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In one fell swoop, Harold Camping began urging his faithful listeners to turn on Family Radio, tune in to their local stations, and drop out of their congregations.
Harold Camping is a conservative Christian's conservative, so staunch in his beliefs that he's against divorce even in cases of abandonment or adultery. A devout former member of the Christian Reformed denomination, he is steeped in the fiery rhetoric of Calvinism. He believes in heaven and hell, that a woman's place is in the home, and that the world is only thirteen thousand years old.
The 82-year-old's radio ministry broadcasts in more than eleven languages. His scope is so powerful, and his dedication to the tenets of orthodox Christianity so genuine, that many followers and fellow theologians simply chose to ignore the end-of-the-world flap.
For ministers interested in saving souls and spreading the gospel through Camping's powerful megaphone, tolerating his offbeat philosophies was a necessary evil. His stations, after all, were highly influential, and many religious radio shows -- programs such as Back to the Bible out of Nebraska, and the Pennsylvania-based Back to God Hour -- had a happy home on Family Radio. It didn't hurt that the self-made millionaire let his fellow Christians broadcast their shows free of charge. Nor that, in some places, Camping's was the only gig in town; he's the only place on the FM dial, for instance, that New Yorkers can tune into religious radio.
The bulk of the programming on Family Radio is "inspirational" music; comforting, pedestrian paeans to God straight out of the '50s, so sterile as to make the Lawrence Welk Show look like Headbangers' Ball. Listening to Family Radio is, indeed, like stepping back in time to a place where folks feared God's wrath, there was no such thing as Christian rap, and the Bible was the only owners' manual people needed.
Camping has no formal religious training. His back-to-basics conservatism is rooted in his Southern California upbringing by a staunch Calvinist mother who planted in her son the seeds of what was to be his fatalistic reading of the Bible -- the belief that everything has its place, there's no such thing as free will, and all is part of God's plan.
It was perhaps this early emphasis on divine order that brought about Camping's lifelong love of numbers and theorems -- he graduated from Cal in 1944 with a degree in engineering -- and led him to predict the end of the world. When Camping looks at a Bible, he sees a trove of numeric messages both hidden and obvious, à la A Beautiful Mind. His prophetic book 1994? is at times nothing but an impenetrable series of close readings of Biblical passages that somehow add up to the coming of Armageddon.
After graduating from Berkeley, the young engineer founded Camping Construction, which he grew into a large company that, among other things, built churches all over the country. He'd always dreamed of evangelizing, though, and in 1958, with money from his successful business and some shrewd East Bay real estate dealings, he turned that dream into Family Radio. The network, known officially as Family Stations Inc., first went on the air on February 4, 1959, over San Francisco FM station KEAR, and has been broadcasting the gospel ever since.
As Camping's radio empire grew, the peculiarity of his scriptural interpretation began to take shape, although he still stuck to the conservative Christian fundamentals. "Twenty years ago he was a much more broadly appealing person," says Dean Harner, a New Jersey pastor who has written lengthy explanations of Camping's interpretations of the Bible. "If you'd listen to him as a Bible student, you could see how he might support a certain orthodox position, though his reasoning was unnerving."
But as time progressed, Camping's Biblical analyses strayed farther afield. He's not a fundamentalist in the sense that he takes every word at face value, nor is he a purely literary reader of the Bible. "Instead of literalistic, it might be more like a mechanical, arbitrary reading of the Bible," Harner says. "He doesn't treat it like normal language; he treats it like a codebook, and he's got keys of understanding that are largely based on numbers."
Camping's strange interpretations ultimately led mainstream theologians and scholars to publicly view him as a theological wack-job. In return, the old man thumbed his nose right back at the spiritual-intellectual establishment. "He was shunned by all these university types, these seminarians, who were getting all the accolades," says Robert Sungenis, a conservative Catholic and former colleague. "I could see Camping sort of upset because he wasn't getting recognized as much as he should have, because he felt he had the truth."
Sungenis worked closely with Camping at Family Radio for two and a half years in the early '80s. He later coauthored Shock Wave 2000! The Harold Camping 1994 Debacle -- one of several books Camping's activities have inspired -- and has emerged as one of the broadcaster's harshest critics. "I still admire the man in a certain way," he says. "It's just these wacky ideas that come up every once in a while, that I'm obliged to tell people."
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