A long CNN profile of Ted Turner provides fodder for pastoral conversations about discipleship and salvation.
The article details Turner’s atheist to agnostic approach to religion. It places Turner’s hostility to God to the suffering of his sister from illness when Turner was a child:
When he was very young, he dreamed of being a missionary. Then his little sister, Mary Jean, got sick at age 12. He watched as she suffered terribly from a rare form of lupus and complications that left her with brain damage and screaming in pain for years until she died. It shook his faith profoundly.
He could not understand why any God would let an innocent suffer.
“She was sick for five years before she passed away. And it just seemed so unfair, because she hadn’t done anything wrong,” he said. “What had she done wrong? And I couldn’t get any answers. Christianity couldn’t give me any answers to that. So my faith got shaken somewhat.”
The article includes a few telling incidents of Turner’s hostility to Christianity and Christians.
It concludes with Jane Fonda proclaiming Turner’s fitness for heaven based on the fact that he has prayed to “whoever is listening” and has done lots of good works for the environment.
“Given his childhood,” Fonda said, “he should’ve become a dictator. He should’ve become a not nice person. The miracle is that he became what he is. A man who will go to heaven, and there’ll be a lot of animals up there welcoming him, animals that have been brought back from the edge of extinction because of Ted. He’s turned out to be a good guy. And he says he’s not religious. But he, the whole time I was with him, every speech — and he likes to give speeches — he always ends his speech with ‘God bless.’ And he’ll get into heaven. He’s a miracle.”
Turner listened intently. There was a long pause. Was he tearing up? Finally, he spoke.
“She said that?”
Another long pause.
“Well, I sure don’t want to go to hell.”
“Did she say I was gonna buy my way in?”
The old Ted Turner — the one who made billions and won the America’s Cup and the World Series and launched CNN — probably would have tried to buy his way in. But the do-gooder Ted is earning his way in by saving bison and other endangered species and fighting for the oceans and preserving 2 million acres of ranch land and standing up for women and supporting causes near and dear to the United Nations.
That Ted Turner gets into heaven, by Jane Fonda’s accounting.
So, here’s the pastoral question. Suppose Turner shows up in your congregation. Where and how to do you engage with him?
This is not a hypothetical question.
We all have people just like Ted Turner (without the millions) in our pews or hovering around the edges of our congregations. They don’t have any sense of God as a personal God, but they hope they are “earning” there way into heaven by good works and effort. And their theology is prone to being shattered when someone they loves suffer for reasons they do not understand.
So, how do we engage them?