If you haven’t heard the end of the world is on Saturday at 6pm (local time zone), you haven’t been paying attention, which means you haven’t been online. The autodidactic and self-styled doomsayer, Harold Camping, nonagenerian founder and leader of Family Radio, has offered his second prediction (he attributes his misfire in 1994 to bad math on his part) on the Rapture and subsequent end of the universe (on October 21). Not many people paid attention the first time around, but this time, the internet is alive and buzzing with it. And it’s watching and waiting for the show.
And that struck me as interesting. We’re all here, in our wired world, waiting. And while we wait, we blog, and create memes and facebook pages, and plan rapture parties, and watch streaming video of news commentary and satire and spoofs. We’re biding our times not until 6:00pm, but 6:01pm. And we’ll be watching on our laptops and iPads, and phones, watching for Family Radio’s reaction.
End times (whatever that means) theology (the technical word is “eschatology”) has been popular since at least the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who envisioned a fiery cycle of cosmic creation and destruction. And we’ve had myriads of biblically-proportioned prophets like Daniel and Ezekiel, who are hardly unique from the Book of Revelation’s John of Patmos or the Books of Enoch or all sorts of apocalyptic apocryphal literature that always becomes quite trendy when we experience a crisis of nation-state collapse threatened by nature or economics or another nation-state or social peril like homosexuality or minorities or another belief system. You know, the usual. But these are all documents of visions and expectations. Modernity brought us something more lively in these United States of ours.
On October 22, 1844, the Millerites suffered (one of my favorite event names ever) The Great Disappointment, which, to handle the aftermath, created the Seventh Day Adventists. In 1993, I watched the Branch Davidian (a radical sect of the SDA) standoff in Waco on the local news as David Koresh proclaimed the end of the world before being engulfed in fire before the thousands of eyes on the national news. And we saw an apocalypse broadcast on our television screens.
Four years later, we saw eerie photos of Nike-clad Heaven’s Gate’s members, all dead from suicide to meet up with the spaceship waiting for them alongside the Hale-Bopp comet to save them from an Earth about to be “recycled.”
To usher us across the millennial divide, from 1995-2007, Pentecostal doomsayer theologian Tim LaHaye and his not-so-ghostwriter Jerry B. Jenkins, spun a whole series of books about the premillennialist end times. It spawned graphic novels, a lot of theological confusion and two movies with Kirk Cameron. A lot of coin was made for two authors and a publishing company and a lot of annoying, inane questions were dumped upon unprepared clergy and theologians. Thanks, guys.
But that was television, photos, and books. Now, we have the internet. And this is the first time we can be so intimate with others’ apocalypse. We can stream their sermons, peruse their website, critique their beliefs, lament their future. All at the click of a mouse or even less.
It’s not so different from when a punchy preacher from Florida with of flock of twenty decided to burn a Qur’an and the world caught wind of it online and got quite enflamed about it. Everyone gawked then, too. And some people got killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Online religion, never the most rational animal of the internet, has the tendency to burrow, mutate, and migrate to the strangest places. If furries can find acceptance, validity, and one another online, so can any possible mutation of religion. It’s just that we’d rather look at religion than furries (hopefully). And look we do.
It’s the spectacle of the thing. There is a uncanny novelty about people have such odd confidence and faith in burning a book or in doing the esoteric math to determine the end of the world to the very minute. And this combination of confidence and quirkiness is shocking to us. That’s why Camping and Jones can swing people’s attention, with shock. The shock of the New Old. These are old tropes of religion with soundbite length. The brevity and discontinuity of these bursts of strange doctrines is shocking and arresting. It’s the detritus of the soundbite, in the act of reflection upon the image, that lasts longer. And that’s interesting to us.
Because we are bored. We are bored with our constant hum of low-level stimulation (and radiation) that when we find something that captures our interest, we now have, through the power and glory of social media, the opportunity to react together. In our reaction, we are reflective, if only for a few moments. Then we share it. And like it. And it mutates and expands online. And criticism through debate and parody and refutation and explanation all mingle together. And we watch, fascinated. And we are entertained to watch up to 6:01pm. Because our interest will have turned to something else at 6:02pm. And soon no one will remember on October 21 that the universe was supposed to be annihilated.
So let’s toast the latest end of the world. There are thousands of us present, staring at our screens, anticipating yet another, (though, smaller) disappointment. Here we are now. Entertain us.