REPOST: And So I’m Having A Wonderful End Time But I’d Rather Be Whistling In The Dark

(Originally published on May 21st, 2011. Picked up and dusted off because this nonsense is rearing its head again.)

I’ve got some twitter on my Yahoo yahoo on my Twitter giving me guff about the fact that I chose to live tweet the lack of an apocalypse last night.

Supposedly, I’m being intolerant of Christian beliefs.

Well, first of all, let’s make something very clear: the Rapture in general and Harold Camping’s incredibly specific version of it are beliefs and they’re held by people who are Christians, but they are not Christian beliefs in the way that, say, “Jesus is Messiah” is a Christian belief. We in the vaguely-Christian-by-default/Easter-And-Christmas/Secular-Humanist world are told by serious and passionate men who’ve given the matter a lot of study and a lot of thought and who care about the Bible more than we do that the Bible says this, that a literal reading of the Bible means we must believe that… and because we see little enough reason to care about the Bible in the first place and they’re clearly experts we take it as so.

I’m not going to go into all the ways that any of the various versions of End Times, Inc. absolutely fails at being based on a literal reading of the Bible. A better blogger than I (and one who has invested far more time in Bible study, being himself a Christian Evangelical) has done this at Slacktivist. You can pick almost any one of his Left Behind recaps to see examples of the kinds of weird leaps that End Times enthusiasts make and the contortions they go through to claim that they’re treating the Bible literally.

Simply put, someone who declares Revelation to be an allegorical fairy tale aimed at Christians in the opening centuries of A.D. is being more literal than someone who claims that all that talk of seals and judgments and horsemen and thunders uttering their voices means that there’s going to be an earthquake sweeping across the globe at 6 P.M. or someone who thinks it’s foretelling a Secretary-General of the United Nations becoming Emperor of the World (using all the authority of the Secretary-General of the U.N.) and declaring war on Israel.

Where are the thunders? Where are the horses? If we’re promised horses, we need to be given horses… that’s what literal means.

If you take it as an allegory, you can keep the whole of the text and assume that each and every part of it holds meaning. If you call it “literal prophesy” then you’re stuck throwing out most of it.

But I digress… all I really meant to do was spend a paragraph or two pointing out the difference between “What Harold Camping and his ilk believe” and “Christian beliefs”, so that I can show how disrespecting Harold Camping’s teachings is not the same as disrespecting Christians in general, Christianity, or Christian beliefs.

So here we come to the question: do Harold Camping and his beliefs not deserve respect and tolerance in and of themselves, Christian or not?

And I will answer that question: no, no they do not.

Folks, I feel a great deal of pity towards Camping’s followers, and I mean that in the kindest and least biting sense of the word. The spirit of simple human charity… the form of love that the Bible tells us is the greatest virtue, above faith and hope… demands nothing less. I try in my heart to even feel such pity towards Camping himself. I would encourage anyone who finds themselves dealing with Camping’s followers to be as charitable towards them as they can be. These are people who have been hurt. These are people who have had their hopes and fears manipulated, who have been brought to a crescendo of simultaneous joy and panic, and I can’t imagine what they’re feeling now.

But the thing is, we need to be able to laugh at Harold Camping and what he taught. This is terribly important, for two reasons.

One is that if we treat his pronouncements with dignity, we are abetting him in the harm he does to himself and others…. him, and all the End Times prophets and profiteers who follow. He is a ridiculous figure. We must be able to acknowledge that. Will people laughing at him make him see the error of his ways? No, if anything it will probably harden his resolve. He expects that real true Christians will be persecuted in the End Times. But as in politics, we have to think of the “swing voters”… the people who could go either way.

A lot of us grew up with the received notion that the Bible is kind of important, and some people who are looking for answers might see a Harold Camping type as being a passionate and serious man speaking with a lot of conviction on a subject he’s studied extensively and he’s quotes and math–math!–that says he’s right.

We need to be unafraid to point out that the emperor has no clothes rather than letting him tell everything his own way.

And the other reason we need to be able to laugh has to do with those same received notions about the Bible and Christianity. A lot of us in the western world are sort of Default Christians, even if we’re agnostics or secular humanists. If you grow up as a Christmas-and=Easter Christian, if you have older relatives who go to church and give stern looks when you take the Lord’s name in vain, if you grow up in a culture where the Judeo-Christian God is the default for swearing oaths in vain in the first place and where Christian demonic and apocalyptic images and ideas are among the most popular wells to draw from for horror stories…

Well, in those cases it can be hard to ignore a Harold Camping completely. You may joke about it… you may laugh it off… but it’s there, in the back of your head: what if he’s right? Again we come back to the fact that Harold Camping cares more about the Bible than most people do. If you’ve never read the Bible or never made a serious study of it but you have the received notion that it’s kind of a big deal stuck in the back of your head…

The phrase here is “whistling past the graveyard”. You know intellectually that people do in fact walk past graveyards all the time and nothing rises up and grabs them. Even if you can’t empirically prove to yourself that there are no ghouls or ghosts or zombies you have to know that the graveyard’s been there for ages and there’s a road or sidewalk going past it so people do, in fact, go past it and some of them go past it at night.

But then you have to walk past it at night…

The moon is out. Or the sky is clouded over. Maybe the leaves are off the trees and there are bare skeletal branches. And you walk a little faster, or you walk with deliberate slowness to show yourself how unafraid you are… because you feel it. The dread, the horror, maybe not of any one particular thing that you think will happen but the fear that something could happen.

Harold Camping collectively walked us past the graveyard today, and we dealt with it the way human beings always have: with raised voices and forced cheer. It’s how we relieve tension. It’s how we banish the baleful spirits that we don’t really believe in but wouldn’t want hanging around our campfires all the same.

Does Harold Camping in fact deserve the kind of treatment he’s getting? I’m not prepared to say he does. Simple human charity says he doesn’t. It also says you don’t kick a man when he’s down. But he’s the instigator here, and he’s also one person. The needs of those he victimized… which includes anyone who has chuckled nervously while watching a clock today… outweigh his needs at this point.