Author Feature: Tim O’Donnell

March 25, 2011

Happy Friday, everyone. 

Today, I’m featuring one of the most interesting books I’ve featured here on the blog, Tim O’Donnell’s A View From the Back Pew.  O’Donnell’s book is a unique hybrid.  It’s a compelling spiritual memoir of a Catholic wrestling with religion, and a primer on O’Donnell’s perspective on Christian theology.

The book swings through everything in O’Donnell’s spiritual wanderings, from annoying the nuns at his Catholic school, to taking the Catholic church to task on many traditions (including how Catholics treat Mary), to being confronted by Christians about his practicing yoga, to a prosperity gospel that seemingly actually worked. 

I’ll admit, I wrestled with this book a lot.  But I also couldn’t put it down.  O’Donnell’s beliefs are far from “orthodox.”  But it’s obvious he’s still on a journey of faith and questions, so don’t read his conclusions as gospel truth.  You may hate his theology, or conclude he’s not a “real” Christian.  Or you may be comforted that even with his beliefs and questions, his faith is still intact.  You may read his book as a cautionary tale of the spirituality that the church (especially the Catholic church) is producing.  But his story is addictively compelling, and kept me reading to the end.

I’ve got Tim on the blog today with some great discussion, and we’ll be giving away a couple of copies today too!

Tim, can you tell us just a bit about yourself?

I’m married to Lynn for 30 years; we have three grown children.  Before I began on this path I was in the newspaper business, selling ad space then into management.  I went on my own as a consultant (for newspapers) and eventually bought a daily newspaper, which I sold in 2000 to Knight-Ridder.

Your spiritual journey begins the same way as a lot of Catholics – by annoying the nuns, but what compelled you to turn it into a memoir?  

I hope the book demonstrates some benefit to asking questions and not to believe something simply because you are instructed to believe it.  We can learn much about God from life itself and not exclusively from doctrine. I hope to encourage those who become disenchanted or disengaged with “the church” to remain steadfast in their quest to know God; that there is a dynamic potential for our relationship with God with or without the formality of organized religion. 

You recall how your family wasn’t particularly religious, and your religious indoctrination was left up to the nuns.  This seems like a broad phenomenon to me – parents outsourcing their kids’ spiritual formation.  Do you think if parents took more ownership of teaching and modeling Christian faith, it would improve the numbers of people who claim agnosticism in adulthood?

I can honestly say I do not know for sure.  Of course, kids take their cue from their parents on this issue but I also think that the prevalence of pop-culture science makes for more intellectual discernment and people will have increasingly challenging questions of organized and ancient religion.  The challenge for education is to not present science and religion to kids as either/or.  I do not think science will ever disprove God so to me, there is nothing to fear by learning all we can about our natural world. 

I think parents should live their beliefs to set an example and give structure and then allow their children to trust their heart as they mature.  I think we are hard wired to seek God but also naturally inclined to rebel against what is forced upon us. 

On a related note, how do you feel about the church’s, perhaps specifically the Catholic church’s ability to spiritually develop young people?  Do you feel the priority is creating spiritually whole people, or merely instilling lifelong loyalty?

Boy, I could write a book about this topic. Oh wait, I already did!

When I was in the Catholic school system, the emphasis was on adherence and submission; today I think there is a sincere effort in Catholic education to personal spiritual development.  However in the real world practice of Catholicism, unfortunately the latter part of your question (lifelong loyalty) still prevails.

The conclusions you make about the Bible’s origins are far from any conservative orthodoxy.  I’m interested in what you say to Christians who may be discovering the same Biblical scholars and theories you did, and now struggle with how to reconcile the Bible and their faith.

If pressed for a label, I’d consider myself a “Christian” because I trust the wisdom of its namesake, Jesus Christ.  It matters little to me that I’ve concluded things about the hierarchy of the church, the Bible and some of the doctrine that would threaten the label of “Catholic.”  I guess the earthbound form of the church, with all of its human blemishes doesn’t sway me away from the wisdom of the original depositor of its faith.

You point out that most conflict on earth arises from differences in beliefs and our pursuit of divine truth.  Do you think humanity would be better off if we didn’t pursue belief in the divine?  

Absolutely not!  We will never stop seeking this connection.  I think mankind’s deeply rooted sense that there is a source of intelligence beyond our own and that our instinct to connect with it is not in the least bit superstitious.  It is a perfectly reasonable and perhaps natural collective assumption. 

The problem as I see it, is that we keep expanding our ability to comprehend this potential yet are asked to attach our awareness of it to concepts articulated thousands of years ago.  Why shouldn’t the knowledge of God evolve along with every other kind of human knowledge? 

Are you still “opening your mind to Satan” by doing yoga stretches?

Yep! I’m still downward-dogging it, but also, still successfully (I think) fending off ol’ Beelzebub. 

In your times of intense questions or doubts, is there some thought, belief, meditation, or conviction about the world that you can rely on to keep you grounded, even when you don’t know what else you can believe?

First off, in all seriousness, and many people doubt me when I say this, I’ve never had intense doubt about God.  Religion? Yes, many, but never really doubted God.  I actually think the kind of faith I have is simply a gift; some would call it grace, but I’ve always believed God exists.

I focus on the existence of God within my own human person and life experience.  We’re all made up of flesh and bones and “something else.”  If you regularly listen in a state of stillness to the “something else” it reveals itself as the “voice” of God. 

I know that last answer sounds kind of woo-woo but perhaps here is an alternative way to think about it: We continuously engage in internal dialogue, often in the form of questions.  What is the source of the intelligence that answers our internal questions?

All you have to do to be entered to win a free copy of Tim’s book is comment below, or give a tweet shout out.  You can also check out Tim’s site.

36 responses to Author Feature: Tim O’Donnell

  1. Growing up with evangelical Protestant Christian schooling and developing lifelong friends (now in different places of spiritual understanding and growth), I would love to read more of what O’Donnell has to say, particularly about Christian education. Sounds like a great read!

    As for the sentence that reads,”I focus on the existence of God within my own human person and life experience,” it’d be great if he could provide a bit of clarification. Does he refer to a concept of God-in-us in the sense that a part of who we are fundamentally is a part of God? Or the Spirit of God in us as “the source of the intelligence that answers our internal questions”?
    Jo_of_TSN recently posted..5 things I want my kids to know about God

    • Part of what I had to cut for length is that Tim believes our pursuit of the divine is inherant in our DNA, so in that way, part of us is fundamentally a part of God. But I think he would agree with your second statement – the spirit of God is the voice that “talks back” to us.

  2. Hi Matt and Tim,

    Interesting. Lots of thinking went into this.

    One point struck me most. “The problem as I see it, is that we keep expanding our ability to comprehend this potential yet are asked to attach our awareness of it to concepts articulated thousands of years ago. Why shouldn’t the knowledge of God evolve along with every other kind of human knowledge? ”

    I question the idea that human knowledge has evolved, in the sense of improved. Sure, we have more gadgets, but how have we improved in things that really matter?

    Has my ability to be a good husband improved beyond Abraham’s ability? Am I a better employee than Jacob? Am I a better father than Job? Can I catch more fish than Peter? Am I smarter than Solomon?

    Then why should I think my own newfangled concept of the living God is more advanced than their experiences and concepts?

    Ancient peoples were not stupid. Their real needs were the same as ours. So, God did not reveal to them the secret of programing a vcr. But He did give those guys everything needful for life and godliness, What more need we?


  3. I think there is value and truth in what he stated: “First off, in all seriousness, and many people doubt me when I say this, I’ve never had intense doubt about God. Religion? Yes, many, but never really doubted God. I actually think the kind of faith I have is simply a gift; some would call it grace, but I’ve always believed God exists.” There are probably a lot of people who can and will say this. I don’t see him being disagreed with at all in this statement. AND WE SHOULD QUESTION RELIGION. I also think he is right in that we should not accept something lock, stock and barrel just because we are taught it from the beginning. While I am sure I will disagree on some, maybe many points, the book sounds interesting. Good interview Matt.
    bill (cycleguy) recently posted..Legacy

  4. //You recall how your family wasn’t particularly religious, and your religious indoctrination was left up to the nuns. This seems like a broad phenomenon to me – parents outsourcing their kids’ spiritual formation.//

    My mother did this to me and my brother and we were raised Baptist lol.
    Charlie Chang recently posted..275 Scary movies

    • Yeah I see it in all Christian cultures. I was a youth pastor and there were parents that I *never* saw. They signed the permission forms and never cared about meeting the guy their kid was spending two hours with each week. The kids were even brought to youth group by other parents each week.

  5. Ok, I slammed on the spiritual brakes right here: “Why shouldn’t the knowledge of God evolve along with every other kind of human knowledge?”

    Because the knowledge of God is perfect! If you don’t know Him, you can’t have it. That is why it is not the knowledge gained by learned men that saves us. Proverbs 2. I guess it seems odd that Solomon’s wisdom is outdated.

    Francis Chan in a Crazy Love video said this, “When will we stop believing everything we are fed, and read the Bible for ourselves?” It came to a “crises of faith” as he was discussing his own faith with a couple of JW’s that came knocking at the door. It was a good point.

    Honestly, I don’t think Tim (along with a lot of other Americans) knows much about Satan, if he did, he’d be convinced through experience, not through some sort of intellectual belief.

    I am glad that we all question religion, it how we derive the answers that concerns me. All we need to know about experiencing Jesus is in Acts 2, the purpose of the life of Jesus is in John 3, and the benefit in Romans 8; the rest is walking it out.

    The internal dialog is of the soul, there is also a spiritual dialog that is in the spirit. Jesus said it like this: “The sheep know His voice.” It is sometimes difficult to discern the difference, and Hebrews says that we should know the word of God because soul and spirit are as close as bone and marrow, thought they are NOT the same.

    I still would read that book – because it does sound interesting.
    David recently posted..There is Lots Going on in the World

    • I would respond actually in defense of Tim on this one – somewhat…Solomon had wisdom, sure, but our knowledge of God evolved – there were still revelations to come in the person of Christ. Abraham knew very little of God, Moses knew a bit more, and so on until Jesus. Now that we are in the New Testament era and the canon is closed, it’s up to us to judge the pastors and prophets are truly speaking a word from God. The key for me is that our knowledge of God may evolve, but our God himself does not. Just a thought.

      • I guess the honeymoon at TCoNP is over. 😉

        Actually, maybe we agree. There are not going to be any new Spiritual principals from and unchanging God. The word evolve seems to imply that we are going to derive new knowledge of God which may be different from the old knowledge – a new species of knowledge pertaining to God.

        I don’t think that there are going to be any new mysteries. Colossians 1 and 2 says that they have been unveiled.

        I would concede that maybe we (the church, not just me and Matt) will learn something that we did not know about God because there are seasons. That is discovery.

        What I am concerned about is that Jesus is somehow going to become more loving or more judgemental, or more something that he was not already.

        The trend in contemporary Christian thought is to give less weight to sin (which causes death), downplay the need for real repentance, create a universal God that just loves and has no justice or anger etc. – and relegate God to a near powerless entity that will somehow be immersed in power when we get to Heaven.

        If He is the same yesterday, to day, and tomorrow, then there is nothing that he won’t do, which he has done before, and according to John 21:25, there is a host of other things that weren’t even recorded.

        I just want to be very clear on my thoughts: There are many facets/characteristics to God; in fact I have found nearly 700 in the Bible. The knowledge of God is discovering those in the context of a personal, but supernatural relationship.
        David recently posted..Did You Ever Think

  6. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing this, Matt.

  7. Looks like a very interesting read. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.

  8. I haven’t had much opportunity to read contemporary Catholic authors, so I might have to check this out. Very interesting. The last Catholic author I read was Dorothy Day.
    David N. recently posted..An American geeks Childhood- No 22

  9. It sounds like an interesting read. I am a big fan of memoirs, even if I don’t always agree with everything.

  10. Tim’s answers about his spiritual journey and family really resonate. I grew up in a traditional household, but not a spiritual one. I’m going to write the title down right now.

  11. Is the idea that our knowledge of God becomes more advanced or is it just that how we interpret God through Scripture and in our personal experience changes over times?

    I am not suggesting new knowledge about God, just that our culture and our society influences how we interpret what we read in the bible.

    How do two different people interpret and apply the same passage differently? Some had “biblical” justification for slavery, which is absurd, but they viewed it as a god-church issue.
    Jeremy @ confessionsofalegalist recently posted..A banquet for the poor

  12. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of the book! Some of the author’s thoughts remind me a bit of the Emergent Church movement within Evangelicalism. Even though I think I will not agree with some of it (my husband and I are most likely joining the Roman Catholic Church) it looks like an interesting read! (And I so enjoyed reading Tim’s interview here!)
    Brianna recently posted..And the winner is

  13. Hey Matt! Thanks so much for the terrific Q&A with Tim. He’s an interesting guy! And thanks again for being on the tour for A View from the Back Pew. We really appreciate it!
    Lisa Munley recently posted..Sally Gunning- author of The Rebellion of Jane Clarke- on tour April-May 2011

  14. I found that interesting. As an Australian Christian, I am surprised at what seem to be the judgemental aspects of Christian/church life in the U.S. as you felt the need to write, “You may hate his theology, or conclude he’s not a “real” Christian.” God is our judge and people need to remember that.
    I also am interested in why Mary seems to have such a high place in the Catholic Church. Mary was someone who God loved and used for an immensely amazing job but we could say Moses and Noah were used in a parallel way.

    • Ha! Yeah, well, seeing the brouhaha that erupted over the last month with the release of Rob Bell’s book, a disclaimer like that seems highly appropriate…for everyone. :)

    • Mary is honored in the Catholic Church simply because she is Jesus’s mother, and he honored her. No, Moses and Noah were not used in a “parallel way”.
      Helen recently posted..The First Twitter Ho Down Post of March

      • The key word here is “honored.” There is a common misconception that Catholics “worship” Mary, which is not fact. Mary is honored because her Immaculate Conception (birth) which was a miracle from God. Hence, her giving birth to Jesus. It amazes me how many people, Catholics included, believe the Immaculate Conception is about Jesus’ birth.
        And I agree Helen-Moses and Noah were not used in a “parallel way” at all!

        • Thanks for your input, Tina. The problem that Protestants have though, is that the scriptures do not indicate that Mary’s birth was immaculate. Why would God need an immaculately born woman to birth a sinless Christ? Christ indicates that he is not sullied by sin, but rather His righteousness makes us clean. Once you say that Mary was born immaculate, it’s not much of a stretch for Protestants to say that Mary is worshipped.

  15. Hey Matt,

    Excellent Q&A. It was very interesting. The book sounds quite interesting as well. I grew up Catholic and I loved it. In high school I was in the club that planned masses and while in college I taught Catholic Catechism. But after college and experiencing more life outside the church I began to question things. It was actually a really painful experience for me, but it certainly deepened my faith and it opened up my spiritual eyes to the truth of the Bible. I agree that we can question religion without questioning God. Religion is really a man made construct of what we think about God. Now on the topic of our knowledge of God evolving I agree and disagree. God does not evolve so there can be a limit to what we know about Him. But we are mere humans and our minds cannot comprehend Him fully, so we have the ability to continually learn about Him. However, I think there is a positive and a dangerous route in attempting to learn more about God. I agree, science cannot and will not disprove God’s existence, as a biologist I’ve had to explore this topic a lot (a biologist, AND a Catholic, oh my!) But sometimes in the realm of science we are looking for something, and if you go looking for something, you will find it. Most of science is theory. But most people pass these theories off as truth- however they haven’t been completely proven. What I’m saying in a round about way is if you go looking for certain aspects of God scientifically you are going to find out what you already think you know about God. Now there is a another way for our knowledge of Him to evolve. It is in knowing Him on a deeper, more intimate level. This involves being able to progressively shut down our own thoughts, these thoughts are many times a consequence of the world we live in and not the God that lives with in us. It takes a lot of discipline to fully conform our minds to Christ as Paul tells us. In Romans 1 Paul tells us that without any prophets or Bible God put the knowledge of Himself in us, but people chose to reject that and gave themselves over to their own minds. We, humans, give ourselves over to own minds a lot, that’s probably how the vcr got invented in the first place. Paul later states that the message of the Gospel is veiled to some men- a veiling of their own action. He was talking specifically about wealth and I think wealth in any day of age veils our knowledge of God because if we are extremely wealthy we have no need for Him. But I think for today’s purpose men (people) veil themselves from God’s knowledge and message through distractions of technology, media, and even ministry. We let the world shape us instead of meditating on God’s Word, studying His Word and listening to Him when our own thoughts are quieted. Yes, our knowledge of God continually evolves by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by scientific discoveries. There are many things I cannot understand in my own understand,but with the guidance of the Holy Spirit I’ve already discovered so much more than I previously knew about God. Do I know God as well as Abraham did? Probably not, Abe got to walk along side God. Can I know Him that well and have the kind of faith Abraham had? Sure I can. Can my faith surpass Abraham’s? I don’t know, but that could be my lack of faith that doesn’t know. But then again, I know Christ, so I may be farther down the walk of faith than I give myself credit for.

    As always, thanks for such a thought provoking topic!
    Carla recently posted..Mental Illness or Modern Idolatry

  16. A few of my closest friends are of the Catholic Faith. I think this book would be something they would be interested in.

  17. I agree with so many comments on here!

    Saying that, I want to add that perhaps if we are using the “evolution of understanding God” statement, it should definitely be clarified! Perhaps thinking in terms of macro- versus micro-evolution could help. If we be believe that Jesus Christ is the ultimate revelation of God, then there is nothing else to learn about God. Thus, it cannot be a form of macro-evolution. There is nothing new to find, and it seems there is a lot of agreement on that here!

    In terms of micro-evolution (a.k.a. adaptation), this makes sense in that the message might change and an individual’s experiences and worldview alter the way the message is understood at various times. It is still the same message, though. It is still the same God.

    I was one of those young Christians who believed that because we were 2,000 years after the fact that we had more understanding. As I read so many things from the first three centuries of the Church, I realize more and more that we are still debating some of the same things today. Heck, we still debate some things that Jews debated before Christ walked the earth! We just keep finding different ways to argue!

    Thanks for doing this post! Both of you!
    Daniel M. Klem recently posted..Love the Sinner- Acknowledge the Sin

  18. I know a few folks who would enjoy the chance to read this book! Thanks. (-:
    My Thoughts recently posted..CPR-AED-First Aid

  19. I’m glad that I have something else to rely upon rather than my own personal experience of God.

    St. Paul tells us that the devil can come to us “all dressed up as an angel of light”

    I am thankful for the ‘external Word” that comes in preaching and Sacraments, totally apart from what I do, say, feel, or think.
    Steve Martin recently posted..Did the Bible drop out of Heaven with a bow tied around it

  20. hadn’t heard this one but I am muy interestante – and free is my price (not trying to go for the sob story but I just found out the organization I work for is closing…)
    Charlie’s Church of Christ recently posted..Personal Annoucement- Or The Church Is Gonna Have To Wait On New Carpet

  21. Sounds like an amazing book…I could relate to much of what was said and would love the chance to read it! :)
    Jessica Mokrzycki recently posted..This Moment- A Friday Tradition

  22. I love memoirs that deal with growing up in church. This one would be fascinating because as a little kid I imagined myself being catholic. Memoirs are one of my fave genres.
    rainbowsoffaith recently posted..Spiritual Comfort Zones

  23. I’m always interested in learning of people’s experiences with Catholicism, whether raised in the church and staying, leaving the church/Christianity altogether, or the seemingly new trend of converting to Catholicism. My extended family is Catholic but my parents left the church in favor of Protestant life when I was little so I have been exposed to all manner of Catholic-related experiences. Great interview!
    HopefulLeigh recently posted..Becoming Sticky

  24. Definitely a book I’d like to read at some point. I’ve had several good friends that have been Catholic, and it’s been interesting seeing how some have been Catholic in name, and those who are involved and actually having a healthy relationship with God. I’ve also known lots of people who have been “Christian” in name, but not in relationship.