What. She. Said. (post-apocalypse)

It was the story of the week.

No doubt about it.

Which is amazing if you stop and think about all of the important religious events and trends that made it into the headlines this week.

But it was the story of the week. You knew it had totally jumped the shark when even Doonesbury had enough time to ramp up and get in on the mockery.

So, keeping in mind all of the editors and producers who fell in love with the Harold Camping story, let those of us who are traditional Christian believers recite the following (yes, it’s from an Orthodox site) together, along with millions of Catholics (even Stephen Colbert), Eastern Orthodox believers, Anglicans around the world, Lutherans and a host of others for whom the word “creed” is not a joke:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, True God of True God, Begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made:

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; And ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father;

And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end. …

If you know the rest, please, by all means, continue.

The point is that millions and millions and millions of Christian believers happen to believe in the doctrine of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. That is not in dispute and, well, it simply isn’t news.

It also isn’t big news that a small group of believers forget about Matthew 24:36 and centuries of traditional Christian belief and decided that they had decoded the flight plan for the return of the Lord. Sadly, this happens pretty often and it is sure to happen again.

So, the question is WHY was this the story of the week?

Well, a reader named Brett should win some kind of prize for pointing us toward this meditation about this past week in journalism. It’s from The New Republic and it was written by one Tiffany Stanley, who noted that for her the whole media “schadenfreude” about this story finally “turned sinister.”

Here’s a large chunk of what she has to say, but you must read it all.

We feel superior, knowing that even though they told us we were heading for death and destruction, now, they get theirs.

While some news stories have been nuanced and evenhanded, others have opted for smug superiority and cheap laughs. The Daily Beast featured “Your Guide to the End of the World,” with such salient tips as “Where’s the best place to weather this sucker?” (Note: avoid fault lines.) In its “comedy” section, Huffington Post made an exhaustive set of lists, from “9 Ways to Tell the World is Over” to “21 Reasons Why May 21 is NOT the End of the World” (on the latter: “Justin Bieber wouldn’t let it happen”). A blog item on NPR — under the headline, “The Rapture supposedly starts tonight” — invited readers to take a quiz on who is most likely to be left behind. (By an overwhelming majority, politicians will feel the fiery furnace; journalists, surprisingly, are more likely to be spared, at least ahead of bloggers and those who talk on their cell phones.)

Do the end-timers seem ignorant? Yes. Are they insane? Possibly. But should our reaction to them be chuckling glee or something more like sadness? … Laughing at religious fanatics is nothing new. And, at some level, there’s nothing wrong with it. But this story didn’t just take off in popularity because people wanted a quick laugh or some insight into a quirky subset of our country. There’s a cruelty underlying our desire to laugh at this story — a desire to see people humiliated and to revel in our own superiority and rationality — even though the people in question are pretty tragic characters, who either have serious problems themselves or perhaps are being taken advantage of, or both.

All I can add is this. What. She. Said.

Once again: It was the story of the week. And again I have to ask: Why?

IMAGE: Ancient icon of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://xrysostom.blogspot.com/ Pastor Walter Snyder

    Sad to say, along with the mockery of the fringe-types by creedal Christians and of all Christianity by many unbelievers, some people actually were hurt.

    An unimpeachable source told me of at least one minor child who suffered severe alcohol poisoning at an “End of the World Party.” I’ve no idea whether this young person survives.

    I imagine that there might be others similarly caught up and damaged by pseudo-apocalyptic excess.

  • Mike O.

    Repeatedy I’ve seen here and in other places people have stated that Harold Camping forgot or ignored Matthew 24:36. A little bit of research will show that he stated that this verse only applied until just before the end times when God would then reveal the date and hour. Now, a lot of people won’t like that bit of handwaving; but he didn’t forget the verse and he didn’t ignore it.

    To me, it parallels a verse a little before it, Matthew 24:34. When a writer asks a christian why Camping’s teachings are false and that person references Matthew 24:36, I would like to see that writer follow up and ask why the person chooses to forget or ignore Matthew 24:34. A handwave is a handwave is a handwave.

  • bob

    If journalists had named holidays this would be solemnly (with a giant smirk) celebrated annually as the feast of “Low Hanging Fruit”. The week the story just wrote itself, nothing to add….It simply goes to show that if someone says something dumb enough, loud enough, it will be noticed. If the same fellow (let’s not give him ideas, he’s had a busy time the last day or so) announced he was going to reproduce the sheep breeding methods of Genesis Chapter 30 he would get just as much coverage for being a nut, only on a lower scale. He may be more likely to get covered too.

  • Dan

    Thanks, Terry. And thanks to Tiffany Stanley for pointing out the desire on the part of too many in the media to humiliate and cruelly demean people whose views they don’t like while at the same time asserting their own intellectual and “moral” superiority. It gets tiresome pretty quickly – even more so when they headline stories about Stephen Hawkings views on the afterlife – and insist we should take his views seriously though it is a subject about which he had no more competence or intelligence than the religious person they despise.

  • Jerry

    You knew it had totally jumped the shark when even Doonesbury had enough time to ramp up and get in on the mockery.

    I can’t agree with you on Doonesbury. Trudeau was a lot straighter with the story than many media outlets including quoting the Bible. Compared to some stories, I’d rank a couple of days of the comic strip as ahead of many “news” stories. But beyond that I do agree with What. She. Wrote.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    You know, I agree with you on Trudeau.

    I was hit by the fact that the story was so, so old and trodden upon that he had time to do it — even with his lead time requirements!

  • http://www.faithandgeekery.com Justin


    Shooting fish in a barrel is easy. Shooting arrogant fish who think they have mathematical evidence that proves the bullets will miss them is both easy and very tempting.

    And yes, there has been more than a little cruelty in the coverage. When the front page stories on CNN and FOX are of the “Still hasn’t happened yet, LOL” variety, then maybe you’re not covering the story in a professional way.

    Or maybe you should just stop covering an attention-seeking crank.

  • carl

    The interesting question is whether there will be any follow-up coverage of the those who were affected once the chuckling dies away, and the crowds move on to other journalistic circuses. One might expect that there will be coverage of the man who lost his faith over Camping’s failed prophesy. That’s a story the residual crowd will want to hear – the story of religion abandoned. There might also be some coverage of the long-term impact financial devastation. That’s another story the residual crowd will want to hear – the story of religion revealed as a sucker’s bet. Both pander to the prejudices of the residual reader. I hope that isn’t the sum total of the follow-on coverage. I fear it might be.

    The answer to the question of follow-on coverage will reveal the amount of media introspection that has occurred over this story, as well as the significance of this article by Tiffany Stanley. People enjoy taking pleasure in the misery of their opponents. I am not hopeful.


  • http://jochopra.blogspot.com/ Jo Chopra

    Coverage of May 21st in India was remarkably even-handed; this is an example of a typical report from the Time of India. Indians, in general, found the whole tamasha interesting (it was the subject of many discussions in my office and at our breakfast table where my 94 year old mother-in-law and her 84 year old sister had strong opinions, based on similar predictions in the Hindu Scriptures. (See this reference for a typical cocktail of numerology popular here.)

    For all its rapid modernization, India is still an intensely spiritual country; in spite of divisions (mostly politically generated) between faiths, there is still deep respect for the religious beliefs of others, especially when they are as fervently held as Rev Camping’s. There was no crowing here (that I am aware of) when his prophecy turned out false – just sighs for the poor fellow.

  • http://jochopra.blogspot.com/ Jo Chopra

    Ooops, that got away from me before I meant it to.

    My point is that in a country like India, where religion is still so deeply ingrained in people’s daily lives, someone taking the risk of actually predicting a date and time for the End is not seen as a laughable exercise at all.

    In America, by contrast, where religion is a joke to so much of the media, anyone who does what Camping did is just asking for it.

    Do the end-timers seem ignorant? Yes. Are they insane? Possibly.

    Sorry, I don’t think What. She. Said. at all. I think hers is just a nicer, more polite version of the same pitying/mocking stance the media mainly takes toward religion in the US.

  • Bram

    My observation of similarities between this weekend “rapture” and the … ahem … *rapturous* or quasi-religious response to the Obama campaign seemed to displease many on another thread. But I continue to think the major difference was a difference in political power and social class between the groups of adherents, not a difference in the two group’s respective grasps on reality. The MSM did so much to promote the posh, “secular” rapture of Obama’s campaign that they really should recuse themselves, for professionalism’s sake, from mocking a rival Second Coming or Kingdom Come.

  • Rob McGowan

    The word of God in 1 Thessalonians 5 verse 2 “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night”. Verse 21 “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” Howard Camping is like the little boy who cried wolf. Many will ignore when the actual Trumpet blows. Many people who rely on others like Herman Cain to tell them the “Day and Hour” have dust on their Bibles and have not read the truth and have nothing to hold fast to. If a Trumpet is to blow, then I would expect it to blow during the “Feast of the Trumpets.” Now that is about a week long so Knowing the Day and Hour is not possible but knowing the Season is. The actual blast may not be heard by all. “My sheep know my voice” A good theif security system has strategicly placed istening devices. The parable of the virgins says they ran out of oil and did not have enough to be shared. Oil is suggested to be “Filled with the Spirit.” An old humerous joke was “Why does grandmom read her Bible so much? She is studying for her finals.” David said “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, And light unto my path…”Psalm 119:10. I will help you find your way in a darkend world. My Bible used to be very dusty. I feel sorry for Howard Camping and those who were easily deceived.

  • Rob McGowan

    oops not Herman Cain in 3rd line >Howard Camping

  • Julia

    If I remember correctly Jim Jones also predicted the end of the world and it didn’t happen. But he still got lots of well-meaning folks to follow him into the jungle and drink the kool-aid that killed them and their children.

    And more recently, there were the Raelians who expected to be picked up by space ships.

    I don’t recall people laughing like they are laughing now at these folks. Maybe it’s because nobody died. But a mother did try to kill her children so they wouldn’t have to go through the tribulations. And there may be others.

    Maybe our society is getting more hard-hearted.

  • Christine Doyle

    Here’s a compassionate response to followers of Camping…

    A Letter to Harold Camping and Those Who Expected Judgment Day | Philosophical Fragments

  • Chris

    I thought Ms. Stanley’s editorial was excellent. It is curious the degree of attention Mr. Camping’s prophecy garnered in the mainstream media over the last week–rising to almost hysterical levels of mockery. It might be interesting to do a journalistic post mortem on why this became such a big story. I wonder if it has to do with underlying cultural anxiety about the apocalypse, and which is particularly compelling right now because of the political, environmental, and financial situation. I think most people, religious or secular, believe the world will end. It may not end with the rapture, but it will end–and humans may be the cause of it. The coverage reminds me of “whistling in the dark”.
    This quote from Belloc sums it up:
    “…they married and gave in marriage
    They danced at the County Ball
    And some of them kept a carriage
    And the flood destroyed them all.”

  • Christine Doyle
  • Bill

    Once again: It was the story of the week. And again I have to ask: Why?

    Whistling past the graveyard. As Churchill said of the English watching for invasion in 1066, they went home satisfied that the danger had passed because it had not yet come.

    There have always been those proclaiming the end is near. If I recall correctly, many of the early Christians believed that the end times would come before their generation had passed away.

    In the 1840s, the Millerites had determined the Second Coming was near at hand and when it did not occur, repeatedly revised the date. For nonbelievers, the spectacle reinforced their non-belief.

    OTOH, the bearded figure proclaiming the end of the world has long a stock character in cartoons. I reckon there are some things we’ll just have to wait to find out.

  • Bob Smietana

    We covered Camping’s prediction back in January, where his group put billboards up all over Nashville announcing the end of the world. Their actions in promoting the date – not setting the date – made it news.
    Interestingly, Camping’s followers said specifically they were not ignoring Matt 24:36.
    They claim that Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians says that Christians will know the date, in chapter 5:4
    “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.”

  • Suzanne

    I don’t buy the “terrible secular media mocking poor Christians” accusation being advanced on the thread. Plenty of Christians were laughing, too. Our priest joked about it on Sunday (“So we’re all still here?”) before segueing into a discussion of Matthew 24:36.

    As has been noted already, what gave this story legs was the huge advertising push that Camping himself set off.

  • Julia

    Speaking of a general feeling that things are spinning out of control as the impetus for laughing at this end of the world that didn’t happen:

    Last night National Geographic had two programs that surely gave me the willies. One was on the likelihood of an aggressive attack by aliens from outer space. Stephen Hawking is shown saying that space aliens are very likely not going to be friendly.

    Then we see that the government and the UN have plans on what to do, but strategem after strategem fail, cities wiped out by robots, people hiding in caves and nubile women required to produce many babies to fight the aliens with demographics. Then there are the suicide missions that will need to be undertaken to defeat the aliens who are sucking up all life on the planet. All of this interspersed with analysis by experts and bits of speeches by President Obama. YIKES.

    That is followed by a tell-all about Area 21 in Nevada where the secret planes were first tested and then flown with the government purposely lying about it and laughing at commercial pilots who actually did see what they thought they saw. A plan to make such witnesses look silly and passing it off as UFOs. The guys who had been involved end by saying they wished they knew what was going on now and, by the way, they only told us about 5% of what was really going on in Area 21. More YIKES.

    The fall of the Berlin Wall was thought to be the end of history. I think we are all realizing that the world is probably more dangerous than we had been lulled to think.

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    I’ve been wondering about this too, and I really respect The New Republic writer’s views and restraint.
    I think part of it was the advertising, and people worried this could turn into another Heaven’s Gate scenario (it is weird, wacky California after all!).
    But also, maybe there just wasn’t that much other domestic news going on (I read stories on two straight days about Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s house-arrest apartment being a tourist attraction!).

  • Joe

    NPR had a story this morning, including a quote from a Family Radio board member who said he hoped money could be refunded to those who had given to the cause — but no guarantees. In all, a straight-forward follow-up.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I found it interesting that the TNR writer mentioned finding out about Camping’s prediction last week.

    Last week? This has been making headlines for month.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Overall, it’s excellent, as such things go. In one way the reporter “gets it.” But in another way it merely highlights the premise of this blog:

    Laughing at religious fanatics is nothing new. And, at some level, there’s nothing wrong with it. (emphasis mine)

    On what level would that be? The same level on which it’s okay to laugh at those childlike colored people, or those fruity pansy-boys? She falls into the (all-too-common) error of equating strangeness with stupidity. The fact that Camping’s calculations seem illogical to her (as they do to most other “religious fanatics”) does not automatically make them risible.

    Her disapproval of mocking believers stems from a conviction that such people are to be treated with extra sensitivity, as if religion were a cultural Special Olympics. While that’s probably better than hostility and sneering, it still escapes her that religious believers actually have reasons for believing the things they do.

  • http://sarahboylewebber.blogspot.com/ Sarah Webber

    Don’t you people watch Mythbusters? It is almost impossible to shoot fish in a barrel, in practical terms.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Huge advertising push? Camping could not have BOUGHT the amount of publicity the oh-so-objective media gave him.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Hold up, Joel – It seems to me you’re the one equating “religious fanatics” and “believers”. Exactly where did she say that ‘religious believers’ were equivalent to ‘religious fanatics’?

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Ray, that’s part of my point. I think the saying applies that “a fanatic is someone who loves God more than you do.” The people she’s covering wouldn’t describe themselves as “fanatics” any more than gay subjects would describe themselves as “pansy-boys.” Camping’s followers do have reasons for what they believe, which is what I think she doesn’t get. The distinction between fanatics and believers is a subjective one.

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    Here’s another interesting take from one of my esteemed colleagues: http://www.recordonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110602/NEWS/106020334/-1/NEWS