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Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Chances are churches frequented by your readers and listeners rarely if ever offer sermons about hell and damnation these days. And yet this rather unpleasant topic is eternally (so to speak) fascinating, and may be about to grab some headlines. That’s due to Eastern Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart's acerbic Sep. 24 release from Yale University Press “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation.”

Sample sentences: “No one, logically speaking, could merit eternal punishment.”

Also this: “If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all,”

Yes, Hart is a Hitler-in-heaven sort of guy (see page 38), and your sources will have interesting responses. Lest Hart seem a rank heretic, the Very Rev. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary blurbs that this book presents “the promise that, in the end, all will indeed be saved, and exposing the inadequacy — above all moral — of claims to the contrary.”

Heretofore Hart was better known for ridiculing non-belief, as in “Atheist Delusions.” The prolific author has held a succession of university appointments, most recently as a University of Notre Dame fellow. Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (in the news when he resigned over Duke University’s “diversity” policy) proclaims Hart “the most eminent” theologian in the English-speaking world.

Terms Hart applies to centuries of traditional orthodox and Orthodox doctrines on hell and damnation include “absurd,” “ludicrous,” “nonsensical,” “incoherent,” “horrid,” “degrading,” “loathsome,” “diseased,” “perverse,” “cruel,” “wicked” and “morally repugnant.” He is mainly offended by the idea that punishment is everlasting, on grounds that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Hart is open to some sort of cleansing to make sorry souls fit for heaven, but doesn’t spell out any version of Western Catholicism’s Purgatory.

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Yo, MSM: Anyone planning to stalk Jesusland religion ghosts lurking in 'The Hunt' movie?

Yo, MSM: Anyone planning to stalk Jesusland religion ghosts lurking in 'The Hunt' movie?

What a country we live in, these days. If you have been following the controversy surrounding the now-delayed movie “The Hunt,” you know that this is — according to mainstream media reports — yet another controversy about politics, anger, guns, violence and America’s Tweeter In Chief.

Oh, and there is no way to avoid the dangerous word “elites” when talking about this Hollywood vs. flyover country saga. However, if you probe this media storm you will find hints that religion ghosts are hiding in the fine print — due to the movie’s alleged references to “deplorables” and “anti-choice” Americans.

But let’s start with a minimalist report at The Washington Post that ran with this headline: “Universal cancels satirical thriller about ‘elites’ hunting ‘deplorables’ in wake of shootings.” Here’s the overture:

Universal Pictures has canceled its plan to release “The Hunt,” a satirical thriller about “elites” hunting self-described “normal people,” amid a series of mass shootings and criticism that the film could increase tensions.

“We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film,” Universal said in a statement.

The studio already had paused its marketing campaign for the R-rated movie, which was slated for release on Sept. 27. … “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel (“Z for Zachariah”) and produced by Blumhouse Productions, follows 12 strangers who are brought to a remote house to be killed for sport. 

Everything in this media-drama hinges on how this movie is alleged to have described the beliefs and behaviors of these “normal” Americans — who are stalked by rich, progressive folks defined by high-class culture and political anger issues. The elites are led by a character played by Oscar-winner Hilary Swank.

If you are looking for facts in this oh so Donald Trump-era mess, journalists at The Hollywood Reporter claim to have details deeper than the innuendoes glimpsed in the hyper-violent trailers for the movie (trailers that appear to be vanishing online). Here is a chunk of that story, which is referenced — aggregation style — in “news” reports all over the place.

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Igor Stravinsky (yes, you read that right) and how feature ideas emerge, even during the summer

Igor Stravinsky (yes, you read that right) and how feature ideas emerge, even during the summer

Every summer, The Religion Guy luxuriates in a visit to western Massachusetts, known for outstanding theater troupes, art museums, a dance center, lectures and other cultural offerings all surrounding the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s incomparable Tanglewood music festival. (Disclosure: The Guy’s daughter is a BSO player.)

One BSO concert this July offered two George Gershwin piano features (not the over-programmed “Rhapsody in Blue”) and then “Petrushka” by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), a tuneful and witty ballet score about the life and loves of a classic Russian puppet. That got The Guy thinking about Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet in which musical art exploded into modernity, “The Rite of Spring: Pictures from Pagan Russia” (originally titled “The Great Sacrifice”).

His theme was the worship of pre-Christian Scythians adoring the earth, evoking their ancestors and then choosing a young maiden who danced herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods for a good harvest. The music is creepy, orgiastic, harmonically dissonant and rhythmically jagged. The premiere in Paris provoked a scandalous near-riot as astonished attendees audibly jeered, argued and tussled while the music proceeded.

That in turn brought to this listener’s mind the radical religious contrast between the “Rite” and another Stravinsky work The Guy heard at the Tanglewood debut of Andris Nelsons, who was later appointed Boston’s music director. Back in 1930 the orchestra marked its 50th anniversary by commissioning new works by the likes of Copland, Hanson, Hindemith, Honegger, Prokofiev and Respighi, and wanted Stravinsky to produce a conventional symphony.

Instead, he came up with a unique piece of sacred music, “Symphony of Psalms” for chorus and an orchestra minus violins and violas. This ranks as the 20th century’s finest composition on a biblical theme (any competitors?) and Time magazine proclaimed it one of the century’s three greatest classical compositions, alongside Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Ravel’s string quartet.

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The Vatican press office has turned over, again. There are new challenges ahead

The Vatican press office has turned over, again. There are new challenges ahead

The Vatican press office may be second only to the White House communications department when it comes to ranking the world’s busiest public relations operation.

Like President Donald Trump, Pope Francis and the Holy See are in some serious need of daily damage control. The resurfacing of the clergy sex abuse scandal — year after year for decades — and the allegations that led to the downfall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick have been the Vatican’s biggest PR headaches over the past year.

Responsible for handling the Holy See’s messaging on the clergy scandal and a host of other issues will be a retooled press office. Much of the turmoil that has surrounded the pope and the Catholic church over the past year called for an overhaul of the Holy See’s press operation.

The past two weeks has seen a flurry of announcements, including the naming of a new press office director and vice director (more on this position further down), two of the biggest jobs at the Vatican held by lay people.  

Pope Francis appointed Matteo Bruni as director of the Holy See Press Office earlier this month, replacing Alessandro Gisotti who’d been serving in the role on an interim basis following the abrupt resignations of Greg Burke, a former Fox News Channel reporter, and Paloma Garcia Ovejero, who had also worked as a journalist in her native Spain, at the end of last year. Gisotti was in charge throughout the Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano saga. Vigano has claimed that Francis covered up the misconduct of McCarrick, something the pontiff has repeatedly denied.

With Bruni’s appointment, Gisotti has been given the role of vice editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication. He will serve under editorial director Andrea Tornielli, who’s been in the job since December, and Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication since July 2018.

Bruni, Gisotti, Tornielli and Ruffini are all Italians, experienced PR men loyal to the church.

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Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

With Jeffrey Epstein, it was all about the selfies and party pictures.

Yes, his infamous “little black book” of contacts (Gawker link here) contained the names of legions of apparently innocent elite-zip-code personalities (lots of journalists here) who may have never even met Epstein — but he wanted their contact information because they had influence in the public square. Some of the man’s victims made it into the book, as well.

But then there are the people who made it into all of those photos that document the good times shared by the powerful people who were courted by Epstein or who courted him. We are talking about the people who made it to his private island or who flew — for various reasons — on the private Epstein jet. A few were, literally, royals.

It will be hard, but try to make it all the way to the end of the current New York Magazine feature that ran with this revealing double-decker headline:

Who Was Jeffrey Epstein Calling?

A close study of his circle — social, professional, transactional — reveals a damning portrait of elite New York

What do we see in this long list of powerful and famous names?

It’s hard to be more specific than the final words in that headline. This predator’s “little black book” was a guide to “elite New York” — the people with power and access to power. What role did religion play in this drama? That depends on how one defines the term “religion.” (Click here for my first post on this topic.)

Here’s the thesis of the New York piece:

For decades, important, influential, “serious” people attended Epstein’s dinner parties, rode his private jet, and furthered the fiction that he was some kind of genius hedge-fund billionaire. How do we explain why they looked the other way, or flattered Epstein, even as they must have noticed he was often in the company of a young harem? Easy: They got something in exchange from him, whether it was a free ride on that airborne Lolita Express, some other form of monetary largesse, entrée into the extravagant celebrity soirées he hosted at his townhouse, or, possibly and harrowingly, a pound or two of female flesh. …

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Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

I have followed the acidic soap operas (timeline here) surrounding Jeffrey Epstein for more than a decade. That may sound strange, but there’s a logical reason — I lived in West Palm Beach from 2001-2005 and taught at Palm Beach Atlantic University, right next to the mini-towers of Trump Plaza.

Yes, that was a long time ago, back when Donald Trump was embracing his good buddies Bill and Hillary Clinton and acting like a rather mainstream Democrat, in terms of moral and social issues. And it was impossible to read the news in the Sixth Borough of New York without bumping into the kingdom of Trump. That included, from time to time, the people being courted — socially speaking — by Epstein and Co.

Life behind the scenes? That, of course, is where everyone who cares about the details of this sordid affair has to dig into the essential “Perversion of Justice” series by Julie Brown of The Miami Herald. Download it into an iPad program of some kind, because you’ll have to read it in painful chunks.

So why bring this up here at GetReligion? To be blunt: I am waiting for some kind of religion shoe to drop, some angle linked to twisted religion or anti-religious convictions. In my experience, great evil almost always involves twisted religion or blunt, demonic rejection of what is good, beautiful and true.

In one recent story, I was struck by an Epstein statement — when he was a young prep-school teacher — that mentioned his use of “spiritual” activities with his students. Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting to see the long lists of people who socialized with Epstein, did “business” with him or both. Some of those names — such as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump — are already known.

Will the list contain hypocrites as well as libertines? Of course it will. We live in a sinful and fallen world.

A new Vanity Fair piece on this scandal notes that it’s hard to talk about the mysteries of Epstein’s fortune without getting into the moral dynamics inside his entourage and clients:

In the absence of much other information, the reigning theory on Wall Street currently is that Epstein’s activities with women and girls were central to the building of his fortune, and his relations with some of his investors essentially amounted to blackmail.

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Why did Ross Perot turn on George H.W. Bush, another rich Texan? Look for a religion ghost

Why did Ross Perot turn on George H.W. Bush, another rich Texan? Look for a religion ghost

Here’s the parting shot offered by Ross Perot, in an interview a few years ago with The Dallas Morning News: "Texas born. Texas bred. When I die, I'll be Texas dead. Ha!"

No doubt about it, Perot was a Texan. However, the prodigal Texan in me (my chosen label) can still remember some of the holes in the mainstream press coverage of Perot’s gadfly political career — if that was, in fact, the real goal of his crucial first White House campaign. So many journalists simply settled for saying that Perot was a Texan, when they needed to ask what KIND of Texan he was.

You see, Perot wasn’t your ordinary Texan. He wasn’t even your ordinary rich Texan in Dallas.

Perot rose to become a Highland Park Texan. He wasn’t just rich, he was a certain kind of rich within the structures of Texas life. If you want a glimpse inside that world, check out this 1976 classic from Texas Monthly: “The Highland Park Woman.”

To cut to the chase, this kind of conservative Texan — much like the liberal tribe located in Austin — is embarrassed by all those other Texans. Most of all, they are opposed to all of those, well, religious nuts out there in ordinary Texas.

So this leads me to the big question that I kept asking as I read some of the mainstream news obituaries for Perot: Why did he do it? Why did Perot turn on George H.W. Bush — from the Houston version of the Highland Park tribe — and try to take him down? What was the elder Bush’s fatal sin?

Well, let’s look back to a 1992 feature in the New York Times to find some of the information that was omitted from the Perot obits, as well as most of the coverage of his public life. Read this carefully:

Mr. Perot espoused a kind of fiscal conservatism and toward the end of his campaign a strong law-and-order theme. But he also drew cheers when he staunchly defended a woman's right to choose an abortion and when he bashed the religious right. Indeed, in the voter survey, only 34 percent of Mr. Perot's voters said they attended religious services at least once a week, compared with 42 percent in the survey sample as a whole.

Mr. Perot's army seems to include a strong libertarian streak: people seeking a measure of freedom from what they perceive as the heavy hand of institutions, religious as well as governmental. If the fundamentalist right holds sway in the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party, Perot followers could go elsewhere.

What did Bush do wrong? Why, there may have been other sins (like Gulf War 1.0), but it was crucial that George H.W. Bush betrayed his class by abandoning his support for abortion rights, while taking other steps to court the world of religious and cultural conservatism.

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Thinking about beating Trump: How many Democrats would back a pro-life Democrat?

Thinking about beating Trump: How many Democrats would back a pro-life Democrat?

The conservative interfaith journal First Things is not the place that one would normally look for an essay offering advice to Democrats who absolutely, positively, want to defeat Donald Trump in the next race for the White House.

I had intended to put this piece up as this past weekend’s “think piece,” but was not able to get that done. My free WIFI options in the North Carolina mountains were much worse than normal. Where I hang out, there isn’t even service on my smartphone.

So what is going on with this First Things piece by John Murdock, an attorney in Texas?

First of all, he takes very seriously the evidence that many, many conservative Protestants and Catholics really didn’t want to vote for Trump the last time around, but felt they were stuck in a lesser-of-two evils crunch — because of Hillary Clinton’s stances on issues such as abortion and religious liberty.

So what if the Democratic Party ran a candidate — a popular governor in a state Trump carried — who is a consistent Catholic on moral and social issues as well as a solid Democrat on a host of economic and justice issues. Yes, we are headed back into those interesting pro-life Democrat waters, again (following up on some interesting coverage at The New York Times).

We are talking about Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana. Hold that thought, because we’ll come back to it.

Let’s start with this interesting Murdock analysis of the Hyde Amendment issue. That’s the longstanding ban on using federal dollars to fund abortions.

Polling by Morning Consult earlier this month found that 38 percent of likely Democratic primary voters supported the Hyde Amendment, as did 49 percent of the overall electorate (with only 33 percent opposed). That largely corroborates what Marist polling found in early 2018. Their survey showed that 24 percent of Democrats “strongly oppose using tax dollars to pay for a woman’s abortion.”  Another 19 percent were “opposed,” making the total Democratic opposition to taxpayer-funded abortions 43 percent. While these voters may have other issues — like civil rights, immigration, or healthcare — driving their election day choices toward the Democrats, many would still prefer a more pro-life candidate if one were available. Today, none are. 

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