"Gee, that sign by the closed down carpet store looks serious!"
"Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant. Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert. It is dangerous, especially in America, because it is anti-democratic and is suspicious of ‘the other,’ in whatever form that ‘other’ might appear. To maintain itself, fundamentalism must always define ‘the other’ as deviant."
-Peter Gomes, Harvard minister
The photo above is of a billboard about five blocks from my house. I walked Schubert down there this blustery afternoon to snap a photograph of the ruddy thing. I pass an identical one on my way to work every day. Laurie passes a third in town on her way to work, similar, but, if memory serves, with some background art of an ominous dawn or dusk depending on how you look at it. Laurie researched the website. It is the product of a preacher named Harold Camping and, for those who have heard of him, that is probably sufficient information as to how serious one ought to take such a thing (if billboards next to carpet stores weren't enough of a clue for you.) For the rest, the message of the sign is to report to the world the conclusion inferred from scripture by Mr. Camping that the world will end on May 21st and God will come and judge everyone. By the way, the "WeCanKnow" is in reference to the remarkable hermenutical contortions for a man his age that Harold Camping applies to Jesus' teaching that no man knows when the end time will come.
I almost proceeded with this entry at this juncture without making clear that I don't buy a lick of this because it has never occurred to me for a split second to entertain the notion. There is a book I flipped through a couple of years ago that contains a list of years from the late first century through somewhere in Star Trek time listing the people who predicted that the world would end on that certain date. It is a very large book and the activity of skimming it, in my experience, quickly goes from humorous to depressing to pathetic. It was especially notable to me that even many of the church fathers I had a modicum of respect for failed to resist the temptation.
Of course this is in keeping with the teaching in the Epistle of James where it is written that "Good, true, and virtuous religion is trying to figure out the date of the End Times in spite of Christ's admonition that no one can know that and, especially, using that deduction to scare the pants off of people."
There's a reason you don't remember that verse. Here's what James actually wrote, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."
Oh, maybe they're working from that story in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus tells the rich young man that if he wants to be perfect he should sell everything he owns and use it to erect large, costly signs to scare people.
So, why would they do this? The cynic in me would imagine that potentially someone has crunched the numbers and found that the amount of easy marks who would sell up and donate liberally to that ministry outweighs the amount who will NEVER give a red cent to the charlatan again after 5/21. Or maybe it's a last hurrah for a preacher well into the closing moments of his own life's third act filling his storehouses for his own end of days. Perhaps it is a ploy to get more people into the church (or at least sending money to Camping's ministry. I am given to understand that one of his quirks is that the "church age" is over, so rather than going to church, people ought to sit at home and watch him on their television sets at 2 in the morning and send him money. Instead of going to church) although personally, putting myself in the bizarro world where I would be duped by something like this, if I became a Christian over this, 5/21/11 would be the last day I would be a Christian. There is also the off chance that the people responsible for the billboard genuinely believe it, which almost seems the saddest possibility to me. That you search earnestly in weird ways, counting words or numbers or some strange pattern like an acidhead, and feel the information is so important that you have to get it out there, but the best you can do is have an old man in a chair talk about it with VHS quality film and purchase billboards next to a closed down carpet warehouse.
What do I think is going to happen? I don't know, although my experience in life so far has shown me that tribulations rarely, if ever, come in the forms that I was worried about. They come in ways I have never anticipated, probably because the things I'd prepared for are things I'm prepared for. And it is important to me to state that I don't know. Neither does anyone else regardless of what they tell you. I hasten to add that this is not the point. I feel it is important to one's behavior and faith what they believe specifically. I feel it is equally if not more important for everyone to know, to hold in their heart and strap to their foreheads, "I don't know."
One's view of the end of the world does matter, especially in religious circles. For example, there exists a large contingent in American Christianity who take the view that we are currently in the End Times and that the current function of the church is to usher in the kingdom of God. This means legislating morality and supporting the nation of Israel no matter what. Their end times view dictates that behavior. As for me, I remain vehemently eschatologically agnostic although I think John's Revelation as well as the end of the book of Daniel are cyclical and didactic. I suppose that they very well may be more about types of things that happen throughout history or, perhaps, in the life of the individual more than pointing to specific events certainly written in a highly stylized, highly poetic manner. I also think that they contain lessons for believers at any time in history. But, most importantly, what does this mean to me, Paul Mathers, today, practically? Also, why am I writing about this?
Well, I have another stop on our contemporary Christianity tour before I get to my answer to that question. There is a highly popular pastor in Michigan named Rob Bell who writes books that I don't read. I mean no offense by that. They may be fine books for all I know, but, as regular readers of this blog are probably well aware, I find the tick of the existential alarm clock requires I turn my attention to the classics first. Pastor Bell has a book set for publication very soon called Love Wins.
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
In keeping with the fine tuned attention to neoteric publishing style, Pastor Bell released a "book trailer" on YouTube which was met with the great contumely chorus by some of the theological elites in America. But before I get into that, here is the video in question:
The theological elite community mentioned above seems to have inferred from Pastor Bell's video that he has become what is called a Universalist which, through the filter of the limited context they are choosing to apply here, means one who believes that everyone gets into Heaven when they die. One of the most disingenuous was Pastor John Piper who simply tweeted "Farewell, Rob Bell" in response to the video in spite of the fact that Piper and Bell were never exactly rubbing elbows. It is also worth mentioning that none of these critics have actually read the book as it is not yet available. I did not get that from this video. I have watched it several times and at no time does Pastor Bell state that he holds that position. As far as I can tell, Pastor Bell is asking a lot of questions in the video, questions which I have been asking over the past eight months.
I come not to praise Rob Bell or to bury him. I bring all of this up to draw a parallel. At the risk of being overly harsh, there is a certain intellectual cap in religious circles above which it seems unlikely that the Harold Camping form of religious bastardization will not capture the mind or heart. However, an intellectual debate over a point in theology which offers the reward of being smarter, more scripturally accurate and, therefore, in one's own estimation of better quality than another person is a form of the same bastardization that has the potential to appeal to those whose minds are a bit higher than wondering if one ought to stockpile food or which current world leader is the Antichrist. I am not making an argument against seeking to be doctrinally accurate.
I knew, as soon as Laurie told me about it over the phone last night on my lunch break, that there will be people in the Harold Camping camp who will point to the horrible tragedy in Japan and say "See! End times!" It strikes me as crass a reaction as those who came up with conspiracies over the terrible events of 9/11/01 in order to puff themselves up with secret knowledge, even as others are suffering. Eight months ago, my best friend died. There was no comfort for me in my religion. In that time I remembered every gloating statement made by a theologian over God's wrath and judgment. Again, this is appropriating what is arguably (if you really believe it to be true) the highest tragedy in existence and using it as an ego boost. Hearing the pietistic peanut gallery harp on Pastor Bell sent my mind instantly back to asking those very same questions in my own mind for almost a year now.
You do not take horrible tragedies that happen to people who are suffering terribly and make it about you. Faced with horrible tragedies, compassion is the correct response. Self-righteousness is the response of the craven. Another thing that is explicitly expressed in scripture is that if one does not love one's neighbor, one does not love God. Everyone is your neighbor.
The two mindsets I've mentioned in this post I mentioned in conjunction judiciously because both of them take their religious path and make it about a tangential issue which has nothing to do with what the path is actually about. The Camping perversion is a little more overt, but the key problem over the Rob Bell kerfuffle is that the argument is over some passages of scripture which are purposely obscure (if you think you have a clear, mapped out vision of exactly what the afterlife is supposed to look like in our faith, you're thinking of Dante, not anything from scripture) applied to a book which people have not yet read to the exclusion of people who are genuinely struggling with these issues. I think about the End Times and those passages of scripture and what they have to teach me. The conclusion I come to is that, like all of scripture, they point to Christ. In this case, to His return, His love for His people, and our communion with Him. That is the point and, in light of that, those who instantly assume that the message "Love Wins" is heretical are not part of a religion I want to have anything to do with.
Religion is not about stockpiling food to the exclusion of the poor. It is not about scaring people with End Times or Hell. It is not about being the Rightest King of Right Mountain. It is about living a virtuous life, helping those around you, loving one another. It is about seeking to draw closer to God and know Him better. I know that there are those who will probably wish to say "Having correct scriptural theology is seeking to know God better." To which I say, in the depths of despair, alienation, and questioning, I have recalled the harsh words of every braggart theologian and they are the last place I would turn for any kind of comfort. You turn to those who show love, compassion, and kindness in times of difficulty, which is most of existence. That is why the bulk of the New Testament is geared toward encouraging that sort of behavior.
Everyone is going through very difficult times. We need to be quick to reconcile, to love and show compassion. Life is far too short for petty squabbles. Everyone is suffering and everyone is dying. The rare occasions where religion does not serve as an opiate, when it functions properly, is when it serves to comfort and unite people, all people, regardless of what they think, say, or do. Those are the moments when God is present.
Judgment is for the Defense. Court is adjourned.
Now here's a video of an asteroid slamming into Earth.