Blog, Friday's Five Good Answers

Friday’s Five Good Answers: Cathleen Falsani (Award-Winning Journalist, Blogger, and Author) talks about Faith, Rob Bell, Bono… and her new book about Justin Bieber

Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning columnist for Religion News Service, Sojourners Magazine, a regular contributor to the Huffington Postand author of several critically acclaimed books including: The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, as well as the forthcoming BELIEBER: Fame, Faith and the Heartof Justin Bieber (Coming in Sept. 2011). You can read her blog about spirituality and pop-culture at:

Cathleen, a graduate of Wheaton College, holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, as well as a master’s degree in theological studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She was the 2005 Religion Writer of the Year, as awarded by the Religion News Writers Association, a professional society of reporters, editors and producers who cover religion for the secular media in the United States and Canada.

Her work has been featured in Rolling Stone, Christianity Today and Christian Century magazines, as well as the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the Toronto Star, Kansas City Star, Madison Capital Times and other publications in North America and Europe. She has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Oprah Winfrey’s “Soul Series,” National Public Radio’s “The Story” and “Weekend Edition,” FoxNewsChannel, Moody Radio, WGN-Radio, NPR’s “Day to Day,” The Tavis Smiley Show (on PBS), and a host of other radio and television venues.

Falsani’s interests have carried her to some truly unique and fascinating places in the cultural faith conversation. Her exploration of the spirituality in the Coen Brothers’ films, titled The Dude Abides, is an intelligent and entertaining read. She is perhaps most well-known for her candid interviews aboutfaith with people like President Obama and Bono. These poignant conversations with influential people were collected in her book, The God Factor. She recently published a great interview, “The Heretical Rob Bell and Why Love Wins” at the Huffington Post where she writes under the moniker “God Girl” ( Cathleen is one of my favorite journalists and bloggers. I find her interviews engaging, her insight onspirituality and culture timely, and her conversational style of writing truly enjoyable. I recently had the chance to talk with her about her friend Rob Bell, U2 frontman, Bono, her favorite books, and yes, Justin Beiber. I hope you enjoy this Friday’s “Five Good Answers” with journalist, blogger, and author – Cathleen Falsani:

Matt: What do you see happening in Christianity now that makes you hopeful or inspires you?

Cathleen: While I don’t appreciate some folks throwing theological shurikens at my brother-from-another-mother Rob Bell, or menacing sweet Jay Bakker as if they plan to set his skateboard on fire and rip out his ear-piercings, I am encouraged by recent events in my-spiritual-family-of-origin — the evangelical community (to which I recently returned as the prodigal daughter and was received with a three-keg rave with barbequed baby-back ribs and a live bluegrass band).

It’s a re-opening of the evangelical mind, in my opinion, and a re-examination of what truth really is, what Jesus really is all about and what orthodoxy really teaches.

Moreover, the trajectory and focus of this slow-building wave of soul force is around GRACE. And that’s the whole point, no? That’s what makes the message of Jesus different from all the other groovy dudes and special ladies of spiritual history. Grace trumps karma, to borrow a line from an Irish friend, and it makes beauty out of ugly things. Jesus makes beauty out of the ugliness of fallenness and wounds and brokenness.

When something is shattered, be it a heart or a notion, the light that comes through the broken bits of glass and mirror (in which we see ourselves and the world) are all the more beautiful- refracted light produces all those vivid colors that wouldn’t otherwise be seen to the naked eye.

I’m encouraged at how many people I encounter, in the evangelical big top and out, who are honestly listening — or trying to listen, anyway — for the still, small voice of God; who are awake and watching for glimpses of grace for all of creation.

Jesus came to make all things new again and that’s what I’m beginning to see happening with an exciting momentum I’ve not seen before in my lifetime. The Spirit of God is moving powerfully to reorient the church in the world to point toward love, not judgment; grace, not condemnation. It’s very exciting.

Matt: What are some of your favorite novels/novelists?

Cathleen: I’m a massive fan of J.D. Salinger and have been since I was a kid. I first read Catcher in the Rye the day after school let out the summer between my fifth and sixth grade years and I have read it almost every summer since. Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters is probably my favorite of Salinger’s novels/short story collections. I also absolutely adore Anne Lamott, both as a memoirist and as a novelist. Blue Shoe and Brand New People are my favorites among her fiction. And Tom Robbins — oh how I love him and all of his weirdness. Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates is my most favorite of his novels and I absolutely loved his last novella, B is for Beer. A few others come to mind in random order: Drop City by TC Boyle, Flannery O’Connor, Madeleine L’Engle, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, big fan of Carl Hiassen (my husband turned me on to his books a number of years ago and I just inhaled them. Is there a more indelibly odd character in contemporary fiction than Skink?) Roddy Doyle is another return to often, as well as some of Fred Buechner’s fiction, although I prefer his nonfiction. He is my favorite writer. Period. My friend Stacy Barton wrote a collection of short stories that is among the more memorable books I’ve read in recent years. It’s called Surviving Nashville. Wonderful.

That said, my favorite genre of writing to read is memoir. And there again, my favorite writers are Annie Lamott and St. Fred of Vermont. I’ve read everything Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris have ever published; Annie Dillard (especially her The Writing Life, Henri Nouwen’s The Genessee Diary, Ruth Reichl’s series of food memoirs, and a wonderful newish book by first-time writer Jane Knuth called Thrift Store Saints about her years of working in a St. Vincent de Paul Society second-hand shop in Michigan. The subtitle is Meeting Jesus 25-cents at a Time. It absolutely slayed me.

Matt: In your work for the Sun-Times: who has been your most interesting interview?

Cathleen: I left the Sun-Times a year ago after being on staff and writing as a contributing columnist for a decade. But during my tenure there, I had the most incredible experiences professionally and personally. It’s really hard to pick just one and the easy go-to would be the series of interviews I did with Bono over the years. He means the world to me personally and I’ve been a fan since I was 13. But getting to sit with him and talk about eternal things, go to church with him, sit in a bar with him (still talking about Jesus) and get to know him a bit has been one of the most significant blessings of my life.

There are other staggeringly grace-filled encounters with the famous and the wonderfully normal that are right up there, too. Barack Obama back in March 2004 before anybody outside of Chicago knew who he was (or how to pronounce his name correctly). Jean Vanier — the founder of the L’Arche communities worldwide — a living saint if ever there was one. Walking with Cardinal Francis George through his cancer battle a few years back was a moving experience for me in many ways — both professionally and personally. He’s rather irascible and tenacious with reporters, but I grew very fond of him. I still remember vividly being on stake-out at the hospital when he was undergoing surgery and slipping away into the chapel to pray, tears streaming down my face. I’ve had many opportunities to interview some of my personal heroes to talk about faith: Annie, Fred, Bruce Cockburn, John Patrick Shanley, Archbishop Tutu, Barry Scheck, Mr. Robbins, Father Michael Pfleger, the actor John Mahoney (the loveliest human bean you’ll ever meet).

Matt: So, a second part to the same question, what was your most compelling story about everyday people in your work with the Sun-Times?

Cathleen: The one “normal” person story I had the privilege of telling that stays with me, even though she’s gone on to the More, is Kim Kalicky. She was an emergency room nurse in Chicago, married to a Chicago paramedic, battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I met Kim and her family in the fall of 2006, when her husband, Tom, sent me a kind note after I’d written about my Mexican stand-off with God after my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Tom wrote not to ask for help, but to encourage me to cling to faith and trust in God.

I was so taken with his letter and reached out to him in turn. I learned that the family had fallen on hard times because of Kim’s recurring illness and an injury Tom sustained that kept him off the job for many months. It was right before Thanksgiving when we met. They had had their car repossessed. They were up to their eyeballs in debt, worried about losing their home, etc. And Kim was so sick. They were such dear, faithful people. When I asked Kim what she and the kids were doing for Thanksgiving and she told me that they’d probably go to McDonald’s (she wasn’t complaining, just blithely stating her plans in her sweet Tinkerbell-high voice) because Tom had to work, I stepped over the line of journalistic distance and offered to make the family a meal. Kim wasn’t physically strong enough to cook for her brood, so I said I would. I spent Thanksgiving padding around their kitchen, cooking a Turkey, making mashed potatoes and rejoicing when the canned cranberry sauce made that satisfying “ssssssh-glumpk” sound when it emerged from its tin container in a gelatinous tube.

That Thanksgiving is easily my most cherished. I learned so much from them — about grace and love and faith and mercy and family — they blessed me way more than I blessed them, I assure you. After a number of surgeries and stem cell transplants, rounds of chemo and great suffering, Kim’s cancer returned and she passed on in 2010. I think of her often, with great thankfulness and joy. I believer her story, the one she allowed me to share with Chicago, left an indelible mark on my life and on the lives of many other people — those she knew and loved and many more she never had the chance to meet.

The other powerful story is about the boy I met while traveling in Africa who eventually became my son. I met Vasco as, I guess technically at least, a civilian. But I wrote about him as a columnist, trying to get him life-saving surgery in the United States. I wrote that story as I lived it and I have to think that had I not been a journalist and had I not told Vasco’s story as a journalist (because it was the only thing I could think to do to help save his life at the time), I don’t believe we’d be a family today. He is my only child, the joy and light of my life. If I never write another word again in my lifetime, my career in journalism was worth every long hour, every hassle or throw down with an editor on deadline, every angry source, every paranoid church secretary who wouldn’t take my message for the pastor, every endless planning-and-zoning board hearing, every breaking news story about chaos and suffering, every obituary, impenetrable business story or Catholic school budget take-out piece I’ve ever had to suffer through writing. My husband is a journalist and we met as journalists. I would not have a family today were it not for the recently great Fourth Estate. And that’s probably the best story I know.

Matt: What can you tell us about your next book project?

Cathleen: I just signed a book contract a week or so ago for a fourth nonfiction book called, “Belieber: Fame, Faith & the Heart of Justin Bieber.” No, really. It’s not an April Fool’s joke, as one Tweeter asked me recently. The book will be released on September 27 in the U.S. For the inside scoop, visit Ha!

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