The Final Word
By Bruce Bellingham
No sooner were people wishing each other a Happy New Year the other day, then comes word that the end of the world, may – once again – be nigh.
Sounds a little ecclesiastical?
And nearly nigh it is, according to East Bay evangelist broadcaster Harold Camping. He runs a few dozen very influential radio stations that are broadcast all over the world. Right there from his parking lot on Hegenberger Road in Oakland, beamed up from satellite trucks outside his sprawling center of operations. Yes, the word from some on high. Nigh or not nigh. After all these years, Harold has once again set a date for the end of the world. How nigh is it? He says it’s May 21, 2011. Camping, 88, is a well-known man. He’s been sending Christian programming into 48 countries for many years. His Family Radio programs are huge in China. Camping is pleased to report that the Chinese government never censors the shows. I don’t know if that’s good news or bad news.
But here it is, still New Year’s, and we get word of time running out for all of us.
The crepehangers are out in full force – crushing our fragile moment of holiday elation – even before we’ve finished toasting 2010, hoping for the best, even before we got to get on our free Muni rides before 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day, sitting or swaying with people who look like they have already seen the end of the world come crashing down on them on many occasions.
Why rain on our parade, oh persons of the cloth? It reminds me of that story from Groucho when the priest, who is getting on the elevator, suddenly recognizes Groucho, grabs his hand, pumping it, and says, “Groucho, I just want to thank you for all the joy that you’ve brought into the world.”
Glancing at the priest’s collar, Groucho shot back, “And I want to thank you for all the joy you’ve taken out of it.”
Now I’m sure there’s a “joy to the world” message amid the pronouncements that our time on earth is about over. Well, where is it? I can’t see how that’s good news for anybody – unless the college loans have gotten that far afield.
Years ago, I spent some time with Harold Camping. That’s when I was a reporter for a CBS Radio News show called The World of Religion. He gave me a tour of the shop. Very basic, bare bones kind of operation. Nothing elegant, certainly nothing ostentatious. In 1994, he had calculated mathematically from the Bible that the world would end, and Jesus would appear on terra firma. Camping, who is a civil engineer, seems like a nice man. He was unfazed by the miscalculation 16 years ago. More important, his followers stuck by him.
In the 1980s, I interviewed a preacher from Colorado who had convinced his followers to sell their goods, leave their homes, and wait in the high desert to be taken up by the Rapture.
It didn’t happen, as you know. If it had, it may have knocked Tiger Woods off the front page for a day or so. I got the man on the phone. I was one of the more polite reporters, I guess. So he talked to me.
“You seem like a nice enough fella, Mr. Bellingham,” he drawled to me. “Let me give you a piece of advice. Don’t let anyone tattoo the numbers 666 on the back of your head.”
I promised him I would not. I’m sticking to the promise.
By the way, the no-show Rapture show disenchanted no one among the flock. Someone in the gathering explained it to me: “It’s something called faith. If you really have it, you cannot lose it. When things go wrong, it only makes us want to believe more. It’s only a test.”
What puzzled me a little was a comment from one of Harold Camping’s employees, as told to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Justin Berton. It was dark.
“I’m looking forward to it [the end of the world],” said Ted Solomon, 60, who works at Family Radio. Ted checks on international translations of the texts.
“This world maybe had an attraction for me at one time,” Solomon said. “But now it’s definitely lost its appeal.”
My word, what happened to Ted Solomon to make him so bleak and desolate? C’mon, Ted, come over to San Francisco. We can cheer you up. Dr. Samuel Johnson noted, acidly, that “when you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.” But Ted says he’s just tired of life. Maybe he’s just tired of the food on Hegenberger Road.
OK, Ted’s entitled to a little exasperation. After all, he has to make sure the Chinese authorities are happy with the copy, that it conforms with government policy. No Dalai Lama jokes.
Ever notice how the Dalai Lama never talks up the end of the world? Oh, that’s right. He’s got that reincarnation trump card. He cannot
Mr. Camping and his Camping Followers have picked a good time to announce the end of life on earth as we know it. It gets news coverage. People are spooked right now. Many would like to see a hero come rescue us. A Sully Sullenberger with angel’s wings. That’s silly. The world has been ending for a lot of people for a very long time. Loss, it seems, is our net gain.
Yet I’m elated to know that we do have plenty to do in this year of 2010. So why be in a hurry to chuck it all? I really don’t want to miss a thing. The first thing I have to do is figure out how to make Dan Solomon drop his melancholy. Nothing works on attaining a sense of living in the moment than a Marx Brothers’ movie. I wonder how Groucho translates to the Chinese. I’ll bet Beijing prefers Harpo.
Then, more urgently, I’d better make sure that no one tries to tattoo a 666 on the back of my head. That’s one of my New Year’s resolutions, for this year, and next, and for all the years after that.
Bruce Bellingham is a columnist for the Marina Times. If he ever gets medical insurance again, he will undergo an Examination of Conscience. Any ideas? firstname.lastname@example.org