Whether due to the odd synchronicity of the news cycle or God's irrepressible sense of humor, it is interesting to note that as Pope Francis celebrated his 77th birthday on December 17th, the end of the world had finally arrived for doomsday prophet Harold Camping, and this was, in turn, overshadowed by the media furor created around the interview of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson in the mid-December release of the January issue of Gentleman's Quarterly.
Though all three were and are professing Christians, it is difficult to conceive of three more disparate personalities than the pope, Mr. Camping and Phil Robertson. However, the three are drawn together in this way: the former as the upholder and ultimate authority on Christian orthodoxy for the Catholic Church, and the latter two as differing but prime examples of why such orthodoxy is so desperately needed in our world. Is it coincidence or divine intervention that these three stars intersected in the media heavens, as the Christian world awaited the Christmas, 2013 arrival of the Christ Child? Make your own choice. As usual, I lean towards divine intervention.
When we understand and fully appreciate the orthodox teaching of our Catholic Christian faith, then we can also take a step back and see the humor inherent in the very idea that Harold Camping, Phil Robertson, and so many others can take upon themselves the authority of God and claim to speak for the Almighty based upon their own personal interpretation of Sacred Scripture—and actually possess the hubris to do so in public.
Informed Protestants all the way back to Luther himself understood the need to posit the authority for Christian teaching in a governing body similar to that of the Catholic Church. For this reason, the study of Christianity from the 16th century forward takes the form of a seemingly endless tedium centered in reviewing the various Protestant confessions of faith from Augsburg forward that attempted to do precisely this. Every religious body that splintered off from the Catholic Church, and then each that did so from these various splinters, sought to establish its authority for doing so, and for instructing the faithful, in some such document, most of which are ponderous and self-serving. Lost in all of this is the delightful irony that the authority Luther claimed for his original 95 Theses was his Catholic education and good standing as an Augustinian priest. And lost on so many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in our time is the very idea that one needs any other authority than oneself to interpret Scripture and so publicly proclaim the Word of God to others.
Yes, there is a certain tragedy in that so many are injured by blindly following those who would take this authority upon themselves. But, from the perspective of the orthodox faith, there is also a certain unavoidable and profound hilarity that is inherent in this phenomenon. Add to this an American mass media that assumes equality in religious matters means that the pope, Harold Camping and Phil Robertson should be given an equal voice in the public presentation of the Christian faith, and the result is a continuous entertainment that is as side splitting as it is inane.
The late Harold Camping came to widespread public prominence when the mainstream media picked up on and ran his promotional campaign predicting that the Rapture of Christians from planet earth would take place on May 21, 2011. Prior to this, Mr. Camping had grown to be a major presence in Christian broadcasting through his Family Radio ministry, beginning with the acquisition of a single FM station, KEAR in San Francisco in 1958, and continuing until Family Stations, Inc., operating as Family Radio, grew to be the 19th largest radio network in the United States. Reaching beyond the shores of the U.S. to the world was WYFR, a shortwave station in Okeechobee, Florida that broadcast Camping's Family Radio programming to a global audience in over 40 languages. Always listener funded, Family Radio, at its peak in 2007, boasted assets of $135 million, demonstrating that Harold Camping's talents as a fundraiser and businessman far outstripped his abilities as a prophet. However, he was no charlatan either, as he took no salary in his latter years as head of the ministry, and spent the assets of Family Radio (and more) ushering in what he was convinced was the actual Rapture and arrival on earth of Jesus Christ—which he predicted no less than four times.
I remember lying in bed with my wife, Jean, and listening to Mr. Camping over WYFR, as he first predicted that the Rapture would occur on September 6, 1994. I commented to Jean at the time that it would be fun to go into the offices of Family Radio early on that morning and place partially consumed doughnuts and cups of coffee on the desks of his employees so that Mr. Camping would believe himself to be one of those "left behind" when he arrived at work. This indicates that even before my conversion to the Catholic Church in 2002, I was accepting of an orthodox authority higher than that of Harold Camping, and it also provides a likely clue as to why evangelicals and fundamentalists were never anxious to employ me.
The vast media attention that he secured for his third prediction of Christ's arrival in May of 2011 proved also to be Mr. Camping's undoing as "the prophet of doom." Pulling out all of the stops, Family Radio promoted the onrushing apocalypse with a vigor and a public relations appeal funded by donations from the Camping faithful, some of whom sold all they had in anticipation of the Lord's soon return, and, in doing so, demonstrated why the law of Caveat emptor also applies to religious donations. Billboards lining the highways, and disciples carrying signboards proclaiming the end to be near, urged the world to repentance like something from a 1930's cartoon. Of course, "Eyewitness News" couldn't resist turning the cameras toward these events, and the more attention he received, the more convinced Harold Camping became that he indeed had it right this time—and the more serious and somber he became as he proclaimed it to be so. The very idea that Jesus, who claimed ignorance of the day and hour Himself, would return at any time so proclaimed by Harold Camping is, to the orthodox mind, rife with humor. That Harold Camping would be so solemnly and totally oblivious to this, as it all played out on television, is downright hysterical.
While also an astute businessman, Phil Robertson, unlike Harold Camping, is absolutely self aware and calculated in how he presents himself, his family and his business to the public. Whereas Mr. Camping was able to present a persona to his audience that made him appear to be much smarter than he actually was, Phil Robertson has become adept at presenting a bearded, hillbilly, redneck image that creates just the opposite effect. The attitude of simple "good ol' boys" gone hunting ducks, as portrayed on Duck Dynasty, belies Robertson's higher education and his own sophistication as a businessman, as well as that of his sons and the rest of the family. Clearly, a family of high living multi-millionaires who are able to portray themselves to an eager public as the real-life Beverly Hillbillies of a new generation, was not created by merely screwing around in the woods and hunting as the show portrays it. Far from the "reality show" that it is purported to be, Duck Dynasty is, in fact, a semi-scripted situation comedy that draws upon the life experience of the Robertson clan, relies on an endless stream of down home southern wit and wisdom, but in the end has, as its calculated goal, that of adding vast sums to the fortunes of the various Robertsons. And so it does.
Beyond the revenue generated by the TV show, a walk through the local Walmart store here finds a dizzying proliferation of Duck Dynasty merchandise. Perhaps the most interesting and unusual item is that of ladies' panties, emblazoned with camouflage and the show's logo. Duck Dynasty has become "Big Bucks Dynasty," not only for A&E, but for any number of producers who can slap camo on a piece of "authorized" Chinese merchandise, and sell it to patrons motivated to buy this stuff because it bears the image of their bearded heroes from TV: heroes who perpetuate the myth that they are "regular folk" just like they are. Those who deny the validity of "trickle down" economics need only witness the virtual waterfall of money that flows down from the dynasty of the "Duck Commander" and his kin, while the phenomenon of how this, in turn, wicks up money from the Walmart poor provides a fascinating topic all of its own. But I digress. For Phil Robertson, this buys and empowers a bully pulpit from which to proclaim the southern prosperity gospel of Duck Dynasty, and so we are now witness to the furor surrounding the Phil Robertson interview in GQ—a furor likely as calculated as everything else he does and one which will, in the end, also make a profit.
As religious spokesmen, Harold Camping and Phil Robertson are nearly polar opposites. Mr. Camping's goal was being a prophet, Mr. Robertson's remains that of turning a profit. Harold Camping was so serious minded as to be unintentionally humorous, whereas Phil Robertson calculates funny down to the last dollar, takes it to the bank, and uses the power this buys him in the media to turn to the seemingly more serious (and more controversial) matter of his own personal Christian faith.
It is when we take the orthodox teaching of the Catholic faith into consideration, that we are more fully able to see the rich humor in the likes of Phil Robertson suddenly being considered a public religious and moral authority. He quotes to us from what sounds like the Larry the Cable Guy version of the New Testament, and then interprets Scripture for us by citing his personal preference for a woman's vagina as opposed to a man's anus. And he does this as a stern and solemn warning to not be led down the primrose path to bestiality. Yet somehow, no ones seems to suspect that he might just be pulling our leg, just as no one seems to suspect that Duck Dynasty might be more staged comedy than spontaneous reality.
As if this isn't funny enough, the gay community and their politically correct allies, who fail to see the humor in any of this, go off on a foot stomping "hate" tirade, demanding that Phil Robertson be banished from television. With this assembled crowd shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" A&E responds by condemning Robertson to the cross of "suspension from the series." Now the Duck Dynasty faithful arise, and America takes sides and squares off in a heated debate concerning Phil Robertson as both hero and villain, the violation of gay rights either real or imagined, and how this all affects our constitutional rights (which, of course, it doesn't). When the tight and already wealthy Robertson clan then threatens to walk off the record setting Duck Dynasty into the duck blind of history, the truth becomes apparent that A&E cares more about the money than the principle of assuaging the self-righteous indignation of those demanding Phil Robertson's exile from the show. And so it is announced that, due to a successful petition drive mounted by the faithful, Phil Robertson will indeed be back as the new season premieres on January 15. And with visions of sugar plum ratings dancing in the heads of the executives at A&E, the accounting department breathes a collective sigh of relief, and the American public continues to pony up the dough for all things Duck Dynasty.
Phil Robertson, in his own weird way, may have meant to sincerely witness to his Christian faith. But he clearly did so in a way that was calculated to raise the furor that it did—to use the print/internet media to create reality television in the news, which is, effectively, reality television about reality television. I suspect he is smart enough to understand the results his remarks would likely have, and almost certainly dismissed discretion as the better part of valor in baiting the gay community for this very purpose. And, taking the bait, the gay community and their supporters in the media, and those throughout the public square, took offense and brewed a tempest in a teapot, turning the heat up until it boiled over into a media frenzy that was, as Shakespeare might have called it, "much ado about nothing."
Largely ignored was the fact that Robertson also said this in the now infamous GQ interview: "We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?" He also remarked, "I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me." While his theology may be somewhat crude, he has his heart in the right place and is hardly suggesting that gays should be dragged behind pick up trucks or beaten and tied to fences. Quite the contrary—they are too good as willing foils in his "reality" based comedy. The point he didn't make was that in a more orthodox view of the Christian faith, we are to understand that it is not about "them" being sinners, it is about all of us sharing the same affliction of sin. The sins of homosexuals are no worse than those of the rest of us—and no better. And once God has them, and the rest of us, "sorted out," we all might be surprised as to who ends up standing next to whom in the kingdom—and who doesn't. That being considered, perhaps they shouldn't take themselves so seriously, and perhaps we shouldn't either.
As we enter the year 2014, the lesson for all of us in this might just be is to lighten up and loosen up and quit allowing the stupidity of political correctness to take all the fun out the human weakness and frailties we all share. If the proliferation of media now means that we can all expect our 15 minutes of fame, then we must all be prepared for the 30 minutes of public embarrassment that follows. The joy in the New Evangelization may just be found in a more public and prevalent Christian orthodoxy that allows us to take ourselves and each other a little less seriously and to stop looking for reasons to be incessantly offended in one another. In Matthew 11:6, Jesus sends word to the Baptist, "And blessed is he who takes no offense in me." And when Jesus finally does come to sit as King upon the throne of judgment, at that day and hour that neither He Himself nor Harold Camping knows, He will answer those who stand before Him, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." Therefore, it seems logical that the Lord is telling us to take no offense in each other regardless of our life's station—high or low, gay or straight.
Perhaps the beginning of a new year is a good time to take a look around at each other and ourselves and have a good laugh at our own expense. Maybe there's not so much to be offended about after all, and maybe if we embrace again the ancient and revealed faith that God has preserved for us, and has passed down to us through the Church, then we'll gain the same lighthearted perspective on the human condition that He apparently has. After all, He loved us enough to die for our sins, and He did so at the hands of sinful men, yet He waits to condemn us. He must see something in us that we have lost sight of in ourselves, and perhaps He waits to see if we'll find it again, and perhaps it is, after all, something as simple as our sense of humor—the ability to not take offense but instead laugh at ourselves in the face of this tragic mess we've made of life on earth. This seems to indicate that God not only loves us, but finds it within Himself to like us as well—and expects us to like each other.
And perhaps the point that is missed in the likes of a Harold Camping or Phil Robertson is that the Lord may tarry precisely because He sees the vast humor inherent in all of this that so many who are bereft of His orthodox viewpoint do not. It may be that in all of heaven, life on earth is viewed as something akin to reality television, and the judgment that the sins of humankind have earned is not so immediately proffered because the Lord finds humanity so amusing—that like so many who tune in every week, He just has to see what will happen next. Free will has many facets, and perhaps one we have overlooked is that God just simply finds it funny that it gets us into so many ridiculous and insane situations, just as it did Lucy and Ethel back in the day, as it has Harold Camping in more recent times, and as it does Phil Robertson to this very moment. And, as the vicar of Christ, perhaps Pope Francis is just so blithely in tune with this orthodox viewpoint so as to view the prophecies and pronouncements of the Christian rich and famous with a passing amusement that requires no comment from him. Instead, he chooses to spend his birthday entertaining, and being entertained by, homeless men. Ironically enough, it seems to be those with the unorthodox point of view who end up being tormented by intolerance—while believing all the while it is the other way around.
And, after all, if these post modern times were depicted in the form of one of those old time orthodox Catholic paintings of heaven, we would see the Son of Man upon His white steed, with the army of the heavenly host queuing behind Him, while God the Father sits upon His throne with the Divine Dove of the Holy Spirit hovering about His head. Looking down upon the earth, immersed in human debauchery, the Ancient of Days would be holding back the wrath of His judgment upon our sinful planet while expressing to the Son, "Wait! Wait! This is a scream! I've got to see this!"
Such are the times in which we live. We can't evangelize the faith until we experience the joy it brings, and we can't experience this joy until we learn to see better the humor in life. And this humor is both more visible and more relevant if we cut each other some slack.
Phil is the owner of the news portal Radio New Jerusalem.
Biblical quotes taken from:
"The Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved."