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On Not Getting Religion

My father, in his final days (August 2015)

GetReligion’s Terry Mattingly — one of my oldest friends, as he points out — analyzes yesterday’s Washington Post Style section profile of me [1] (see the original story about the “combative, oversharing blogger” here [2]). He writes:

I guess you could say that the key is that this Post feature failed to, well, get religion, in terms of taking religious faith seriously. You see, it’s impossible to understand Dreher and his story without facing how he is attempting – Rod would want the word “attempting” in bold – to live out his religious convictions as an Orthodox believer, as a sinner aware of his own need for repentance and healing.

That’s all I have to say about that. Read the Post piece [3]. Read Frederica’s commentary [4].

Most of all, read the most crucial element of Dreher’s story, material that you know he stressed in his interview with Heller – yet it did not make it into the piece. It’s the epilogue he wishes he could add to his book “How Dante Can Save Your Life [5].”

I’m talking about the remarkable spiritual healing that took place in Rod’s relationship with his own father, in the months leading to the family patriarch’s death. Readers don’t know anything about Dreher’s confessions about his family’s painful past – a subject explored in the Post piece – without knowing this information. This is life-and-death material, and I’m not just talking about this life in the here and now.

Get past the bouillabaisse story [6], for heaven’s sake. How does a reporter ignore the crucial final act of this drama?

I e-mailed her the link to the epilogue on October 16, two weeks before the story ran. It’s puzzling why it wasn’t included in the final story, as it talks in detail about the resolution I found with my dad, through struggle with my faith, and by applying spiritual lessons from my reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy. There is, in that epilogue story, the answers to things I had been seeking about my family, and about God. Here’s an excerpt:

I told him that I didn’t have time to stay that morning, that I had a lot of work to do. I was going to slip in and refill his pillbox, then head on back to my house. It took about ten minutes to get the pills sorted. I dashed out the door, then leaned in to kiss him goodbye as he sat in his chair.

As I drew back after kissing his cheek, he grabbed my forearm and drew me in close. His chin was quivering. The old man looked frightened. His eyes filled with tears, and he began to stammer.

“I … I … I … I had a long talk with the Lord last night,” he began. “I talked to him about, about my transgressions against you. I told him I was sorry. And I think he heard me.”

There I stood, stunned. All my adult life, I had been waiting to hear something like that. My father, that mountain of a man, could not condescend to address his son directly and ask forgiveness. It just wasn’t in him to do. But make no mistake, that’s exactly what he was doing. It took a lot of courage for him to say what he had just said to me. With a man like my father, that was as good as it was ever going to get. But it was sincere.

I leaned back in, put my hand into the back of his thinning hair, pulled his head close, kissed him on the forehead, and told him, “Thank you. I love you.”

Then I walked away, got into my car, and drove off. I was afraid to look back at him, because I did not want to see him crying. I knew that’s exactly what he was doing.

As I drove home, I could not believe what had just happened. Daddy apologized. That wasn’t supposed to happen, ever. But it had. The previous three years, since I had been home, had been among the most painful of my life, because they compelled me to confront the profound brokenness in our family — a family in which we all loved each other, but could not live in harmony. The shocking family secret disclosed to me at the end of the Little Way of Ruthie Leming [7] narrative — that for over 20 years, my father and my sister had been nursing a deep grudge against me for moving away, and had conditioned my sister’s children to reject me — sent me into an emotional, spiritual, and physical tailspin. Coming out of that dark, dark wood required a pilgrimage, including through the dark places of my own heart — a journey on which I was accompanied by my priest, my therapist, but which was led by Dante Alighieri.

The main things I came to understand were these.

First, I had made an idol of Family and Place, embodied most of all in the person of my father, and without knowing what I was doing, had given my father the place of God in my imagination. This is why I could never escape the sense that God may love me, but He does not approve of me, and that if only I worked harder, I could win that approval. In truth, this was how my father saw me. Becoming aware of this, disentangling God and my father within myself, and repenting of the idol worship, was the first crucial step in my healing.

Second, I had to face down my anger over the situation. My family wasn’t going to change. It seemed like every day or two, there was something else to rub my nose in the fact that I wasn’t good enough, and didn’t belong. It was unjust, and it was painful. But Dante, and my priest, told me that I could not let my anger over this prevail. As my priest put it, love is more important than justice. Besides, God wills us to love those who mistreat us. As my priest put it, if Jesus Christ, on the Cross, asked his Father to forgive those who did this to him, because he loved them just that much, what right do we have to withhold our love from those who cannot return it, or who return it in an impaired, distorted form. Piccarda, a saint in Dante’s Paradiso, explains to the pilgrim Dante that his notion of justice does not make sense in heaven. She says simply, “In His will is our peace.”

If I was going to dwell within the will of God, I had to somehow work through my brokenhearted anger and love my father. This was not going to be easy. It was going to be like climbing the sheer face of a mountain. But what else could I do?

I did it — imperfectly, God knows, but I did it. And slowly, healing came. The healing was not only immediate, of my stress-caused chronic fatigue, but more profoundly, I found the burdens I had been carrying around all my life from my complicated childhood in Daddy’s house lifted.I thought I was going to be carrying that weight all of my life, but now it was gone. Who could have imagined that? Certainly not me. Driving home that Good Friday morning, the truth came to me: that if I had known all the suffering that lay ahead for me back home, I never would have returned after Ruthie died. But if I had not done that, if I had not obeyed what my wife and I felt was a call from God to do this, I never would have been healed of this wound that I had been carrying all my life.

I never would have been there on the front porch to hear my father say, in his imperfect way, that he was sorry.

What had just happened on his front porch was my father putting a key into shackles — a key only he possessed — unlocking them, and casting off the invisible iron ball that I dragged around with me everywhere I went, and had done for most of my life.

I was free. And so, in a way, was my father.

And here’s how it ended:

Days later, the moment was at hand. We gathered all the family members who were near, and as many of the neighbors as could be there. Daddy had not been conscious for a couple of days. His bedroom filled with the people who had loved him for most of his life. They had come to see him off.

At the end, his breathing became fast and labored, and he writhed, as if trying shake off his flesh. Mama took his right hand, and I clasped his left. As Daddy drew his final agonized breaths, I looked into his face. It was the only thing I saw, and in it, I saw the face of Christ. More importantly, I saw him, not as the man of whom I was in awe, the man whom I sometimes hated, the man with whose difficult legacy I wrestled in my heart for decades, but him as a fellow sinner and sufferer, and poor creature who needed my love as surely as I needed his. Death humbles us all. That hand of his that held me as a helpless baby, I held myself when his soul left his helpless body. There is perfect harmony in this, a harmony rightly divided and bound together by love — the love that moves the Sun and all the other stars.

My final words to my father were, “Thank you, old man, for everything.” They may be the truest words I ever spoke to him.

We all said the Lord’s Prayer together over his body, then sang “I’ll Fly Away.” Someone went to call the funeral home. The word went out to the community that Mr. Ray had passed. People started coming by to pay their respects, as they do.

He died just after four in the afternoon. Mourners didn’t leave my mom’s house until after ten. I made it back to my own place at 10:30, utterly exhausted. It was the first time I had been home in eight days. I sat down at my kitchen table, alone with my thoughts, marveling at the sense of calm I felt. I had just watched my father die, and lived through the day that all my life I have dreaded above all others. The thought of the world without my father in it was intolerable to me, and terrifying. I don’t know why, but it was. It was as if I would be annihilated without his presence to ground me, and all of us. Fear of his death was something close to a terror for me.

And yet, here we were. Daddy was gone. And I had no thought other than gratitude for his life, and gratitude that he was no longer in pain. The future did not appear frightening at all, nor did the present. All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, as Julian of Norwich wrote. I felt this powerfully.

How was this possible? By what means did this gift come to me?

Then it hit me: “In His will is our peace.” The words of Piccarda. Dante had led the way for me to dwell in the Lord’s will, not my own. And in that was harmony, was the peace that passes all understanding.

In His will is our peace. Believe it. Live it. Suffer for it. There is no other way through this life of exile, to the far shore of home. This is the higher justice, and it is Love itself.

Maybe that doesn’t fit the reporter’s snarky narrative, I don’t know. But I think it’s relevant to a story about family and religion as it plays out in the life of this garrulous blogger.

A number of you readers have written to me asking if I’m hurt by the piece, and to offer condolences. I appreciate your kindness, but gosh, I have been in this business for nearly 30 years, and I have dinosaur skin. I’m fine — honestly, fine. It wasn’t that bad. No big whoop. I did learn a useful lesson, though, about why I shouldn’t be so eager to cooperate with newspaper profiles. I had such a good experience with Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker — who was up front from the beginning about his own biases (liberal, atheist), but who promised me fairness, and delivered it [8] — that I had come to believe the line that I often say to you media critics in the laity here on the blog: that reporters really aren’t out to do a number on you.

I don’t really believe that anymore. I mean, I believe it to be true — the profession has many Joshua Rothmans in it; I know this for a fact, because I know them personally — but I’m no longer willing to take this as a given. Neither should you.

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "On Not Getting Religion"

#1 Comment By Adamant On October 31, 2017 @ 2:38 pm

I just had the opportunity to read the WaPo profile: good grief what sour stuff.

#2 Comment By Liam On October 31, 2017 @ 2:49 pm

I was interviewed over 3 decades ago by a reporter for a National Newspaper about the appointment to high office of someone whose work I had edited. The piece was not intended as a hatchet job, but a background piece. When it ran, I didn’t recognize what was attributed to me as substantially similar to what I had actually said. It wasn’t malicious, it was just clear the reporter hadn’t really understood what the reporter was reporting on. (Heaven forfend that the reporter try to do a hatchet job!_

I then understood the wisdom of the old WASP proverb that you should only appear in newspapers at your birth/christening, marriage and death.

#3 Comment By TA On October 31, 2017 @ 2:59 pm

That profile of you seems a version of the “is the dress gold or blue” meme that was going around a couple years ago.

I read the profile and thought it was fine. Not great, not bad. Just, well, fine. If I were you, I mainly would have thought it just wasn’t that notable.

Seeing your reaction (multiple posts and multiple updates implies you’re not exactly happy, dinosaur skin aside) combined with the commenters reactions (pro and con), just seems like the reaction to this is almost the definition of tempest in a teapot.

#4 Comment By Matt On October 31, 2017 @ 3:24 pm

I thought she did a number on her own. Its one thing to be predisposed against religious thinking and ask honest, forthright questions in that vein. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why she choose you for her subject and then would treat you as if she wasn’t interested. Who asks someone for an interview and admonishes them for oversharing? It was so shallow and transparent. She didn’t even rise to the level of antagonist. It was more like elementary school level “Hey lets all look at the religious kid!”

#5 Comment By Matt On October 31, 2017 @ 3:24 pm

ugh, should read “…on her own reputation”

#6 Comment By xrdsmom On October 31, 2017 @ 3:41 pm

Fairness to the “other” is almost absent in 21st century America. While it was amusing to see someone push back against Rod in a way that is absent from the Dreher worship in these comboxes, it was impossible to ignore the reporter’s preconceptions. I see this same unwillingness to understand the “other” when Ta-Nehisi Coates is discussed on this blog. But I guess that’s where we are.

[NFR: “Dreher worship”? I guess that’s why I never post comments criticizing me. Sheesh. Anyway, if there are any Dreher worshipers out there, your tithes are past due. — RD]

#7 Comment By charles cosimano On October 31, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

Rod, I honestly don’t think anyone can make a drop of sense out of your writings without understanding your religion or your relationship to your family. It would be like someone trying to understand me without understanding my rejection of community. The boulliawhatsit story really does matter in your context in that you still worked to maintain a relationship with your family when most folks would have just written them off.

In you the humors are uniquely mixed and anyone who does not see that going in is not going understand what is coming out.

#8 Comment By yahtzee On October 31, 2017 @ 4:06 pm

Rod, the problem here is not that some WaPo bugwoman made a poor attempt at a hatchet job, the problem is that you still consider the WaPo to be a respectable news source. It’s not the WaPo of the 20th century; it’s now a Buzzfeed or Daily Kos for boomers.

This woman couldn’t even be bothered to do an *actual* hatchet job, she kind of just half-waved, half-sighed in the direction of your religious belief, and expected her readers to just reflexively understand her dogwhistle. The fact that the lazy reporting was decked out in the tone of self-centered millennial clickbait made the whole thing so much more clear: Her, ostensibly a reporter, is writing in a detached way about how she’s yawning, about, ostensibly, the subject of her reporting?

If this is what the MSM puts out as journalism, it’s no wonder they’re rushing headlong towards extinction.

#9 Comment By thomas tucker On October 31, 2017 @ 4:54 pm

It isn’t puzzling why the epilogue wasn’t included. The reporter had an agenda, and the epilogue didn’t advance the agenda. The agenda was to denigrate you and make religion and conservatism look foolish. Ironically, the reporter is the one who looks foolish.

#10 Comment By Philly guy On October 31, 2017 @ 5:00 pm

In a post Christian world, do we need to take religion seriously?When journalists interview other journalists I try to avoid it as it gets to be he/she said.

#11 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On October 31, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

great post, Rod.

#12 Comment By Eliana On October 31, 2017 @ 6:06 pm

Yes, it seems like the writer of the WaPo piece may take a particular pride in the fact that she doesn’t “get” religion.

In her circles, not “getting” religion is no doubt considered a social status marker and a signal of social virtue.

So she picks a writer on religious themes to profile because from her perspective he seems an easy subject to write about dismissively.

So I’d say that the profile stacks up as a lazy indulgence of the writer’s vanities.

Yeah, and there’s a lot of that going around.

#13 Comment By David J. White On October 31, 2017 @ 6:06 pm

I noticed a long time ago that many people who don’t take religious belief seriously seem incapable of understanding that there are people who do — they seem to think that if someone claims a religious reason for doing something, it must be a feint to hide his *real* motivation.

This doesn’t apply to all non-religious people, of course; but it certainly seems to apply to almost all in the media.

#14 Comment By Peter Terranova On October 31, 2017 @ 6:28 pm

I didn’t have too much of a problem with the profile. I’ve read all of Rod’s books, I subscribe to this feed, I follow him on Twitter, so I know how he is. I take some things with a grain of salt, others I applaud heartily. (The opening pages of The Little Way are his absolute best.) Yeah, he over-shares, yeah, he’s a one man content machine. So? Who else is knocking around the ideas that Rod has put out there? Who else loves food and France like Rod? I’ll take him, warts and all.

Just lay off the Trump bashing, Rod. That brings out your worst.

#15 Comment By Logan On October 31, 2017 @ 6:34 pm

The similarities and parallels of your struggle with family and faith to my own struggles are almost eerie and not a little disconcerting.

In the article the bias was so apparent it came off as more of a reflection on her rather than you. I actually felt a little sorry for the writer.

#16 Comment By Old West On October 31, 2017 @ 6:53 pm

So I wasn’t going to read the piece. But after reading not just one, but two posts (with multiple updates) about the damned thing I decided to read it through for myself and I ended it thinking…

“What was the big deal?” There is literally nothing in the piece that anyone who has gotten to know you through this blog and your books doesn’t already know. No impressions conveyed by her that don’t already stand out — highlighted in bold colors — in your many posts. In fact, I think it was pretty insightful and got in an awful lot in a short amount of space.

And some light begins to be shed about why you are so keen on criticizing Trump for his supposedly thin skin. Actually, you and Trump are a lot alike. You both whine about people being unfair to you, but neither of you trim your sails much and keep forging ahead with what you think is right (which is what really matters).

And it makes me think I really do need to “read the whole thing” for myself every single time you spend most of a post complaining about something a reviewer said about you or your book. I actually ended up this piece feeling a little sorry for the reporter — what must she think about traditional Christians after reading these posts?

#17 Comment By BlairBurton On October 31, 2017 @ 7:40 pm

As a long time reader of your blogs(since Beliefnet) I have to state that there was nothing in the article that was inaccurate, nothing that she observed about you that I haven’t more than once thought myself, make of that what you will. Some of what you share about your family is nothing that I would publicize about myself or my loved ones, notably the bouillabaisse incident and how it reflected on your dad and sister. And then I have seen you more than once criticize other writers for over sharing or writing less than flattering accounts of their families, so go figure (Christopher Buckley for one if I am remembering right).

Yes, the reporter’s tone was not exactly friendly, but there were no falsehoods there.

#18 Comment By Irritated Raven On October 31, 2017 @ 7:41 pm

just wanted to add an addendum that the Wapo piece wasn’t that bad. And the Wapo piece sort of brought me to you, I had never heard your name before that. The piece intrigued me and then I read the New Yorker piece which intrigued me even more, I am also hoping to buy “the Benedict Option” later. I can’t say I am a fan of everything you write and I disagree on some things rather strongly with you,however, the Wapo article sort of cemented you as an interesting voice to look at and read…so I don’t think it was bad…at all.

#19 Comment By Evw On October 31, 2017 @ 7:44 pm

I’m not sure we can expect much more of a journalist whose recent offering includes a missive on the high cost of lobster rolls.

My reading of her article brought two thoughts to mind: she doesn’t get religion and she’s incurious. Really nothing worse than an incurious journalist. Your New Yorker guy may not “get” religion but he cared to learn and discover. He was curious and that’s why his was a good read.

#20 Comment By philip On October 31, 2017 @ 10:05 pm

I work at a coffee shop: that writer’s tone reminds me of the way my coworkers start complaining about a customer right when they walked away.

Taking out religion, politics, clothing style, hairdos, all of it – that girl just plain didn’t *like* you. The rest of it is just kind of in parentheses.

There’s a sort of bottom line personality misalignment people can experience. I suppose the worst luck you can have is when the other person happens to be a reporter.

Anyways, good for you to have dino skin. I wish I was able to handle that sort of blackout-everything-you’re-really-saying-for-my-instinctual-reaction-to-you kind of rejection. I think I used to be better at it. The problem is if there’s one that ends up getting to you, it can be pretty devastating.

I think I should get off the computer and meditate now, haha.

#21 Comment By Alan On October 31, 2017 @ 11:04 pm

Yeah, that wasn’t a very good piece from the Post. Reading the comments under the story was even worse.

#22 Comment By Rovers On November 1, 2017 @ 12:25 am

Here’s an alternate view: over the last 48 hours I have spent a lot of time reading this blog. I’m ordering Benedict Option and looking forward to reading it. I was led here by the WaPo article. I’m familiar with your name somehow — NY Magazine, old Andrew Sullivan blog? I really can’t remember — but reading the WaPo bio it was pretty easy to see past the lens the reporter created and get a sense for a thoughtful person writing about religious topics and trying to find his place in the world. It struck me that I wanted to read more and the article linked here and it has been a rich mine of great stuff. So, thank you WaPo.

[NFR: Well, I thank you for saying so, for adding your voice to this commentary. — RD]

#23 Comment By Alison Fairfield On November 1, 2017 @ 1:30 am

Yahtzee’s comment that the Washington Post has become merely “BuzzFeed for seniors” was very arresting, especially for an old post-Watergate era journalism major like me. No wonder I mainly read long form journalism now, such as the terrific piece about RD by Rothman.

Probably the best profile of this sort I ever read was by a Vanity Fair writer who profiled the late great Fred Rogers. Rogers, seriously one of the most Christ-like humans of the 20th Century, was a complete puzzle to the writer. Yet wonderfully this writer actually allowed himself to be personally impacted by the encounter. Of course hardly anyone has a faith-walk so pure that it disarms the unsuspecting skeptic.

#24 Comment By Du Bartas On November 1, 2017 @ 4:27 am

She doesn’t like you and her dislike of you is so strong that it impedes her from respecting you.
That’s what her piece on you communicates.

#25 Comment By Rob G On November 1, 2017 @ 7:36 am

“Who else loves food and France like Rod?”

Off-topic, but the mention of France reminded me: Mark Helprin’s new novel Paris in the Present Tense is excellent. It’s somewhat smaller in scope than his previous novels; it’s more “personal” and less epic in scale, and in that sense has more in common with his short fiction. No resulting lack in power, however. It’s a wonderful story, beautifully written, and contains all Helprin’s perennial concerns.

#26 Comment By tmatt On November 1, 2017 @ 8:48 am

Here is the journalism point in a nutshell.

From Evw….

“My reading of her article brought two thoughts to mind: she doesn’t get religion and she’s incurious. Really nothing worse than an incurious journalist. Your New Yorker guy may not “get” religion but he cared to learn and discover.”

That’s it. Precisely.

#27 Comment By Hoosier On November 1, 2017 @ 9:32 am

Just read the profile. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. A bit snarky, and she doesn’t seem to take you very seriously, but I think she was just catering to her audience. The new yorker piece was serious, as befitting a serious magazine like the newyorker. This was not serious, which is what you expect from an article in the style section.

What I can’t understand is why something like this would ever be proposed for the style section in the first place.

#28 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On November 1, 2017 @ 10:07 am

I don’t think the WaPo story is so bad. The writer didn’t grok you at the deepest level, but it’s not a hatchet job at all. You are prolix, and you do share more than most people would. So?

#29 Comment By Herenow On November 1, 2017 @ 11:17 am

My guess is if your story of healing had been more purely secular (family and class divide, misunderstandings and emotional breaks, healing from meds, therapy, re-framing and forgiveness) then the reporter would have lapped it up. I mean it’s an incredible story. You would be a secular hero. So I think it’s just the religious aspect that brings the snark, not your conservatism or intellectualism or taste for bouillabaisse or even your choice of haircut and spectacles 🙂

Strongly held religion often makes people uncomfortable, especially when it is invoked as a reason for deep healing. Some people are afraid that you need to subscribe to the religion to get healed, to be safe. I’ve been through a similar situation to you (perceived unfairness, feelings-that-shouldn’t-be-there, buried anger, depression, fall-out). We all have to some degree. I got to the root of it through a variety of therapies and weird spiritual things that readers of this blog would probably chuckle at. In truth I threw a lot of things at it, trying to get to the heart of the problem, and I’m still not really sure what actually did the trick. But the pressure lifted and the cloud passed. So when I read your story with the heavy “Christ healed me” angle I am both incredibly happy for you, but also a little taken a-back. I was healed but I’m not a Christian believer. Other Christians I know have much worse problems than I had and couldn’t get relief. Atheists I know have been healed, some haven’t. All over the map. So where is God in all this? Where is therapy? Where is that shift in neurochemicals? I don’t claim to understand it, I’m just happy for anyone who gets relief anyway they can.

In truth your orthodox religious faith both fascinates me and repels me. I know at heart you completely believe you know the Truth, and that I don’t. My problem I know, but people are strange, especially reporters.

[NFR: Thanks for this comment. I believe that I know the Truth, in the sense that I have a relationship with the embodiment of ultimate Truth, the God-Man Jesus Christ, the incarnate Logos. I don’t claim to know the truth in the sense of having all the answers. God willing, I grow in the knowledge of ultimate truth with each passing day, but I don’t claim that I am in possession of all knowledge. That is reserved for God alone. — RD]

#30 Comment By Eye Strained On November 2, 2017 @ 6:19 am

The Post piece was the typical snotty stuff you should expect from the self-righteous progressive media. I’m not entirely sure why you sat for the interview in the first place. It’s sort of like Bernie Sanders agreeing to be interviewed by Fox News and finding the interviewer hostile.

But there is one good point made in the article. I mean no disrespect, but your blog posts are becoming a bit prolix and rambling with inserts from articles you’ve read that are equally long.

I realize blogging is a looser form of media, but some of your posts seem to exhibit blogorrhea. A little self-editing and tightening could go a long way.