Talk about defending the brand: Christian writers are coming down on Harold Camping with the fervor of Disney lawyers quashing a Mickey Mouse painting at a daycare center.
Camping is the self-taught biblical scholar and radio mogul who says the Rapture is happening on Saturday, May 21, at exactly 6 p.m. local time, whatever your local time is. He’s been delivering this prediction for several years, a recalibration from his earlier prediction that the Rapture would happen in 1994.
He’s been spreading the word via the 66 stations in his Family Radio Network, on his website www.familyradio.com, and through billboards in several major cities. His prediction is based on some tangled algebra that sets numerical values for concepts such as "atonement" and "completeness," assumes that Jesus was crucified on April 1, 33 AD, and figures that these numbers actually represent something of importance.
Camping has also declared that every church in the world is false. One might expect that mainstream Christians would either dismiss Camping or ignore him. One would be wrong.
From seminaries, pulpits and personal websites, the condemnation of Camping’s prediction is almost universal. Why are they bothering?
“There is some branding differentiation going on, in that traditional Christians would not want to be lumped in with Camping,” said Mara Einstein a media studies professor at Queens University and the author of "Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age."
“You might compare this to most Muslims not wanting to be associated with the 9/11 hijackers — an extreme case, for sure, but in the same vein,” she said. “Another example you might use is the Susan G. Komen [Foundation] going after anyone that uses the term 'for the cure'" when discussing breast cancer.
"Scholars are whacking at Camping like a cheap piñata, but this isn't a sign they consider his work worthy of attention. They're worried what people will think about Christians if they don’t rebut him."
While the reactions to Camping are accumulating as the predicted date draws nigh, the rebuttals started years ago. The website for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals has a point-by-point response written in 2004 by a pastor and a philosophy professor.
"We had people writing the organization asking for a thorough evaluation of Camping's thought and, being the organization we were, we felt that we ought to provide it,” said Mark Talbot, a philosophy professor at Wheaton College.
The theological equivalent of brand confusion was a factor in choosing to respond, he said. “His exegesis somewhat took the form of better exegesis, if someone didn't know enough to see the differences."
How is Camping’s exegesis, or biblical analysis, similar to others?
- Like Camping, some Christians, though hardly all, believe in the Rapture — the idea that living Christians will be taken into the air and into heaven all at once at a time before Jesus returns.
- Some Christians use what they believe are clues in the Bible to set dates and times. "Young Earth Creationists," for instance, use references in Genesis as their basis for belief that the Earth is about 6,000 years old.
- Some Christians, including some of Camping’s critics, tie Bible passages to current events as "evidence" that Jesus is coming back soon.
- Even Camping’s rejection of every other flavor of Christianity has precedent. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — the Mormons — takes exactly that stance.
But few who hold any of those positions want to be confused with agreeing with Camping.
What sets him particularly apart is Camping’s willingness to set a particular date and time for the Rapture, and his method of generating the date. What’s made him famous is that the story is irresistible to the media.
From the AP to the Voice of America, reporters are telling the tale of the 89-year-old Camping and his prediction. And many of those reporters are seeking out Christian scholars for response.
New Testament scholar Darrell Bock is no stranger to media attention. The professor at Dallas Theological Seminary wrote a book debunking The Da Vinci Code. These days, he’s being asked to talk about Camping.
“I have had more inquiries on this story than any in the last several years,” he said.
That he and other bible scholars are whacking at Camping like a cheap piñata is not a sign that they consider his work worthy of much attention. Bock said that he and others are more worried about what non-Christians will think if they don’t rebut Camping.
“It is not that he is being taken seriously,” he said. ”But some might be concerned that others — in a more religiously illiterate culture — might think he is taken seriously.”