Friday, May 13, 2011

The End of the World: Next Week?

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Some people invoke the ancient Mayans to contend that the world’s expiration date is quickly approaching, but there are other arguments afoot these days about just how imminent such an end might be. You may have seen the billboards for one of them: Family Radio’s declaration that Judgment Day is “guaranteed” to begin (and quite conspicuously) on May 21st, 2011.

I have been completely fascinated by this proclamation ever since I first heard Harold Camping’s matter-of-fact declaration earlier this year (while surfing the FM dial on a drive up to NYC). Camping is a long-time Christian radio broadcaster who has been a mainstay at Family Radio since the early 1960s. Shuffling through broadcast options in my Saturn, I knew Camping’s voice as soon as I heard it, mostly because I grew up on it. Extended family members always seemed to have his program on in their homes, so much so that it served as part of the soundtrack to my childhood (explaining, I’m sure, many of my subsequent scholarly interests).

Hearing Camping’s distinctive voice earlier this year (some 20 years or so after the last time) made me immediately nostalgic. And then I heard his claim, which wasn’t being argued back in the 1980s and 90s (as far as I can remember), about the earth being slated for destruction next week, and that was it. I was riveted, spending the next hour listening to his contentious debates with listeners about the veracity of that spectacular prediction.

Camping claims the Bible provides “absolute proof” that the Rapture will take place a week from this Saturday, and that God will then destroy the entire planet (and even the universe) on October 21st, five months later. This is God’s plan for the end of the world, Camping argues, and it is a function of our planet’s “wickedness.” Even still, his theological position is quite clear about our agency in the matter. God chose the elect (in a predestinationist sense) at the beginning of time, about 200 million people in all, and his choices are a function of his own opaque will, not any of our actions, good ones or bad.

Camping is considered something of a heretic in certain Christian circles (for allegedly claiming that the Holy Spirit has no connection to most institutionalized Christian churches/denominations today). And he supposedly set a previous date for the Lord’s return, which was slated for 1994.

Family Radio is a religious radio network that spans over 100 markets in the United States, so I’m sure that hundreds of thousands (maybe even millions) of people have gotten a whiff of Camping’s new date.

I should also say that I am particularly primed for such premilleniallist talk. I grew up Seventh-Day Adventist, which emerged out of the Millerite movement’s inaccurate 19th century prediction of God’s return. They picked a date and organized their entire lives around preparing for it.

I’m currently working on a book about a group of African-Americans who made similar predictions in the late 20th century, a group that has built a vibrant transnational community on top of those earlier pronouncements. So you can see why I am particularly drawn to such contemporary contentions.

I recently relayed Camping’s claim to a friend of mine, someone who isn’t a practicing Christian and doesn’t have much patience for predictions about the future based on interpretations of religious texts. Even still, he laughed, shook his head, and added, “but given how crazy things have been lately [by which, I think, he meant the chain-reaction of uprisings in the Middle East, the Tsunami in Japan (and its nuclear aftermath), and the global financial crisis, amongst other things], I’ll probably wake up on May 22nd with a slight sigh of relief.”

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