Like many who follow religion in the media, I found it hard to look away when reports of Harold Camping's doomsday scenario began circulating.
The Family Radio Bible teacher announced the world would end on May 21, 2011, and just as it was with William Miller and a thousand other modern-day prophets making similar pronouncements, people took notice. The story garnered international headlines and supplied ample fodder for pundits and late-night television hosts.
May 21 came and went, of course, but the story continues. After a few tweaks of the eschatological forecast, the Family Radio website now identifies Oct. 21 as the end of the world. Apparently a form of judgment occurred back in May but "universal judgment will not be physically seen until the last day of the five month judgment period, on October 21, 2011."
And so it is we live between two eschatological moments, an interregnum of sorts, as the kingdom of Satan gives way to the kingdom of Christ, according to another Family Radio document: "warfare ... exists between [these kingdoms and] ... That warfare continues to the end of time in one sense. Revelation 19 ... describes the conclusion of that warfare as a great battle. That battle will be Judgment Day itself, when all of Christ's enemies are judged and removed into hell."
What has Ozzy Osbourne to do with all this? To speak of these two in the same context involves an unlikely pairing, to be sure, but allow me to suggest that comparing the most talked about preacher of 2011 and heavy metal's prince of darkness offers a colorful illustration of a simple point. There are occasions when organized religion gets things very wrong, and occasions when wisdom appears in the most unexpected places. When hype about Camping's end-of-the-world billboard campaign reached fever pitch earlier this year, Ozzy Osbourne's newest album Scream (released June 2010) was in regular rotation on my iPod and here I discovered a very different eschatological narrative. The song "Diggin' Me Down" (written by Ozzy Osbourne, Kevin Churko and Adam Wakeman) involves an angry first-person address to the "Father" and "Mr. Jesus Christ." The song is a lament, of sorts, expressing anger at all manner of calamities that are part of the human condition. "Why don't you save us?" the narrator asks. "C'mon Jesus, don't keep us waiting just for you." The song grapples with a classic, enduring theological knot sometimes referred to as theodicy: If God is benevolent and all-powerful, why does evil exist?
Surprisingly, "Diggin' Me Down" is not just an angry rant that mocks religion and denies the existence of a deity. To do so would merely repeat an unimaginative, hackneyed idea. By addressing the Father and Jesus directly, the speaker (not to be equated with Osbourne, necessarily) cleverly heightens the dramatic force of the lyrics, an effective device for articulating the bewilderment and anger explored in the song. There is even an admission of struggling faith, one that uses terms evoking the biblical laments: "How long 'cause my faith is breaking" (cf. e.g., Psalm 13:1-2: "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?"). The closing words of the song are particularly striking against the backdrop of Harold Camping's apocalyptic countdown. The singer couples weakening faith with awareness of his limited understanding, wondering aloud how he will recognize Jesus Christ and assess his credibility when he comes: Have you been here once or twice? How will I know you are the son of God? Are you an "obsolete facade"?
So why do I prefer Ozzy Osbourne's eschatological lyrics to Harold Camping's apocalyptic sermons? For one thing, Camping's biblical exegesis and prophetic pronouncements lack humility whereas Osbourne's narrator concedes his doubts and questions ("How will I know that you're the son of God?"). Few Christian leaders outside the Family Radio organization endorse the Camping doctrine, and this lack of accountability and deference to the opinions and expertise of others is regrettable. Furthermore, Camping's interpretation of Scripture involves escapist fantasies that in effect abandon real-world traumas.
Osbourne's lyrics, on the other hand, are often constructive and world affirming in their own way. This may seem an odd remark when talking about heavy metal music but consider, to illustrate, the anti-war stance of Osbourne's Black Rain (2007). This album decries the Iraq conflict with a force reminiscent of Black Sabbath's anti-Vietnam anthem "War Pigs" (Paranoid, 1970): "What is the price of a bullet? / Another hole in the head / A flag draped over a coffin / Another soldier is dead / ... Why are the children all marching / into the desert to die? / ...War killing sons and daughters" ("Black Rain"). We find similar sentiments in "Diggin' Me Down," where he laments a world suffering under slavery, genocide and socio-economic inequity. He wants answers to these real-world atrocities, not the rescue of an elect few, which is a key element in Camping's eschatology. According to Family Radio, "the whole world, with the exception of those who are presently saved (the elect), are under the judgment of God, and will be annihilated together with the whole physical world on October 21." This leaves little motivation to promote peace or help the downtrodden.
To be clear, I am not speculating about Ozzy's personal beliefs. There should be care not to equate the first person of lyrics with a singer or songwriter. Nor do I mean to ridicule Harold Camping and his followers. (At some point, the Family Radio story went from being eccentric and interesting to sad and pathetic). No, I merely suggest that wisdom and thoughtful, constructive reflection on religious themes emerge in the most unlikely of places. My iPod selection for the Oct. 21 apocalypse? Ozzy's Scream.