Home Americanism Religious Spectatorship: Harold Camping and the Coming of the Apocalypse

Religious Spectatorship: Harold Camping and the Coming of the Apocalypse

There is something appealing about Armageddon.  The notion of the end-of-it-all pervades our social consciousness.  It is manifest in our books and movies, our television programs and poetry.  Sometimes, the Apocalypse is figured as an awe-inspiring violence of cataclysmic proportions; volcanoes explode, earthquakes abound, and tidal waves besiege the beaches.  The end of days, from this perspective, is an invasion from all sides.  At other times, it is quiet and inconspicuous— a religious beginning rather than an all-out-ending that resembles the finale of a New Year’s firework display.  Armageddon is a cross-over into the afterlife.  As presented in W.B. Yeats’s fantastic poem “The Second Coming” (1920), the Apocalypse is marked by a series of catastrophes, followed by a post-traumatic rationalization of man’s present moment in the universe: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned/…Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand” (3-6, 9-10).  First, things are destroyed.  Then things are restored, as ethereal.

Both visions of the Apocalypse are characterized by a wholesale dismemberment of the material world, though there is certainly something different between the modern, Hollywood-based apocalyptic genre and Judgment Day as pictured by The Bible and by various religious leaders.  Afterlives are rarely glimpsed in cinema.  We want to see the explosions and the tidal waves.  There is something impeccably visual about many modern depictions of the Apocalypse.  So where does Harold Camping— who recently predicted the date of the Rapture as May 21, 2011— fit?  Would he embrace the hell’s-broke-loose chaos of modern American cinema?  Would he take the destructive tidal waves from Deep Impact, but push aside Morgan Freeman’s character to emphasize the religious valences of Armageddon over the political or practical ones?

He might even go as far as to give Bruce Willis, in the movie Armageddon, a stern talking-to.  He might say something like, “God wants this to happen.  Otherwise it wouldn’t happen.”  Hopefully, Willis would respond, “Well, God wants me to stop the asteroid.  Otherwise it wouldn’t happen,” preferably right before delivering a traumatic drop-kick to our now-infamous religious zealot.  For me and (presumably) many other viewers, the asteroid is something to be guarded against.  The piece of rock, floating through space at impressive speeds, is to be combated through cooperation and perseverance.  So, would Mr. Camping have pushed Mr. Willis aside despite his macho character, which we all witnessed in Pulp Fiction and the Die Hard movies, to make way for the preachers.

Where does Mr. Camping fit in with our conceptions of the Apocalypse?  How many people will be taken in by his new doctrine of “silent Judgment Day,” which he is now communicating through the airwaves? He drew many people in, and received many donations from his followers.  But by following the story throughout The New York Times and other reputable sources, I was struck by the distance between the people and the cynosure of the moment.  Why, I ask myself and others constantly, do we feel this need to deride him?  Is there any connection between the Hollywood-esque portrayals of the end of the world and the social reaction to someone like Mr. Camping, throwing around numbers and claiming to have divined the dates for the Rapture and the Apocalypse by a vigorous attention to the Scripture?  Could he be in a movie about the Apocalypse and, if so, who would play him?  My immediate suggestions: Jim Carey, Johnny Depp, and (alas) Mr. T.