More on that End of the World thing

May 24, 2011

It seems Harold Camping is taking the line that I saw adumbrated already on Saturday afternoon, and which, as I said in my last post, reminds me of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ response to the events and non-events of 1914: the Coming of Christ really did happen on 5/21, but in the spirit only so that most of us couldn’t see it. He is sticking to his prediction that the absolute final End of the World will be on 10/21.

To be clear, he had been saying all along – even back when he was predicting something for 1994 – that the End for us, the great unRapt masses of humankind, would be in October. Some of my fellow unbelievers had been misrepresenting the prediction as saying the final End was what was supposed to happen last Saturday, and even this article in the Washington Post, which reads to me like a plausibly accurate bit of reporting, links to a video whose caption says “Camping says he was off by five months.” 10/21 is not a revised date, it was always part of the prophecy. No matter how daft I think someone’s beliefs are, I am in favor of making an effort to quote them accurately.

I believe Camping is sincere. Reports indicate that he was genuinely expecting a Rapture on Saturday, and is doing his best to make sense of the non-event without giving up his whole belief system.

The question is, why? And why do people follow him and others like him? He says he isn’t making anything up, he’s just telling us what’s in the Bible. But there are lots of things in the Bible. The Book is a glorious pastiche of folklore and history and ritual and poetry, some of it brilliant and even quite psychedelic, and culminating in several not altogether compatible bits of theological reflection. The people who listen to Camping should be quite able to read the book for themselves. It is readily available, and the more recent translations are very readable. I am not a believer and yet I have read it from cover to cover three or four times in the course of my life, and have just undertaken a new reading. What is it that makes so many people claim to have put their faith in the Bible, or in the God who allegedly reveals God’s self in it, and yet content themselves with the snippets they hear read to them in church or by self-appointed preachers? How is it that so many are persuaded that the Bible makes some grand unambiguous statement about the world, when any attentive reading (without some perhaps well-meaning Bible Study Leader standing over your shoulder) would show what a jumble of stuff the Book is made of? And when little more effort would suffice to place the thing in the context of lots of other books and other sources of information, against which background it doesn’t look so overwhelming at all?

I think the roots of Bibliolatry lie in a much earlier state of culture, when books and literacy were rare, the province of an elite; people had no choice but to believe what the scribal class told them was in these great mysterious objects, these things in which those in the know were able to find such remarkable words and phrases and sentences. After all, childhood for all of us is still very much like that. Religious faith today, at least in its most conservative forms, is a throwback. And it seems to go hand in hand with certain other aspects of personality, but this is something that needs much further study.

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