Interview: Cathleen Falsani, Chicago Sun-Times Writer and Author of ‘The God Factor’
July 31, 2006 · Print This Article
By Jake Olsen
Over the course of five years, Chicago Sun-Times‘ religion writer Cathleen Falsani interviewed 32 well-known peopleâ€”among them intellectuals, artists, political pundits and rockersâ€”for her book, "The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People." Subjects like Bono, Playboy founder and editor-in-chief Hugh Hefner and singer Annie Lennox all opened up to her questions about their individual faith and deeply held beliefs and doubts. Interference.com got to return the favor, asking her about the difference between religion and spirituality, how 9/11 impacted our faith, and even the similarity between church and a good U2 concert.
How did the interview process change or challenge your faith?
It didn’t change it in terms of the quality of what I believe. I didn’t go from being an evangelical Christian to being a Buddhist or anything like that. It did by virtue of the intimacy of the conversations I had and the candor and the generosity of spirit that the folks in the book offered to me. Beyond that, each one of them said at least one thing that I’ve continued to ponder since our encounters that really enlivened my faith. Some of it was challenging. Some of it was perplexing. Some of it was heartening. But every one of them said something that I’ve continued to carry with me. One of the first things that I think about when I wake up is something that one of them said to me and so I think that it’s enlivened my faith, but hasn’t changed what my faith is. In my best moments, it’s changed how I live my faith as a believer.
Russell Simmons was an unlikely source, some people might think, for spiritual wisdom, but he said something I think about all the time. Actually I think he’s quoting Louis Farrakhan when he says, "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 Jewish, be a practicing Jew." And that’s something that I think about all the time. If I say I’m something, what does that really mean? And I hope people read it and come away with a similar experience. The book starts with a quote from one of my professors from college, Arthur Holmes [Wheaton College Professor Emeritus of philosophy and author]. It says, "All truth is God’s truth," which is something I think I heard in my sophomore year in college and have always said I believed. But this process of interviewing the people for the book, of talking to lots of different kinds of people with many different kinds of experiences in a short period of time sort of focused that and made that more real to me in a much different way than it ever had been before. And now looking for what God’s trying to tell me no matter who it’s coming from is something that I think about all the time in my interactions with everyone.
In my best moments, I try and be very conscious of the fact that everyone, as I understand it, is a child of God and everyone, whether they believe on paper the things that I do or not, might have something that I can find out God needs to tell me that I couldn’t find from any other source. Someone asked me previously in an interview, what did I learn, how has it changed the way I look at life. I think I listen more carefully, or at least I try to, both to the people around me and look for that still, small voice that the Bible talks about. I think I’m, in my best moments, much more respectful of the transcendence that’s all around, the fact that all truth is God’s truth and I should be on the look out for it. For many years something also that I learned fairly early in college was from a book that I read for theology class called "The Go-Between God," talking about how God is the bridge between people and that God makes the space for us to connect in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise and that’s something I think about in a much more visceral way now than before I wrote the book.
I’m kind of picking up that that’s the challenge you have now is to be on the alert for the divine.
Right. Keep awake and be listening carefully. Literally and figuratively.
Were there any interviews that stood out to you?
There are certain people that you connect with, by virtue of your personality, your shared history or something. Some people, you just connect with and you have no idea why. There are some people that I felt a different kind of a connection with although I felt something with every person there, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the book. People often say, "What’s your favorite chapter?" and, you know, it depends on my mood, but the one that I say most consistently is John Mahoney, the actor ["Frasier," "Say Anything"]. And John is someone who I’ve sort of knownâ€”vaguelyâ€”as a very loose acquaintance for a number of years. I’ve gotten to be around him in social settings and he’s a very, very gracious, kind, lovely man, and that’s his reputation. So here’s somebody I knew a little. I had kind of went into the interview thinking I sort of knew his story: you know, Irish Catholic, man of a certain age â€¦ I figured I sort of knew a little bit. I always try and leave my preconceived notions behind, and I’m pretty good at it. So by the time I got into the little restaurant to have lunch with him I was sort of like, let’s see what we find out, but I had no idea what I was going to discover and how moving it was and how much faith is the center of his life and how he has a deep well of love and faith and peace and other things â€¦ joy and that’s where this kindness comes from that he’s got this reputation for being unfailingly kind.
I found out during the course of our conversation that that’s actually a very intentional practice for him. So I learned so much about someone that I thought I already knew and that’s one conversation that I think about all the time. It was beautiful. It was quite sacred. A lot of these encounters were really sacred â€¦ very intimate, and I didn’t have to pry, people wanted to tell me things. John was one of those people. I had this happen to me a number of times. We were kind of done and he actually left to go ostensibly to put coins in the parking meter and have a cigarette and came back and when he came back in he decided he wanted to tell me something. John’s intensely private and he had told me something that I certainly never would have known to ask about. And he just felt he wanted to. [Rock singer and musician] Melissa Etheridge did the same thing. I don’t ask a lot of questions during these interviews; I didn’t have to. This wasn’t like prying a clam open by any means, these folks knew I was coming. Some of them had weeks or months to prepare and many of them really had things that they wanted to get off their chest. They all stand out to me in different ways. But John’s the one I always come back to and, of course, Bono. He’s in a category by himself, the wee Irishman. There is a reason we start with him and end with Elie [Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author of "Night"]. If you read the introduction to my book, that’s fairly self-evident. That and the fact that I spent more time with him than most of these people and it was over time.
You mention in your introduction how listening to "October" in your friend’s basement set you on a path to find God "in the places some people say God isn’t supposed to be." Would it be fair to call the song an inspiration?
Well, I don’t know if it was the inspiration for the book, it certainly set me on a particular trajectory that I’m still on 30 years later, sort of an inspiration for the way I see the world. Probably everything I’ve done in life was fueled by the catalyst of that epiphany that I had listening to that song when I was 12. And it was something I didn’t realize until I started working on the book and I saw life come full circle, as they say. That’s something that’s not supposed to happen more than a couple times in life, and usually when you’re much older so I’m very careful not to step in front of buses. I’ve seen about 10 of these things come full circle. I’ve had a lot of clarity about all these disparate things in my life experiences and parts of my history that at first seemed eclectic and wacky before and now they made sense, and he’s one of them. And that moment is one of them.
Is that by design on your part?
No, I’m an idiot. I think it’s God, more and moreso. Something I started trying to do a few years ago and do even more consciously since the whole book experience is to get out my way, just get out my own way and try to let God do whatever God’s trying to do. I could not have designed the perfect mix of people in this book. I could not have made them say the things that they said. I could not have planned the experiences that I did. The happenstances of the connections that a lot the people in the book have to each other that I had no idea about when I asked them to talk to me. There’s too much intricacy and serendipity not to think that, maybe that was the spirit moving. I don’t think it’s me. I’m just trying to get out of my own way.
I’m reminded a little bit of CS Lewis [author of sci-fi and Christian-themed novels] in some of what you’re saying. It seems to be that he was kind of willful about letting the self die, which is one of the hardest things in the world to do. Are there any other authors, or would he be a legitimate influence?
Oh sure, CS Lewis, [priest and author] Henri Nouwen, [Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and lecturer] Frederick Buechner, [author and professor] Anne Lamott, who’s a goddess and a prophet and I hope to be one 10th of her when I grow up one dayâ€”but without the dreadlocks. Those are just off the top of my head.
You mentioned that it seemed kind of serendipitous about the folks that came in to be interviewed. How did you pick them? Were there any you wanted to get but that you couldn’t?
I mostly picked people that I thought were interesting, or I liked what they do, or I heard them say something once that I thought was intriguing. But about 85 to 90 percent of the people in the book I had no idea what their spiritual predilections might be or not be before I asked them. Obviously, somebody like [Toronto Raptors center] Hakeem Olajuwon, I asked because, 1) he’s interesting; and 2) he’s a Muslim. Somebody like Elie Wiesel, I mean, I knew he was Jewish. But I didn’t know the answer to the great question about his faith: Is it still there? Is it not? Did you ever come out of that? If so, why? How? There are people like John [Mahoney], who I thought I might know his history but I didn’t. [Journalist and author] Tom Robbins I asked based on a complete fallacy from something I had read online. Apart from the fact that he’s one of my favorite authors in the world, a lot of his books deal with spiritual issues in the most irreverent of ways. I didn’t know what Melissa Etheridge’s background was. I asked [director] David Lynch because I knew he was a transcendental meditator, that’s why I asked him. It was kind of counterintuitive to the idea of what you think of when you think of a transcendental meditator and then you have "Blue Velvet." How does that work?
Most of the other people, I just thought they were interesting and they had a certain quality about them of introspection. There was something about them that made you think there were some deep waters there. And also they had a certain quality of openness about them. If I felt that someone wasn’t being genuine, or if they were giving me stock answers, or more so if they were just full of it, that this wasn’t the real person, you know, they’re not in the book. But that didn’t happen very often at all.
Were you able to call them on that?
No. I could have, I certainly could have. This book was done intentionally in a non-combative, non-dialogical way. I told them when I approached them, "I’m not going to judge you. I’m not going to say whether what you believe is real, right or wrong or genuine or otherwise." That wasn’t my job. My job there was very intentionally to not call them on disconnects that I might have seen or something that I thought was wrong or something that was factually wrong or whatever. That wasn’t my job. That would have led to a very different kind of conversation where I think they would have been far less candid than they actually were. I just let them say what they really said they believed.
Did you often have to fight the urge to proselytize?
I always fight the urge to proselytize. I don’t think proselytizing is a particularly helpful means to an end, at least not in the ways people think it is. People ask me about evangelizing. We all evangelize, we just do it in different ways. But to just hand you a tract about Jesus and the New Testament is not the way I did it. If they found out later that I’m a Jesusyâ€”which is a better, more unloaded wordâ€”and they thought, "Wow, she wasn’t judgmental or mean-spirited" or many of those other things they may think about when you think about evangelicals, my work here is done. I don’t try to proselytize or evangelize intentionally through anything I write. I like to think of my life, in my best momentsâ€”when I’m getting out my own wayâ€”does that. The best way to evangelize is by living well and by loving well. And I tried to be loving with all these people. That I think I accomplished.
Your interview with Hugh Hefner seemed to surprise both of you. Can you talk a little about that?
Like I said, I really try very hard to leave my preconceptions in the car, but when you drive up to the Playboy mansion and the guy comes down in his silk pajamas, it’s hard to leave all of that in the car. It’s impossible to leave all that in the car. I think Hef was expecting someone very different and he was expecting a very different conversation. He’s talked about religion over the years, mostly about its role in society and how un-helpful it can be. I wanted to talk to Hef about Hef. It wasn’t a bad conversation at the beginning. The first 10 minutes he was giving me very thoughtful answers, but there was sort of this tension in the air. Very subtle. He was incredibly gracious, very kind, was listening carefully. But there was just a veil between us. And it wasn’t until we found common ground, completely in a different place, that that veil kind of blew away and we had the kind of conversation that you saw in that chapter. Our common ground was movies. I asked him, "What’s the most spiritual film you think you’ve ever seen?" He kind of hemmed and hawed and said, "You know, I’m not really a big fan of DeMille and those big biblical epics." I interrupted him, which is something I normally don’t do and I said, "Can I tell you mine? It’s ‘Harold and Maude.’"
(Photo credit: (copyright) Paul Natkin, 2005)
His face just melted into a huge smile. I didn’t know when I said that, but Bud Cort, who played Harold, is a good friend of his and still comes to the mansion on a fairly regular basis. Ruth Gordon, who played Maude, and her husband, who was a director, were also very dear friends of his and that it’s one of his favorite films. He said, "Well, if that’s what you’re talking about when you say spiritual, that’s a whole other ballpark." And then it was a completely different conversation. I like to think that was that "Go-Between God" that I was talking about. When I do interviews, I try to be very present, I try not to think about the next question I’m going to ask. I try to be really listening to what the other person is saying, because that’s the most respectful thing to do, is to be fully present. In this case, I was doing the "help-me help-me help-me" prayer, because it just wasn’t going where I thought it should be going. I didn’t know how to do that. "Harold and Maude"? Who knew? It’s brilliant. It’s one of the most soul-raising movies I’ve ever seen. It’s wonderfully quirky and very ’70s. It’s fabulous.
Was there anything that surprised you about your interview with Bono?
Everything, in good ways. The first time, when I knew I was going to be talking to him and spending this time with him on the road, I was absolutely terrified. Not that I was worried about me, I was worried that he would be a jerk or something and that I would be crushed. I was so concerned that he wouldn’t be what everyone expects him to be in those good ways. Thank you Jesus, he was better in every way and more delightful and more loving and more generous of spirit and smarter and funnier and naughtier and more profound and more deeply faithful than I could have wished him to be, and it was wonderful spending time with him. Life changing for me in some ways, because he is a very challenging person to be around in terms what it really means to be a faithful follower of Christ. I think I say somewhere in the book that he makes me want to be better in lots of different ways, to do more. He’s just that kind of guy. He’s not like Yoda or anything. There’s a difference between my experience with Bono, who’s incredibly profound in his wonderfully profane way, and Elie Wiesel. There’s a difference there. Elie Wiesel is Yoda; Bono, not so much. They had equally transformative effects on my life and I am blessed deeply to know both of them, even as little as I do.
Forgive me for asking, but why did you select Elie Wiesel as the book end?
Because if there’s anybody in that book â€¦ anybody in my life â€¦ who has every reason not to believe, he does. It’s him. I wanted to start with graceâ€”that’s Bonoâ€”and end with hopeâ€”that’s Elie. For the book and my life â€¦ on a good day.
Speaking of Grace, I really liked the short piece you did with [jazz vocalist] Kurt Elling. I noticed that 9/11 seemed to have a big impact.
And that was something completely organic, that was something that came up in almost every conversation I had. That was a big thing for us as a people, as Americans, certainly, as a human race. That was a really jarring moment. It was like an asteroid hitting the planet, in a spiritual way. Everything was up for grabs after that. It was really traumatizing for everyone, not just the people who were there, and it continues to be. It changed the way we look at the world. We were attacked by people who said they were doing it in the name of God and that’s fucking frightening. I don’t care if you believe in a god or not. Maybe if you don’t it’s even more frightening because it makes the fanatics look even more fanatical. And so that made people think about spiritual things in a different ways. It led a lot of people to get their butts back in the pew, for a couple months anyway. But the more lingering effects, as I see it, having covered the God beat for 10 years, are these kinds of conversations that we’re having now that we didn’t have five years ago. I don’t think I could have done this book. I don’t think I could have gotten two-thirds of the people in the book to have these conversations five years ago, but that changed everything.
Do you think it was, at least on a spiritual perspective, a positive thing?
No. I don’t think God would employ horror and violence as a means to a good end, but it happened. There is a verse in scripture that says all things work together for good for them that love God. I don’t think God caused it or wanted it to happen. That’s not the God I know or understand, but the fact that we’re having this conversation in a different way, I think is a good thing. Did 9/11 need to happen for us to have it? I certainly hope not. But it did, so here we are. It’s not the only reason we’re having this conversation, but it’s a significant reason.
One thing I noticed, it seems so much that the really strict definitions by religion weren’t as common in your interviews.
They’re not as common in society, period, as I have experienced it over the last 10 years at least. The people in the book are certainly extraordinary people. This was not meant to be a reflection of what America is like today because these are not average people. That said, they are reflecting back to me what I see happening all around me as a journalist who covers this. There are people in there who will give themselves a label and they’re comfortable with that, as there are millions of people out there who will label themselves. Even the strictly religious people in the strictest sense of that word still have to make that their own in some way. Whether it’s [Chicago Cubs manager] Dusty Baker, who’s a Baptistâ€”a label he applies to himself. But when he has cancer, he’ll go to a kahuna healer in Hawaii. That’s one more colorful example, but I know plenty of Catholics who call themselves Catholics, who are mass-goers and pray the rosary and call the Pope the Holy Father but they don’t believe everything that’s in that doctrine, but they are still "in the tent.’ I just think that’s more and more common. Strictly speaking, there are more people now than in 1970 who are willing to say they have no religious affiliation. I think it’s a jump between 5 and 10 percent. It’s still a very small portion of the population of the United States, but there are many more now than there were 30 years ago, but that’s not necessarily what I’m talking about.
I was curious as to whether you thought 9/11 had any impact on the fact that it seems people are less willing to call themselves fundamentally this or that.
Fundamentalist is like a naughty word.
It’s like the new "communist."
Someone once said fundamentalists are scarier to me than the Russians. Yeah, nobody wants to call themselves a fundamentalist, right? I don’t know if I had anyone in the book who would call themselves a fundamentalist. Fundamentalists have much more in common with each other than they do with the other people in their faith traditions. A Muslim fundamentalist and a Jewish fundamentalist and a Christian fundamentalist have way more in common with each other than they do with moderate Christians and secular Jews and Americanized Muslims.
There is something to the lesson we learned when the majority of the population learned the word Muslim on like September 12 and then we had to quickly learn that there’s a difference between the people who did what they did in the name of their God and they said in the name of Islam and the vast â€¦ vast, overwhelming, like 99.9 percent of the Muslims in the world. That taught us a lesson about labels. Just because you call something something doesn’t make it so, that labels aren’t terribly helpful. They’re usually fairly ill-fitting, I find. And they’re conversation enders. Melissa Etheridge said to me at one point, "Thank you so much for asking about this. People so rarely ask me about this and I like to talk about it, and when they do it’s like, ‘Are you religious?’ and I say, ‘No, I’m spiritual.’ And that’s the end of the conversation." What are you? I’m a Christian. Okay, What the hell does that mean? That’s nice. I know what I think it means, but what does it mean to you? Labels aren’t real helpful.
Now that you mention it, I remember you kept the "religion" word out of it and you focused more on spirituality. What, to you, is the difference?
Okay, I’ve got a great metaphor: The difference between religion and spirituality is akin to the difference between bourbon and whisky. Because all bourbon is whisky, but not all whisky is bourbon. And all religion is spirituality, but not all spirituality is religion. Get it?
I do. Your introduction ends with a coda that basically implies that you don’t think faith has changed much. What’s the commonality between say now and 10 years ago when you started?
I think faith is a thing. It’s like joy. It’s a thing unto itself that isn’t qualified by whatever else you put around it. Muslim faith. Christian faith, Zoroastrian faith. Vegan faith. Faith is just a thing. It doesn’t change. It’s a gift, as I understand it. It’s a spiritual gift. We live it and express it. And abandon it and embrace it in different ways. Faith itself doesn’t change. It is what it is. Religion changes. Spirituality changes. Dogma changes. Doctrine changes. But faith is always faith. Always has been, always will be.
How is it expressed differently now?
The quality of the conversation about faith has changed. Faith is just faith, like joy is just joy. Love â€¦ just love.
What is the one thing you would like your readers to take with you?
I think if people come away with a sense of urgency to listen better to the people around them, that would make me very happy, and if people would open their eyes and see that God is right there. If they get that from reading this, that would make me thrilled. Those are two things.
Is there something you could tell our readers that they don’t already know about Bono?
I was thinking about this. There are three things: He smells really good. Dolce & Gabbana for men, if I’m not mistaken. He is quite fond of corn-beef hash. And that ring he wears [on his pinky] was given to him by Larry, not Ali, and it’s a fish. I thought it was a griffin and told him as much and he was adamant, "No. It’s a fish. See?" . . . Bono’s forever losing things. This was a few years ago, so we could be on yet another incarnation of the ring, but at that point he’d lost it twice already. If I remember what B said correctly, the first time Larry gave it to him in yellow gold and he lost it and Larry had it remade in white gold and Bono lost that one, too, and now he’s on to platinum, I think. If memory serves, it looks kind of like a koi wrapped around itself.
Do you know the significance of the fish?
It’s a fish . . . I don’t know what the significance of it is.
Do you know much about the faith of the other members of U2?
No, I don’t know them. I’ve been around them but I’ve never had this conversation with them. Love to, but until I do, I’m not going to guess. When people guess they’re usually wrong. Lovely men all.
This is fanboyism talking. Were you at the Chicago show when they filmed it for the DVD?
Yes. They taped two or three nights and it was the last night of taping that was one of those magic shows . . . Adam is the one who’s talked about this, that when the Spirit’s in the room you can feel it. Well, the Spirit was in the room that night. It was amazing. It was an incredible show, which has a lot to do with the band and also has a lot to do with what’s happening in the house. It was one of those shows where it was like church â€¦ well, like how church is supposed to be. That was a good show.
Did you have any future plans or any other projects in the works?
Yes, but if I told you I’d have to shoot you. There’s more to come. Inshallah, as my Muslim friends would say â€¦ God willing.