Finding God in unexpected places

A journalist queries celebrities about God. The answers are sometimes surprising.

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On the brink of her teen years, Cathleen Falsani experienced one of those indelible moments that can orient a life. A friend put a rock album on the stereo, and a raspy voice shouted out praise to God. It was a revelation to the highly religious youngster.

"I was absolutely transfixed by the extraordinary mix of faith with rock 'n' roll - a forbidden fruit at our house," she writes.

That introduction to the legendary Irish band, U2, set her "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."

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Ms. Falsani is now a syndicated religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times (and an evangelical Christian). She has pursued that quest particularly among prominent shapers of popular culture who have helped to mold America's "collective consciousness."

In an absorbing first book - The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People - she takes the reader along on spirited, often-surprising interviews with more than two dozen creative artists and thought-leaders. The journey becomes engrossing because of the remarkable openness and candor she encounters among the famous, as well as the depth and variety of their beliefs.

A few speak out of a traditional faith, like presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson, basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon (Muslim), or actor John Mahony of "Frasier" fame (Catholic). Others, such as rock star Melissa Etheridge and life coach Iyanla Vanzant, have shaped a personal spirituality that draws from multiple faith traditions.

Hip-Hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons is an "aspiring yogi." Choreographer Mark Morris says he's an atheist, but surrounds himself with religious icons of all kinds. Several writers calling themselves agnostics or "nothing in particular" offer keen insights on the meaning of life.

One clever feature is a brief capsule, including the person's religious status in childhood and today and "words to live by," which heads each interview, crystallizing a frame of mind. One of the most unexpected comes from director David Lynch, who is known for films and TV shows that exhibit a dark, even weird, bent.

"Bliss is our nature," says the longtime meditator. "We should be like little puppy dogs. So happy.... And that includes unbounded, infinite intelligence, creativity, consciousness."

Chicago Cub manager Dusty Baker comes out from behind his dark glasses to talk about his deep faith as a Baptist, and how it pervades his work with the team. "You can be Christian and be hard-nosed," he says. "Love with discipline. That's what spirituality and Christianity is all about."

Falsani's book grew out of a series of newspaper columns, so several interviewees have a Chicago tie, including author Studs Terkel, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and Sen. Barack Obama. She interviewed the thoughtful African-American politician after he won the primary but before he became a star of the 2005 Democratic convention.

Sharing how the strength and courage of black church ladies deepened his faith when he was a young community activist, Obama says he has a conversation with God throughout each day to help him stay on track. As for whether he believes in heaven, he doesn't presume to know what happens in the afterlife, but responds:

"When I tuck my daughters in at night and feel like I've been a good father to them, and I see in them that I'm transferring values that I got from my mother, and that they are kind ... and honest people, and they are curious people, that's a little piece of heaven."

While some of the celebrities are articulate about their hard-earned wisdom, others freely admit to confusion and struggle. Playwright, shock-jock radio personality, poet, preacher, athlete, scientist - they come from diverse realms and speak to different audiences.

Rocker Billy Corgan, former lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins, shares with intense honesty steps on his spiritual path out of a troubled childhood, and what his musical role has been for the kids who have followed him.

"The Goth kids ... are searching for something, he says, and it's not him. But he can try to point them in the right direction, toward the things he was searching for as a Goth teenager and as a depressed, self-absorbed young adult," Falsani writes.

"They're looking for God," the singer tells her. Yet the negative is constantly reinforced in the news and in life. "Everybody is walking around all thirsty." But to reach them, you "have to speak from the context by which they view the world," he adds.

Then there are the secularists deeply committed to a moral mission: attorney Barry Scheck to "a spiritual struggle for justice," and economist Jeffrey Sachs, to the recognition of the interconnectedness of humanity and the goal of ending extreme poverty.

Not surprisingly, Falsani's quest takes her aboard the bus of U2's Bono, as he tours US churches prodding them to join the fight against AIDS; and into a discussion of one of the central themes of his music - grace.

Falsani doesn't try to draw threads together or to comment on what these voices might indicate about American spirituality.

While those profiled may not be representative of ordinary Americans, this sensitive spiritual portrait of popular culture evokes, in thought-provoking fashion, the vibrant and highly individualized nature of contemporary faith.

Jane Lampman is a Monitor staff writer.

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