Faith, doubt and the life of David Carr

February 13th, 2015

David Carr died yesterday, collapsing suddenly in the newsroom at the New York Times office. We (all of us, readers, thinkers, those passionate about journalism, media, culture, and almost every aspect of human public life) lost a great voice when we lost David. 

He was witty, thoughtful, sincere and unabashedly honest. You can read myriad obituaries today telling you all this by people who knew him personally, who knew his work inside and out, better than me (though I was and will remain a huge fan). Maybe the best thing about Mr. Carr was his complexity; he was just so human in the best and messiest way. 

Sarah Pulliam Bailey pulled this messiness together in her Washington Post article today, chronicling Carr’s journey of faith and religious understanding across the years. Carr’s story is a remarkable one, one of darkness, struggle, redemption and beauty. A former drug and alcohol addict, Carr managed to raise two daughters while on welfare before eventually rising to be one of the New York Times’ most celebrated columnists. 

Bailey notes that in his 2008 memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” Carr wrote of his addiction and recovery, saying, “It was hard to avoid a spiritual dimension in my own recovery … The unconditional love of the Church could possibly mean the difference between somebody living or dying.” Carr’s Christian upbringing informed his movement through life, giving a deeply religious flavor to his questioning and searching. 

Carr struggled with the role of religion in his life, but he was assured of the Church’s possibility for all, the potential of faith communities to heal and help those in need, those desperate to recover. In a 2011 interview with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Carr said the following about his understanding of communities of faith:

It's a wonderful group of people that I go to church with, and it's community. It's not really where I find God. And sort of what 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 the names of specific groups — by all of these strangers, you know, 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.”

That idea of church as a community tailored for helping those in need is crucial to Carr’s identity as an addict in communal recovery. He wrote about that idea two years earlier in “The Night of the Gun” when he called on the Church to have a “willingness to minister” to those dealing with addiction. In that willingness, he said, “the Church becomes better.”

If you want to talk about stark Christian truth, there it is. Carr was right in his assertion that the Church can and must be the avenue of grace for people. By our action, by being the channel through which God’s presence flows, we can address all kinds of brokenness, addiction being just one form. When Christianity comes to truly represent that desire to address all brokenness, we do become better as one body. The Church flourishes as the broken flourish.

David Carr spoke many truths. Those who embrace their faithful doubt, who never cease their examination of the mysteries of God often do. In that same interview with Gross, Carr described a prayer he kept in his pocket. He then said, “I don’t really know who I’m talking about when I say those words, but it sort of feels good when I do.” God often dwells with us in our questioning, and I get the sense that Carr knew that as well as anyone.

His life, his faith, his doubt and his belief that the Christian community at large has a life-saving role in mission to those suffering with addiction were all beautiful things, even when they were unpolished and rough. Maybe especially then. I’ll miss it all, David. May you rest now in wondrous mystery, wrapped in the grace and peace of God.


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