First-person stories light up Barbara Newhall’s ‘Wrestling with God’

By Rebecca Rosen Lum

More than 10 years and hundreds of hours of interviews after her idea took root, “Wrestling with God,” Barbara Falconer Newhall’s book about faith and doubt, has landed in bookstores and is garnering praise.

The book “takes readers on a wild and wonderful ride,” says Publishers Weekly in a starred review. “Any seeker of any faith will be blessed to read the words of this fine author and observer.”

In “Wrestling with God,” 16 people of divergent beliefs describe their spiritual journeys: A Catholic nun, a Buddhist monk, a Nobel laureate in physics who says “God has been very dependable in my life.” A Jewish Holocaust survivor. A former prisoner of war.

A Muslim woman founds a progressive mosque for women. The daughter of a mixed marriage plunges into the faith of her Miwok mother.  A man who, as a child, renounced religious faith when he demanded God show him immediate proof of His existence and received none. A Wiccan woman finds solace in her grief in the very inexplicability of the universe. A man practices his atheism with devotion.

Newhall, a veteran of the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times,  blogs for the Huffington Post and posts weekly essays at her website, www.wrestlingwithgodbook.com.

Working the religion beat at the Times, she discovered “the wonderful diversity of the religious landscape,” she said.  She began to picture a sort of dynamic conversation between believers from different religious traditions — “a Studs Terkel kind of book, with 100 people.”

“I interviewed each person two or three times, for at least an hour,” she said. “I ended up with pages and pages and pages of stuff.”

She pared 50 interviews down to 16.  She questioned people first about the obvious obstacles to faith: one being science and reason, and the other, how they explain God’s failure to intervene in human suffering. Not all interview subjects lent themselves to a first-person narrative: “Some had great stories but were not good talkers. Some were great talkers but their story didn’t go anywhere.”

A former agent shared her draft with publishers. But while all loved the stories, they hesitated to run a collection of oral histories. Repeatedly, she heard that she needed a through-line to connect the narratives.

Initially, she balked at the suggestion that she make her own story that through-line.

“I felt very self-conscious, because I’m from the Midwest; you don’t talk about those things.”

The veteran journalist immersed herself in memoir. She hired a few editors along the way. And she participated in writer groups, the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, the Willamette Conference.

And, in the end, interspersing her own story with the narratives clicked.

Her agent, John Loudon, found her book a good home in Pantheos, an interfaith website that also publishes e-books. Pantheos leaves all the promotion to the author. Newhall knew she could do an effective job with printed copies, and requested them. The book is available on Amazon but also Indiebound, which serves independent book sellers.

For journalists-cum-authors, she has two solid pieces of advice: Be careful about shopping a book around before it’s ready, because “once a publisher has turned it down, they don’t want to see it again.” And secure the services of a social media expert to promote the finished product. Hers put together a video, using clips from readings. Now she’s contacting buyers groups.

And her book also features a dynamic foreword by longtime religion writer Don Lattin, who wrote the national bestseller, “The Harvard Psychedelic Club.”

“Barbara Newhall and I grew up in the 1950s, when not going to church was believed to be a stepping-stone to communism,” he says.

“But there has been an incredible shift in attitudes in the U.S. about church attendance and religious tradition, in 1958, only one in 25 Americans said he or she had left the religion or religious denomination of his or her childhood. By 1984, one out of three of us had switched religions or religious denominations.

“So yes, we are wrestling with God.”

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