Averted apocalypse, media meltdown

Item 1: A journalist sent me a link to the clip of the Good Morning America show embedded here. Right at the beginning of this scene from a recent episode, the host asserts “A lot of Christians believe today is judgment day.”

No, that’s not true. Not even close. No matter how you measure it, a few hundred — or even a few thousand — followers of Family Radio Network do not constitute “a lot of Christians.” A tiny fringe? Sure. But not a lot. How could someone make it to the level of writing copy for Good Morning America and not know this?

Item 2: While listening to my pastor’s sermon on Sunday, in which he explained why Lutherans are not dispensationalists, I realized that I learned more about Camping’s underlying theology than I had from all but maybe one mainstream media report on the Family Radio Network. That’s just not OK, considering what a media circus this was. Of course, if journalists are having trouble distinguishing most of Christendom from Camping, I guess I should not be surprised.

Item 3: On that note, Elizabeth Tenety, the editor of the Washington Post‘s OnFaith section, covered what I believe was Harold Camping’s first radio show since Saturday. She reported (via tweet):

“I thank God for the media” says Harold Camping for spreading the message on his behalf

Yeah, Harold Camping, I bet you do. And I have to admit that I’m growing more suspicious about how a small radio network (that I hadn’t heard of prior to January, to be honest) generated such publicity. I’m even willing to grant that they should have received some serious coverage, what with the billboards and street-based warnings. Still, why did they receive so much attention? Is it the mocking issue tmatt raised the other day? Combined with the efforts to characterize this group as typical, average Christians, I think it’s worth asking some tough questions about what drove this story to become so major. And I’ll also share the comment from a previous thread from veteran religion reporter Ann Rodgers:

I half-heartedly argued against covering him on the grounds that I had already done the story in 1994 — and because he’s got virtually no presence in the heart of our coverage area. (His stations do have some coverage on the fringes).
Editors wanted the story, however, so I tried to place him in some theological context. Since he was originally from a a conservative branch of Reformed theology, I spoke with the president of Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. And since his views of End Times events most closely resemble (but are different from) those of dispensationalism, I interviewed a prominent dispensational New Testament scholar. Also spoke with some local people who work in Christian media to see if they were getting much buzz about him. They had heard nada. Here’s the link

Item 4: Even now, the media is still struggling with how to handle this story. First I’m going to show you the tweets from Michael Tracey
, a reporter who listened to the program (here, here and here):

Harold Camping said the End did come on Saturday, but only “spiritually.” Salvation is no longer available for nonbelievers.

All the #May21 billboards are coming down, nobody is handing out any more tracts; Judgement was indeed rendered on Saturday.

To Harold Camping’s credit, he never prophesied that the world would end on #May21 — that’s always been in five months.

OK, so you get the idea. Camping is standing behind his prediction but saying that the end appears different than he first thought. Now, check out how the Associated Press puts it:

California radio host says he was 5 months off, Judgment Day will occur in October

OAKLAND, Calif. –
California preacher Harold Camping said Monday his prophecy that the world would end was off by five months because Judgment Day actually will come on Oct. 21.

Nope. That’s not what he said. And yet who wants to bet “Camping’s math was wrong” will be the quip of the day?

Le sigh. I’m glad that some reporters out there are aiming to describe the situation accurately, but this really has been an overall weak showing. I don’t think the media did a good job of explaining dispensationalists, much less how much dispensationalism differs from traditional Christian belief. We saw a lot of trouble with basic factual reporting. And, worst of all, there was really no justification for this media frenzy.

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  • John M.

    I just wanted to point out that the premill position was common among the Church Fathers. It wasn’t dispensationalism per se, but they believed in a literal reign of Christ on earth and a post-trib rapture as far as I understand. So watch that “traditional Christian belief” label, sister. :)


  • Kathleen Miller

    This is my favorite treatment of Camping in the press:


  • Roberto

    Harold Camping said the End did come on Saturday, but only “spiritually.” Salvation is no longer available for nonbelievers.

    All the #May21 billboards are coming down, nobody is handing out any more tracts; Judgement was indeed rendered on Saturday.

    To Harold Camping’s credit, he never prophesied that the world would end on #May21 — that’s always been in five months.

    That’s exactly how the Millerites, after the “Great Disappointment” in October, 1844, spun the non-event.

    The “coverage” of the “event” demonstrated the utter lack of theological and even historical knowledge in the media. The “Great Disappointment,” and the run-up to it was an important, even defining, event in American religious history and you cannot make sense of what happened afterwards without at least a basic knowledge of it.

    Yet, the MSM, and to be fair, many Christians, tried anyway.

  • Matt

    Kudos to Ann Rodgers for writing the best article on Camping that I’ve seen, and to the Post-Gazette for publishing it. I only wish I had seen it before last weekend.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will
    No, that’s not true. Not even close. No matter how you measure it, a few hundred — or even a few thousand — followers of Family Radio Network do not constitute “a lot of Christians.”

    Nor does it constitute “a good number of American Protestants”. (http://gkupsidedown.blogspot.com/2011/05/gone-camping.html

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    Thanks for the kind words.
    One clarification: I don’t believe that Camping is a dispensationalist, even though he borrows from them. Pentecostals have likewise borrowed the idea of the Rapture from dispensationalism, while having profoundly different ideas about the Holy Spirit and the nature of revelation.
    Camping’s End Times Scenario differs markedly from every dispensational scheme I’ve ever seen. In dispensationalism God doesn’t destroy the Earth. After some years of tribulation Jesus returns to reign for 1,000 years of peace. Then, after a final defeat of Satan, God renews the Earth. Lots of stuff burns, but the planet remains.
    I believe that Harold Camping is his own theological animal. He borrows from some other traditions, but fits into no accepted school of Christian theology.

  • carl

    Why did this story become so big so fast? Imagine this hypothetical headline: “Small unimportant radio preacher predicts judgment day.” Who would care? Now imagine a second headline: “Christians wrongly predict tomorrow is judgment day, proving everything they believe is false, and yes, this is why they should be kept FAR AWAY from the exercise of power and the formation of children!” OK, so that’s too long to be a headline. But that was the real story, and that’s why it became so big so fast. This statement … “A lot of Christians believe today is judgment day” … wasn’t an error. It was the whole point.


  • Ben

    For a story that didn’t merit much media attention, it’s received four posts from GR in the past week or so. By all means, media coverage could have been better, but I think the persecution angle is a bit over the top. Most people in America are Christians or know Christians closely and realize this wasn’t mainstream.

  • Donn

    To those that ARE NOT religious, such as myself, it’s all just myth and superstition that we tolerate daily. I have good friends that are religious and I don’t have a problem with them adding God Bless after practically every sentence or discussing meeting family in heaven or how they’ve been saved (the implication being that I haven’t).

    Don’t mainstream christians currently believe that mankind is now in “end times”, because I sure hear it often enough.

    SO what if we poke a little fun at Camping?, at least he actually gave a firm date and drew a line in the sand. Unlike every other church who only deal in vague predictions that never happen and are impossible to prove or disprove as science doesn’t deal with the supernatural.

    The church has been scaring it’s followers and preaching for 2 thousand years that the end is just around the corner, at least Camping set a firm date. Sure it was based on smoke and mirrors, but to the none believers it’s ALL a load of hooey, just a fairy tail for adults with poor coping skills.

  • Daniel

    This isn’t persecution. Derisive journalistic coverage does constitute derision, but careful definitions would really help journalists to do a better job. The most that can be said is that derisiveness does begin to set an environment in which persecution might flourish. Calling a thing what it is not will not facilitate clear thinking. I think there’s a big difference between an insult and persecution. Now if mobs were chasing me from house to house that might make the papers as an instance of persecution.

  • Danny Haszard

    Harold Camping sounds like he plagiarized Jehovah’s Witnesses
    Jehovah Witnesses are a spin-off of the second Adventist which all came from the Millerite movement.American war of 1812 army captain William Miller is ground zero for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
    Yes,the “great disappointment” of Oct 22 1844 has never died out… it lives on in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    The central CORE doctrine of the Watchtower,yes the reason the Watchtower came into existence was to declare Jesus second coming in 1914.When the prophecy (derived from William Miller of 1842) failed they said that he came “invisibly”.

    Danny Haszard been there folks!

  • Matt

    Yes,the “great disappointment” of Oct 22 1844 has never died out… it lives on in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    Seventh-Day Adventists too.

  • Ignominious

    I think the Internet Effect has resulted in giving Harold Camping way more than his fair allotment of Warholian Fame. It baffles me that the news media won’t let this story rest.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Kathleen, yes Tim Blair had a lengthy list of other rapture predictions that have received much different coverage in mainstream press.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Good piece by Steven Greydanus (who will probably be snickered at for “defending Them”.)

  • Manfred

    The reason the media (and most consumers of media) are prone to conflating theologies, lumping different kinds of Christians together, and sloppily reporting on the purported rapture, is because for most rational humans it doesn’t really matter what loopy, made-up stuff (er, “theology”) you believe in. It all comes out more or less the same: Camping’s rapture was the cult of the day, and it was amusing. It’s not that different from believing in miracles, the parting of the Red Sea, walking on water, the burning bush, the rib, the earth being 4000 years old, whatever.

    It’s all nonsense. It’s just funny when someone puts he nonsense on the line and it becomes so painfully obvious.

  • Passing By

    Why did this story become so big so fast?

    I’m thinking it was the large billboards all over the place. Sorry, but when you put yourself out there, you are fair game. Anyway, per a couple of the comments, when legal restrictions or physical violence are enacted against people, then you can speak of persecution. Secularist self-congratulation and snark, even in the media, simply don’t rise to that level.

    Ann Rodgers piece really was good, especially the mix of quotes. Including folks from Dallas Theological Seminary, which is certainly a dispensationalist, fundamentalist school and very reputable in it’s circles. I would have liked more specificity than “some of his listeners” and ” quite a following”. Probably not a realistic expectation, however.

  • TomS

    I would suggest that, while you are correct in your fine distinctions, you may be making the mistake of ascribing a level of sophistication to this version of eschatology which is not accurate. I am not convinced that the adherents of versions of an imminent eschaton make consistent, coherent, and unchanging distinctions themselves. Is it worth any effort for outsiders to try to make sense of such shallow beliefs?