McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–The apostle Paul once wrote, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” The bold propagator of early Christianity lived his life with the understanding that he was free to engage in most any pursuit. However, he regulated his behavior by two criteria. Number one, would the activity be beneficial to his spiritual, intellectual, social or physical well-being? Number two, was the proposed pursuit potentially addicting?
Given the admired apostle’s behavioral philosophy, I have to wonder how he would approach the subject of television in general and so-called “reality” programs in particular. I bring this up due to the seeming sustained popularity of television fare such as “Joe Millionaire” which has the distinction of the being one of the most-watched programs in recent TV history.
If Paul were presented with the opportunity to view any one of the glut of recent programs involving real people in contrived situations, his first question would be, “Is watching this program going to benefit my life in some shape, form or fashion?” I have to admit that I find little or no value in any of the “reality” programs, so of course I believe Paul would reply that the only profit in watching Joe Millionaire, “The Bachelorette,” “Fear Factor,” “Survivor,” ad nauseam would be in observing people make fools of themselves, which Paul would probably not deem to be profitable.
What do all reality programs have in common? From what I can tell, they all encourage greed and selfish ambition as noble motivations, with ethics being irrelevant. Does anyone really believe that any of the young ladies who vied for the attention of Joe Millionaire would have done so if they knew he was really “Joe $19,000-a-year Construction Worker”?
When the first reality television programs were introduced, I was reminded of a joke I once heard. It seems a lovely young woman was seated on an airplane next to a distinguished gentleman. Once airborne, the pair engaged in polite conversation. Suddenly the man changed the course of the conversation by asking the young lady if she would spend an intimate evening with him for $1 million dollars. Flattered, she blushed but quickly agreed that she would. Immediately the man shot back, “What about for fifty bucks?” The woman responded indignantly, “Sir, just what kind of lady do you take me for?” He replied, “We have already established the kind of woman you are, now we are haggling over the price.”
The only ethical standard on reality television is that there is no ethical standard. Deceit and manipulation are standard operating procedure. I understand that some reality shows require some semblance of cooperation. However, it is understood that the eventual winner is going to betray and/or discard those who have helped him or her in their pursuit of the prize. Reality television is a case study in “the end justifying the means” philosophy.
Paul’s first criteria for deciding to pursue any activity was profitability. His second was the potential of being mastered by it. Is reality television addictive? I don’t know if it is the programming or the medium of itself that is so alluring. No doubt Americans spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the boob tube. Writing in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman observes that America has a “consuming love affair with television.” Of late, many Americans — some 40 million tuned in for the most recent episode of Joe Millionaire — seem to be overtly enamored by reality programs.
Personally profitable or not, addictive or not, reality television has found a loyal audience in America. What would the apostle Paul say about reality television, or for any TV program for that matter? I think he might ask a couple of questions: How does it enhance your life and can you turn it off? Then he would probably step back and say, “You be the judge.”
Boggs is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, McMinnville, Ore.