The Parable of the 10 Drowsy Virgins: A Sermon for Proper 27, Year A

I hate waiting. I especially hate for appointments that are delayed. In fact, there was a time in my life when I scheduled doctor’s and other appointments for the first thing in the morning so that if I had to wait, I knew it was the doctor’s fault for not getting to the office on time. Doctors’ waiting rooms are especially annoying because the reading material available is usually year-old copies of magazines I would otherwise not read. Cellphones and the internet have made things somewhat easier still but if an appointment is delayed, I still find my anxiety rising. Waiting can be fun, even exciting, if the thing we’re waiting for is a joyous event. Think of children looking forward to Christmas. But waiting can also be a burden as we face a looming challenge of one sort or another. Continue reading

The Great Disappointment

Remember how we all laughed at Harold Camping and his followers, who believed the world was going to end on May 21, 2011? What happened to the true believers? Where are they now? Most are disillusioned.

Tom Bartlett follows up with some of them, wondering where they are now:

I was struck by how some believers edited the past in order to avoid acknowledging that they had been mistaken. The engineer in his mid-twenties, the one who told me this was a prophecy rather than a prediction, maintained that he had never claimed to be certain about May 21. When I read him the transcript of our previous interview, he seemed genuinely surprised that those words had come out of his mouth. It was as if we were discussing a dream he couldn’t quite remember.

And:

Among those I came to know and like was a gifted young musician. Because he was convinced the world was ending, he had abandoned music, quit his job, and essentially put his life on hold for four years. It had cost him friends and created a rift between some members of his family. He couldn’t have been more committed.

In a recent email, he wrote that he had “definitely lost an incredible amount of faith” and hadn’t touched his Bible in months. These days he’s not sure what or whether to believe. “It makes me wonder just how malleable our minds can be. It all seemed so real, like it made so much sense, but it wasn’t right,” he wrote. “It leaves a lot to think about.”

Rapture, continued

As is fairly common among those whose predictions of the end of the world don’t come true, Harold Camping now says the Apocalypse will arrive on October 21.

I’ve been somewhat bemused, and also perplexed by the coverage of this event in the press. Perhaps part of it is due to the sheer audacity of the marketing campaign. So audacious, in fact, that other religious leaders have taken note of it and used it to chide denominational efforts at advertising.

But I think that’s missing the point. As someone who spent a good bit of time researching apocalyptic movements in Christian history, and even teaching a course on “The Millennium” back in 1999, what strikes me about all of this is how very different Camping’s predictions and his movement, if that’s what it is, has played out in this new media and internet age.

In the first place, most apocalyptic movements have relied on the sheer charisma of the founder and leader. That doesn’t seem to be the case, here. Instead, what seems to have drawn wider attention is the marketing savvy and the ability to make significant media buys. The second thing of note is that much of the publicity was driven, not by true believers, but by those who were pursuing a story. And for most of them, the take was hardly sincere.

The same was true on the internet and facebook. What struck me was the sheer quantity of material making fun of the true believers. It was generated and quickly distributed, and yes, I participated in that distribution as well. Some of those who produced and distributed the ridicule were secularists; others, like me, were Christians of one variety or another. Most of us had been scarred in some way over the years by apocalyptic beliefs and our ridicule was an attempt to demonstrate that such beliefs no longer held power over us. In fact, I was reminded by the B. Kliban cartoon with the caption, “The callous sophisticates laughed at Judy’s tiny head.”

There were also those who tried to put Camping’s predictions, and those who followed him into perspective, and when the rapture didn’t come, they reached backed to Leon Festinger.

The stories about the disappointed followers of Camping were poignant. And yes, to read about someone who spent $140,000 to publicize it is depressing. The tendency is to discount such beliefs as crazy, and decry the media preoccupation with them. But it seems to me there is something more. And Paul Roberts may have his finger on it:

I am left with the conclusion that unless Protestants are able to come up with some kind of global system of validation – or, its converse, dissociation – then the widespread image of Christianity they are going to have to work with in their mission will be a random collection of absurd and less-than-absurd beliefs about what “Christianity” actually is about. Even if one Christian is able to make a coherent argument commending their faith to another person (either by teaching or practice), who is to say if that really is what Christianity is, or whether it’s about – say – a rapture which didn’t happen on 21st May 2011 at 6pm local time.

What bothers me is precisely that. A single person, who by virtue of his access to media, is able to generate a media frenzy, in some respects shapes the popular understanding of Christianity. Most thinking Christians, find such ideas silly, and respond with humor and derision, often using material produced by “cultured despisers” of religion.

My reading of apocalyptic movements in history leads me to conclude that most adherents were sincere and devout. They weren’t necessarily being misled or duped, as stories on the day after want to imply. Whatever complex of motives led them to accept the notion that the world was going to come to an end, whether in 1535 or 1842, or on May 21, 2011, blaming it on a charlatan leader might give them an excuse, but didn’t answer the fundamental question. And to claim that all of them are crazy lets all of us off the hook.

In the end, it is a small story. Unlike previous examples in the History of Christianity–the Anabaptist Kingdom of Muenster, or even David Koresh–this prediction did very little harm. It’s not even clear how many people were taken in by Camping’s predictions. True, there was considerable money involved, but compared to other Televangelists, $100 million is small potatoes.