How David Carr described his messy relationship with faith

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by  Sarah Pulliam Bailey

New York Times journalist David Carr, who died Thursday, had a complicated relationship with religion. In his 2009 book “The Night of the Gun,” Carr wrote about his father’s faith compared with his own.

“My father is a man who swears frequently goes to church every day, and lives his towering faith,” Carr wrote. “I am a man who swears frequently, goes to church every Sunday, and lives in search of faith. He is a man who believes that I am not dead because nuns prayed for me. I am a man who believes that is as good an explanation as any.”

In a 2011 interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Carr spoke openly about his drug and alcohol addiction, revealing a conversation he had with former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller about his memoir. “You know what, we don’t hire nuns,” Keller told him. “We have no problem with your book.”

Gross asked: “For a lot of people who are giving up an addiction, they’re encouraged to find a higher power … where it’s a religion or something else that will function in that way. Was there such a thing for you?”

Carr said he was in the middle of a struggle with religion.

I’m a churchgoing Catholic, and I do that as a matter of, it’s good to stand with my family. It’s good that I didn’t have to come up with my own creation myth for my children. It’s a wonderful … community. It’s not really where I find God. The accommodation I’ve reached is a very jerry-rigged one, which is: All along the way, in recovery, I’ve been helped without getting into specifics of names, by all of these strangers who get in a room and do a form of group-talk therapy and live by certain rules in their life — and one of the rules is that you help everyone who needs help. And I think to myself: Well, that seems remarkable. Not only is that not a general human impulse, but it’s not an impulse of mine. And yet, I found myself doing that over and over again. Am I, underneath all things, just a really wonderful, giving person? Or is there a force greater than myself that is leading me to act in ways that are altruistic and not self-interested and lead to the greater good?

That’s sort of as far as I’ve gotten with the higher-power thing. I’m kind of a pirate, kind of a thug. I’ve done terrible things, and yet I’m for the most part able to be a decent person. … I think something else is working on me.

In his book, Carr wrote about how faith was central to his rehabilitation.

“It was hard to avoid a spiritual dimension in my own recovery,” he wrote. “… The unconditional love of the Church could possibly mean the difference between somebody living or dying.”

Carr also urged churches to help drug addicts rebuild their lives.

“The Church can do more than mitigate the gravest of these problems,” he wrote. “In my opinion, by demonstrating a willingness to minister to those afflicted with this disease, the Church becomes better … The Church has the proximity and the people to make a difference in what seems like an insoluble problem.”

In her NPR interview, Gross asked him to get specific, asking him to pull out the prayer he has in his pocket.

Sure, let me look at it. It’s really full of like thees and thous. I think it’s the prayer of St. Francis. What it would be known programmatically, again, no names mentioned, is kind of a third-step prayer. I’m not comfortable reading the whole thing but what it talks about is to offer yourself to god to build with you as god would see fit. The important part to me is to relieve me of the bondage of self, so that I may better do thy will. It goes on to say, take away my difficulties; of course everyone prays for that, we all do. And that victory over them will bear witness to a power greater than yourselves. And it says may I do thy will always. I don’t really know who I’m talking about when I say those words, but it sort of feels good when I do.

After his interview with NPR, Carr retweeted implying journalism was his main passion, though faith occasionally snuck into his media writing. Carr has written about journalism using religion terms, describing the Times’ metered paywall using words like faith, theology and religion.

In 2008, he wrote about the death of another journalist, Meet the Press host Tim Russert, in religious terms, calling him a “high priest” to some. Carr grew up on a religion and media diet. He wrote in his column that his father would schedule Sunday Mass around Russert’s show.

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