May 21, 2011 — the date that Harold Camping predicted would be Judgment Day — came and went with none of the fanfare that Camping and his followers were expecting, i.e., the kind that might announce the return of Jesus Christ. The day, however, was full of a different kind of fanfare as the the “non-believers” reacted to Camping’s predictions with a range of opinions, much of it of the disparaging variety. Of course, the issue isn’t completely settled — Camping made a secondary prediction that the Earth would be destroyed on October 21, 2011 that some of his followers are sticking with — but hopefully, most of us have returned to normal, everyday lives. That being said, are there any lessons that could be learned from this (non)event?

For starters, one can hope that Camping will learn some humility, i.e., that one shouldn’t go around predicting when Jesus is coming back. However, given that this isn’t the first time that he has made such predictions (he previously predicted that Judgment Day would occur in 1994), that he says that judgment did occur on May 21 but that it was a “spiritual judgment”, that he still stands by his prediction for October 21, and that he refuses to take any sort of responsibility for those who gave up everything because of his prediction, this doesn’t seem too likely.

At the very least, one can hope that Camping’s followers have learned that a little legitimate Biblical interpretation (that, for example, doesn’t ignore a couple millennia worth of tradition), not to mention some skepticism and incredulity, can go a long way. Even a cursory reading of the Bible’s statements regarding the end times and the return of Christ, along with a brief look at Camping’s history (such as his history with the Christian Reformed Church) should’ve raised a few more eyebrows among the (former) faithful. As my friend Eric wrote:

Harold Camping was not a Christian. At least, not an orthodox one as far as I can tell from his teachings. His bizarre ideas included denying the trinity, telling people to leave the church, and saying that Jesus died twice. I realize that it’s tempting for those skeptical of religion to take any wingnut who purports to hold some creed as a prime example of it, but there are historical beliefs which characterize Christianity, and someone who denies many of them is probably not a great exemplar of the faith’s views.

But what about those of us who weren’t taken in by Camping’s predictions, who shook our heads in confusion and bemusement and/or posted snarky comments on Twitter and Facebook as we watched Camping et al. spread the word? The New Republic’s Tiffany Stanley has some stern words:

Do the end-timers seem ignorant? Yes. Are they insane? Possibly. But should our reaction to them be chuckling glee or something more like sadness? Pay attention to their individual stories — their willingness to sacrifice everything in anticipation that their earthly lives are over — and I dare you not to feel the latter. Ashley Parker of The New York Times writes about a mom who stopped working, and stopped saving for college for her three teenaged children. One of the kids admitted, “I don’t really have motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.” At NPR, Barbara Brown Haggerty reports on a young couple, with a toddler and a baby on the way, who are spending the last of the savings. The wife says, “We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won’t have anything left.”

Laughing at religious fanatics is nothing new. And, at some level, there’s nothing wrong with it. But this story didn’t just take off in popularity because people wanted a quick laugh or some insight into a quirky subset of our country. There’s a cruelty underlying our desire to laugh at this story — a desire to see people humiliated and to revel in our own superiority and rationality — even though the people in question are pretty tragic characters, who either have serious problems themselves or perhaps are being taken advantage of, or both.

As a Christian, I’m often of two minds when it comes to responding to folks like Camping. On the one hand, because I am a Christian, and because I want to be as faithful as possible to the Bible, I want to speak out against those who twist it so clearly and obviously. Sometimes I want to speak out in anger because of the damage that such twisting does, not simply to the lives and reputations of those who get sucked in, but to the reputation of Christ’s Gospel and God’s kingdom. And sometimes I want to speak out with sarcasm and snarkiness because of the absurdity and foolishness on display.

On the other hand, I feel compassion and sympathy for these individuals. I came from a church background that, while nowhere near as extreme as Camping’s teachings, did emphasize the Judgment Day, the Rapture, etc. in ways that I now believe were detrimental. So I understand the fear, urgency, and excitement that these people undoubtedly felt as the date drew near. I can only imagine the disappointment, shame, and foolishness that they must feel now, and I hope they are quickly surrounded by Christians who will take them in, support them, and show them kindness and encouragement rather than sarcasm and derision. (This goes for Camping as well, for that matter.)

Finally, I hope this might prove to be a learning experience for the media. GetReligion — which does a fine job at pointing out how the press can over-simplify when it comes to reporting on religious issues — has written several articles concerning the Camping-related coverage (example, example, example). In one of their most recent posts, GetReligion linked to this article by J. Terry Todd which, like the Tiffany Stanley article above, addresses some concerns with the coverage:

The flood of queries on Google loosed an avalanche of utterly predictable blog postings and news coverage, devoid of historical context and serious analysis. The same could be said for coverage in the dailies and cable news shows. Almost all of it, of course, was marked by a whiff of superiority and a tone of condescension, intended to put distance between “us” (the rational public) and “them” (the purveyors of prophecy belief and their gullible consumers).

Religion is a tricky, complicated matter to discuss, no doubt about that. Dealing with deadlines, especially in this ultra-wired and highly connected world of ours, means that you must rush stories out the door, and sometimes you can’t get in all of the angles you’d like to. And of course, controversy sells newspapers and ad space. But it is nevertheless frustrating when the people reporting on an issue such as this fail to include some amount of historical, social, and theological context when reporting on Camping. For example:

  • Harold Camping deviates from historical and orthodox Christian belief in some significant ways, e.g., denying the Holy Trinity.
  • Camping’s version of the Rapture is not the same as the version of the Rapture that is probably best known in America, i.e., the version associated with dispensationalism that is portrayed in the popular Left Behind series of novels.
  • There are several “theories” within Christianity regarding the end times, and the Left Behind “theory” is but one of them — and historically speaking, it’s not even the most popular or prevalent.

Many of the stories that I read regarding Camping’s predictions barely included any of the above, all of which can be turned up by spending no more than ten minutes on Google. Instead, the stories were little more than fluff pieces full of generalizations and snarkiness that sometimes didn’t even get the basic facts of Camping’s predictions correct. Yes, the Camping story is pretty sensationalistic and easy to ridicule, regardless of your own personal belief (or lack thereof). But that’s precisely why some measure of context and balance is so important: they help cut through the sensationalism and snarkiness and get at both the truth and real human heart of the matter.

1 Comment

  1. I stand convicted of some degree of snarkiness! Great article, Jason. Thanks for the perspective.

    However, I can’t help but wonder why anyone would believe this guy unless they really want to.

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