The God Factor; Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 5/29/2007
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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"This sensitive spiritual portrait of popular culture evokes, in thought provoking fashion, the vibrant and highly individualized nature of contemporary faith. " The Christian Science Monitor It goes without saying that spirituality now plays an enormous role in the United States. But while this may be a nation of believers, it's not of one belief, but of many. To shape a candid picture of modern faith, the popularChicago Sun-Timesreligion writer Cathleen Falsaniwho theChicago Tribunepraised as "above all, an exemplary conversationalist"sat down with an array of people who shape our culture. She discussed Jesus with Anne Rice; explored "Playboy theology" with Hugh Hefner; talked about evil with crusading attorney Barry Scheck and heaven with Senator Barack Obama. Writers Laura Esquivel and Jonathan Safran Foer, guru Iyanla Vanzant, rocker Melissa Etheridge, economist Jeffrey Sachs, Pulitzer-winning playwright John Patrick Shanleyall opened up to her. The resulting interviews, more than thirty in all, offer an illuminating look at the beliefs that shape our lives. In the words of one reviewer, Falsani "has done what only great interviewers have the wisdom and patience to do. She has set the stage and dimmed the lights just so. She has invited us into the conversation and left us with wonder, confusion, elation and grace." "Whimsical and absorbing . . . Falsani handles the profiles with sensitivity, painting the book's diverse spiritual seekers with compassion and grace." Publishers Weekly(starred review) Included are interviews with Sherman Alexie, Bono, Dusty Baker, Sandra Bernhard, Sandra Cisneros, Billy Corgan, Kurt Elling, Laura Esquivel, Melissa Etheridge, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mike Gerson, Seamus Heaney, Hugh Hefner, Dr. Henry Lee, Annie Lennox, David Lynch, John Mahoney, Mark Morris, Mancow Muller, Senator Barack Obama, Hakeem Olajuwon, Harold Ramis, Anne Rice, Tom Robbins, Russell Simmons, Jeffrey Sachs , Barry Scheck, John Patrick Shanley , The Reverend Al Sharpton, Studs Terkel, Iyanla Vanzant, and Elie Wiesel.

Author Biography

Cathleen Falsani is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. She attended Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college, and holds master's degrees in journalism and theology. The God Factor is her first book.


Excerpted from The God Factor by Cathleen Falsani. Copyright © 2006 by Cathleen Falsani. Published in March 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


Call them glimpses of grace, moments of clarity, or epiphanies. However you choose to describe them, we’ve all had them—split seconds when something suddenly makes sense, when the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

If you are particularly lucky—blessed, some would say—you can assemble those bits of transcendence into a clear vision of how things really are and how life, every now and again, comes full circle.

The circle started for me in the living room of my friend Rob Lunetta’s house in 1982, and it comes back around here, in this book.

I can remember it vividly, a twelve-year-old me standing there with my buddy Rob, fiddling with the stereo, as he put on an album someone recently had given him. “I think you’ll like it. They’re an Irish rock band, but they’re Christians,” he said, as the first track started up. Drums faded in, a bass guitar thumped, and a man’s rogue tenor voice the likes of which I’d never heard before started howling, “Gloria, glo-reeeee-aaah TWO, THREE, FOUR!” as a guitar began to keen.

“I try to sing this song, I try to stand up but I can’t find my feet, I try, I try to speak up but only in you I am complete. Gloria in te domine, Gloria exultate, Gloria, Gloria, O Lord, loosen my lips!” the guy yawped, guitars wailing.

My soul did a backflip.

“I try to sing this song, I try to get in but I can’t find the door. The door is open, you’re standing there, you let me in—GLORIA!”

The words were familiar—a psalm, a chant from the liturgy, an image of Christ standing at the door (of our hearts) and knocking. I recognized them all from church. But somehow they’d never had that kind of effect on me. As the next tracks played, one after the other filled with biblical imagery and declarations of spiritual yearning, I was absolutely transfixed by the extraordinary mix of faith with rock ’n’ roll—a forbidden fruit at my house, where we were supposed to be in the world but not of it. Who were these guys? How were they doing this? And who else was managing to do it, too?

Hearing U2’s album October for the first time set me on a course that continues today: To discover God in the places some people say God isn’t supposed to be. To look for the truly sacred in the supposedly profane. To find the kind of unmatched inspiration and spiritual elation elsewhere in culture that I had found that day in Rob’s living room.

I’d always been fascinated by religion—my parents tell stories of me at age five or six sitting on the floor of our family room poring over a coffee-table book of world religions, with its pictures of whirling dervishes, Muslim women in hijab, Hindu girls with hennaed hands, gilded icons of Russian Orthodoxy, and giant Japanese Buddhas. Religion was a huge part of my life growing up, first in Roman Catholicism and then in the strange new land of evangelical Protestantism. I was—and am—a believer. But after my musical baptism, I became consumed by the idea that spirituality could be expressed just as articulately, perhaps even more so, outside a house of worship as in it, and that faith could be lived in radically different ways.

Twenty-odd years later, I’m still looking, fascinated as ever. It’s what motivated my decision to study journalism as well as theology with the intention of becoming a reporter who covers the diverse world of religion and spirituality in culture broadly. It’s also what inspired a series of long-form spiritual profiles of public people I began writing in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times, where I am the religion reporter and columnist, in the spring of 2004. I called the project “The God Factor,” and through it I hoped to draw a more detailed picture of the spiritual lives of people who shape our culture and consciousness. So I sat down with Senator Barack Obama, Hugh Hefner, Annie Lennox, Melissa Etheridge, and others to find out what they believed (or didn’t) and how it affected the way they lived their lives.

In our mainstream media, little of what we learn about the beliefs of public figures goes beyond labels—this actor’s a Catholic, that one’s a Buddhist. But labels don’t mean a damn thing. They offer little information about how a public person’s private beliefs might affect his or her life and, in turn, shape the world in which the rest of us live. The timing seemed right to move well beyond superficiality. After all, some of the most astute theological and social observers have been wondering whether we might be in the midst of the Third Great Awakening, and, if so, whether its real prophets might be found marching across a silver screen or dancing behind a microphone instead of pounding on an actual pulpit.

The response to the Sun-Times series was overwhelming. People wanted to know what these icons of culture believed, how their faith—or lack thereof—made its way into their work, their art, their politics. Some readers were purely curious, some were searching for a spiritual place to call their own and looking for guidance from people they admired. Still others seemed to be using the profiles to hold up a mirror to their own faith, to see how what they believed, how they lived their faith, appeared by comparison. Whatever the source of their interest, I clearly had hit a nerve. So I decided to move beyond a newspaper column and broaden my inquiry into a book, where I could expand its cultural scope to include actors, writers, athletes, scientists, politicians, musicians, entrepreneurs, and gadflies of all faiths and none. I did so because it seemed essential now, in these tense and trying times, that a choir of diverse voices be heard in the public square. More candid talk about spirituality, beliefs, faith, and morality can only increase knowledge, and knowledge empowers, casting out fear.

I wanted to peel back the labels and see what was underneath, certain I would discover interesting results. These were remarkably interesting, incredibly accomplished people I was meeting. But what I wasn’t expecting was this: the openness and honesty with which my questions were met moved me deeply. More often than not I found the depth—and breadth—of their commitments to be both surprising and inspiring. I didn’t go looking for answers to my own spiritual questions, at least not intentionally. I’m not a seeker in the traditional sense. I am a Christian. I’m not particularly good at it, but that’s where my faith firmly lies. Still, I believe strongly in the idea that all truth is God’s truth, and so I expected to learn something from each person I interviewed that would enliven and enrich my own faith. And I was not disappointed.

These kind people allowed me into their lives. The insights they shared with me were sometimes painfully candid, always rich, and often controversial. Without fail, the conversations I had with these boldface names in venues far afield—from a church in Nebraska to the Playboy Mansion, from the dugout at Wrigley Field to the White House—revealed intimate glimpses into the private lives of people who have made our modern reality what it is. For better and for worse.

The profiles that follow here in The God Factor paint a spiritual portrait of popular culture that will explain—through the compelling voices of strangers with familiar faces—how society is changing.

And how faith, essentially, is not.

Excerpted from The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People by Cathleen Falsani
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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