Rapture Theology as Cultural Critique: What Camping’s Prediction Tells Us About Ourselves

It has been a week since Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping predicted the rapture, and we’re all still here. As the media has played its role as skeptic, and as religious leaders and scholars have engaged in apologetically-driven debates with Camping, something else has gone without comment. In fact, what has emerged in the fuss and flap about the rapture are revelations not about life in the next world but about life in this one.

Camping’s prediction, and others like it, is notable not for the special knowledge about specific times and dates, but rather for collective doubt about what is known or can be known—something that moderns (or post-moderns, depending on the company you keep) do not handle particularly well.

By revealing concrete details about what is simultaneously unknown and of ultimate concern (death and what lies beyond), these rhetorics touch on people’s vulnerabilities and all-too-familiar anxieties regarding death. Critics of religion will be quick to assert that this may well be intended by Camping and his Family Radio crew, but the fact is that every religion engages death and what follows it in a fundamental way.

Also, it should not go unnoticed that Camping’s followers headed directly to Times Square (rather than Oakland, say) to prepare for the rapture. Times Square stands for ultimate worldliness, the crossroads of capitalism, the epicenter of corporate globalization. Camping’s group intentionally or unintentionally brought an alternative way of telling time and assessing value to the place for which time is money and values are a matter of cross-marketing, re-branding, and logo recognition.

Finally, such predictions make insiders of a select few, and outsiders of the rest of us. In this way they shed light on the micro-navigations of everyday social, political, and family life.

Note, for example, that the New York Times focused their coverage of the prediction through the lens of the Haddad family. The parents actively prepared for the end on May 21, while the kids thought the whole thing ridiculous (but got a trip to New York out of it). Inadvertently, their coverage revealed what rapture and other religious rhetorics can produce: social and familial re-engineering.

Harold Camping’s prediction, upon which it is so easy to heap contempt, nevertheless succeeded in revealing a sensitive psycho-social barometer and a sharp cultural critique—which is what religious rhetoric at times excels at doing. It provides a kind of music or poetics to reckon with the stresses and strains of being in the world.

Rapture scenarios reflect cultural anxieties and attempts at social reinvention. The more insistent the claims of the reality of the rapture and the end of time, the more heightened the anxiety about this world in this time.

Let them who have ears to hear, listen!