heaven

To hell with hell: Actually, Jeffrey Epstein chatter points to news stories and hot sermons

To hell with hell: Actually, Jeffrey Epstein chatter points to news stories and hot sermons

It was another wild week, to say the least, for people who are following the hellish details of the Jeffrey Epstein case and the fallout from his death.

I am referring, of course, to his reported suicide in his non-suicide-watch cell, which contained no required roommate (check), no working video cameras (check) and no regular safety checks by his sleeping and maybe unqualified guards.

Forget all of that, for a moment. While you are at it, forget the mystery of how he ended up with a broken hyoid bone near the larynx, something that — statistically — tends to happen when a victim is strangled, as opposed to hanging himself with a sheet tied to a bed while he leans over on his knees. And go ahead and forget about that painting (or print) of Bill Clinton photographed in Epstein’s Manhattan mansion, the portrait of the former president wearing a vivid blue dress, red women’s high-heeled shoes and a come-hither look while posed relaxing in an Oval Office chair.

No, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on some of the hell-based rhetoric unleashed by the disgraced New York City financial wizard’s death. This was hooked to my “On Religion” column for this week, which opened rather bluntly (if I say so myself):

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds, playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal contacts file — politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others — was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people. … The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation — a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

By the way, would this discussion or moral theology and eternity be any different if we were talking about the Rev. Jeffrey Epstein or Rabbi Jeffrey Epstein?

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I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I did not watch the State of the Union show last night, in keeping with my long-standing policy that I strive to prevent the face of Donald Trump from appearing on my television screen. I took the same approach to Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 race.

In other words, I wait for the transcript of the speech and I read the key parts. This approach is much easier on my aging stomach lining. In other words, I’m interested in what was said — not the Trump dramatics and the talking-heads circus that followed.

This time around, I was interested in what Trump had to say about the current firestorms in Virginia and New York about what U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has called “fourth-trimester abortion.”

You’ll be shocked, shocked, to learn that fact-checkers at The New York Times were not impressed with Trump’s comments in this area. Click here to see that, and then click here for a conservative academic’s skeptical fact-check of the Times fact-check.

I also checked Twitter a bit, during the speech, and then read all the way through my feed this morning looking for signs of post-SOTU intelligent life.

Thus, I ran into the amazing tweet by New York Times White House correspondent Annie Karmi stating:

Trump Just Ad-Libbed "They Came Down From Heaven" When Quoting A Holocaust Survivor Watching American Soldiers Liberate Dachau. Jews Don't Believe In Heaven.

Wow. I had no idea that there was a Jewish catechism that definitively stated loud dogma on issues of this kind.

I was under the impression — based on graduate school readings on trends in post-Holocaust Jewish life and culture — that trying to say that “Jews believe” this, that or the other is rather difficult. In this case, are we talking about Orthodox Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Buddhist Jews, “cultural” Jews, Jewish agnostics, secular Jews or what?

Saying “Jews don’t believe in heaven” is sort of like saying “Democrats don’t believe in God.” I mean, there are Democrats who believe in God, and there’s evidence of that, and there’s some evidence that lots of Democrats don’t believe in God. How would anyone try to make a definitive statement about something like that?

Ditto for Jews and “heaven.”

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One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

One more time: It's hard to leave faith out of news about an active churchman's funeral

Try to imagine covering a worship service, in a cathedral, using modernized Anglican rites and a river of glorious sacred music and managing to produce news features that focus on (fill in the blank) instead of (fill in the blank).

After this week, you can probably guess what this post is about.

Yes, it’s another post about the mainstream news coverage of the state funeral — and too a lesser extent, the oh-so-Texas funeral in Houston — of former President George H.W. Bush. I’ve writing about that subject a lot this week (click here for a Bobby Ross, Jr., post with lots of links) and now you can listen to a “Crossroads” podcast on that subject, as well. Click here to tune that in.

Frankly, there is still a lot to talk about, especially if you think that that these various rites were about Bush 41, rather than Donald Trump. However, I’d like to signal that this post will end with some good news, a story about the state funeral that actually mixed lots of religion into a report on this topic. Hold that thought.

I’m at home in East Tennessee, these days, not in New York City. Thus, the newspaper in my driveway is the Knoxville News Sentinel, which is owned by the Gannett chain. Thus, I watched the whole funeral and then, the following day, read the following USA Today report in that local paper: “George H.W. Bush state funeral: 'America's last great soldier-statesman'.”

I was, frankly, stunned that this long story was, basically, free of faith-based content. Did the USA Today watch the same rite I did? Here is a long, and very typical, passage:

Ever the diplomat, the elder Bush managed in death to bring together the nation's four living ex-presidents, as well as President Donald Trump, the Republican he and his son George W. Bush refused to support two years ago. The gathering was at times awkward as Trump and his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, ignored each other.

The most touching moment came when the younger Bush, delivering the last of four eulogies, choked up recalling "a great and noble man, and the best father a son or daughter could have." As the late president's three other sons and daughter looked on tearfully, the audience burst into applause for the only time during the ceremony.

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What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

A late September headline at the Esquire magazine website proclaimed “There Is No God on TV, Only The Good Place.”

Indeed, the clever sitcom of that title, which launched season No. 3 last week, plays around with good and evil, heaven and hell, and even portrays supernatural demons. But God is missing.

This NBC fantasy is just the thing to lure the eyeballs of America’s growing legion of young, religiously unmoored “nones,” in a carefully multicultural fashion that also ignores religious beliefs and practices. Instead, the proceedings are all about a hazy moral philosophy about what makes a good person.

CBS makes a different audience bid with “God Friended Me,” which premiered Sunday. The drama’s lead character Miles (played by Brandon Micheal Hall) is a preacher’s kid turned outspoken atheist. Is the “God” who becomes his Facebook “friend” the actual cosmic God or some human or otherworldly trickster? To find out, Miles enlists his devout bartender sister, a hacker pal, and a journalist, and experiences coincidences that just might be miracles.

Judging from one episode, there may not be much here for religion writers to ponder, and it's hard to guess whether “Friended” can even survive. (Ratings prospects are dimmed by CBS’s inability to set predictable Sunday start times following sports events.) This seems inspiration-drenched programming in the varied tradition of “Highway to Heaven,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Promised Land,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” or last season’s short-lived “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.”

“The Good Place,” by contrast, has somehow managed to establish a niche and win critics’ acclaim by probing Big Questions with a droll touch. Here salvation is earned strictly by performing good deeds instead of faith. That conflicts with an historic 1999 Catholic-Lutheran accord that insists Christianity believes that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God” who equips and calls us to “good works.”

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CNN offers another big-media PR feature backing Rob Bell in his old wars with evangelicalism

CNN offers another big-media PR feature backing Rob Bell in his old wars with evangelicalism

About six years ago, the Rev. Rob Bell was -- in terms of mainstream news -- hotter than hell.

In other words, lots of reporters thought he was totally cool because he was turning the world of megachurch celebrity culture inside out with his headline-friendly attacks on centuries of Christian doctrine about heaven, hell and salvation (plus some other predictable topics linked to faith, culture and politics).

It's all part of a news-media equation that is familiar to all public-relations professionals who promote religious books to the mainstream. If an evangelical writer wants great press, all he or she has to do is attack the core beliefs of evangelicalism. The same works for Catholics, Anglicans (Newark Bishop Jack Spong wrote the book on this), Mormons and pretty much everyone else.

The bottom line: Rebellion against conservative orthodoxy is almost always news. So Bell's "Love Wins" book was a big deal, for many.

So Bell took his post-congregation revival tour to Atlanta the other day and CNN.com was all over it, producing a long, long, print feature with this headline: "Outlaw pastor Rob Bell shakes up the Bible Belt."

Let me stress that an update on Bell is a valid subject for a feature story, even if the former megachurch pastor is no longer making headlines. Also, there have been lots of interesting responses to Bell's redefinition of heaven and hell, some of them book length (see "God Wins"), which means that it would ultra-easy for CNN editors/reporters to find articulate responses -- from a variety of theological perspectives -- to what Bell is still saying.

No, honest. Don't laugh. It would have been so easy for CNN to produce an interesting, complex, accurate, balanced news feature on this Bell event.

Want to guess what happened?

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This is not a joke: Ever-edgy Unitarian Universalists just elected their first woman president

This is not a joke: Ever-edgy Unitarian Universalists just elected their first woman president

Anyone who knows me knows that I love jokes about religion. We are not talking about cruel or nasty humor. I'm talking about the kinds of jokes that offer insights into what makes certain religious groups tick, the characteristics that define them as who they are.

Like what? Catholic jokes? Too many to mention. Jewish humor? That's a truckload of books, including the vast world of Jewish mother humor.

You could do an entire book on jokes about religious believers at the gates of hell. Like this one, which I heard from an Episcopalian who briefly considered doing a book on Episcopal Church humor.

So three women arrive at the gates of hell -- a Southern Baptist, a Catholic and an Episcopalian. Satan asks each: What did you do to get sent here? The Baptist says: "I got drunk." Satan sends her into hell. The Catholic says: "I had an affair with my priests." In she goes. The Episcopalian says: "I ate all my dinner with my salad fork." Satan rings her up.

Light bulb jokes? That's another book. Let's start with my own flock. How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Light bulb? What is this LIGHT BULB? Alternative joke: Change? What is this CHANGE?

Then there is the unique niche for Unitarian Universalist humor. You know, like: What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Mormon? Answer: Someone who goes door to door for no particular reason. Leadership magazine once ran a cartoon (pre-WWW era, alas) with the caption, "Unitarian charismatics." It showed people with their hands in the air shouting, "Now I rrreeeeeeeallly don't know!" Garrison Keillor once quipped that early Unitarian missionaries tried to spread their faith among Native Americans by using liturgical dance.

So why, you ask, am I bringing this up?

Religion News Service ran a short story the other day that, at first glance, left your GetReligionistas shaking our heads in wonder. My first reaction was laughter, because it seemed so ironic that it might have been a joke. I couldn't believe that it was true.

The headline: "Unitarian Universalists elect first woman president."

Say what?!? In 2017? Was this satire?

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Dry bones transformed and other visions: What do Jews believe about life after death?

Dry bones transformed and other visions: What do Jews believe about life after death?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

The Hebrew Bible makes no mention of an afterlife. When did this belief come into being among the Israelites, and why?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This is an appropriate follow-up to our December 1 answer to Paula concerning “what does Christianity say happens to believers after death?”

True, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (or for Christians the Old Testament) has no explicit and detailed concept of the afterlife such as we have in the New Testament. This whole topic has been considerably more central and developed in Christianity than in Judaism. However, Jewish authors offer a more complex scenario than that Jewish Scripture “makes no mention of an afterlife.” They observe that while most biblical references are vague, we see an evolution in belief. Some particulars:

Frequent references in Genesis, followed by the Psalms and the prophets, say that the dead abide in a shadowy state called sheol. Such passages as Ecclesiastes 9:5, Job 14:21, and Psalm 88:11-12 indicate that this involves no conscious existence.

On the other hand, the Bible depicts forms of life beyond death in Genesis 5:24 (Enoch taken directly to God), 2 Kings 2:11 (the same with Elijah), 1 Samuel 2:6 (God “brings down to sheol and raises up”), Psalm 49:15 (“God will ransom my soul from the power of sheol, for he will receive me”), and Saul’s notable conversation with the deceased Samuel in 1 Samuel 28.

Also, sages interpreted the prophet Ezekiel’s “dry bones” vision in chapter 37 as depicting a communal afterlife for Israel, and the Talmud saw Isaiah 60:21 (“they shall possess the land forever”) in terms of bodily resurrection.

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The big question: What does Christianity say happens to believers after death?

The big question: What does Christianity say happens to believers after death?

PAULA’S QUESTION:

When people say their loved one went to heaven, why doesn’t the preacher tell them that no-one goes straight to heaven? If they did, what would be the reason for the resurrection?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Christian doctrine says that after death a believer’s soul enters the presence of God in the blessedness of heaven, and then in the end times will be reunited with a transformed body. Christianity contrasts with Eastern religions’ belief in reincarnation, a long series of rebirths into varied conditions and biological species based upon performance in the prior life.

With typical Presbyterian precision, the Christian teaching is spelled out in the 17th Century Westminster Confession, accompanied by citations of 14 Bible texts:

“The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption, but their souls, (which neither die nor sleep,) having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.” Then at “the last day ... all the dead shall be raised up with the self-same bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever.”

The modern-day Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the same: “In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection” at “the end of the world” when Christ returns.

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Looking for faith in the Washington Post's bittersweet look at Chicago Cubs heaven

Looking for faith in the Washington Post's bittersweet look at Chicago Cubs heaven

Does anyone know where the whole concept of baseball as an alternative religion got started, I mean other than in classic Hollywood flicks?

We're talking about a level of symbolism that's even deeper than the unwritten law that all pre-game montages for pivotal baseball contests must include a shot of nuns -- hopefully wearing baseball hats. Images of rabbis and priests are optional, but producers have to find some nuns to put on camera or it's just not a real baseball game.

Maybe it has something to do with baseball's golden age being linked to the heartbeat of life in the great American cities of the Northeast and Midwest. That was back when Catholic families had lots of children and large Catholic schools -- with lots of nuns, of course -- where so important to urban, ethnic Catholic parishes.

Then there are the rituals of baseball. Football happens once a week, like a blowout bash of a spectacular tailgate kegger (think Ole Miss). But for fans, baseball is part of the familiar rites of daily life, involving a radio (or television), a father's stuffed chair, peanuts, the right beverage, the common wisdom of the box scores and, for the truly devout, even the sacred process of keeping score -- just like your parents or grandparents taught you to do it.

This brings us to God and the Chicago Cubs. We're talking about the theological questions (for some, theodicy was a relevant topic) surrounding the fact that a loving God allowed so many Cubs fans to live and die during the club's 108-year trek through the baseball wilderness, with the promised land of a World Series championship hovering off in the distance.

This brings us to that Washington Post story with the headline: "What of the lifelong Cubs fans who departed before it came?" You got it. Were these fans able to watch the game from prime seats located up in heaven?

You want baseball religion?

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