How a Local Journalist Sees God
Monday, August 24, 2009
Local journalism professor and author talks about how to see God in a chaotic world.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The image of the hard-drinking, hard-living, cynical reporter may be long gone, but there's something of that stereotype that remains in the public's mind. We tend to think of journalists as a rather skeptical crowd, the kind of folks who ask unpleasant questions and perhaps, always expect the worst of people. In that last aspect, at least, Dean Nelson is not your stereotypical journalist. He is the founder and director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University, and an award-winning reporter. But he has also made his spiritual quest an active part of his professional life. Dean Nelson has been a frequent guest in many capacities here on These Days. It's a pleasure to welcome him now to talk about his new book, "God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World." And good morning, Dean.
DEAN NELSON (Author): Good morning, Maureen. Thanks for having me on. And I'm skill – I'm still a skeptic, by the way.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. We just wanted to get that out in the first place. What is your new book, "God Hides In Plain Sight," about?
NELSON: What I wanted to accomplish in this book was to show that there is more going on in our lives and in the world than maybe we just see on the surface. And I used a way to get at that looking at life in a deeper way by looking at the seven sacraments, ancient traditions in organized religion, more than 1000 years in practice, and I looked at each of those seven sacraments as just ways to say, you know, we can look at the activity of God in the world and in our lives by looking at confession maybe in a little different way or confirmation or baptism or marriage or any of the – any of the others. And so I just wanted to develop those a little more to say here's a way to help us see that there's a lot more going on in our lives than maybe we see at the surface.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder why you went back to those ancient – the ancient traditions of those sacraments because you think about – a lot of people would question their relevance in the modern world.
NELSON: Yeah, yeah, I agree, and that's one of the reasons why I wanted to go back to them because I think they're beautiful actually, and if you look at something like, oh, let's take something that we – that might be kind of uncomfortable, you know, to think about, the sacrament of last rites, for instance. You know, extreme unction, the things that get said to usher a person from this world into the next. Well, I just thought that's not the whole story about what we mean by last rites, for instance. I mean, it could be something that says you're going through a transition in your life, a major transition, and it's okay to grieve the past one and move into the new one with some freedom. And the sacrament is a way to help us see it, I – the way I talk about it in the book, "God Hides in Plain Sight," is it helps us get from here to there.
CAVANAUGH: Well, but the name of your book is very intriguing. "God Hides in Plain Sight." How do you find God in your life?
NELSON: Well, that's one of the reasons why I chose the sacraments because I'm always looking for a way to say this is another way to see what's happening here. And to just look for God, I think, would be somewhat fruitless and extremely difficult, so what you look for is the activity of God, or the evidence of God and the presence of God. And you need something to use, some sort of a vehicle by which to do that.
CAVANAUGH: And would you mind sharing what kind of role God actually does play in your life?
NELSON: Well, I am a Christian and I think there are a lot of people who just go through their lives and don't see that there is something more going on than what they're seeing in the everyday details. I think in the details, that's where we find God. And it is in the – those chance interactions that we have with one another, it's in those meals we have together and we connect to something bigger than ourselves. I don't think you have to be a Christian to understand what I'm trying to say in this book. What I'm trying to say in the book "God Hides in Plain Sight" is that there is a transcendent quality available to everything that we see and everything that we do, but are we actually seeing it? Are we tapping into that? And that's what this book helps us do.
CAVANAUGH: Now you're going to be kind enough to read an excerpt from your book. I wonder if you'd set it up for us.
NELSON: Sure, I am a storyteller by trade.
NELSON: And that's part of why I wanted to go into journalism. I like to tell stories. But one of the things storytellers do is they'll see an incident that occurs in everyday life, as I've said, and say actually this points us to something bigger. This incident can actually help us understand something beyond just the exchange in itself. And so in the chapter that I have on the sacrament of confirmation, I tell a story about our next door neighbors when I was in graduate school that I think helps us see that – what I'm trying to get at, that there's always more going on in our lives than what – than we see at the surface. So here it is: 'One December night while I was in graduate school in southern Ohio, our elderly next door neighbor knocked on our door and asked if we wanted to see how she and her husband had decorated their house for Christmas. My husband made all the ornaments for our Christmas tree. He carved a lot of the decorations, too, like a little pond with skaters on it. It's very pretty. I think the kids will really like it, she said. We practically leapt to our feet in assent. The reason we were so excited was that we were so bored out of our minds. At Ohio University where I was attending classes for the fall term, had been out since before Thanksgiving. That gave me lots of concentrated time for the library work on my dissertation. But for the rest of the family, it was anything but fun. It was cold and snowy with a stainless-steel hue to the sky that made it seem like it was nearly night all day long. Plus, with school out of session, this already slow town crept to a crawl. Blake was three and Vanessa seven months. With kids that age in dreary weather, a little cabin fever sets in on everyone. A highlight for Marcia and the kids was to walk to the city bus stop, catch the bus and ride it to the end of its route, which was at a shopping mall at the edge of town. The mall was deserted, by and large, from the day it opened. Only about one-third of its available space had been leased to stores. The rest of it sat empty like much of the town that month. When the bus driver was done with his lunch, he would turn the bus around and drive back. Often, Marcia and the kids were its only passengers. So a chance to go to a neighbor's house and see some craftsmanship? Whoo-hoo! Maybe even stay for a cup of hot chocolate? Does it get any better than that? Get the nitro pills, dear. We're going next door. Marcia got Blake bundled up in his borrowed snowsuit, hat, mittens, scarf, and boots. I put heavy clothes on baby Vanessa, and zipped her into her heavy wool hooded papoose we had gotten at a baby shower. Her arms and legs were inside the cocoon so that all you could see was this tiny oval where her face peeked out. Held upside down, she looked like a large plaid raindrop with a face. Then Marcia and I quickly got on our heavy coats, hats and boots, and headed out for the 20-step walk from our house to our neighbors'. We crunched through the snow and talked to the kids about how wonderful this was going to be. People in Athens had the same – had the time and the talent to really do Christmas right, we told the kids. It wasn't like lame San Diego where they string lights on sailboat masts and parade around the bay in 80 degree weather, smugly singing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." Within a few seconds, we were at the neighbors' house. We knocked on the door of the front porch and the woman who had invited us over came out to greet us. We stood shivering as she pointed out their Christmas tree through the window. The tree and the decorations were inside the house; we were on the porch. See those lights on the tree? Every one lights up. One of the ornaments that my husband made, she said. We leaned forward to see. I could tell that they had a roaring fire in the fireplace. In our drafty, rented house next door, there was no fireplace. I can't see, Mom, Blake said. I handed Vanessa to Marcia and picked up Blake who weighed at least 15 pounds more wearing all of this winter gear. Can you see the skating rink on the table? My husband made it, and the skaters. Where are they, Mom? Blake said. Vanessa was a little young to realize how odd all this was but one of the great things about kids who have recently learned to talk is that they don't know how to sugarcoat things. Why aren't we going inside, Mom? Blake asked as he leaned practically out of my arms trying to see the decorations. Aren't we going to have some hot chocolate, Mom? We all stood on the porch for a while longer. Freezing, we waited for what we were sure would be an invitation inside the house. Well, thanks for coming over, our neighbor said. I thought the kids would enjoy this. Thanks so much for inviting us, Marcia said. It was fun. I was speechless. We spent more time putting winter clothes on our kids than we did on the neighbors' icebox porch, straining to see some carve-by-number figurines safe in the confines of a warm house. We couldn't go inside at least to thaw? After an awkward moment of silence, Marcia said, well, thanks again, merry Christmas. And we left. Why are we leaving, Mom? Blake said. We didn't go inside and see the decorations. When we got back inside our house, Marcia and I looked at each other and said, what was that about? Where's the hot chocolate, Mom? Blake said. So I went out to the garage, got in the car, drove to the grocery store and bought some hot chocolate for us all, shivering the entire way. Later, I came to two insights about this experience. One had to do with how strange our neighbors were. More about them later. The other was that the – this illustrated the spiritual journeys of many of us. A lot of the time it seems that we know there is something special, wonderful, meaningful inside. So we get outfitted for the trip to the interior, our personal, great interior. We walk through some difficult elements to get there, we get a college degree in philosophy or theology maybe, we get on the porch, catch glimpses of what life is like in the interior rooms but for whatever reason, we remain on the porch, bundled up in our shallow, shivering lives. All the while, there is a voice like my son's that keeps saying, aren't you going in?
CAVANAUGH: That's Dean Nelson reading an excerpt from his new book, "God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World." You know, Dean, a lot of people know you as – in your role as Director of Point Loma Nazarene Journalism program and they know you as part and parcel of San Diego with the Writers Symposium by the Sea. Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up and what was your family like?
NELSON: I grew up in Minneapolis and my parents were churchgoing types. I went to a religious affiliated college and it was there that I realized that you can have an intellectual life and a spiritual life at the same time. I think at one point in my life, I – it seemed to me that you were one or the other, that the smarter you got, the less you needed God. But after reading some great writers, people like C.S. Lewis and Flannery O'Connor and Thomas Merton, it dawned on me that these were very, very deep people who also had a belief in the transcendent God. And that attracted me and that actually liberated me to pursue both the spiritual dimension of life as well as the intellectual. And they didn't have a journalism program at that college so I had a degree in literature and just sort of muddled around for a few years and then had an uncle who kind of set me on the right path and awakened me to the world of journalism.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering how you balance the world of journalism with its innate skepticism with the faith you need in order to have the kind of spiritual life you're talking about.
NELSON: Well, and this is one of the things I talk about with my students at Point Loma Nazarene, is there's a huge difference between skepticism and cynicism, and I'm a skeptic. I'm a trained skeptic and I try to train people to be – I think skepticism is a virtue. Cynicism is its kind of ugly cousin because it doesn't take much to go from saying 'I wonder' and pursuing the question of I wonder, to saying 'I know' and then you just stop trying and you stop thinking. I think skepticism, for instance, has a tremendous role in anyone's faith because the same skepticism that says I wonder if this politician is lying to me is the same question you say that I wonder if the statement God is love, I wonder if that's true? And both of those then set you on a course of trying to find out. So I think the journalism quest and the faith quest are very, very easy relatives.
CAVANAUGH: As a man of faith, you know, does it pain you that there's – God is in the forefront of so – The image of God, the idea of God, the God in books, the God – people's idea of God is in the forefront of so many wars and so many conflicts around the world today?
NELSON: Sure. Sure. It's not only painful but you just know it's painful to God as well. You know, you see two warring groups, both of them saying they're following God. Well, how could that be? And when I get into conversations with people and they say, well, I don't believe in God and so, you know, the – I think that invites the next question from me that says, well, tell me about this God you don't believe in. And they describe a God of war and a hateful, warmongering, vindictive kind of God, and I say, well, I don't believe in that God either. So one – It pains me that that's the word that gets used. It pains me even further to see the word Christian get used the way it does, not just God. Christian, it seems to me, in so many circles, means this intolerant, anti-intellectual, hates everybody who doesn't believe just like them. And I just think, well, I just don't – I don't see that in the life of Christ. And so I wish maybe we had a different word for Christian than – than that sort of political, angry, divisive one.
CAVANAUGH: Indeed, there has been a divide in this country among people of different political faiths, one most – might only…
CAVANAUGH: …almost say. And I'm wondering, when you describe yourself as a Christian and you meet another Christian, do you have to sort of find out what kind of a Christian…
NELSON: I think, yeah. I think we do. You do a little dance and find out, okay, do you, you know, what – what kind of Christian are you?
NELSON: And that's sort of sad on the one hand. But, again, if I look at this book, "God Hides in Plain Sight," I had some real difficulty on the sacrament of marriage, for instance, because I didn't want to get into a Prop. 8 kind of thing. That isn't what I was after. I wanted to talk about what is the ideal way to live in relationship and in community with another person? And so maybe somebody who's expecting a real strong kind of view of this way or that way on the political dimensions of marriage, they'll be disappointed in what I do with "God Hides in Plain Sight" on the sacrament of marriage. But the others who want to transcend the – just the dumb stuff, I think they'll actually enjoy it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, it's interesting in reading some of your book, which I have, it seems that the way you describe your encounters with God and the way you find God in your life, it really sort of transcends any denomination. How do you feel about the different denominations of – or finding God through different religions, Hindu and Jewish religion, Muslim religion. Is that all the same in your opinion? Or are there distinctions that you make in your journey?
NELSON: It's a great question, and it's got so many trap doors to it. Here's maybe the way to – that I think about all these other religions, including my own. I think it just proves that we are spiritual beings and we're all on some sort of a quest to know truth, to know our creator, and these religions are ways to get there. I think there are people who are on the same quest that I'm on who are of different faiths. And I, personally, have no idea how to sort that out. And I'm going to – I think that's one I'm going to leave to God.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right then. Now, let me talk about, you know, for a long time in this country with an ascendant, rightwing Christianity…
CAVANAUGH: …there's been talk about a war against science. And of course…
CAVANAUGH: …you're an educator and I'm wondering, how do you teach kids about the challenges of teaching science based on science and not religion. Do you find any conflict in that?
NELSON: There is conflict only if you have a really narrow view of religion and a really narrow view of science. Some of the smartest people I know are scientists who are also people of faith. In fact, that's my – the next book that I'm working on has to do with the science and faith debate. If you look at somebody like Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, recently named to the Obama administration's health area, there is a man of faith there and also a world class scientist. I think there's plenty of evidence out there that you can be both – you can have both that inquisitive, scientific mind and be a person who says I don't see the conflict between having an inquisitive, scientific mind and being a person of faith. So I think the way we try to teach it with a – at Point Loma Nazarene is an extremely healthy way, which is to say it's both. It's both creation and it's both evolution, for instance. Those two do not need to be hostile to one another.
CAVANAUGH: That's – Indeed, that was a mainstream feeling among many religions, I think, about 20 years ago.
CAVANAUGH: But then things started to change.
NELSON: Then something happened.
CAVANAUGH: Now in your book, one of the things you do is you tell personal stories and…
CAVANAUGH: …how you see God's presence in various events. And how many things that happened in your life do you think are occurrences of God's presence or simply coincidences?
NELSON: Yeah, I love that question and just the fact that it's a coincidence, though, doesn't mean it's not of God. You know, my personal feeling is that God is continually breaking through our everyday lives and it's more a matter of are we seeing it or not? As opposed to is God doing something. I work from the present – from the premise that God is at work in the world. And am I – whether I'm seeing it or not is the issue, not whether God is there or whether God is at work. And so the coincidence, those things, I think you can read more into those sometimes than is probably – probably worth doing. But I'm more interested in just the day-to-day, the nitty gritty stuff, not those gee whiz experiences. I'm more interested in whether we see God at work in just encounters at the local grocery store or in traffic or in a conversation we might have with a colleague. So I think the coincidences occur whether they're of God or not. I don't know. I think there are these moments in our lives, though, and theologians call them thin spaces, you know, between heaven and earth, where there are just some occurrences that we all go through and you just say I caught a glimpse of something in that encounter that – that was a very thin space between heaven and earth.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, in the short time we have left, is – Did writing the book "God Hides in Plain Sight," has that helped you be hopeful about the future? Has it made you think about the future in a different way?
NELSON: It's made me more aware of what I think is the activity of God in the world. And maybe there'll be others who will read "God Hides in Plain Sight" and say, yeah. Yeah, maybe there is something more to my mundane existence than I was thinking. So I'm hopeful that people who read "God Hides in Plain Sight" will see that there is a much, much deeper level of their lives than what they were assuming.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for coming in and talking to us and reading a segment from your book, Dean.
NELSON: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Dean Nelson has just written a new book, "God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World." And I want to let everyone know that you can post your comments about this topic or any topic that you hear on These Days at KPBS.org/TheseDays. You have been listening to These Days on KPBS.