Zeke Piestrup: Documentary Filmmaker. “Apocalypse Later: Harold Camping Vs. The End of the World.” Creator of You Have Bad Taste In Music. Christian TV junkie. We talk religion, Biblical Scholarship / Criticism, Cults, Apocalypticism, and Fundamentalism.
CARL: Well, hello. I’m Carl King. Today I interviewed my good friend Zeke Piestrup. If you’ve ever seen the hilarious “You Have Bad Taste In Music” videos which went viral probably even before YouTube existed, that was him wearing a black mask and cape army helmet appearing outside of Linkin Park concerts with a megaphone shouting, “Do not attend this concert!” He’s actually done a lot of things. He was a Vh1 host, a rock club owner, a KROQ radio DJ, a record label A & R guy and of course a surfer. His latest serious obsessions are the topics of Biblical Scholarship and Apocalypticism. In 2012 he released a film called “Apocalypse Later: Harold Camping Versus the End of the World” in which he followed a doomsday prophet for a 13 day countdown until the end of the world. He works as a video editor and director under the name 15 Trucks, so here he is, everyone. Zeke Piestrup.
I am here in Zeke Piestrup’s living room in Venice, California. I have a sinus infection that’s coming back so I’m going to be sniffling and coughing and blowing my nose occasionally but I’m going to do this podcast episode.
ZEKE: Please do it in a direction that is other than towards me.
C: Will do. Thank you for being here, Zeke. We’ve been friends a long time. I wanted to ask you-
Z: Right before you ask me, first, let me say, I’m humbled and blessed to be guest number two following in the footsteps of the great legend Steve Vai as your first podcast episode.
C: That’s right, sir.
Z: Yes. The last podcast I was on, I followed the great Bart Ehrman so you can see a pattern here.
C: A pattern of …
Z: Dudes with fame and me without.
C: Actually the first time I came out to LA I had lunch with two people, Steve Vai and Zeke Piestrup.
Z: Hey, there it is, man. That’ll make a New Ager out of you right now. What a connection.
C: I want to ask you the first question. Very fundamental question here. What is biblical scholarship and why do you think it’s such an important topic?
Z: I think the second word should be what it’s about because biblical scholarship, what it is and what it should be are two different things, so scholarship, obviously, the study of biblical texts in the plural, because there are 66, right? Books in the Christian Bible. 27 in the New Testament, so it’s the study of those books. Now, it’s broken off into all these sort of subdomains. You have textual criticism, you have different subfields of the subject, I’ll just say, so biblical scholarship, but the problem arises is, who are the biblical scholars, I guess is a better question, because everybody has a scholar to support their point of view, so it’s really difficult for outsiders of this field to know, “Am I listening to a quack or is this person part of the conversation,” right?
Because biblical scholarship is like any field of study. If you immerse yourself in that field, you know who the people are who are having conversations relevant to the advancement of that field, but if you’re an outsider, well, there’s biblical scholars affirming all sorts of things, like inerrancy of the Bible, all sort of orthodox stuff, and they call themselves biblical scholars, so what should biblical scholarship be? It should be the investigation of these texts from a critical perspective, which is what biblical criticism is, and that started in the 17th century among the rationalists, who are our atheist brothers, our forebearers, Carl King, and it has continued on to today, the investigation of this sacred scripture for Christians, the Bible. Did I answer that question in a roundabout way?
C: How did biblical scholarship begin? You had mentioned to me in the past that it was sort of believers who set out to prove the validity of the Bible from a historical standpoint. Can you talk about that?
Z: Yeah, so, biblical scholarship, really, the genesis of it, it was coming out of Germany in the 17 and 1800s. It takes a while to sort of reach our shores here, but they were just answering simple questions. These are believers, and the questions were, “Hey, tradition says Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, the pentateuch, but there’s an account of Moses’ death here, so clearly Moses didn’t write that. You can’t write while you’re dying, so who wrote that?” Simple questions. I mean, there were guys like Spinoza who was like an atheist guy. Again, the rationalists were looking at the Bible as a product of natural means, meaning humans. Humans wrote this book. What if it wasn’t God who dictated to these people and what if the Bible’s not the quote “word of God.” What if it arose from human hands? Which I think you and I would accept. So, studying the Bible from this perspective grew out of the rationalists of the 17th and 18th century, becomes really popular in Germany, then makes its way over here. Now, I equate biblical scholarship in the United States with the Society of Biblical Literature, the largest group of biblical scholars in the world. Ten thousand members strong, and that organization began in 1880 when a lot of professional societies were being birthed in the United States.
C: Now, wait, these are a large percentage of SBL, or the Society of Biblical Literature, I think you called it?
C: A lot of these are believers.
Z: Yes, I would say 90 percent Christian.
C: So we’re not talking about people who are out to disprove the Bible, who are pissed off and want to say “There is no Jesus” or something. These are actual believers who went through seminaries and study.
Z: These are my favorite scholars. John Collins at Yale Divinity. He’s a Catholic. Dale Allison at Princeton Theological Seminary. Protestant. These are believers who are intellectually honest enough, at least in their books, to say what they know, but they’re not the type of believer the rest of, you know, normal Joe Schmoe knows, and the reason is there’s not an incentive for these guys to share what they know. If they share what they know, they lose their jobs. An example, I only heard of the Society of Biblical Literature while I was making Apocalypse Later and I was interviewing Peter Enns. You can Google Peter Enns Controversy. He was a teacher at Westminster Theological Seminary. Westminster is the gatekeeper of fundamentalism. They won’t identify as fundamentalists. No one does, but if anybody is, they are. He wrote a book, “Inspiration and Incarnation.” “Inspiration and Incarnation.” And in this book, he just tried to offer a simple thing about the Bible, which basically said, “You know what? There actually are errors in the Bible, but the Bible’s like Jesus. Part human, part divine, right? So the errs could be explained by the human part, and the divine nature.
You know, it’s true in what it teaches, we can accept. He was trying to find a new road for fundamentalism evangelicals, and for this, a professor who went to Westminster Theological Seminary, he got his degree there, his PhD, I think he went to Harvard, taught there for 10 years, fired immediately. So I was interviewing him for Apocalypse Later. It was an interview that didn’t take place and on the drive to the airport, he was kind enough to take me to the airport from his house outside of Philly. He said, “Have you ever heard of the Society of Biblical Literature?” And, nope. It was next week and so I showed up for the first meeting. They have annual meetings in San Francisco in 2011, which they had the panel on Harold Camping there, and here, finally, was my place where I found the intellectually honest Christian, who I was on a search for. All my favorite scholars were there. Bart Ehrman. I already mentioned Collins. Stuckenbruck, they all belong to SBL and they’re all hanging out and I bring my camera every year to SBL. I’ve now been to three of them in San Francisco, Baltimore and Atlanta and these are scholars of the Bible who, yes, profess to be Christian but at the same time aren’t out and out about what they know to be true about the Bible.
In consequence, I think, yeah, we have a generation of young people who want to be right, who joined the church but end up in fundamentalist churches, because mainline protestantism lost, lost the battle with a more simplified faith in this country during the 1900s. The early 1900s, the protestants, the liberal Christians, they had the political voice and they lost that voice and then it became, you know, the religious right and the Tea Party is the same group today but it is this more fundamentalist side of Christianity that isn’t dying as fast as the protestant mainline church, just took a splat on the ground.
C: We’re going to get to fundamentalism a little later, but I want to ask you about this term called the pulpit and the pew, that I think you’ve mentioned before, where there’s a difference of beliefs between … I might be using the word wrong, but a pastor versus their audience. Things that pastors know and believe after going to seminary …
C: Can you explain that?
Z: Well, I … Bart Ehrman told me about this. When I was interviewing him, he made an offhanded comment that if I talk to any educated pastor behind closed doors, they would admit that the virgin birth is myth, and this shocked me, you know? But, yeah, so, there is this SBL type of Christian and then on the other hand there is what’s called ETS, the Evangelical Theological Society, which has doctrines that … You have to affirm inerrancy to even belong to them. Over at SBL they’re just doing scholarship, but again, people vote with their butts in the church, and no one wants to hear on a Sunday, “The anonymous writer of the gospel of Mark wrote,” right? They’re just going to say “Mark wrote,” even though they know Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t write the gospels, right? That is something that SBL doesn’t even talk about anymore. That’s been settled, but then you go over to ETS and those guys are saying Matthew wrote Matthew and Mark wrote Mark and all sorts of self-affirming fundamentalist stuff, so yeah, again, they’re not incentivized to share because you have the Pet Enz story. He gets fired, and this happens all over the country of learning a little too much. Learning a little too much about the Bible. Learning a little too much about Paul’s beliefs may not vibe exactly with the gospels, that there are contradictions.
Jesus cleansed the temple, what, during Passover or before Passover? There’s all these different accounts that you learn when you actually study the Bible, but no one wants to hear that. You’ll risk your job, your health insurance, maybe, for your kid, so there’s a serious disconnect, yes, between the pulpit and the pew, so liberal Christians, are they a bridge to agnosticism atheism or are they in some ways upholding the mythological structures that the evangelicals and fundamentalists believe too? That’s a question I’ve had for a long time. I would rather someone be a liberal Christian, of course, than I would want them to be a fundamentalist, the same way I would want someone to be a liberal Muslim versus a radical Islamist, but it doesn’t seem the regular believer in both religions are listening to the liberal elements of the religion.
C: What are some of these very striking truths or historical discoveries that people make upon going through seminary that might cause them to lose their faith or question their faith or have this crisis that has been talked about? What would some of these common things be?
C: What does that mean?
Z: For example, Paul, the greatest apostle, supposedly wrote 13 letters that are in the New Testament. Critical scholars generally agree he only wrote seven, so if there were forgeries in a book that’s supposed to be perfect, you could see how that might throw your world out of whack a little bit. You learn that the gospels were not written by eye witnesses, right? We don’t know their names of the people who wrote them but we know they were Greek speaking, living outside of Palestine and they chose to remain anonymous. The names of these gospels were only affixed later to strengthen their authority. There’s just lots of simple things you learn.
C: You’ve mentioned in the past that some of these books in the Bible were even written many years later, after being accounts that were verbally transmitted or translated or …
Z: Yeah, they even start out as … The gospels start out as oral proclamations. These stories are traveling orally by people trying to convince you to believe in Jesus and we’re supposed to believe that they’re not fudging the story a little bit? There were Presbyterian ministers, back to the biblical scholarship subject. Presbyterian ministers in the early 1920s who were denying the virgin birth. These are Christians being affirmed who are saying, “Yes, we recognize the virgin birth is not in the oldest gospel, the gospel of Mark.” The first story about Jesus doesn’t have God coming down to impregnate his mother. Not important enough. Matthew and Luke tell the virgin birth story but they tell it differently. John doesn’t include it. So you have people saying, “Yes, I accept that this is in addition to the tradition,” but that became a line in the sand for people for more conservative elements, and that’s where fundamentalism rises. We’re going to talk about that later.
C: I imagine typical kid goes to church, part of his church, grows up, wants to go to seminary, wants to become a pastor, preacher, whatever that’s called. I don’t know, and then upon going through that schooling, discovers all of these things that he can’t reconcile about the Bible and the-
Z: The Bible loses its authority. The Bible loses its authority when you study it. This is a larger question, can Christianity survive the Bible, or without the Bible? Because new believers think Jesus is love, God is love. Well, the Bible ain’t love. Without a doubt, the Bible endorses genocide, the killing of the Canaanites in Joshua. Killing women and children. There are so much horrible things in the Bible, but half of believers never read the Bible according to Pew Research, right? Eight in 10 identify as Christian. Only four out of those eight even read the Bible, so the Bible has become an idol, a symbol. I think the academic term is bibliolatry, the worship of a book, but you can see why, because without the Bible then how are we to make any claims about what Jesus is or what he did or the meaning of history because Christianity is a historical religion meaning certain events were meant to take place in history, that God acts in history, so yeah, you can either get really frightened by this scholarship when it was coming out of Germany or you can, like, Machen who’s the fundamentalist who started Westminster, go to Germany, have a crisis of faith and then just be like, “Forget you, I’m not listening to that stuff I learned,” and going the opposite way, and you have people who come up with an intellectual framework to make that denial of biblical scholarship okay and what they do, this guy Kuyper comes up with an idea that there are two sciences, right?
C: Two ways of knowing.
C: Was that Lilback?
Z: Peter Lillback, yeah. This all stems from these debates, when you have, again, ministers saying, “Hey, the virgin birth didn’t happen,” you have conservative Christians going, “F you, not only did it happen, if you don’t believe every word of the Bible, then you’re just as out of line …” Yeah, they came up with a framework to do scholarship, and I’m giving you quotes with my fingers right now, but it’s not scholarship when you start with the answer, right? And that’s what these guys do. They never contradict anything outside the goal posts.
C: And to me this just sounds exactly like cognitive dissonance or a cognitive bias to where you cling very hard to one fact that the Bible is inerrant and then you have to change all of the other facts that you discover, or ignore the other facts, to still hold on to that one thing. Is this involved with this term “harmony?”
Z: Yeah, it’s like building a huge bridge over a flat, dry plane, right? Meaning the answer’s right there, but, since you can’t have errs because if God wrote the Bible, God doesn’t err, then you have to come up with reasons that can explain this seeming contradiction that you’re seeing. The more ludicrous elements, you get, what is it, Answering Genesis or AnsweringGenesis.com which is a fundamentalist Christian group and they give you answers from Genesis. So there’s two accounts of Jesus cleansing the temple, one where he does it during passover and one where he does it before, so instead of a contradiction, these guys will say, “Oh, Jesus did it twice.” Now, mind you, cleansing the temple is a lovely euphemism, but that’s when Jesus went in and turned over all the tables and caused a gigantic scene, but I guess we’re to believe, then, he was able to go back and turn all the tables over again, right? So the answer is to any contradiction, “Well, Jesus did it twice,” right? But you could literally have an entire semester where all you did was teach on the errs and contradictions that are in the Bible. I mean, of course they’re there. There’s all these different authors writing for different audiences. There’s books that don’t even agree with each other that follow each other in the Bible. Ecclesiastes is almost a secular look and there’s no reason for violence. Violence just happens.
C: In a way it’s almost a step beyond cherry picking because in one way there are people that say that, you know, they only cling to the things in the Bible that they like or approve of or that fit their agenda and then there are, to go a step further, there are these people who actually try to explain the contradictions and accept them.
Z: The Bible buffet, I call that. You go to the Bible buffet, because my favorite scholar, Dr. Hector Avalos, Iowa State, says “All God talk is self-referrential,” meaning you can’t talk to God and find out what God really believes, so what you do is you make God into what you think God is or should be, and so you’re going to pick and choose whatever scripture supports that.
C: Let’s jump to another aspect of this. I want to ask you, what is apocalypticism and it seems there are modern flavors of it, that there’s actually a lot of different types of apocalypticism.
Z: The word definitely means a lot more than its original intent. It comes from a word, “apocalypse,” and apocalypse has a very specific definition which John Collins at Yale Divinity, the messiah of apocalypticism, he wrote the definition in 1971. Scholars are funny because they have their own scripture so when you go to any panel talk on apocalypticism, invariably someone’s going to talk John Collins. I’m paraphrasing horribly. You should look up his exact definition, but it’s when a human dude is taken up to heaven, shown behind the curtain things how they are and then also given a vision of the future of what’s to come, and then he’s returned down to Earth, so apocalypses were stories about people given these heavenly journeys. Of course, the only apocalypses most Christians know are Revelation and then the book of Daniel is the oldest apocalypse we still have. Apocalypticism, then, is the belief in these end times scenarios, but some Christian eschatology doesn’t believe in an end of the world blowing up things. There are Christians that believe that there’s a renewal. Even Jesus, who most scholars think was an apocalypticist, when he was preaching about the kingdom of God, it was actually a physical kingdom that was going to land here on Earth. The Earth was not going to be destroyed, so these are ideas that change over time depending on the current political outlook, but it is a belief in at least a radical change if not a destruction and then a renewal of the Earth or life as we know it.
C: Something that always occurred to me when you started … I remember when you started getting into this biblical scholarship stuff or biblical criticism, and I always thought, my initial reaction was, “Yeah, but I already know the Bible is bullshit. I haven’t even read it and I have this immediate reaction to, ‘Yeah, but there is no God and the Bible is full of shit.'” That was my immediate thought, so I was always wondering why are you trying to disprove something that was wrong in the first place which was inaccurate of me to think because there is a historical basis for a lot of these events and documents, but one of the things that always occurs to me that I never knew originally, was Jesus a real person?
Z: There’s lots of mythicists, they call them today, mythicists. Among biblical scholars that questions as answered around 1900. Yes, Jesus existed, and it’s still an incredible minority position among biblical scholars today. There’s a debate that you can buy for four dollars and fifty cents between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price. Robert Price is sort of the flagpole bearer of the mythicist position. I think the mythicists are right in the sense that … But I think Jesus existed, but there’s been so many layers of myth added to his story, right? You celebritize Jesus, that the kernel of a historical person is buried deep beneath that. It’s very much like Hollywood’s Based On A True Story, right? So yes, I think Jesus definitely existed in so far as I’m not a biblical scholar, I’m a fanboy of the scholars, and most of the scholars, atheist, secular, whatever, believe that we know a few things about Jesus. One, he was raised in Galilee, that he was baptized by John the Baptist and that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. People usually hang their historical Jesus characterizations on those three things. There might be four.
C: But there’s a sort of context, from what I’ve heard. There were a lot of people like Jesus at that time.
Z: Totally, there’s Apollonius of Tyana. A lot of people think that Jesus’ whole life was lifted from that guy because he was a son of God, he performed miracles, he raised people from the dead and we know Apollonius of Tyana existed, so yes, there are many characteristics that the Jesus tradition adopted for Jesus, right? Again, but was there a real person buried underneath all this myth? Again I side with the biblical scholars that there were. Yeah, so of course there were … Jesus followers were … He was competing always against the Roman emperor, right? So they’re always matching him against him. The first, you got me into checking out these old paintings of Jesus. When did he become blonde haired Euro Jesus. Well, the first Jesus you see, he looks like one of the philosophers. He’s got the short haircut, so they’re always adapting what Jesus was, what he represented, and they’re borrowing from other cultures. Apocalypticism, Jewish apocalypticism, comes from Zoroastrianism. These cultures are next door to each other. Lenny Bruce said, “I did not grow up in a vacuum. Every idea I took from somewhere else,” and that brings us back to a real problem, again, of the Bible, so you have 90 percent Christians at SBL going to do biblical scholarship where they are making … I don’t know, would you call it a mistake, but where they can be faulted is they want to privilege the Bible as being a book that is special still, and special would be like an idea originated from the Bible, right? Because it maybe could be a revelation from God if we see it here for the first time, but biblical scholarship has shown definitively that there were other near eastern equivalents. Nothing is invented, really, in the Christian religion. You can see the antecedents of where the ideas came from, tweaked a little bit, but all these ideas have been borrowed.
C: Can you talk a little bit about at what point did Jesus come to be portrayed as this handsome white man with long blonde hair and a nicely trimmed beard? Can you talk about where he was really from and what he might have looked like? Do you know any of that?
Z: Only in you asked me to kind of look into that, and I have my own breakfast plates with Euro Jesus on them. You know, blonde hair, and I’m sure a lot of this has to do with just medieval art, right? Depictions of Jesus. I guess maybe there’s a reason why they don’t let you draw Muhammad, because you’re not allowed to, so they haven’t made Mohammad into … Was it Starsky or Hutch who was the blonde guy? But that’s what we do. Today even secular people make this … I made this mistake not long ago. Oh, I used to tell people I’m down with Jesus even though I’m an atheist, but then if you read the Bible, Jesus did a lot of bad things. He endorses slavery. He says a slave is not greater than his master. He slaughters 2,000 pigs for no reason, right? He tells a follower that you must hate, hate your mother and father if you want to follow me. The Bible does not present a Jesus that is the paradigm of ethics.
C: And that’s where you need to sort of cherry pick because I remember reading Matthew back when I was in high school. It was one of the random things I flipped to in the Bible and read it and I thought, “I like a lot of this. It’s nice.” It’s a nice hippie speech about the lilies of the field or whatever it is.
Z: Sermon of the mount, are you giving me, which is a beautiful …
C: Maybe, yeah.
C: And it’s this nice thing of all these hippie type things. I’m like, “Hey, I like that. Actually maybe I do like Jesus.”
Z: Yeah, but then you think through history. Who are the people that start these cults? And what they traditionally do is they try to supersede family relations, right? “I’m the cult leader. I separate you from your family and I take authority,” and when you read that in Luke’s gospel where Jesus says, “To be my follower, you have to hate mother and father,” and we see through time, who are the people who start these cults? These aren’t benign people. Benign maybe like David Koresh, but if David Koresh is the best example you can give me in terms of someone who was starting a religious sect, movement, is that someone to be admired? So the likelihood that Jesus was someone to be admired, I think, again, Hector Avalos, in his book, “The Bad Jesus,” a provocative title but makes sense because if Jesus was human, there should be a good side and a bad side, and in the Bible not even did these stories happen. Just taking the Bible at face value about the stories about Jesus, there are plenty of examples where Jesus is not a good Jesus, but these verses in the Bible buffet are minimized, and they’re minimized by even these SBL cats, because again, even though they understand and believe modern scholarship, they’re part of the field, they still want to privilege the Bible and they still want to privilege Jesus. When I think Hector shows in his book, “The End of Biblical Studies,” that the Bible is a book completely foreign to our modern sensibilities, and that translation actually serves a purpose of sort of muting some of the horrible parts of the Bible to try to make it relevant and you even listen to evangelicals when they talk about translations, that we need to make this book more digestible or friendlier to a younger audience, but at what point are you changing the original meaning of what things said that they no longer even resemble the author’s intent, and if you believe that authorial intent of when somebody sits down and writes a book matters, that long ago we’ve passed that threshold when it comes to the Bible. Yeah, the Bible, for those that actually read it, is not a document that should tell you how to live, right? And you shouldn’t be told that you have to love your neighbor. You shouldn’t have to appeal to anything written to do good.
C: That also is sort of an admission by people. It’s revealing psychologically when they say, “Well if there’s no God, why don’t I just go rape little kids and shoot people?” And then you have to look at them like, “Really? You would do that if you thought there was no God?”
Z: Yeah, that’s like a pamphlet answer, like, “How do I know the Bible’s true?” I mean, they really just come up with answers that stumble you in their absurd, simpleton nature.
C: But it’s also a confession of their psychology to realize that that’s what they would naturally want to … They might go do those things.
Z: Yeah, I’m just going to go rape babies because there’s nothing to hold me accountable.
Z: But the belief in an afterlife where people do, or even the resurrection of the dead, which is part of apocalypticism, where there’s a judgment, is harmful, because if you believe there’s an afterlife, well then, you’re supporting also the belief of an afterlife among those ISIS cats who are thinking, since the only thing that matters is eternity, that if I blow myself up and kill the infidels, that my martyrdom, I will inherit this perfect eternity, so yeah, so these supernaturalists and even before when we’re talking about liberal Christians, are they supporting the same mythological structures that the less sophisticated believers believe, but I think they’re all supporting these supernatural beliefs. A belief in an afterlife, right? You don’t have to be Christian to believe that. Yeah, everyone who is a supernaturalist has to wear all that bullshit. No matter how sophisticated your belief is, no matter how you’ve been able to marry a little bit of science with your faith, if you still believe in an afterlife and all that stuff, you’re supporting these mythological structures that make blowing yourself up okay. Perhaps.
C: I have a side question here that’s unrelated to the thread that we’re on, but Apocalypse Later, the film that you made, do you still stand by your work on that and, or as you’ve learned and grown since then, do you think it would be a different film if you made it now?
Z: The only thing that would be different is I would have targeted my film toward atheists. I’m very proud of my film. There’s nothing really, no, I would change about it. I still feel the same thing, which is that there will be more Harold Campings to come because the root of the problem … The root of the problem is the second coming. The myth of the second coming. No second coming myth, no Harold Camping, but Apocalypse Later, so, my central thesis was that Jesus made the same mistake as Harold, so you have Sojourners, a liberal evangelical website reviewed the film. Christian Century, the flagship of American Protestantism. More liberal Christianity. Both reviewed my film, both completely ignored my central thesis, and so I thought, okay, well, I guess, talking about Jesus being wrong is probably not something the believers want to talk about, but at least, at least will you write about that Paul got it wrong? Because I think if Christians realize that, okay, well, maybe Jesus was wrong about the time of the end, or Paul was wrong, I think the hate for Harold might be less. We’re not looking at how far back this predicting of the end goes, so the hatred for Harold I always thought was misplaced, and if there’s one thing I’m proud of my film is, is if you watch my film, if you watch Apocalypse Later: Harold Camping Versus the End of the World, it’s on iTunes, Voodoo, Google Play, Amazon Prime for our Amazon Prime members, the end of the film, tell me you don’t feel different about Harold. I think that is universal for people who watch it with an open mind. I read the reviews, that they feel some empathy for Harold at the end. Now, that empathy is obviously counterbalanced by knowing that Harold ruined people financially, but I think you will definitely feel some sympathy for Harold if you watch my film, and I set out to do that because I think the extreme hatred that was thrown at Harold was misplaced, because, again, if you read the gospels at face value, Mark 9:1, Jesus says, “Some of you standing here won’t taste death until you see the kingdom of God has come in power.” Jesus’s first words are apocalyptic in nature. “Behold, the kingdom of God is near. Repent.” It just seems highly likely that Jesus was predicting the end of the world and he was wrong.
C: Now, a person like you who watches a lot of Christian TV is not surprised when a preacher expects the end of the world to come soon because you’ve been watching these Calvary Bible Church or what was that called again? The Calvary …
Z: Well, Pastor Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel, one of the more famous … The new church movement where you go and you listen to contemporary music, that was started by Pastor Chuck Smith down there in Orange County.
C: He’s another person who says it’s going to happen any minute.
Z: Well he can’t say it anymore because he’s dead, yeah, but he said the end was coming in the ’70s and there’s video of him. It’s the biggest broken record in Christianity. Matthew Sutton wrote a great book called “American Apocalypse: Understanding the American Evangelicals,” and he lived in the archives and you just see how this belief in the end of the world is proclaimed, especially around the World War I, World War II, World War II when we dropped the bombs on Japan, there’s always this renewed fervor around any sort of violent destruction that we are seeing. The birth pangs, as Jesus calls them. There will be wars and rumors of wars, so it’s just comical because you really have to be completely ignorant of history to not recognize “the sky is falling, the sky is falling, the sky is falling,” and it’s just going to continue again until the admission that the second coming is a myth. There’s not going to be any first century Jewish dude raised up coming on a magic carpet cloud back to Earth. That’s the idea we should be attacking, not, “Oh, you, Harold Camping predicted the end of the world.”
C: The only thing that set him apart is that he actually set a date.
C: And that’s what he was guilty of and that’s why everyone was furious with him.
Z: That’s why I don’t like those lists of dates that you have on the internet. People who predicted the end times. Well you know what? Raul Ruiz, the more famous evangelical preacher who was part of the Pastor Chuck Smith Calvary Chapel movement on the radio here in Los Angeles all the time, he says “We will witness the return of Jesus.” Billy Graham said the same thing. He predicted in the 1950s that we’re going to see it in the next four years, you know, or we’re going to see it in the next two years, so even if you don’t pick a specific date, I think those guys should have to be on the list with date setters once they die. If they’re saying, “It’s happening in my lifetime.” Okay, well, the day you die, you get to get on the list with Harold Camping too, because they should not be let off scot-free, correct.
C: You spent a couple of weeks with Harold, I believe, during the end times, the countdown to his end of the world prediction leading up to May 21, 2011. Can you talk about how charismatic he was? He was an older guy but even with that, he seemed like such an odd or eccentric person. Did you find that that helped create a sort of magnetism around him? Was he sort of a cult leader type? What was that like?
Z: I equate him with Vin Scully, who’s the, or was, I think … Vin just ended his last year as the Dodgers announcer. You know, a soothing voice, a calming presence, so, it was definitely cult-like in more of a celebrity culture way, because all of us including me, when I was there filming him, were fans of Open Forum, his radio show. I’d listened for probably 10 years, and everyone else had the same feelings about that show, so even though I was a nonbeliever, I could always bond with these fellow Campingites just by our love of Open Forum. “Isn’t it a great show? Thank you for calling and sharing and when we take the next call, please welcome to Open Forum …” Or the horns at the beginning of each show. Just listening to it was soothing, and I heard it on drives up to Mammoth Mountain because they have a family radio station in Ridgecrest, and what scenery as the Eastern Sierras come up to be listening to Harold Camping. He was a really kind person, too. Always had time for people after the show if they had a question. He couldn’t really hear them but he definitely was trying to figure out what they were saying.
Yeah, just never saw him get angry with anyone. He was always super nice, had an incredible work ethic, doing this thing every day. I think if he had a fault, you know, it was just ego. I think he really, really liked the attention, and you see that on the day of the press conference the Monday after the failed prophecy. He walks in and there’s all these cameras and what would be a moment of shame, for anybody, for Harold, he had the biggest smile I’d seen that entire time because here was the world’s TV. Everybody was there, and he did make comments to me about, you know, “We never got the attention like Billy Graham did.” I didn’t use that in the film, but yeah, I think attention was something Harold sought and craved, which helped him to run that manic schedule that he did, doing Open Forum. I mean, those last few weeks he did it every single night, along with the Sunday preaching service and the Tuesday and Thursday Bible study shows, so Tuesday and Thursday he was doing two shows.
C: To you he came off as this seriously committed guy who had done this show for 50 years. Did you ever see any cracks in Harold or think maybe this guy is just another Alex Jones or something like that?
Z: Well I think he definitely was not sincere in saying he had no doubts, because Harold was a serial predictor and if you’ve been wrong, obviously there has to be a little bit of a tiny voice back there that you could be wrong again, but I think he sincerely believed that the end was coming, and for people who believe that, you know, what greater riddle to try to solve than the date of the end? And there’s biblical precedent for that. Noah is told, “In seven days, right?”
C: And Harold even compared himself to Noah in a humble brag. “You know, you can call me a modern day Noah, but …”
Z: Yeah, that was a fun day. That was the day that the producer of Open Forum, who was not very happy about the end of the world, admonished me, loudly, because I was encouraging Harold to go along with that comparison and I was pumping up his ego. You know, doing the documentary film thing.
C: And now we get to fundamentalism, which you have told me is actually a very new thing historically, I think. I checked the date on it and it looked like it was 1910 or so. How did that come about and can you talk about these fundamentals?
Z: Well, like apocalypticism, fundamentalism has come to mean things beyond its original definition, but yes, the–
C: Sort of like alternative music or progressive music, words that no longer explain …
Z: Yeah or say much of …
Z: But it says enough, because I think we understand it, if we’re talking about … You know, they’ll say “fundamentalist Muslims or fundamentalist Islam is a euphemism for radical Islam,” but fundamentalism, we can trace the origin of the word itself, yes, to, like you said, the 1910s, and this is when the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, still around today if you’re going to go on the tourist of the holy, definitely check out Moody Bible. At Moody Bible Institute there were a group of dispensationalists, like five of them, and they were funded, again, by [Dwight Lymon Moody], a big oil man, who basically spammed the entire United States with these pamphlets called the five fundamentals.
C: I have to ask, do you have the fundamentals memorized? Because I have bullet points of them here.
Z: I usually fail because the most important one to me is the first one, which is inerrancy. I know the atonement is in there, that Jesus’ death atoned for our sins. I think the virgin birth is in there, that he was resurrected and that he will return? Is that the fifth or no, maybe the fifth isn’t …
C: The reality of his miracles.
Z: Yes, yes, (laughter) the reality of his miracles. Oh God.
C: As a side here, I happened to see this recent National Geographic issue or special issue about Jesus and I was like, “Huh, what is that about? That’s interesting, I wonder what their take on it is.” I pop it open and they’ve got a section on his miracles, as if it’s a historical fact. Like it says that he performed miracles and actually did these things. I’m like, this is, wow, okay, I thought this was a scientific …
Z: No, we’re not getting it all, and even CNN, when they do … on Easter they usually do a thing on Jesus. They always stop just short of offending anyone. Yeah, so it’s comical that National Geographic would do a show that would endorse the miracles of Jesus. I mean, this is what Biblical Scholarship was about, was about rational explanations. Looking at the Bible as a human document and you would think these outlets would be for furthering a more scientific investigation? Sadly though, they’re not, and again, I blame a lot of this on liberal Christians who do not raise their voice for the basic things they know. My film Apocalypse Later played SBL, Society of Biblical Literature, in Baltimore and also the local meeting here in Fullerton. In both places I brought up the same thing. I thought it would be great if the society put out a list of things that all their scholars generally held. Views on the Bible, and the reason I thought this would be a good idea, every time a Bart Herman pops up or a Reza Aslan, people attack them for things that are just accepted in the field and say, “Oh, that’s Bart’s scholarship” or “that’s Raza Aslan’s claim,” when in fact, no, this is an entire body of scholars who don’t think Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the gospels, and so the guys who are actually popular enough to have their heads pop up, they’re not supported by this society in which they work in, and again, why not?
So when I asked, I said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if you guys put out a position paper?” Literally I got looked at like I had suggested a tequila shot after a night of vomiting on margaritas, and so again, the critique that Hector Avalos gives of this field is that it’s like a Sudoku puzzle? I don’t play those, but they’re just doing … They want to play their little academic games and investigate the minutiae of the minutiae about the Bible but this information is not or will never be revealed to people, because there is no incentive. Again, the churches are sending these guys to study but then what they learn, the churches don’t want them saying or else people’s butts, and people’s butts have to be in a church if they’re going to tithe, won’t be in those churches. They’ll go to the church that makes it a little more simple, the whole story and the system rather than the mainline protestant nuance of, “Well, we’re not really going to worry about your theology too much, just are we brothers in Christ? Cool, let’s go,” but the more definitive evangelical fundamentalist type of belief is the one that has come to dominate as our liberal Christian brothers and sisters have sort of remained silent.
C: A lot of people will swear they’re not fundamentalists yet they do believe these five fundamentals. Can you comment on that? I mean, these are fairly common things, like the virgin birth of Jesus, the belief that Christ’s death was an atonement for sin, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the historical reality of the miracles, the inerrancy. Why do people … Why would they say, “I’m not a fundamentalist, I’m a spiritual person” or something like that? What is that about?
Z: Well, the term fundamentalism does become a dirty word in the 1940s. I mean, the first people who were called fundamentalists, they called themselves fundamentalists. It was a good word, but it came to stand for this sort of rigid understanding of the faith. Now, I think you can believe in the fundamentals but I think where you become a fundamentalist is your insistence that people who don’t believe those things aren’t Christian.
C: It’s a bit like this guy on Facebook today told me that I’m not an American because I don’t Trump. He told me to become an American. I was like, “Wow, okay, you’ve just excluded my citizenship because I don’t agree with –”
Z: And that doesn’t work because, you know, so, if people say they’re Christian, we should accept they’re Christian. That to me is the marker. Right? Who’s a Christian? Well, if they say they’re a Christian, they’re a Christian, and if somehow something to do with Jesus, that’s good enough, right? But the people who are out there policing other people and their beliefs and saying, “If you don’t believe in the virgin birth, you’re not a Christian,” yeah, those are the fundamentalists, I think. That, if your faith is so unbending, but back to the original question, which is, I think a lot of people don’t realize, yeah, that they go to a fundamentalist church, so what they call the emergent church movement, in Los Angeles this would be Mosaic. A lot of people go to Mosaic, and these churches are really about just love and community and they’re filled with young people who, yeah, want to make a difference and want to do good, so there’s an altar call. You know if you want to accept Jesus, come down to the front. Accept him. Boom, you’re in. It seems like a really simple proposition but you pull back the curtain from these churches, a lot of them are pentecostal. These are very, very conservative faiths and you can tell just by going to their website. What do they have to say about the Bible? If they believe in the inerrancy or the infallibility, these are all the same terms and these are fundamentalist churches.
If you don’t want to end up at a fundamentalist church, look for, it’ll say, an open and affirming church, and that means that, A, they accept our gay brothers and sisters as who they are. It is not some sin against God. Open and affirming, that is a liberal church, but these churches where they sing the contemporary music, Joel Osteen, all these guys, they’re all fundamentalists, so, you know, you may think you had a simple conversion of accepting Jesus but now here’s C, D, E and F and G, if I want to make five, which are the fundamentals. The belief that there’s a supernatural battle happening of good and evil overlaying our Google map here is not something that is good to tell all people. I ride the bus and there’s a lot of people on the bus that are battling demons. Demons, by the way, a side note, comes from Zoroastrianism. Battling demons, and the amount of child abuse that has happened performing exorcisms is appalling, so a sophisticated believer may believe in good and evil doing battle on the supernatural plane here, but again, I don’t think they’re helping. I think they’re pandering and ultimately harming people that aren’t able to take in these ideas with nuance.
C: This podcast episode, I don’t know if we’re going to properly wrap it up because I think I don’t have a closing question or anything but I do have one last question listed and it’s one I jotted down today after a conversation with my mom, but you and I in different degrees will argue with believers on Facebook or Twitter or whatever and I’m not even usually looking for an argument for the most part. They usually start it with me somehow, but sometimes I’m guilty of starting the argument, but I noticed that somehow in conservatism, I think is the term, believers, this sort of right wing kind of person, a fundamentalist, whatever, something that I find, a trait that’s in common is that they always think they’re right on their first attempt. They don’t back down and they tend to not check their work. An example of that when I first started thinking of that was when I would see Sarah Palin’s speeches and I’m like, “My God, that woman is 100 percent convinced she is right and there’s nothing that you could ever say to make her stop smiling like that and stop thinking that she’s always right.” Do you have any thoughts on what makes a person that way? Is it because their beliefs are so strongly rooted in the supernatural? What makes them act so confident and cocky and how does this … How do they get like that?
Z: I don’t know. Just off the cuff, I think humans certainly don’t like the idea of chaos, so we’re always trying to make sense of the world. Conspiracy theories make sense of things that are difficult to understand because we don’t like the idea, we humans, that things are out of control, and religion gives sort of an anchoring device for people and it is rooted in an abuse of the word “truth,” right? We have the truth. We know, and at lunch today you were saying to me that you’ve never felt so stupid, Carl King, which I think happens to anyone who is really interested in intellectual exploration. The more you learn, the more you learn things you don’t know, but if you’re a religious cat and you’re being administered to by a pastor, a pastor, if you are not very smart, is going to just simply pander to you with these stories and fill you with the idea that you have the truth. If you’re a little bit smarter he will be an obscurantist, make the ideas a little more difficult to unravel, the mysteries of God, and he’s going to be a friend of both. I’m working on that juke box jam.
C: Yeah. You know, I’ll just continue on this until we get bored, but I remember getting into Ayn Rand when I was in high school and I feel like in a lot of ways Ayn Rand’s writings programmed me as a sort of operating system for maybe, I’m just going to say, 20 years or something like that. I’m still kind of unwiring it a little bit, but I felt like at the time, since I was maybe 16 or so, up until very recently, I still feel that I … Like, let’s go back to when I was 17 or something. I felt, like, 100 percent confident in every view I had and that I could’ve just fired a bunch of objectivism at people if they disagreed with me. I knew the answer to everything, and lately, especially as I sort of deprogrammed myself from the objectivism, I start realizing that objectivism was another one of those sort of cultish things that makes you feel like you have the answer to every possible question.
C: In life. I went to the bookstore the other day and I popped open this Ayn Rand Q & A book. It’s just her answers to everything that people would ask her. You can flip to any subject, and she’s got an answer for everything and there’s no cracks in it. She’s perfect. She knows every answer, and there’s something very addictive about that.
C: Of installing this operating system in your mind that has already been prepared, and so I sort of see that same behavior in these Christians or believers.
Z: Yeah, the religious mindset, I think, is one that finds comfort in these absolute answers, whether it’s Ayn Rand or the Apostle Paul, giving people, and again, I do think, yeah, it goes back to our need to make sense and order of the world, but yeah, when you really test these systems honestly, yeah, they fell apart, but there is a childlike want, I think, that is present in what you were talking about, of being … I was the same teenager. You know, you think as a teenager you know it all when you know nothing, and I do think, yeah, religions pander to that childlike mindset in an evolutionary type way, because religions have to have people who believe them to survive, and if you want people to believe your system, you’ve got to sell it a little, and so, yeah, religion, to me, I mean, one of the most obvious things of why religions aren’t true is the geography claim. If you were raised in Saudi Arabia, you’d be a Muslim. You’re only a Christian by happenstance of being born where you were born.
C: I’ve said that when I go to the church of Scientology, I really wish that it was really because I look at the … It’s almost like they’re presenting you with this system to become the ultimate human being, and someone like me looks at that. I’m addicted to reading self-help books and thinking books and all of this stuff and I just look at that and I’m like, “Man, if that was real, I’d sign up immediately,” but it just doesn’t hold up after, you know, five minutes of looking into it, so there’s something about that, being able to install that operating system in your brain that someone provides you with.
Z: And not only, you know, the great thing that Christianity or religion does is the built in community that comes with that, so if you’re attacking their belief system, well, not only that, you’re attacking their family, in a sense, so it’s very difficult for people to take on ideas that are against what the community is professing and believing.
C: Yeah, so as you said, there does have to be some sort of evolutionary psychology trick to this whole thing, and I’d like to find some sort of expert on cults and why this actually happens. Why do people want to install that stuff into their brain? This prepackaged meaning of life and structure into it?
Z: Yeah, but you can see the natural rising of it, right? You don’t have an answer for something back in the day. Why does the moon go across the sky at night, right? And until you have a real, scientific answer, yeah, you just make stuff up, you know? The best answer, or at least the one that appeals to most people, we have a soul, we live in eternity, people like that idea, right? I mean, who wants to die? No one wants to die.
C: I just think dying, it’s horrible. I think about that. I think about the idea of not existing anymore, and I’m like, “Man, I just did all this work and then we’re going to fuckin’ erase the hard drive? This is terrible.”
Z: Yeah, there was a story going around Facebook like a week ago and my friend, Kelly Scott, who’s not a religious guy at all, posted it, but it talked about that our consciousness survives our death and the headline said, “Proof that our consciousness survives death,” and you go read the article, so again, these ideas, religious ideas, appeal to people who aren’t even religious, because they have to do with our most base …
Z: Fears and hopes.
C: Bye. Well, that was a great interview. I enjoyed that. To find out more about Zeke, visit 15trucks.com and remember to watch his film, Apocalypse Later: Harold Camping versus the End of the World. You can find it on iTunes and Amazon.