The Nonpocalypse as Postmodern Ritual

By Kenny Smith 

An enormous investment of cultural energies was on display this past weekend, most clearly evident in the nation-wide soul-saving efforts of “Camping-ites,” that is, devotees of the Family Radio preacher, Harold Camping, who predicted that this past Saturday, May 21, would see the return of Jesus of Nazareth and the Rapture of all true Christians. The Advent and Rapture, Camping further insisted, would be presaged by a series of terrible earthquakes unlike anything humanity had ever witnessed. They would sweep, tsunami-like, across the globe, starting in the distant South Pacific island of Kiritmati (also known as Christmas Island) at 6:00pm Kiritmati time, reaching each earthly time-zone as local clocks tolled 6pm. 

The few truly faithful Christians (about 200 million, or 3% of the world’s population), would be taken up into heaven, while unbelievers (the remaining 6 billion, or 97% of humankind) would remain behind to endure five months of hellish torment (e.g., continued earthquakes, horrible plagues, etc.) until their ultimate fiery destruction on October 21, 2011. The investment of profound cultural energies was not, however, limited to Campingites. It was also evident in the ways in which “we” (the larger American culture) tracked, reacted to, and ultimately participated in this non-event.  

Manufacturing Religion at Family Radio

First established in a cooperative effort by Harold Camping and other like minded religious folk in 1958 in Oakland, California, Family Radio (FR) sought to bring “traditional Christian” (read “white conservative American Protestant”) teachings to the broader American public. Gradually distancing itself from denominations and churches, which Camping came to see as deeply corrupted by worldly, if not satanic, influence, and existing solely on listener-supported donations, FR has flourished. Featuring shows such as “Sunday Preaching,” “Family Bible Reading Fellowship,” “Beyond Intelligent Design,” and “Open Forum” (in which Camping personally responds to questions about the Bible and living a proper Christian life), while carefully avoiding expressing political positions and endorsements, FR has become an enormously successful religious media outlet, with AM, FM, and shortwave radio stations, as well as television stations, broadcasting in some forty languages worldwide, and assets totaling in excess of $100 million.

Since the early 1990s, FR programming has increasingly emphasized Camping’s biblical prophecies, most especially his efforts to discern the precise year, day, and hour in which Jesus of Nazareth would return, true believers would be raptured, and unbelievers would face global destruction. All of which, he believes, resides within the pages of the Bible, waiting only for the correct interpreter.  In 1992, Camping published the results of his first forty years of such efforts, the 500-page tome, 1994? Here, Camping predicts that biblical end times will unfold between September 15–27, 1994. When events did not transpire in this way, Camping (who had earned a BS in civil engineering at UC Berkeley in 1942) concluded (perhaps like any engineer might) not that the bedrock of his starting assumptions was in err, but that his calculations were, and applied himself all the more diligently to a careful re-calculation. By the mid-2000s, Camping had begun to teach publically the revised date to which his complex set of biblical calculations had directed him: Jesus would return on May 21, 2011 taking the small remnant of Christians up into heaven with him, and after five months of torments, the unbelievers would be destroyed forever! 

As the first decade of the 21st century came to a close, Camping and FR went to considerable effort to get the word out. Their creative information campaign, for which Family Radio raised some $80 million dollars between 2005-2009, employed a number of strategies: 5,000 roadside billboards in North America, Ghana, Dominican Republic, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Philippines, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon; “Project Caravan,” with 20 poster-covered trucks and vans that traveled across the U.S. and into Canada and Mexico in 2010 and the first months of 2011; And innumerable tracks handed out by placard-wielding faithful to passersby in major urban areas, such as Radio City Music Hall and Times Square in New York, and small towns, across the U.S. 

All of this religious production telescoped ever further still as Saturday, May 21 grew imminent. Some quite their jobs, drove across the country to be with family or like-minded religionists, gave generous financial donations, in some cases their entire life savings, to the FR advertising campaign. Others hit the streets with intensified fervor, hoping to lead as many as possible from assured destruction. Camping himself released a series of daily You Tube videos marking the ever-diminishing number of days and the ramifications of continued disbelief. As the final minutes of human history wound down, many FR believers remained in the streets, ultimately stunned, disappointed, and deeply confused when clocks struck the 6pm hour but nothing out of the ordinary transpired, save perhaps the cheers and revelry of unbelievers who had likewise gathered to celebrate the Nonpocalypse.  

By Monday evening, May 23, Camping had offered an initial explanation for what seemed (at least to outside observers) to represent a definitive non-event: rather than a physical Rapture and Judgment Day in which “the faithful would be swept up to the heavens,” Camping argued, “May 21 had instead been a ‘spiritual’ Judgment Day, which places the entire world under Christ’s judgment.” The physical Rapture and Judgment Day, in which the truly faithful will be taken up to heaven and the unrepentant destroyed, will still occur on October 21, 2011, as predicted. “The globe,” Camping says, “will be completely destroyed in five months… when the apocalypse comes. But because God’s judgment and salvation were completed on Saturday, there’s no point in continuing to warn people about it, so his network will now just play Christian music and programs until the final end on Oct. 21.”

Celebrating the Nonpocalypse

As Emory scholar Gary Laderman points out in a recent piece for Religion Dispatches, despite the fact that the American cultural landscape each year, 

grows more religiously diverse and increasing numbers prefer spiritual freedoms to affiliation with one religion, all it takes is one older white fundamentalist Christian proclaiming some message of violence or hatred to a create a media frenzy and get the world talking about theology on the fringes (which can, in the right political circumstances, take the fringe to the heart of the mainstream). Terry Jones is one recent example with his attack on Islam but the list is long and includes such figures as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell.

Indeed, in the weeks leading up to May 21, stories about FR billboards, postered vehicles, proselytizers, and most especially Camping’s dire sectarian predictions were regular fare at every major news outlet, as was “Apocalypse Now?” coverage in the distinctly uneventful hours immediately following the predicted 6pm end time.  Those responsible for deciding what news outlets will cover might defend such choices by pointing to the fact that a great many Americans were simply interested in Camping’s predictions and so news outlets reported on them. But this merely defers Laderman’s question: why do figures such as Camping elicit such powerful popular interest in the first place?  

One way of approaching this question is to take a somewhat closer look at the ways in which the news media and a great many Americans participated in the Nonpocalypse. To begin with, the preceding weeks saw not only news coverage, but a great deal of rather snarky news coverage at major news outlets, with headlines noting that: 

  • “There Should Be Nice Weather For The Apocalypse”
  • “This Is Not An Apocalypse To Be Missed;”
  • “The World Probably Won’t End Saturday, But Just In Case Eat Dessert”;
  • “Boston Bruin’s Hockey Star Brad Marchand Doesn’t Mind The End of World, He Just    Hopes that Bruins Are Leading When Apocalypse Comes”
  • “It Isn’t Fair For The World To End Until After The Knicks (Or The Cubs) Win A Championship.”

At social networking sites such as Facebook, there were numerous calls for celebrating May 21 as “Nonjudgment Day,” holding “Rapture Parties” and “End of the World Parties.” Pages such as “Post Rapture Looting” and “Scare the Christians on ‘JUDGMENT DAY’ and leave shoes with dry ice around!” garnered some 833,000 and 12,000 facebook fans, respectively. 

The emergent genre of “Rapture pranks” (e.g., leaving clothes, shoes, and personal belongings in a manner suggestive of one having been recently pulled up and out of one’s clothing) seems to have been elevated to a form of popular art. 

In places where Campingites had deployed for last-minute evangelizing, so too those celebrating the Nonpocalypse gathered.  Some of these were committed atheist groups, not wanting to miss an opportunity to debunk traditional religion. Many others, though, were fellow Christians thoroughly disgusted with Camping’s theology or what they perceived as the “cult-like” behavior of his followers. Still others were relieved to see May 21 pass without global catastrophe. All, it seems, enjoyed, and even reveled in, Camping’s failure.

Concluding Thoughts    

That Camping’s manufactured apocalypse garnered this sort of widespread attention leads us back to Laderman’s query in an intriguing manner: what is it, exactly, that has moved from the cultural margins to the mainstream? Is it simply a morbid interest in the hateful prophecies of an old white Christian fundamentalist? No doubt this plays some role.  But there also seems to be something a bit more nuanced and interesting going on here. Might there also be a hint of postmodern laughter at the absurdity of “totalizing narratives” such as Camping’s? 

Postmodernism is, of course, a very broad intellectual movement, one that has been defined in rather different ways by scholars working in a variety of fields, such as literary theory, philosophy, feminist studies, cultural studies, among others. What all of these formulations share, though, is a staunch rejection of “totalizing narratives,” that is, the use of mythic stories in ways that subsume, define, and over-ride everyone else’s story and identity and relegate all others to inferior positions within a social/cosmic hierarchy.  A Christian narrative, then, that explains why one finds this tradition a compelling framework for navigating one’s own life is not a totalizing narrative, because it fails to subsume others. It allows Buddhists, Wiccans, Muslims, Jews, agnostics, other sorts of Christians, everyone really, to create and live their own stories and identities in a social atmosphere of tolerance and respect. A Christian narrative such as Camping’s, though, which assigns cosmic meaning and significance to everyone else’s story and identity, and an enormously derogatory one at that (i.e., marked by God for torment and destruction), provides a textbook example of the totalizing narrative. 

Many of us distrust the epistemic and moral relativism often associated with postmodern thought (for, if there is no over-arching story that gives everything an absolute meaning, is not all meaning merely subjective and relative?). Still, we seem to dislike being subsumed and demeaned within the totalizing narratives of others even more so. Indeed, I suspect that large numbers of Americans, including numerous Christian folk, celebrated the apparent failure of Camping’s totalizing apocalypse/rapture myth at home if not in the streets and not simply due to denominational differences in biblical interpretation, but because of a gradual postmodernizing of the American mind.

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