- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2006

It’s not surprising nowadays to hear public figures give credence to their faith, their spirituality or God. But what do their words mean?

In her debut book, “The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People,” Cathleen Falsani, religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, took on the task of finding out just that. What exactly does spirituality mean to pop-culture icons like rock musician Bono, Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner or lesbian pop star Melissa Etheridge?

“Contrary to what people might think, I believe pop culture is a great place to go looking for God,” Ms. Falsani says. “God shows up in places where people least expect God to be.”

After several peers convinced her that the idea warranted a book, Ms. Falsani began a journey through a theme park of spiritual roller coasters. From the Playboy Mansion to Lower Manhattan, she talked with a variety of figures not known for their religiosity, allowing them to express themselves freely.

“The book was intentionally written in a nonconfrontational sort of way,” the reporter says. “Typically when public figures are asked about their faith, it is generally a way to judge them in one way or another. So, as a result, they usually aren’t very candid.

“I wanted to offer them a place where they could really tell me what they believe without fear of being denounced.”

Traveling the country to piece together a puzzle of opinion and belief enriched her own life, Ms. Falsani says.

“Even though on paper many of their views don’t look like mine, hearing their stories and their ideas enlivened my own faith,” says the author, a 1992 graduate of the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois.

After graduation, the author worked as an assistant editor for Daughters of Sarah, a Christian feminist magazine. She left a couple of years later to pursue two master’s degrees: one in journalism from Northwestern University and one in theological studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, both in Evanston, Ill.

Ms. Falsani, 35, who has been at the Sun-Times since 2000, says that out of hundreds of quotes in the book, a few stand out.

“Mancow Muller saying, ‘Trying to prove you’re a Christian is like trying to prove you’re not a pedophile,’ and Russell Simmons saying, ‘If you’re going to be a Christian, be a practicing Christian. If you’re going to be a Muslim, be a practicing Muslim,’ are two very memorable quotes,” she says. “I’ll ponder those for the rest of my life.”

And, “I think the interview that I always go back to with people was the conversation with John Mahoney,” the actor who played Martin Crane, the father on the sitcom “Frasier.”

“When I was just out of college, in my early 20s, I used to wait tables where John Mahoney would come in regularly. Now I live just a few blocks away from him, and over the years we’ve become acquaintances, and I thought I kind of knew his story.

“After I interviewed him, though, I realized I didn’t know him like I thought I had. He’s probably the most intentional person I know, and the kindest. That kindness is his spiritual practice.”

One of her tougher conversations was with the founder of Playboy.

“At first, the interview with Hef didn’t start out the way I wanted it go because I think we both had wrong expectations about where the interview was going,” she says. “I realized after a little while that I wasn’t getting to the real guy. There was a subtle wall between us.”

Almost by chance, the two ended up discussing movies. She asked Mr. Hefner from what movie he had learned the most spiritually. At first, the multimillionaire appeared stumped and said he didn’t know whether any of the movies that came to mind could be defined properly as “spiritual.”

She then interrupted him, saying that for her, the movie had to be the 1971 film “Harold and Maude.”

“After I told him that, it was almost like the wall between us just melted away,” says Ms. Falsani. “After he realized what I was really trying to learn, and how I was defining spirituality, we had a remarkable conversation, and I got to see a side of Hugh Hefner that a lot of people never have an opportunity to see.”

Although many of her interview subjects had traditional conceptions of God and spirituality, others did not. However, Ms. Falsani says there was a similarity that characterized just about every single person she interviewed.

“As I look back on it, I can see two themes that emerged,” she says. “First, everyone in the book was mindful of the fact that they were blessed. And secondly, they were aware of that, and therefore felt an obligation to give something back.”

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