This is an old post from an occasional series, “Losing My Religion.” You can find the original post here. In it, I write about religion and religious issues from the point of view of someone who was on the inside, but is now living in the wilderness. I haven’t left the flock, exactly. But I sure have left the pen. But with the recent proclamation, and current passing, of Harold Camping’s proclamation that the world would end at 6 pm, May 21, I thought that I would repost this.
In former days, I can remember different people carrying signs warning that “The End is Near.” Now, in the digital and social media age, such nuttery can become a world-wide phenomenon. Unfortunately, it can also serve and the cause of undo and undeserved derision of Christianity in general, just as wacky forms of Islam can come to be used to paint the entire religion with condemnatory brush strokes. I regret that. I also feel badly, even if amused, for those who really believed that this day would be their last, to the point of spending down their savings, tearful farewells and dinners with family, and other “this is really, really it,” behavior. Poor SOBs. Harold Camping should take his millions and pay them all back. Or they should sue the hell out of him if he doesn’t.
We were waiting for the end of the world,
Waiting for the end of the world,
Waiting for the end of the world.
Dear Lord I sincerely hope you’re coming
‘Cause you really started something.
-Elvis Costello, Waiting for the End of the World
So, you want to know some of what’s out here in the wilderness, now that you’ve dropped by?
Well, see that exit off Desperation Drive? It leads to Dispensation Valley and Reconstruction Ridge. Just follow the Conspiracy Canyon Trail and turn where you see the Apocalypse Petroglyphs. Popular side trip. Preachers frequently run their flock by there to scare the hell out of them. You can always tell when there’s been a natural disaster because traffic really picks up. Human history is so full of disasters that you’d think people would get used to it. But no. And you know what’s odd? The better people have it, the more certain they are that anything that disturbs them has to be a sign of the “End Times.”
But be careful if you go head that way — the farther you go the harder it is to get out. Conspiracy Canyon makes you think that every exit is really a trick — and the longer you stay in the more convinced you become that the canyon is all that there really is.
But yes, people love to try and decipher the Apocalypse gliphs. Humans thrive on prediction, and never more so than when the tried and true ways don’t seem to be working.
That’s kind of how I got in there.
I grew up, see, in a time when everything traditional seemed to be unraveling. The quiet, controlled, and serene grid of suburban American triumphalism laid out after WWII had settled into the anxious insecurity of the Cold War. Many of us took a ride into the valley.
Who could blame us? Dr. Strangeglove wasn’t so strange. We practiced hiding under our desks in school from an immanent Russian atomic attack. All around us, things were slipping out of our grasp. White privilege. Male superiority. Female sexuality. Bogart, Lancaster, and other Hollywood icons won WWII over and over again in black and white on the TV, but Mike Wallace and Vietnam were coming through in startling color. What was wrong? We were God’s chosen nation: we saved the world — even if, like God with Gamorrah, we had to incinerate parts of it with a terrible atomic fire — but we were running out of fingers to plug the leaks in the dike. The Eagle had landed on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, but on earth rivers were burning with a toxic topcoat and eagles were dying off in a Silent Spring.
Things are gonna slide; slide in all directions,
Won’t be nothin’, won’t be nothin’ you can measure anymore.
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
And it’s overturned the order of the soul.
When they said, “Repent! Repent!”I wonder what they meant.
–Leonard Cohen, The Future
Dispensationalism, apocalyptic visions, and alien invasions grabbed public consciousness with books like Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great, Planet Earth and Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods. Bar codes on products and those gadgets called “credit cards” were objects of deep suspicion as the potential “Mark of the Beast,” just as microchips are now in some circles. Satanists were suddenly lurking everywhere, like communist spies. Rumors swirled, as a “Satanic Panic” was whipped on by speakers like Mike Warnke; it seemed that a wrong turn might land you in the middle of a bizarre sex ritual or sacrifice anywhere you went. Warnke was pandering, like the rest of the phenomenon, to our own lurid insecurities, fears, and fascinations. But by then a substantial number of Americans were hunkered down in Conspiracy Canyon.
Many of those folks are still down there, and it’s frightening how well connected they are in American politics. Why? Because they’re willing to do much more than whacky things like breeding or finding the ashes of special cattle for the perfect time-ending sacrifice. Some hope to start a war (once with Russia, now with Iran) to manufacture Armageddon, others hope that environmental disasters will hasten the end of history. They’re not kidding, you know. There’s even books on how to get involved. Yes, it’s true, perhaps millions of innocent people could be killed in these extreme plans, but in their view there really are no innocent people; they really think they are going to heaven for what they are doing and that everyone else will just get what they deserve. Kind of like Al Quaida, but don’t quote me on that.
Why? I don’t know. The canyon can be strangely comforting: you never have to change, never have to really cope, never have to open up to the possibility that you may just be wrong. The more wrong you appear, the closer you are to victory: all you have to do is hold on for when the Rapture comes like a Hail Mary pass in the last seconds of history. That’s how the canyon works. The more evidence to the contrary is just more evidence of the conspiracy and confirmation of your own romanticized idea that you are on a noble quest to prove your worthiness by martyring yourself to what is, in reality, your own apocalyptic LARP.
He’s an unidentified flyin’ object, you will see him in the air,
He’s an unidentified flyin’ object, and you will drop your hands and stare.
You will be afraid to tell you neighbors; they might think that it’s not true.
But when you open up the morning papers, you will know they’ve seen him too.
He will come back, like he promised, with the price already paid,
He will gather up his followers, and take us all away …
-Larry Norman, UFO
Sure, a part of it’s vindictiveness, too: some folks relish the thought of their cultural tormentors being caught wide-eyed and flat-footed while they rapture into the end zone to watch the roasting of the opposing team (progressives, liberals, homosexuals, feminists, theologians, scientists, various other denominations, etc.) begin. There’s a lot of frustration, rage, and envy down there — a whole hell, literally, of a lot.
I feel conflicted about those people, having walked among them at one time. I know that many of them really are, in many ways, kind and caring and compassionate in their way, and that they really, really, really want to do the right thing. But their wanting desperately to DO right became a desperation to BE right. They can’t relinquish one of their ideas without feeling like everything is slipping out of their grasp.
Now, if they were content to go off, like the Amish, and live in their separate little communities and let the rest of the world pass them by while they waited for the end it would be fine. But these people also claim the right to control (“dominion” they call it) their world. But their world view is a fillebuster on the future. They don’t believe it can succeed — in fact, they have a stake in it’s failure. You could offer humanity a clean planet, universal health care, freedom from want, and they would oppose it because human success would mean failure for their own eschatology. You would be the antichrist.
That’s great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane –
Lenny Bruce is not afraid. Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn –
world serves its own needs, regardless of your own needs …
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine.
-REM, End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).
What do I think? Now? Well, after a great deal of thought, and a lot of study, I think that we’re always living in our own End Times. That’s what I think apocalyptic literature, at it’s best, is about. I mean, what have I got? 25 years, if I live about as long as my main male relatives? Is that close enough for you? But is Jesus coming back for us all at the same time? I don’t think so — not in the way that I once believed. He did come. The Kingdom of God is already among us. The relationship so many people want with each other, and with God or the universe, is already here for the living. The apocalyptic visions of Dispensationalists and Reconstructionists are toxic perversions, I think, of the Kingdom of God. I so wish Jesus hadn’t said, if he really did, anything about returning. Can you imagine what Christianity could be like if he had gone off to heaven and said, “Boys and girls, you’re coming along some day, but until then take care of my planet and all its people, because I’m holding you responsible for loving it and them the way that I have”?