Sunday, March 4, 2007

Goin' Camping.

I'm an atheist, and a fairly grumpy one. It is either despite of this or because of it or both that I spend a remarkable amount of time listening to "Family Radio", broadcast to my area via 94.7 FM, WFME out of Newark, New Jersey. (In my defense, I'm almost always doing something else at the time - often cooking, eating and washing dishes.) Family Radio is the international broadcasting empire of one Mr. Harold Camping (the toothy fellow immediately above). Camping is the president of Family Stations Inc. and a self-appointed Biblical teacher. In some ways he's an old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone preacher, but he's still one of a kind, a genuine character and even iconoclast amidst the dime-a-dozen hucksters in the broadcast evangelism field. You may be thinking that I sound oddly fond of him. You would not be entirely wrong, although he is a vile toad when all is said and done. To be strictly accurate, I have little patience for most of what the station offers (particularly not their agonizing, cornball music). But Camping is perversely mesmerizing.

I mainly hear him on his flagship call-in show, "Open Forum," which airs from 8:00-10:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, at least in my area. Camping simply takes calls from listeners and has discussions, or often debates, with them about matters Biblical and Christian, in his typically unadorned, show-biz-allergic style. The first time I stumbled across him years ago while flipping around the dial, I was instantly grabbed by his voice. It's an almost alarming bass that sounds like it rises up out out of the bone marrow in his legs. He could sound avuncular if he made half an effort. But he often settles for a creepily near-monotone delivery and the enunciation of an obsessive-compulsive grammar teacher. There's a slight gurgle in his throat (he's very old, you know) that just enhances it. Sometimes I think I could listen to him just read the labels off cans of spackling paste all evening, although this would deprive us of the lovely crinkling of his Bible's onion-skin pages in the background.

I noted his style before his content, which at first listen seemed pretty routine for an evangelical crank. Even more than usual for radio personalities, he takes a ritualized approach to his show. He emcees with a little collection of stock phrases that not only stay precisely the same down to the least syllable, but that he usually pronounces with a robotic sameness of emphasis and intonation. "Thank you for calling and sharing, and shall we take our next call, pleeease? WELcome to Open Forum." He ends each show with, "May the Lord richly bless you. Goodnight [with rising intonation on the last syllable]."

Both of these quotations are a little misleading, though. They make him sound nice. One of the remarkable things that struck me right away was how short and snappy he can be even with callers who seem to agree with him, let alone those who don't. You're guaranteed to hear, many times over the course of the two hours, Camping's exasperated "Excuse me, excuse me!", rumbled at someone who's stubborn enough to try to contradict him, or even keep talking when he wants to. It's tough to blame him, though, given the callers he gets. Whatever his intellectual shortcomings, Camping is clearly an educated and articulate man (he makes much of his knowledge of ancient languages). I can hardly imagine that he fails to notice the caliber of listener that is always reaching out to talk to him. I keep waiting for callers who don't conform to my lazy liberal college boy's stereotype of the evangelical unwashed, but they're few and far between. On the other end of the line will usually be a mouth-breathing mumbler, often evincing considerable confusion about, say, the fact that the Bible was written in now-obscure foreign tongues, or about basic technical aspects of radio. Questions tend to "If I'm sleeping with my cousin but we're not married, is it a sin for her to divorce her husband and marry me?" or "If the mullet is the hairstyle of the gods, did Jesus have short hair on front and the sides and long hair in the back?" (I'm actually not making up that second one - this was just the other night. I wrote it down right away. To be strictly fair, I have some suspicion that this guy was pulling Camping's leg, not that our host would have noticed. My suspicion is increased by the fact that I came up with this book when I googled the phrase.)

I'm not sure how Camping manages not to doubt his own teachings in the light of the audience they evidently attract. It's partly for this reason that I also harbor a slight suspicion that Camping is pulling everyone's leg and is simply making a career of fleecing the rubes. But I'd bet against it. Who knows how these minds work?

On that note, I will continue in my next post with an analysis of Camping's fascinating but not-as-bizarre-as-one-would-like-to-think theology. Start bating your breath now.