It won’t be long now

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I first posted on the impending end of the world back in early January, bidding farewell to life as we know it and voicing a few concerns about an Associated Press story.

I posted again on the same subject in March, showering an apocalyptic level of adoration on CNN’s “Road trip to the end of the world.” The CNN story is still the best I’ve read on this subject.

Alas, Doomsday is May 21 — only two weeks away. And we all know that many journalists work best on deadline. So we can probably expect more media reports before, well, you know, the end.

The Washington Post and NPR both covered the story this week. I liked the NPR report. As for the Post piece? Not so much.

Here’s the lede from the Post:

The unexpected and potentially rotten news that the world will end on May 21 rolled into the District on Thursday morning, plastered on a caravan of five recreational vehicles that parked near the Washington Monument.

“Have you heard the awesome news?” the side of the RVs asked, in big bold letters. “The End of the World is Almost Here!”

As if the message weren’t scary enough, the dozen or so occupants of the RVs –vanguard of a national campaign funded by a fundamentalist Christian radio network and fueled by bus ads and Internet buzz — wore highlighter-bright yellow shirts that said “Earthquake So Mighty, So Great.” They offered pedestrians handouts saying there was “ marvelous proof” that “Holy God will bring judgment day on May 21, 2011.”

The Rapture, they warned, is upon us.

The Post pretty much brushes aside the end-of-world folks as crazies. We get quotes like this from those rolling into D.C. in the RV caravan:

Tony Moise, a 47-year-old insurance underwriter from Silver Spring, quit his job to prepare. “It will be hell on Earth,” he said, taking a break from handing out material. “You won’t want to be around on May 22. There will be no electricity, no power, no water.”

What we don’t get is any serious exploration of what these people believe — or who they really are. That kind of fair treatment, even amid the seemingly preposterous claims, set the earlier CNN story apart.

It’s easy to write a story making fun of the end-of-worlders. It’s harder to write one that makes people scratch their heads and say, “I still think they’re crazy. But at least I have a little more insight into what makes them tick.”

Contrast the Post story with NPR’s coverage, which at least tries to tell the story from the perspective of the end-of-worlders, including Brian Haubert and Kevin Brown:

“I no longer think about 401(k)s and retirement,” (Haubert) says. “I’m not stressed about losing my job, which a lot of other people are in this economy. I’m just a lot less stressed, and in a way I’m more carefree.”

He’s tried to warn his friends and family. They think he’s crazy. And that saddens him.

“Oh, it’s very hard,” he says. “I worry about friends and family and loved ones. But I guess more recently, I’m just really looking forward to it.”

Haubert is 33 and single. Brown is married with several young children, and none of them shares his beliefs. It’s caused a rift with his wife — but he says that, too, was predicted in the Bible.

“God says, ‘Do you love husband or wife over me? Do you love son or daughter over me?’ There is a test. There is a trial here that the believers are going through. It’s a fiery trial.”

As May 21 nears, Brown says he feels as if he’s on a “roller coaster.” What if he is raptured but his family is left behind?

“I’m crying over my loved ones one minute; I’m elated the next minute,” he says. “It’s all over the place.”

The dilemma for reporters and editors is: Do you do a serious story about this movement? Or a sarcastic one? Or do you ignore them altogether? I’d love some insight from GetReligion readers on these questions. (Also, if you’ve seen any other coverage — good or bad — please provide links.)

While you ponder that (and prepare to comment), Godbeat pro Peter Smith of the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., this week offered one of the best, easiest-to-understand explanations of the May 21 date:

The argument goes something like this: One verse in the New Testament book of 2 Peter says that a thousand years are as a day in the eyes of God.

Camping contends that God warned Noah that global judgment would occur in seven days. From that he concludes that this refers not only to the Genesis account of the flood but also another day of judgment seven “days” (millennia) later. And to top it off, he concludes that this decree can be dated back exactly 7,000 years from May 21 (based on the Hebrew calendar.)

“The Bible has given us absolute proof that the year 2011 is the end of the world during the Day of Judgment, which will come on the last day of the Day of Judgment,” said his website.

Cheers. Enjoy the weekend. While you still can.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • joye

    I have heard people say sometimes that such and such a group is too ridiculous to be worth quoting, or perhaps worse, too dangerous to give their arguments attention.

    My retort has always been, “Haven’t you heard the phrase ‘give him enough rope to hang himself’?”

    I think another part of it is that journalists are only human, and literary varieties of human at that, and so the temptation to let loose their snark and show off their wit overwhelms them. It must feel good to be able to get creative on something that “isn’t real news”. The trouble is that it IS real news.

  • Bobby

    Excellent observations, joye.

    Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark offers this terrific advice on how to strike the right tone in journalistic writing:

    “Know when to back off and when to show off. When the topic is most serious, understate; when least serious, exaggerate.”

    Of course, journalists will come down on different sides of whether this is a serious story or not. Personally, I don’t mind having some fun with the issue, as evidenced by my post. But I think understating the perspectives of the end-of-worlders and letting them speak for themselves makes for more solid journalism.

  • Dan Engle

    Should journalists covering this stuff be expected to be familiar with Matthew 24:36 or Mark 13:32 ?

  • Patrick Lynch

    This movement only getting snarky, not to mention disproportionate, coverage because it’s predicting a religious apocalypse (which can safely be poked fun at ‘objectively’), not a political one (economic, ecological, martial, etc.) – which, no matter how outlandish, deserve front-page status pro forma in this great, smelly, auction-house of competing viewpoints that our politics have turned out to be.

  • Mike O.

    I would think that if there was doubt whether a story’s topic was serious or not that the writer would err on the side of seriousness. Then again each writer is going to see each story differently. I actually like seeing the different approaches writers can take on the same story. Sometimes a funny take can reveal something a serious take might miss and vice versa.

    As far as whether I think the story deserves a serious tone, I think it does. We have elected officials who are very close to the people profiled in these articles, except they believe the end of the world is coming very soon as opposed to setting a specific date. Take away what I believe is a minor difference and suddenly the story of the Camping followers doesn’t seem as outlandish.

  • Bobby

    Should journalists covering this stuff be expected to be familiar with Matthew 24:36 or Mark 13:32 ?

    From the Post story:

    On Thursday, Brenda Forester, visiting from Michigan, got into a somewhat heated encounter with one of Camping’s followers, citing a passage from the Bible that says nobody knows when Christ will return.

    “He will return,” Forester said, “but not on May 21st.”

    From the NPR story:

    Most Bible scholars note that even Jesus said he had no idea when Judgment Day would come. But May 21 believers like Haubert are unfazed.

    In fact, most of the reports I’ve read have been familiar with those verses, even if they don’t quote them directly.

  • Chaplain Kathleen O.

    I was touched by the NPR interview with Mr. Haubert. While I don’t think that the world will end on May 21 (and I’m already writing my sermon for May 22!), as an evangelical Christian it was lovely to see the topic of apocalypticism demonstrated in individual human terms. Because no matter when the Second Coming might be, it’s always the last day on earth for someone. As a nursing home chaplain, I do a lot of funerals. It’s hard to bury someone you love. And as a Christian, I know that not everybody will go to heaven. The pain of worrying about family, friends, and coworkers who have not yet accepted Christ is a very real one.

  • Justin

    One issue I had with the NPR story was in the audio — I’m usually annoyed with the “some” modifier that doesn’t give us anything to compare it to. How much is “Some”? 14 people in front of a Wal-Mart on Saturday? 1000s in a church? Everyone in the radio audience?

    Speaking of which, since Family Radio has been around for decades — how do we work with that angle? What does their audience think? Who listens? What do their engineers plan to have happen to their stations May 22nd? Are they are as committed to the prophecy? FR has a worldwide audience, and is translated into different languages that are heard on satellite and shortwave. How is this prophecy playing in other cultures?

    Better yet, how’s about interviewing others to get an idea of how Christians who follow these prophecies handle it when they wake up the next morning? What are other pastors saying (mainline, evangelical, Catholic..anyone).

    There are dozens of angles on this story, and I kind of hope we hear more of them in the coming weeks — and months for the matter.

  • Adam Bradley

    The first thing I think of when I read about someone predicting the rapture is Edgar Whisenant’s 88 reasons Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988. This thing was big news when I was in Middle School in Nashville (as I recall, reason #1 was really an explanation of why Matthew 24:36 doesn’t really mean what it very clearly says). So I was just a little bit surprised that the year 1988 comes up in a chronology described on one website devoted to the May 21, 2011 date. It’s also notable that one of the men NPR talked to “has been speaking about Judgement Day for 23 years.” I wonder if these people think Whisenant’s calculations were right, and just his understanding of 1998′s significance was off (the site I linked above claims that 1988 “ended the church age and began the great tribulation period of 23 years”).

  • Jerry

    The dilemma for reporters and editors is: Do you do a serious story about this movement? Or a sarcastic one? Or do you ignore them altogether? I’d love some insight from GetReligion readers on these questions.

    Personally if you don’t do a serious story, then don’t write anything and leave it to the stand-up comics to dish out sarcasm.

    You’ve covered this ground already, but I would restate what a story about groups such as this should contain (and it’s not really different than other stories): what do they believe? Why do they believe it? And how do they answer critics in this case of their theology?

  • Grandmother

    The thing that bothers me the most is that the Network, while playing some of the greatest religious music, is also preaching this stuff all over the world (at least that is what they say (recruiting translaters etc).

    In the US, we are kind of used to this sort of thing, but its a terrible thing to lead “the least of these” so far astray..

  • Julia

    This morning on NPR they were doing a piece on John Brown and repeatedly said he was a “fundamentalist”, citing his Calvanist belief system.

    From this blog (GR) I’ve learned that Fundamentalism is a specific set of beliefs first proclaimed in the 1920s, that wasn’t even around in the 1800s.

    Unfortunately, it does look like “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist” has become a synonym for rigid, radical religious fanatic. They were even comparing John Brown to Timothy McVeigh who rejected all religion, according to what I’ve read about him; so maybe it’s more like a rigid, radical fanatic who is usually a religious nut.

  • bob

    I know a retired librarian who says you could always tell when some international “crisis” was afoot without seeing the news. There would be tables full of people sitting with a Bible and a calculator. He said once in a while he’d help them with their math.
    The NPR story was a lot more generous than I’d have been, but it was material that just wrote itself; all you have to do is put a microphone in front of the nitwit and let the good times roll. Keeping a straight face while interviewing these folks must have been a painful experience.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    So now I know what is behind the giant billboard overlooking the busy square closest to my home.
    Actually, the more publicity this calculation gets, the better. That is because in one of the Gospels Christ said , in effect, that when you think the end has come–that is proof it hawsn’t arrived just yet. So headline and billboard away and help keep the end away.

  • Doug

    What is striking to me is their fervent belief in the end of the world as they predict and how it relates so clearly to specific bible versus….kind of makes you want to question all of the beliefs of religious leaders…I guess in the end its all just egg on their face.

    The one thing that probably will happen….is they are gonna be pretty depressed when they realize they are still sitting here on May 22 with no retirement, no job, really disappointed family members and a terribly damaged reputation. I just hope for their sake that they are shown unconditional love and that a few nice people lend them a hand and help them stand up and rejoin the world a little wiser.

  • andrew

    Does anyone know anything about this different group ? They are saying that Judgement Day will happen on December 21, 2012 and that some atheists will be more prepared than conservative Christians. I just accross this video on youtube :

  • M. Swaim

    I saw three of their RV’s turning around in a park a few weeks ago when I was jogging in Cincinnati.

  • Mark

    I heard the NPR piece and also thought it was very well done. I followed the CNN hyperlink above and found it to be an interesting article. However, these stories should have included some dissenting opinions and the fact that the Rapture is not part of the historical Christian tradition. I agree with Mr. Doug’s point above that these people will be greatly disappointed on May 22 and their futures will be greatly diminished without careers, homes, and financial resources. It would be very beneficial for NPR to do a follow-up in the next month or so, as well as to bring in some non-heretical clergy to counsel these people.

  • Andrew

    Another group has put up a billboard in Oakland and are debating Camping on their website… Does anyone know anything about them?