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An Evolving View Of Hell? Alex Beam On Eternal Damnation, And 'Obituary Baseball'

May 1, 2014

Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam was back on Boston Public Radio with Jim Braude and Emily Rooney (filling in for Margery Eagan). Beam discussed his recent Globe column about our evolving views on "eternal damnation." Has the view of hell gotten ... rosier? Are we less bedeviled by hellfire and brimstone?

Alex Beam is the author of the new book American Crucifixion, and you can hear him read from the book May 6th at 7 p.m. at Newtonville Books. For more visit, and follow him on Twitter.

Questions have been edited for length and clarity. Beam's responses are edited where noted (...).

So you've found religion, Alex?

I don't know.

It's all you write about anymore!

That's a totally fair. You know, I was away for 14 or 15 months (...) and [now] I'll write once a week. I don't have to dredge up weird crap. I have been writing a little bit more about [religion]. It's funny to me — religion is essentially kind of funny. There's not that much of it on the op-ed page. [Pope] Francis came by chance. Duly noted, guilty as charged.

So what's this you're writing about hell?

[Boston Globe writer] John Allen Jr. does these long columns. He had this detail that a leading Vatican official had re-opened the door, as they say in Law and Order, for the possibility of hell being empty. (...) Are there people in hell? (...) [Is] Judas is in hell — which is Allen's point of departure, which is very interesting — whether there's nobody in hell, what happens to infant babies who aren't baptized? This has been discussed for well over 2,000 years. A quick Google search gives you a pretty easy column.

A reporter's job is to be skeptical, even when writing about religion.

To be fair to myself, I don't think I write about religion with any sort of high, poetic seriousness. I like to write about religion because I like to treat it like everything else. I like to joke about death, actually, which is a pretty serious and concerning subject.

It is.

Well, not for the three of us, admittedly. (laughs) Years ago I did a column called "Obituary Baseball." It's my favorite column and it's my friend Joe Kahn's favorite column, he's actualy mentioned it. I think I'm going to bring it back. (...) Obituary baseball was Joe Kahn and I noticing George Peppard — we were wondering why was George Peppard's picture on the front page of the Boston Globe and The New York Times? We consider that a 'homer' in obituary baseball — you get your face, and part of your obit on the front of a major newspaper. That's a homer.

Now, just to help you out here: Michael Janeway, the not-very-beloved editor of the Boston Globe died two weeks ago. He merited B-11. (...) Gabriel García Márquez died the same day. He got a 'grand slam' in obituary baseball — he got his face, headline, story, beginning on [page] one, jumping. (...)

Remember when Kirk Scharfenberg died? There was a frontpage piece in the Globe titled, 'Our tallest tree has fallen.' There was a thought that the Globe may have done too much about one of their own.

I remember Kirk. I don't remember that headline, which sounds totally inappropriate for page one. The Globe is really kind of death-obsessed, and generally kind of good on death. Death rules at the Globe. (...)

Remember the most famous Kirk Scharfenberg story? He was an assistant editorial page writer. He wrote an editorial about Pres. Jimmy Carter. His original draft had the headline, which he meant as a joke, 'More mush for the wimp,' it made it in the newspaper, and he survived.

Good catch by both of you. But how did that come back — one might argue — to bite Kirk on the rear end? (...) Kirk was voted by the jury to be a winner for the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. (...) The horrible, despicable people who were actually on the Pulitzer Prize committee voted not to award in that category. (...) This weird, karmic thing happened to Kirk.

Is obituary writing a big deal?

I think the answer to your question is no. But some people like that kind of work, some people do superb work. [Anne Wroe], who writes unsigned obits for The Economist, is possibly world-famous. The Economist publishes one obituary a week on the back pages. She's good.

Have you ever written an obit?

No. Funny, smart question.

Would you ever say unkind things?

No, I don't think I would. The worst thing — this has probably happened to either of you — is when somebody says, 'I wish you would write my obit.' No. I'm thinking, You need to rethink [that].

For the rest of Alex Beam's segment, click the audio link below.

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