Averted apocalypse, media meltdown

Item 1: A journalist sent me a link to the clip of the Good Morning America show embedded here. Right at the beginning of this scene from a recent episode, the host asserts "A lot of Christians believe today is judgment day." No, that's not true. Not even close. No matter how you measure it, a few hundred -- or even a few thousand -- followers of Family Radio Network do not constitute "a lot of Christians." A tiny fringe? Sure. But not a lot. How could someone make it to the level of writing copy for Good Morning America and not know this?

Item 2: While listening to my pastor's sermon on Sunday, in which he explained why Lutherans are not dispensationalists, I realized that I learned more about Camping's underlying theology than I had from all but maybe one mainstream media report on the Family Radio Network. That's just not OK, considering what a media circus this was. Of course, if journalists are having trouble distinguishing most of Christendom from Camping, I guess I should not be surprised.

Item 3: On that note, Elizabeth Tenety, the editor of the Washington Post's OnFaith section, covered what I believe was Harold Camping's first radio show since Saturday. She reported (via tweet):

"I thank God for the media" says Harold Camping for spreading the message on his behalf

Yeah, Harold Camping, I bet you do. And I have to admit that I'm growing more suspicious about how a small radio network (that I hadn't heard of prior to January, to be honest) generated such publicity. I'm even willing to grant that they should have received some serious coverage, what with the billboards and street-based warnings. Still, why did they receive so much attention? Is it the mocking issue tmatt raised the other day? Combined with the efforts to characterize this group as typical, average Christians, I think it's worth asking some tough questions about what drove this story to become so major. And I'll also share the comment from a previous thread from veteran religion reporter Ann Rodgers:

I half-heartedly argued against covering him on the grounds that I had already done the story in 1994 — and because he’s got virtually no presence in the heart of our coverage area. (His stations do have some coverage on the fringes). Editors wanted the story, however, so I tried to place him in some theological context. Since he was originally from a a conservative branch of Reformed theology, I spoke with the president of Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. And since his views of End Times events most closely resemble (but are different from) those of dispensationalism, I interviewed a prominent dispensational New Testament scholar. Also spoke with some local people who work in Christian media to see if they were getting much buzz about him. They had heard nada. Here’s the link

Item 4: Even now, the media is still struggling with how to handle this story. First I'm going to show you the tweets from Michael Tracey , a reporter who listened to the program (here, here and here):

Harold Camping said the End did come on Saturday, but only "spiritually." Salvation is no longer available for nonbelievers.

All the #May21 billboards are coming down, nobody is handing out any more tracts; Judgement was indeed rendered on Saturday.

To Harold Camping's credit, he never prophesied that the world would end on #May21 -- that's always been in five months.

OK, so you get the idea. Camping is standing behind his prediction but saying that the end appears different than he first thought. Now, check out how the Associated Press puts it:

California radio host says he was 5 months off, Judgment Day will occur in October OAKLAND, Calif. -- California preacher Harold Camping said Monday his prophecy that the world would end was off by five months because Judgment Day actually will come on Oct. 21.

Nope. That's not what he said. And yet who wants to bet "Camping's math was wrong" will be the quip of the day?

Le sigh. I'm glad that some reporters out there are aiming to describe the situation accurately, but this really has been an overall weak showing. I don't think the media did a good job of explaining dispensationalists, much less how much dispensationalism differs from traditional Christian belief. We saw a lot of trouble with basic factual reporting. And, worst of all, there was really no justification for this media frenzy.

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