24 May 2011

Narrative of death and endings

I haven't blogged about the Harold Camping end times predictions that occurred over the weekend for a couple of reasons. First, I was interested to see what would happen to the people that believed when the end failed to materialise. I suspected that what did occur might, but there is always the possibility in times like these that people might do something drastic and that would make this more of a tragedy than simply a foolish, greedy old man and a bunch dumb, proud people being stupid together. Luckily, this time no one died. Second, discussion of the rapture brings out angry atheist Stephen, the person I try to suppress most of the time. He manages to poke his head out when he is reminded of some of the more pernicious elements of his Evangelical upbringing. I give him voice now because he makes some valid points, but I'll put him away at the end and remember that being bitter about the past doesn't secure a happy present or future...
"While [the rapture] may be in the near future, many signs of our times certainly indicate so, but anyone who thinks they `know' the day and the hour is flat out wrong," [influential, famous Evangelical 'end times' 'scholar' Tim] LaHaye wrote on his website, leftbehind.com.
My family, although not especially 'end times' oriented, was certainly surrounded by the Evangelical rapture hysteria. Much has been made of the Camping people being 'fringe' Evangelicals, but they are really only 'fringe' because they've set a date. Everything they say I heard as a child, sans the date, of course: the world was ending and the world was ending soon. I remember my brother attending a two day conference about this in which the leaders told a story about going to Hawaii, seeing the red moon, and being convinced that the tribulation had started as one of the 'prophecies' about the end times is that the moon would turn to blood. As a child, I remember hearing this and not really knowing what to think, but I suppose I felt it was a matter of fact: sure, the moon was not yet blood as far as I could tell, but it was bound to happen seeing as it was written in the Bible.

Of course, now I think back on this and am amazed by how primitive it sounds. This was, after all, the eighties and the nineties, not five thousand years ago when people were speculating about the stars. 

My YouTube Evangelicals have been hard at work trying to parse things. Yes, they believe in the rapture and yes, they believe it is imminent. It's just not happening on 21 May. It's happening soon. The difference between the two is not semantically different, but it does allow the Evangelical to remain carefully outside the realm of empiricism. Soon could mean anything and therefore can't be falsified. A moment for god is like a thousand years for us, right?
"I had some skepticism but I was trying to push the skepticism away because I believe in God," said Keith Bauer, who drove his family across the country from Maryland to California for the supposed Rapture to visit Camping's Oakland headquarters of Family Radio International.
"I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth," he said.
Yes, this earth is full of things that I dislike and am uncomfortable with. Heaven promises an end to all of it: no more homosexuals and democrats to deal with.

The problem with the Camping predictions is that they put unfounded ignorant belief in the arena of empiricism. When things are supposed to happen at specific times, in specific places, and you say that it will be observable to everyone and then it's not, well, empiricism has, in a very real way, trumped your faith. Harold Camping was wrong. Clearly, verifiably wrong.

Much of this (as Michael Tooley said in a seminar I attended a couple of weeks about metaphor and narrative) may be about the uncertainty of death. You and I don't know how we will die. It hangs over us: could be today, could be tomorrow, could be 50 years. Like the rapture, it is imminent, but unlike the rapture, we are not sure what will happen. The narrative of the rapture, or any dispensational view, affords a narrative about death, and for believers, a narrative with a happy ending. The quality, verifiability, and accuracy of the narrative is perhaps less important as one's belief about the narrative. Believe in it strongly enough and it will be true for you. Harold Camping need only change his narrative again and again. This is, after all, the most basic work of religion: change the narrative when things on the ground change. The believers will still believe because it is better to say, I was wrong, then I  don't know. I can't know.

Finally, this memory: It's the late eighties, maybe '88 or '89. The end times are imminent and I am walking with my father through the woods at night. We are going to the pond in front of our house to skate. It is cold and the sky is clear, but suddenly I have a question about the mark of the beast, 666, which I have been told I will need to resist when the tribulation comes. The mark of the beast will allow you to buy food, so without it, you will likely starve, but you must resist it because no one with the mark of the beast will get to go to heaven. I am frightened deeply by it: I don't think I could resist if I was hungry. I don't think I could starve. Here, my memory fails. What did I ask my father? How did he respond? I remember the answer did not satisfy me: I was still afraid.
"We've always said May 21 was the day, but we didn't understand altogether the spiritual meaning," he said. "The fact is there is only one kind of people who will ascend into heaven ... if God has saved them they're going to be caught up."
 So now Camping says 21 October. Or if not then soon. Very soon.