August 28, 2014

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Analysis: Apocalypse not now — and how we saw it

By Ted Anthony

NEW YORK — Where were you on the day the world didn’t end?

Did you, like many thousands of others, turn to a social network and confess to the world something you had kept hidden? Did you laugh it off and make jokes about not having to go to work Monday? Did you pick your favorite end-times pop song and blast it on the car stereo?

David Kirk, Carlos Munoz and Pete Erwin, with a Jesus figure, gather in front of the closed radio station offices of evangelist Harold Camping in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday. (AP PHOTO)

David Kirk, Carlos Munoz and Pete Erwin, with a Jesus figure, gather in front of the closed radio station offices of evangelist Harold Camping in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday. (AP PHOTO)

Did you maybe scoff a little while wondering — just a teensy bit, in a tiny place in the very back of your head — what you might do if Saturday were indeed your final day on the planet?

Or maybe it was all of the above. Regardless, as multiple media outlets put it Sunday — in precisely the same wording — “We’re still here.”

The curious buildup happened like this: An American minister captivated believers and aroused skeptics by using math and the Bible to predict that Saturday, May 21, 2011, would begin the rolling global destruction of Judgment Day. The day ended with no discernible apocalyptic events, but the prediction produced an unusual cultural moment: a brief window where the odd and the humorous, the faithful and the commercial and the cosmic all blended into … well, something.

Clearly something about the prediction from Family Radio International touched a nerve. And unsurprisingly so: In uncertain times — and these are most certainly those — it’s hard to avoid wondering just how bad things might get.

Less than five months old, 2011 has already brought us a cataclysmic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, another tremor in New Zealand, major tornadoes in the American heartland and, on Saturday, a volcano eruption in Iceland. Manmade events, from the uprisings in the Mideast to the killing of Osama bin Laden to the ongoing struggle of the global economy, also contribute to the sense that things are moving at a dizzying pace. And a tiny earthquake near Family Radio’s California headquarters Saturday night probably didn’t help perceptions much.

Lots of fodder for conversation. So when the hour of Harold Camping’s prediction was approaching, people — a lot of people — had something to say.

Bloggers blogged and blogged again. Newspapers editorialized about it — and some took Camping’s money and ran his advertisements, which also appeared on billboards in many countries. Cable news anchors spent big chunks of Saturday chatting about it — about not just the believers, but about we, the people, and how we might behave if the end was (to employ a word rarely used elsewhere) nigh.

“For every generation, there’s been somebody who’s saying, ‘Oh, the end of the world is going to be, say, April 11, 1985.’ So when that happens every generation, it’s kind of hard to take seriously,” said Jory Burson, 27, a multimedia producer in Stillwater, Okla.

But, she added: “I do think that people stop and consider all the tragic events that have happened recently — the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, things like that — and, I’m speaking of my Christian friends here, that they might think maybe there’s an element of truth here. But I think it makes people stop and reflect on tragedies and think about how we’re treating the world and how the world’s treating us.”

As with so many curious cultural blips, from the balloon boy to the angry flight attendant, it’s easy to say that attention to this was created and fed by the media. But that doesn’t account for the social networks — for the millions on Twitter who made topics like “rapture” and “judgmentday” trend throughout the day. And for the ones who answered the call to confess secrets and assemble Judgment Day playlists (it was a good day for Blondie’s “Rapture” and R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”; no word Sunday on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” ).

The whole affair, unastonishingly, proved friendly to sundry marketing opportunities — even beyond the T-shirt trade. One major electronics manufacturer urged customers to use its cameras to chronicle the end times. The Daily News in New York dedicated its entire tabloid front page Saturday to this headline: “BUY THIS PAPER! … if it’s the last thing you do.”

Yet behind the wink-nudge flavor of it all, some of the talk and even a bit of the humor felt tinged with tentativeness: Sure, it wasn’t going to happen. But — lower your voice a bit — are we all absolutely certain? That’s always the question with faith in uncertain times, and people from more than one religion — and even a few atheists — admitted to being a bit introspective about the world on this particular weekend.

That was true for Maddie Calhoon, a Unitarian Universalist from St. Paul, Minn., who was at a gathering Saturday night that guests renamed a “rapture party.”

“We said, ‘We’re just glad we’re all together.’ And it was a joke,” said Calhoon, 24. “But of course it made me think about things, and about how I don’t reflect often about what I’d do if my time was coming to an end.”

In the aftermath, as Camping’s followers expressed disappointment and bewilderment, some of the people watching from afar worried about their fate — and about how other, more mainstream groups of faithful might process the doomsday that wasn’t. After all, such predictions are hardly new; specific predictions about Christ’s return at a certain time have been made almost since Christianity began. One Facebook group called “I’m not bragging, but this is the 5th end of the world I’ve survived” had drawn almost 45,000 followers by Sunday afternoon.

“Many individuals, past and present, have made false and misleading claims about the end times,” said a commentary on the website of the United Church of God, a U.S-based Christian denomination. “While such people feel like they are doing the work of God, in reality they are producing skepticism and a lack of faith when their prophecies fail.”

By midday Sunday, most of the Judgment Day-related hashtags had slipped from Twitter’s trends list. Two, however, were still going strong, nestled among Iceland, Lady Gaga and Mitch Daniels.
One was “Harold Camping.” The other, slightly higher, was “God.”