Flannery O’Connor and the End of the World

Harold Camping

Harold Camping, pre-stroke

About three weeks after his May 21 doomsday predictions fell flat, Harold Camping had a stroke. Camping, the now-retired head of Family Radio, had constructed a numerological system that led him through a range of biblical texts (without, apparently, requiring him to read the ones where Jesus tells his followers not to bother trying to figure out when he would return) to the May date. Bolstered by a small army of donors, his organization ran a vast campaign of billboards—100 million dollars worth, by one estimate—proclaiming that “the Bible guarantees” a May 21 rapture.

May 21 came. The Lord did not return. And a few weeks later Camping’s 89-year-old brain was assaulted by a blood clot that impeded his speech.

On one level, this is great material—the kind of ready literary fodder that makes a nonfiction writer blush. It feels like some kind cable news homage to Flannery O’Connor, with a just a dash of Old Testament prophet.

On the other hand, maybe it’s too broad, too obvious. It doesn’t take a great mind to leap from the headline to an oracular view of it: The false prophet, unrepentant even after his sham is revealed, is silenced. I’m certainly not interested in asserting any such direct connection, but it is a compelling narrative. And yet it seems like a more natural impulse to turn it toward comedy, which is how most media outlets have handled it. That’s an understandable move. It feels better to laugh about it a little.

But that’s not how O’Connor would have treated it. Her work is often comical, but she never uses the comedy to dampen the blow, to soften the uncomfortable impact of something that, when we look at it directly, seems frightening. Rather, she uses the comedy to amplify that sense. She is not a gentle writer. She is not interested in making you feel at ease. She is more interested in making you feel the awful weight of the immanence of God.

In O’Connor’s fictional version, we would see Camping’s slouching face, one side looking like the meat of it was ready to slough off and onto the floor. She would show the skittish terror in his small, bloodshot eyes, the terrified awareness that God had had the last word, and that he wasn’t finished speaking yet. She would show Camping, the small, hunted thing. And when she dealt with this week’s headline—Camping revises his prediction; Rapture will probably happen today, October 21—she would, like everyone else has, emphasize that ‘probably.’ But she would also emphasize the strained mechanics of his speech, the sense of his own flesh getting in the way of the words. In her version, it would not be a droll concession to the awkward silence of God on May 21; it would be a terrible acknowledgment of his clear communication three weeks later, and of the inevitability of his return on his own terms.

The version we will hear at least a few times today—a welcome refuge, anyway, from the NPR fund drive—will be the comedic one. And if there is a move toward gravitas, it will be related to the people who quit their jobs and gave their savings to Family Radio this spring. If it is grave, it will be a grave story about profiteering on the hopes and fears of gullible people. But, mostly, it will not be grave. Mostly, it will be amusing and small.

Again, to be clear: I won’t suggest, although some have, that Camping’s stroke actually was some kind of divine wrath. But I will say that the O’Connor version seems nearer the truth than the comedic one. Even though she can sometimes be rightly accused of using characters as props advancing the religious ideas in her stories, her approach to material like this seems to understand better the human situation, let alone the cosmic one. It seems to take people like Camping more, not less, seriously, even while she is issuing judgment. And that, I would say, is a good and a generous thing.

10 Comments

  • carol frey says:

    Jonathan,
    Excellent piece of writing, Very thought provoking. Thank you for taking the time.

  • Rachel Hartley-Smith says:

    Nice! I’ve found it interesting that Camping has decided to claim that (this time) The End will come quietly, painlessly. It’s like some kind of an ass-cover. Perhaps he has learned something . . . ;)

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Either an ass-cover or some kind of doubt/concession. I prefer the version where he really believes this system of his and so is shaken by this series of failures.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Stories on TV or in the newspaper almost never reveal a person as complex, whereas good fiction almost always does. So knowing that the mass media outlets push people toward type or caricature in some reductive narrative, maybe it’s the fiction writer’s job to take Camping more seriously — as you just did, imagining how O’Connor would handle him.

    Cool post.

    Welcome to Bark, Jonathan.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Thanks, Sam, glad to be here.

      Good point about the two-dimensional “characters” we get in mass media. I wish it weren’t the case, though, that we have to forgo complexity in those venues.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    I once got into an uncomfortable debate with an undergrad professor over whether or not O’Connor used her characters as props for her religious ideals.
    I lost.

    Also, welcome to Bark!

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