With the possible exception of Harold Camping himself, nobody wanted the world to end yesterday more than me. I’m thoroughly sick of the joint. War, rumors of war, politicians, lies (but I repeat myself), cancer clusters, unemployment, certified public accountants, season 7 of House. The whole thing could have exploded in a gargantuan ball of green flame, and I would have been there in the cheap seats with my popcorn (small, no butter) waving goodbye.
In fact, when the infallible date of May 21 was first announced, I was dismayed by all the naysayers mocking Brother Camping and his peculiar brand of narcissistic eisegesis. Could I at least have a few days of wishful thinking, please?
Well, the day has come and gone, and my AMEX bill must still be paid Tuesday. But before those of you who saw through this hokum have a good gloat, keep something in mind: Camping was just an extreme example of a scary form of idolatry that is very, very old and very, very prevalent in every denomination—namely, the cult of personality.
The rapture rap, after all, is newish but not new. It’s a product of the 19th century, popularized by Anglo-Irish Calvinist John Nelson Darby and sent coursing through the veins of American fundamentalist Christianity via the correspondence courses turned study Bible of the phony “D.D.” and dubious family man C.I. Scofield. But the fires of millennial apocalypticism tend to dim over time without fiery types to preach its eerie imminence. Granted, Camping has all the charisma of a coroner reading a Microsoft end-user licensing agreement, with that hangdog look and intonation just left of kill me now. Yet he proved over time sufficiently convincing in his “studies” to convince hundreds of thousands, if not millions, that his gimcrack methodology was sound, nay, properly prophetic. And he has been far from alone in preaching that the end is nigh: “Who can forget Herbert W. Armstrong, who started his own quasi-Adventist church dedicated to British Israelism and doomsday speculations. Trending more mainstream, I remember Pat Robertson spouting something on the 700 Club about 1988 being the year to end all years. Today John Hagee and, yes, Hal Lindsey are still going strong, only they’re smart enough to know that actually picking a date is bad for business. (Keep in mind that Lindsey’s bestselling Late Great Planet Earth was published more than 40 years ago—and he’s still on TBN covering events in the Middle East with all the joyful expectation of Robespierre at a gallows half-off sale.)
You might be saying to yourself, “Sure, a buncha fundy, dispensationalist cranks with clever marketing skills. Tough luck on their ignorant, desperate disciples.” But ask yourself something: If your pastor, preacher, teacher, elder, priest were to walk into an open manhole tomorrow, only to be replaced by some less-winsome personality, would you leave your church? If so, leave now.
Better yet: if your pastor, preacher, teacher, elder, priest were to be led out in handcuffs tomorrow, or discovered to have run off to Acapulco with the 16-year-old daughter of the youth minister, would you consider leaving the Church, full stop? If so, leave now.
Evangelical churches seem to be particularly susceptible to superstar preachers, because of the emphasis on preaching. We want to hear a new, fresh take on the old wooden Cross. We need some spiritual Red Bull to keep our enthusiasm up, but too often we wind up with just the bull.
But priests, too, can beguile, if less flamboyantly or on a lower scale. They too can usurp from their proper recipient the devotion and attention of congregants. But liturgical churches, those that emphasis not just our faith but also the Faith, the creeds, and the fact that the church is the bride of Christ and not a franchise, offer greater, albeit not infallible, safeguards against the cult of personality, not to mention the Armageddon clock-watching. (Perhaps the liturgical calendar, with its reassuring rhythms, provides its own kind of antidote.)
So the next time you hear that your guy (or, in some cases, gal) will not be leading worship on a particular Sunday, ask yourself if your heart sinks a little, and whether you even reconsider showing up for services until he/she makes his/her return. If so, ask yourself why — and in whom you have been putting your faith. May 21 may not have been the end, but of the making of many self-styled prophets there is definitely no end.