Camping Out

Garsh-darn-it, I’ve missed the end of the world again! I’ve been so busy lately that I hadn’t bothered to pay attention to that which really matters. So here I find myself in the post-apocalyptic world and still waiting for a bus. Was that all there really was to life? I mean, I just found out that the world was ending on the day of. Couldn’t I get at least 24 hours’ notice? (I wish we’d all been ready?) A group called eBible Fellowship, followers of the late Harold Camping, figured out that his prediction of the end for May 21, 2011 was only the shutting of Heaven’s doors. I’d been wondering where that draft was coming from. According to the Radnor Patch, the actual end of the world, according to eBible’s calculations based on Camping’s spiritual algebra, was yesterday. That could explain a lot.

Apocalyptic groups have often had a problem getting the exact day right. No surprise there, however, since the Bible says even Jesus doesn’t know. Historically, there have been a number of options available to the budding apocalyptist. You can simply go very quiet and hope nobody notices. You can commit mass suicide (not recommended). And others would seem to suggest that you can claim it did happen, but that we just haven’t noticed yet. That was the response of some of Charles Taze Russell’s followers when 1914 saw the continuation of the world, despite a war that has scarred it ever since. Maybe the world has ended many times before. Still, the rest of us still find ourselves too busy to notice.

Here it comes.

Hyakutake, 1996. My first comet.

Apocalypticism is most prominent among those groups that hold to a biblical dating of the world. If it has only been here about 6000 years, then its imminent end seems entirely plausible. Those who take a longer view, more on the order of billions of years, seem a little less worried. That’s not to say that the world couldn’t end. A reasonably sized asteroid could finish it for our species. We wouldn’t need a supernova to do us in. Still, we can learn something from the chiliasts. We can learn that introspection is not a bad thing. We don’t need to hoard weapons, canned goods, and water, but we can stop once in a while and ask if all this insane running around we all do is really worth the effort. Since the world has ended, I’m thinking I might slow down a bit. I’ve got a lot that I still want to accomplish, but given that it’s all over, what’s the rush? I just wonder if they’ll buy this kind of reasoning at work.

Future Shock

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are nothing if not persistent. Unemployed and huddling fearfully at home during the day a few years back, I answered the door and had a talk with the local missionaries. I explained that I was a biblical scholar and not open to be swayed to new religious sensibilities, but that didn’t stop them from trying to convince me otherwise. They were oh so polite, however, and sending them away seemed like the height of rudeness. The Witnesses have roots in my home territory, and I have a soft spot for religions originating in Pittsburgh. Despite the fact that I’ve had a day job now for about three years, they still routinely stop by and leave tracts behind. One of the most recent ran a headline “Can Anyone See the Future?”

JWatchtower

Of course the story inside quickly turns to prophecy and the age-old, if false, idea that biblical prophets were fortune tellers. Still, the popular conception among the public is just that: prophets see the future. In the Bible prophets are primarily social critics. They cry out against injustice, exploitation, and false religion (!). One thing they don’t do is see the future clearly. Isaiah had to be revised at least three times in the writing. Nevertheless, prophets are engaging figures. They are non-conformists who rail against a system that takes advantage of those who are helpless—not weak, but helpless. Many people are rendered helpless by society. One size can’t possibly fit all. And yet we keep the cover closed on those nattering prophets and pump our money into a capitalist engine that is fueled by human effort and spews the helpless out as exhaust. We could use a good prophet now and again.

The question about seeing the future, however, keeps coming back to me. It might have been a good talent to have some thirty years ago as I was pondering a college major and a career that would take me deep into the Bible. If I could see the future—renting an apartment for an extortionate amount of money for the privilege of living near a city where all my efforts would be poured out to help others make money off religion while asking people with the same degrees I have to write the books that I should be authoring—would I have taken this route? Or would I, as a local boy, have taken the warning of Charles Taze Russell and made my living through haberdashery. Is it any different than balderdashery? Would I have even opened the door? Only a prophet can tell.