that people I have known my entire life don’t get. He’s just plugged in that way. So there’s that. When I first met Professor Wiesel, which is what I call him, it was a couple of weeks after 9/11, and he was there to speak to Temple Shalom, which is one of the big synagogues in Chicago, and he said he would do one interview, and he wanted to do it with me. I didn’t know him. But Professor Wiesel speaks very, very quietly. Like so quietly that when you’re sitting next to him, you have to lean in to hear. And I remember my tape recorder not working very well and panicking about that but trying to be present for what this man was going to tell me.

And what he told me was that being in a cab on the way to Grand Central and hearing the cab driver yelling and looking in the rearview mirror and seeing something and turning around and seeing the smoke and realizing that his only son worked down there. And he talked about how the next several hours not realizing if his only son was alive or dead. And thinking, again. Not to him personally, but for everyone. What are we doing to each other again? It was very short. I think I had 20 minutes with him for the interview and then I wrote the piece for the paper. People ask me, “What was it like? What was he like? Is he depressing?” I mean, he’s not a laugh riot, but he’s not depressing. But, as I said in the book, it was like sitting with God. And I didn’t mean that in a flip way at all. What I meant is that there are some days when I picture God as this sighing, beleaguered presence who’s seen too much and can’t believe what his children are doing to each other again.

And yet, has this irrepressible hope and is full of love. And that’s what Elie is like. And when I talked to him the second time, he’s one of the first people I asked to be in the book, I kept thinking, “How does this man still believe?” If any human being has a reason to not, he does but why? And his basic answer, and he’s still working through it at his age, is “I can’t not believe. Because it would disrespectful to those who came before me and believed and died for their belief and I can’t throw it away because I am part of a larger story.” He talks about arguing with God. It’s an ongoing argument, but there’s good precedent for that because there’s nothing he could say to God that the prophet Jeremiah didn’t say four times as harshly. Gosh, he’s just a profound human being and a lovely, wise man. And it’s one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had in my life, professionally or otherwise.

BH: Even the people in your book who are avowed atheists or agnostics have spent a great deal of time dealing with God or grappling with God. What do you think about that?

CF: I think it’s great. One that comes to mind is Barry Scheck. I think what he does is just heroic.

BH: He’s a defense attorney?

I know now more than ever that when you try to put God in a box, it’s the wrong thing to do. God is unexpected and wild and untamable.

CF: For the last 15 years, his time has been devoted to getting wrongfully convicted people off of death row. Setting the captives free as it is. Barry doesn’t intuit the existence of God. It’s not an angry thing for him. It’s not an intellectual thing for him. It’s just he doesn’t sense there’s a God. And it’s not like he’s angry with this God he doesn’t think exists, he just doesn’t. And yet, what he does, this heroic work I was just talking about, is an inherently religious pursuit. It’s the battle between good and evil. And he, by virtue of working with many of these inmates who have spent time in prison waiting to be killed for something they didn’t do, turn to faith. He is fascinated by and inspired by their faith even though he doesn’t share it with them. He’s run into many religious people, many of them prosecutors, law enforcement people, who end up doing really evil things precisely because they think they are such moral people. So therefore, suppressing evidence, making stuff up to put somebody that they’ve convinced themselves did it behind bars or on death row. They think there’s some divine mandate there because they are such moral people that they end up doing these unjust things. I had a tremendously interesting conversation with him. Another person, Jeffrey Sachs, the economist, also doesn’t believe in God, certainly in not in any traditional sense. But by the virtue of the work he does in trying to save the world and feed the poor, get water to the 1.3 billion people who don’t have portable drinking water. Just things like that. Small stuff.

BH: Small stuff.

CF: Just the details. (laughs)

BH: Do you ask them how they possibly do this work without some sense of meaning?

CF: Yeah. And they said there is meaning, it just doesn’t come from God. It’s the ‘existential life is what we make it.’ Meaning is what we make it to be. And ethics. Jeff Sachs talks about ethics and where does that come from. And knowing that some people get their ethics from doctrine with a deity attached, but he does not. He works with a lot of them. Here’s an atheist, cultural Jew from Detroit who Pope John Paul II turned to him for guidance on his encyclical Centesimus Annus. He was one of his advisers on it. In his office at Columbia, he runs the Earth Institute up there, on one wall he’s got all of these pictures of him with people and there are like three pictures of him with the Pope. And as he’s talking about there not being a God and that doesn’t work with the way I think. There’s Desmond Tutu and three picture of the Pope. So, it’s very interesting how these people who don’t believe in God find their allies and working partners with deep faith.

BH: Strange bedfellows. So, we live in such a celebrity-saturated culture. What do you say to people who say, “Why do I care what this celebrity thinks about God?”

CF: Well, I think you should care if you care what anybody has to say about God. I mean, these people didn’t have anything else to say that was more profound because they have bold-faced names. That was not the point. I went to them because I was sick of seeing the same five bold faced names in the conversation about God. I think it’s great that these people are having the conversation. I think it’s great that we’re asking politicians what they think about God. We should be. But politics aren’t the only thing that shapes our culture, and I think that there are some things that shape our culture in far deeper ways and in lasting ways. So maybe we should ask some of them. So that’s why we call them culture shapers, we don’t call them celebrities because it’s hard to say somebody like Jeff Sachs is a celebrity. Or that Elie Wiesel is a celebrity. It’s somewhat of a dismissive term. But some of them are. Certainly Sandra Bernhard is a celebrity. Anne Rice is a celebrity. But you shouldn’t care because they’re famous. You should care because they’re like everybody else. They’re wrestling with the same stuff we all wrestle with. And maybe because you like their music you’ll be drawn to them in a way to your next-door neighbor who you should also care about.

I talk about God for a living.

BH: Do you think Americans are more concerned about God than other cultures?

CF: Well, I’m an American, so it’s hard for me to have any perspective about that past the end of my nose, but I think we think about it differently because we talk about it culturally, and it’s part of our history in a different way than it is in some European nations. But I don’t think that we think about God any more than a person in Nepal or in Africa or the Yan Imami Indians in the rainforest of Brazil do. I think human beings are hardwired to think about God.

BH: Can you talk a bit about what all your interviews taught you about how people deal with faith?

CF: Well, this isn’t a scientific poll, these 32 interviews. What this did was confirm what I’ve already experienced for the last ten years reporting from Chicago and elsewhere. Even people who whole-heartedly embrace a religious label. I am reformed Jewish. I am Buddhist. I am Roman Catholic. Even the most religious, and using that specifically and what that means among them, still have to make their own way. And there are choices that we make in what we incorporate and live out and those we don’t. For better and for worse. And all of these people did the same thing. And they are every bit as much a cafeteria Christian or Buddhist as anyone else is.

BH: So how has your perception changed over the last couple of years? What does Cathleen Falsani ultimately think about God?

CF: I know now more than ever that when you try to put God in a box, it’s the wrong thing to do. God is unexpected and wild and untamable. And God shows up wherever God wants to. God shows up everywhere and God is all around us and everything is spiritual. And when we try to make it, ‘that’s my spiritual life and that’s my secular life,’ it doesn’t work. We are inherently spiritual being in physical form.

It was a humbling experience to talk to all of these people. It’s made me much more humble when I speak with others and I am much more intentional when I speak with people in general than before I did these because they were so intense. And my exchange with the woman I bought a pack of gum from at the gas station maybe wasn’t as profound before. But she might have something to teach me that God wants me to know that I wouldn’t know otherwise if I hadn’t been paying attention. I think I listen better. At least in my better moments because I’m trying not to miss that voice.

There’s a quote that starts the beginning of my book that says, “All truth is God’s truth.” Something that Arthur Holmes–who was my philosophy professor at Wheaton–said when I took his class at 8am my sophomore year. The only thing I took from that class was that quote. I’ve always said I believed that. Even though it might sound hokey, having done this exercise–I keep saying intentionally but it’s true–intentionally looking for God in places where people say he’s not supposed to be maybe I had experiences that were quite profound and meaningful to me about God, faith, sin, justice, or grace that enliven my own faith. It hasn’t changed what I believe or who I believe in but I think it’s challenged me in who I say I am. The wisdom of Russell Simmons, a generally profane man said to me, “If you’re going to be a Christian be a practicing Christian. If you’re going to be a Muslim, be a practicing Muslim. If you’re going to be a Hindu, be a practicing Hindu.” Get better at what you’re doing and we’ll all be better off. So truth comes wherever God decides to show up. Anyway, I hope listen better. I try to listen better. I hope we respect each other. And we keep looking for that voice that tells us what really is.