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A Television Show Set in the Afterlife Sends Up America’s Post-Christian Theology

Feb. 19 2018

The sitcom The Good Place, poised to enter its third season, is based on a novel premise: the selfish main character, Eleanor, has found herself mistakenly sent to heaven. To keep her secret safe, her heavenly husband—who had been an ethics professor in this world—gives her lessons in how to be a good person so that she can successfully blend in among the saved. Alexi Sargeant, who finds the show “unexpectedly profound,” writes in his review:

The Good Place . . . begins by skewering shallowly sentimental ideas of heaven and then transitions to asking (sincerely!) how a bad person can become good. . . . [It] explores and then explodes “moralistic therapeutic deism,” the mushy, post-Christian pseudo-religion of America’s youth diagnosed by the sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Moralistic therapeutic deism posits that God wants you to be happy but otherwise stays out of the way and that nice people go to heaven when they die. The Good Place starts off as a Technicolor Divine Comedy for the therapeutic deist universe. The twists of the show suggest [the show’s creator] is well aware of the extent to which this worldview is lame and saccharine. . . .

One whole episode is spent running variations on the famous “trolley problem,” the allegedly ethics-clarifying hypothetical that asks you to decide how you would act if an out-of-control trolley were on course to run over several people. Would you pull a lever to direct the trolley if it meant it would run over only one person? Would you push a person into the trolley’s path? . . . [The episode’s plot seems to be] suggesting there is something demonic about the trolley problem itself, or at least about the utilitarian interpretations that make it a numbers game—as if any evil can be made good if a malicious mastermind adds enough arbitrary consequences to refraining from evil.

In one of its best moves, writes Sargent, the series employs a single well-executed plot twist that “upends audience expectations and retroactively makes this sappy, chichi heaven a satire of our impoverished imaginings of eternal bliss.”

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More about: Afterlife, Arts & Culture, Decline of religion, Ethics, Television

Germany’s Bid to Keep Israel off the UN Security Council

March 21 2018

The Jewish state has never held a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. For the first 50 years of its existence, it was denied membership in any of the UN’s regional groups, which control candidacies for these rotating seats. Then it was finally admitted to the Western European and Others Group, which promptly agreed to wait another twenty years before approving Jerusalem for a Security Council candidacy. Now, Benny Avni notes, Germany is poised to block action:

As a good-faith gesture, the Western European and Others Group promised Israel that it and Belgium would run uncontested for the two open 2019-20 [Security Council] seats. Then, in 2016, Germany announced it would also run—even though it already served as a council member [multiple times, including] as recently as 2011-12. . . . [U]nless Belgium yields, Israel’s hopes for UN respect seem doomed for now—and maybe for the foreseeable future.

Why? Diplomats have been telling me Israel violates too many Security Council resolutions to be a member—as in the one passed during the last weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency, which marked Jewish holy sites as occupied Palestinian territory. But is building a porch in [the West Bank town of] Ma’ale Adumim really such a huge threat to world peace?

How about, then, a report released last week by UN experts on the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions? It found Germany violated a council ban on sparkling wines, exporting $151,840 worth of bubbly and other luxury goods to Kim Jong Un’s cronies. Or how about, as the Jerusalem Post’s Benjamin Weinthal reports, German companies exporting to Iran banned materials that were later used in chemical attacks in Syria?

Never mind. Germany (and Belgium) will surely benefit from the UN’s habit of magnifying Israel’s violations beyond all proportion. Thus, Israel’s petition to join the most prestigious UN club will likely be rejected, thanks to a late entry by a shameless [and] cynical German power play against the Jewish state.

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More about: Germany, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-German relations, United Nations