The route of the elevated 7 train, which travels between Queens and Manhattan, passes by 5 Pointz, a now-empty artist space. The owners of the building encourage graffiti artists to paint the walls, resulting in a colorful array of designs and images (as you can see here). It's one of my favorite spots in the city, particularly when the sun hits it in just the right way at sunset. But for several months now, one image has caught my eye: cartoonish, enormous, pink letters and numbers reading, "May 21, 2011" (see right). When I first saw the date, I had no clue about its significance. Then I began to see messages with the command “Google May 21, 2011” scrawled in ink on temporary signs in the subway. So I did. Apparently, May 21, 2011, is judgment day. Soon I began noticing full-blown subway ads with the same message and walking by men handing out pamphlets in the subway tunnels. (It would seem we commuters are especially in need of redemption.)
The cause is being promoted on an international level by a loosely associated group of Christians out to alert the world that now is the time to repent. This relatively small but vocal group is following the lead of Harold Camping, the 89-year-old leader of Family Radio Worldwide and a retired civil engineer, who says he's used the Bible to calculate the date of the Rapture. Salon.com has put together a helpful FAQ about the topic, and included a number of articles about individuals who have made plans for the end times and are doing their best to warn others. Despite the fact that Camping’s past apocalyptic predictions have proved incorrect, one of his followers has enough faith this time around to decorate a car with the date and a warning message, while others have made more drastic moves like putting off starting a family, deciding not to go to medical school, and using up their savings in order to devote time to spreading the word.
What's a Catholic to think? John W. Martens wrote a great post on the topic a little while ago on our Scripture blog, The Good Word. In it, he is sympathetic to this curiosity about the end times and adds that we have:
a deep human impulse to want to know and to understand and to be ready and prepared.... [W]e know it is true, that we will all come to an end, whether the world continues on or not, and most of us believe that we will be accountable for our lives. Yet, our personal ends are unknowable and we want to know. In the same way, we do not know how or when the world will end, but we know it will….
I always ask my students, and myself, though, a simple question: would it change the way you lived if you knew the end was May 21, 2011 or 2012 or 2013? If yes, then change the way you live your life now; this is what we have in our control. If we are able to minimize even somewhat the effects of sin and suffering in the lives of those around us, if we are all able to do this through small matters, then we are doing all that we can to prepare for the end, personal or cosmic, whenever it comes....
His advice seems especially sage when you consider price of the alternative: According to New York magazine, it costs $44,000 to cover 25 percent of the interior ad space of a subway train. Add to that the cost of the Judgment Day bus ads and the pamphlets, not to mention thousands of billboards erected across the United States, Canada, and even Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon, and you begin to realize: the apocalypse isn't cheap. (Although, from the look of its site, Family Radio seems to have skimped on Web development.) As I attempted to estimate Family Radio's advertising costs, I honestly wondered if the group was able to pay for all these ads upfront, or if they purchased them on credit, because they believed that the collection day would never arrive. I wrote to them to ask about the total cost of the campaign, but have received no response. NPR reported that the station is worth more than $100 million, so perhaps cash isn’t a problem.
Now, I'm the first to admit that I do not know the day nor the hour of Christ’s return. So, for all I know, this group could be right. But I’m going to go ahead and bet that the world will continue to exist beyond next Saturday, and therefore it pains me to see so much money spent on advertising, in the name of saving souls. The prominence of the Family Radio Web address in many of the ads smacks a bit too much of a marketing campaign, one that is more interested in getting folks to listen to Family Radio Worldwide programming than to the Gospels. In addition, the promotional materials I’ve seen are focused on proving that the May 21 deadline is correct, rather than on the spiritual implications of the day. The instructions under “How Do I Begin?” on the Family Radio Web site offer information on obtaining free tracts from the organization, followed quickly by phone number where listeners can buy more. I can only hope that, if the world doesn’t end on the 21st, Family Radio will use these funds to help support any individuals or families who stopped seeking income in order to devote more time to distributing the tracts.
But even if we assume that the 21st is the end, and there's no need to maintain any savings to fall back on, is spending huge sums of money on billboards the best way to help people prepare? Sure, we're all motivated by an impending deadline, but the Family Radio signs I’ve seen aren’t invitations to a relationship with Christ so much as they are warnings not to be left behind. They seem to promote repentance based on fear of what might happen to you if you don’t turn to Christ, rather than the loving relationship you’ll gain if you do. Essentially: hedge your bets.
So if not billboards, than what? Perhaps it would have been nice if Camping and his followers had used the money to hold a series of meals across the country, events to which everyone—young or old, rich or poor—was welcome. They could create a place where everyone had a chance to serve and be served, to experience community, to rejoice in the gift of this life and the blessings it offers. And there’d be pie. Lots of pie. I totally would have attended.
But, as it stands, I’m not making any special plans. If the world is still around next Sunday, I’ll maintain my usual routine of riding the 7 train past 5 Pointz and enjoying the view as I head into Manhattan for the 11:30 a.m. Mass. Because, although there is a discouraging lack of lemon meringue at my parish, I’ve found it is a place where everyone is welcome, where I am able to serve and be served, and I’m able to give thanks for the blessings in my life. Even without billboards, I’m reminded every week that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. And I also get the chance to look around at my friends and neighbors and to recognize in them the ways in which Christ is already among us.