August 19, 2011

Should We Be Laughing?

Almost a century ago T. S. Eliot described in his poem “Hollow Men” the extinction of humankind:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.1

Hardly a hopeful view of the future! But, judging from what appears to be the current fascination in popular culture with the subject of end times, the film and literature and music of our time seems to prefer the view that it will all end with a bang and a whimper.  Almost universally there is the view that humanity faces a cataclysm of some kind but will almost certainly live on—even if there are only a few straggling survivors. Music of many genres, for example, has recently offered titles like “Final Day,” “Till the World Ends,” “Waiting for the End of the World,” and others.

One such song, “Are You Ready?” by Richard Ashcroft, could almost be considered an anthem for the end times. Its pounding use of familiar biblical language expresses profoundly the anxiety of a time when people are increasingly aware that the world is headed for some kind of singularity—yet, for those who understand its allusions, it still offers a hint of hope. 

2011 1523 page32And while this attention to the apocalypse has caught the imagination of the popular media, they have also noted another real-life reference to end times. Anyone who even occasionally glances at the newspaper—or today, at the Internet or any other source of news or comment—cannot have missed the story of Family Radio speaker Harold Camping’s predicted May 21 date for Christ’s second coming in the form of the Rapture. And any Adventist who noted that story cannot have done so without a twinge of, well, what?

As could be expected, the media responded with everything from scorn to sympathy.

Andrew Sullivan in (how’s that for an ironic URL) said, “Such nutballism begs to be made fun of.”2

Another blogger took a less direct, satiric approach, listing “Twenty-one Reasons Why May 21 Is Not the End of the World,” one of them being that “Justin Bieber wouldn’t let it happen.”3

Tiffany Stanley in, however, observed that the story of Camping’s prediction and the response of his followers deserves pity, not “smug superiority and cheap laughs.” She adds: “There’s a cruelty underlying our desire to laugh at this story—a desire to see people humiliated and to revel in our own superiority and rationality.”5

Even a ministry begun by a Seventh-day Adventist, with a history deeply rooted in Millerism and the Great Disappointment, could not seemingly resist the temptation to a subtler form of ridicule, offering to purchase Camping’s radio network at an insultingly low, going-out-of-business price for an organization that produces programming in more than 40 languages.6

Millerism, as it looked forward to the second coming of Christ in the early 1840s, met with similar attention from other Christian faiths and from the popular culture of its time in the northeast United States, where it was most prevalent. There were no electronic media, of course, but the existence of a fervent, outspoken group of believers caught the notice of the print media: reporters and editors, novelists, poets, and other writers.

Edward Eggleston, for example, a nineteenth-century historian, short-story writer, and novelist, authored The End of the World, A Love Story. In it he perpetuated many of the popular conceptions and misconceptions of the time about Millerism: the making and wearing of ascension robes, the incitement to insanity (“nutballism”?), the renunciation of everyday responsibilities. And in the voice of one of his central characters, he lampoons the date-setting calculations with which preachers were predicting the Second Coming: “Elder Hankins [a Millerite evangelist] will cipher the world into nothin’ in no time. Give him any sum you please, and it all comes out 1843!”7

2011 1523 page32And no less a literary luminary in American literature than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned an engaging and more gentle novelette entitled Kavanagh: A Tale, also centered on the excitement in the early 1840s over the predicted second coming of Jesus.

Since that time, those who have come to believe in the imminent parousia, as the theologians call it, have faced the challenge of proclaiming their belief while enduring misunderstanding and derision. One of Archie Bunker’s lesser known, but classic, malapropisms: “Seventh-day Adventurers”!

All of which makes it seem as if our church should be in a unique position to respond with winsomeness and grace to the Harold Campings that come along. The Family Radio broadcaster has, in fact, recalculated his prediction and has now designated October 21 of this year for the end.

Certainly, among Seventh-day Adventists, there is no place for irony, disparagement, or contempt in any kind of public response to the story of a small group of people looking forward to the Second Coming. We must surely recognize as well as anyone that “living out of step with the dominant society—creatively and with grace—is not necessarily easy.”8

As October 21 nears with its eerily close proximity to our own chosen date of October 22 of long ago, we have an opportunity for a do-over. The thought leaders of the New Testament are unanimous in their views on the treatment, without exception, of fellow Christians. “ ‘By this all will know that you are My disciples,’ ” Jesus said, “ ‘if you have love for one another’ ” (John 13:35).9  The apostle Paul adds: “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Rom. 13:10), which would presumably include neighbors in the faith. And Peter adds that we should have “compassion for one another,” that we should “love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous” (1 Pet. 3:8).

Granted, the overall timbre of the majority of Adventist response to Camping’s date in the late spring was measured and compassionate. But in the days leading up to October 21—and beyond—we would do well if all public and private response coming from representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist faith were intended to be loving and doing no harm. May we not succumb to a very un-Christian “desire to see people humiliated and to revel in our own superiority and rationality.”10

 1. <Http://>.
 2. <Http://,> accessed June 20, 2011.
 3. <Http://>, accessed June 18,  2011.
 4. “Too Much Judgment: The media’s shameful, cruel obsession with those awaiting the rapture,”   <>, accessed June 18, 2011.
 5.  Ibid.
 6. “Pastor Doug Challenges Camping’s May 21st Judgment Day,” <>, accessed June 18, 2011.
 7. Edward Eggleston, The End of the World, A Love Story (New York: O. Judd and Company, 1872), p. 59.
 8.  Garments of Grace: Clothing Imagery in the Bible, Adult Teachers Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, second quarter 2011, p. 155.
 9. All scriptural references are taken from The New King James Version of the Bible.

10. “Too Much Judgment,” ibid.

Gary B. Swanson is associate director for the General Conference Department of Sabbath School and Personal Ministries. This article was published August 18, 2011.