Saturday, April 7, 2007

Goin' Camping, Part 2

I really should start posting more often than once or twice a month. Anyway...

In our last episode, I was elucidating my fascination with the (anti)showmanship of Harold Camping, media evangelist and head of the Family Radio network. There's plenty more to say about the specifics of his views, which are curious, even by the standards of right-wing evangelical Christianity, though they're certainly not unprecedented. Easter weekend is an irresistible occasion to pick these apart a little bit.

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way: yes, homosexuality, and sex outside of marriage, and abortion, are terrible sins; yes, Christianity is the one true faith and all others are delusions of Satan; yes, divorce is forbidden and remarriage after divorce is bigamy in God's eyes; yes, women are to be subservient to men, who are the natural leaders in the home and the world. But Brother Camping spends surprisingly little time talking about these social, political and behavioral matters; questions of metaphysics, theology, and Biblical exegesis are his main focus.

I'm fairly sure his apolitical attitude stems partly from a need to protect his organization's status as a religious non-profit. (When a caller asked for his views on the candidates just a few days before last year's midterm elections, he dodged the subject as if it were a blast from a Thompson sub-machine gun.) Another factor, I think, is the context in which he operates: he doesn't seem to deal much with people outside the world of conservative evangelicals. Most of the callers to his show, even those who disagree with him on other matters, take these attitudes for granted, and there's little call for him to defend them. Divorce is a notable, if not too surprising, exception: given its prevalence in our society, he often has to be stern with callers about that particular sin.

But another factor is his sincere conviction, plainly stated by him on numerous occasions, that events happening on this mortal earth are of minor consequence next to the great spiritual struggle between Christ and... well, everything not-Christ. Especially given that we have an expiration date for this mortal world, and it's not far off. It's my understanding that he predicted the specific date of the second coming of Christ and the end of the universe on a couple of previous occasions before I discovered him, but dropped this schtick for a long time. Lately, he's gotten back on that horse, and he's now saying 2011 (I forget the exact date). In 2005 he published a 500-page volume called Time Has an End, which his radio outfit offers for free. Great title, you have to admit.

But "The End is Nigh" is just one of the major motifs of Camping's preaching. There are other points that he loves to harp on even more than the end of the world. Which I would think would be the most important thing.

The entire Bible, Old Testament included, is about Jesus. As I said before, Camping spends quite a bit of his time on scriptural interpretation, both on his call-in show and in speeches at conferences which are recorded and broadcast on Family Radio. But few serious Biblical scholars, not to mention few Jews, would recognize the book he's talking about. Every story and every passage in the Old Testament is a prophecy of Christ, according to Camping. There's no end to the creative ways this guy can interpret this phrase or that character as a symbol - or "picture," as he prefers to phrase it - of Jesus. This seems doubly eccentric when you take into account the fact that Camping, naturally, sees the Bible as literal history down to the last syllable. This apparently doesn't conflict in his mind with his view of the Hebrew scriptures as one big parable foreshadowing the events of the Gospels. This implies a fascinating conception of God as a sort of author who writes with events and people instead of a pen, making the conventions of literary symbolism operate in the real world.

The "Church Age" is over. This is, of course, closely related to the approach of the "endtimes" discussed above. The organized Christian denominations and churches in the modern age are unwittingly in the thrall of Satan, have strayed off the straight and narrow path of Biblical truth, and are leading every single man, woman and child in their denominations into Hell. (I vaguely remember Camping's pinpointing of a specific time when the churches went off the reservation, around the mid-20th century, if I recall correctly.) A first step to salvation must be to "come out of the Church" and find God's way independently through close study of the Bible, by yourself or with small groups of other ordinary believers. (Although it's a little more complicated, not to say incoherent, than that - see the next point below.)

Of course, all of this, like everything that happens, has come to pass because God willed it so - he "has delivered the church into the hands of Satan" (Camping pronounces that particular proper noun with a meticulously enunciated two syllables, almost like two separate words, in a fashion that could conceivably have inspired Dana Carvey's Church Lady act). Furthermore, as usual, he warned us about this, millennia ahead of time, in his word, the Bible. Unsurprisingly, this is the claim that seems to tick off more mainline Christians the most, judging from the sample of his callers that I've heard.

You can't save yourself from Hell - only Jesus can save you. This continues to be the most mystifying of Camping's themes for me, so forgive me if I prattle on for a bit about it. The end of the world and the end of the Church Age are relatively simple and straightforward factual claims, however fantastical and unsupported. The "salvation by God's grace only" idea, at least as expounded by Camping, is such a tight knot of illogic that at times he almost seems to be uttering Zen koans.

The blame for this can hardly be put on Camping alone. At base, he's simply taking an unusually vehement (by today's standards) stand on an ages-old and quite orthodox Christian claim. Essentially, the idea is that we human beings are so wicked and sinful that we are all damned to Hell; all independent efforts to behave in a good and holy way are feeble by comparison with the enormity of our sins, as if we are putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound; and that the only way out of damnation is if God deigns to save you through the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on the cross, a gift he gives to certain of us undeserving sinners, simply out of his enormous mercy. Camping is fiercely clear that nothing - not praying, not doing good works in the community, not going to church every day, not studying the Bible, not groveling and begging - can merit you a place in Heaven; if you're lucky, God simply points his finger (if he has fingers) at you and says, "OK, that one gets in." This is another factor that helps explain Camping's lesser interest in questions of either personal behavior or social trends; the real action in terms of salvation and damnation takes place on a metaphysical plane apart from our everyday life.

I think that at least once, I've heard him explicitly state that if someone is a truly good person, it's because they've been saved by God, something which can happen even when they're a week-old baby or when they're on their deathbed at 102, and have become a "child of God" (his technical term for someone who's saved). Good behavior is a consequence of being saved, not a cause of it. How he reconciles this with his often stated conviction that every human is a terrible sinner isn't clear to me, and that's one internal contradiction in his moral theology. This discussion of goodness seems to be of little interest to him, and to be a mere footnote to his thought - like so many fundamentalists, he's basically obsessed with badness and finds goodness rather dull.

Another obvious, and even larger, objection pops up right away: Why proselytize at all, if human behavior is so futile? Why spread the word as passionately as Camping does, why urge others to do so, why write books and publish pamphlets (the "Does God Love You?" ones you've no doubt seen are at least likely to be from Camping's outfit), why spread Family Radio's ministry into other countries and other languages? Why take any position on divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, etc., or try to convince others of it? Why urge listeners, as he does, to read and study the Bible, to leave the trap of the "local congregations," to beg God for mercy? I've never heard him explain this satisfactorily.

Again, an ultracynical explanation might simply be that Camping has a good racket going that earns him a living (I'm not at all sure how much money he makes off this career, although his bio gives the impression he got plenty of it from a construction business which he used to start up his ministry). As I stated in my last post, I don't find that a terribly convincing explanation, although I don't rule it out entirely.

It's more interesting to note what seems to me the obvious nihilism of Camping's position. As near as I can understand, there's little or no important difference in God's eyes between, say, a relief worker who devotes her life to helping AIDS orphans in a strife-torn third-world country and, say, a soldier who rapes her and tortures her to death... and God might arbitrarily decide to grant salvation to the soldier tomorrow while consigning the relief worker to eternal torment. How anyone who holds such a belief can claim any sort of moral high ground, or even be interested in doing so, is beyond me. But I have to say that Camping's ironclad version of this "salvation by grace" concept simply makes particularly stark the same basic shortcoming in Christianity itself - the mercy we gain through Christ's sacrifice is the point of Christianity in most forms in which it has ever existed, and however you spin it, this seems to make morality, by any reasonable definition, of secondary importance at best. This can be extended to lots of other religions as well, if not most of them - having the right god or gods is the point, and is what defines your worthiness, as opposed to your behavior.

This is, of course, even leaving aside the question of how in the hell Christ's sacrifice is supposed to have saved anyone anyway. No one has ever been able to explain to me how that worked. To paraphrase, I believe, biology professor and notoriously grouchy liberal atheist blogger P.Z. Myers, why did God have to incarnate himself as a human and then have himself tortured to death in order to forgive us? Couldn't he have just forgiven us and saved everyone, himself included, a lot of trouble and agony? "It's a mystery beyond human understanding," many will tell us serenely - which in my book is just an admission of defeat and intellectual bankruptcy.

Well, I could go on forever in that vein, getting ever wider of my real topic here. So I'll leave off theology for the moment. I will soon do at least one more Camping post, where I will narrow my focus, and fail to resist the dubious temptation to pontificate upon the character and psychology of a man I've never met. Sounds like fun, no?

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