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Still Here (and There's There There, Too)

The world didn't implode on May 21... but that won't stop the next doom-sayer from announcing another, imminent End of Days. Why? Because the longing for certainty never ends....

Oakland, Calif., is perhaps most famous for writer Gertrude Stein's comment, “There's no there there.” Or used to be, at least — today the city may be best known as the headquarters of Family Radio, whose leader, Harold Camping, promised Apocalypse-slash-“Rapture” this past weekend. Yup, Oakland gets the last laugh: there's still a “there there,” life continuing Rapture-free for every soul in Oakland, Brookfield and around the world.

Camping is an easy target for mockery — his last the-end-is-coming prediction was for 1994, and that was, as we know, a bust. But while he may be a little nuts, he's also sincere... which may be a more damning characterization, since his sincerity is untouched by humility or doubt. An engineer by training — at the University of California at Berkeley, no less — he regards the Christian Bible as a blueprint with but a single interpretation. He is, in brief, a “strict constructionist,” a perspective that has led him to reject all organized churches — including his own, in 1988 — because they tried to find answers outside Christian Scripture.

Camping's perspective also led him to self-delusion, since it was founded on his belief that he was a “truth-teller” rather than an “interpreter.” It's a temptation many word-wise professionals face — lawyers, journalists, preachers, politicians, etc. — but life eventually teaches (most of) us better. Unless, of course, you create a “bubble” of like-minded followers or colleagues, in which case you can operate under a shared delusion that insulates you from reality. Which is what Camping did... though always careful to have an “out” if Reality intruded and his predictions failed to materialize.

Why is this interesting? Because the many modern outbursts of apocalyptic thinking (we can expect more next year, with 2012 being transformative in the Mayan calendar) seem directly related to the growth in cultural relativism since the 1950s. Global travel became easy, millions of people went to college, emigration and immigration increased dramatically, "multiculturalism" became an ordinary word; the planet, in the 1940s routinely divided into Right and Wrong, Civilized and Primitive, Work and Leisure, evolved into something much smaller and much more complex. People like Camping, who grew up believing the difference between Good and Bad was obvious and inalterable, watched that old world slip away... and you can imagine his confusion at seeing Jesus' life “read” in countless incompatible ways, from hyper-radical to arch-conservative.

“Truth” had disappeared... and the only way to get it back was to return to the Bible, find the truth once more, and broadcast it anew. Being trained in systems and logic and numbers-crunching, Camping was well-positioned to spot patterns in the Bible, ignore evidence that didn't fit, and come up with a predictive model for the End of Days that would justify his inmost faith.

The kicker, of course, is that he used modern tools and techniques to support an old belief... and unwittingly became a tool of those tools, became captive to the very mindset he railed against. Hating cultural “relativity” — a view that led people to argue “My interpretation of the Bible, of life, of God and spirituality, is as good as yours!!” — he painted himself into a corner and became a relativist putting down all other relativists... because he, naturally, was right. He “became the enemy,” in short, following the likes of Jim Jones, L. Ron Hubbard, Jimmy Swaggart, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Charles Dederich, Father Charles Coughlin, etc., able to hold onto his religion only by placing himself at its center.

Camping's story is also part of a larger one, famously hinted at by the scholar Susan Sontag in her early 1960s essay “Against Interpretation.” Commentary on ancient works, she wrote,

...[I]s a radical strategy for conserving an old text, which is thought too precious to repudiate, by revamping it. The interpreter, without actually erasing or rewriting the text, is altering it. But he can’t admit to doing this. He claims to be only making it intelligible, by disclosing its true meaning.

The commentator may not intend to “replace” the text, to become its living embodiment, but that's often the effect... and can bring with it much power, fame and wealth. Camping's Family Radio non-profit, for example, has net assets of more than $70 million, which allowed it to rent hundreds of End-is-Nigh billboards nationwide (like the one on Route 6 in Newtown).

“Interpretation,” Sontag wrote, “is the revenge of the intellect upon art,” a way of making the workings of the mind seem superior to those of the heart, the soul, the spirit. Camping couldn't help but “privilege” his mind, it seems, and in doing so harmed Christianity more than helped it. But his mistake benefits the rest of us, because it vividly demonstrates that people need to come to their inmost beliefs in their own way, and remain skeptical of those who claim to have the “right” interpretation.

I'm indebted to New York Times reporter Jesse McKinley, for example, for this piece's Gertrude Stein “lede”... but must add that Stein may have been referring primarily to her torn-down childhood home, not Oakland as a whole. Let every reader, every listener, beware: it's good to trust interpreters, but it's essential to verify their sources.

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