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‘Jeopardy,’ ‘Millionaire’ give clues to U.S. culture

DALLAS (BP)–Two television game shows provide clues about where American culture has been and where it is headed, said author Leonard Sweet.

“Jeopardy” is rational and word-based, he said, while “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” is “based on a totally different framework. … It’s not designed to be a game show. It’s designed to be a game experience.”

Sweet spoke during a seminar for student ministers at DestiNATIONS, a Jan. 4-7 Southern Baptist missions conference in Dallas jointly sponsored by the state Baptist conventions, LifeWay Christian Resources, the International and North American mission boards and Woman’s Missionary Union. Approximately 2,700 people attended the four-day event.

“Jeopardy” is a product of modern culture, Sweet said, whereas “Millionaire” is what he called “high-modern,” or a transition toward “postmodern.”

Sweet used the shows to illustrate the importance of “EPICtivity,” a word built around an acronym for Experiential, Participatory, Image-based and Connective. Those words provide the keys for ministry in a postmodern world, he said.

At the beginning of “Millionaire,” the lights go down and the music comes up, Sweet said. The seats for host Regis Philbin and the contestant rise up like a “Star Wars hovercraft.” The show, like a praise service in church, puts the action back-to-back. “You have to have momentum, … movement, … crescendo.”

It is all part of creating an experience, one in which the audience, a friend and a computer participate through “lifelines” used by the contestant. “Jeopardy” is about “who is the smartest,” Sweet said, while “Millionaire” is about “how well you use your lifelines.”

“It’s not a dumbing down,” Sweet said. “It’s a drawing in.”

“Millionaire” is also built on an image, he said. “The image of a million bucks is powerful in this culture,” and Philbin is made into the very image of a millionaire, he said.

When the contestant gives an answer, Philbin always asks, “Is that your final answer?” The question connects with something inside viewers, Sweet said. Greed drives contestants onward, he said; but “deep down, we know that there are final answers.”

Sweet gave brief descriptions of each element of EPIC.

In the modern world, reason reigned supreme, he said. But people today, while not repudiating the rational, have moved to embrace the experiential, as well, he said, explaining that the new emphasis on experience extends and expands on the rational.

Postmodern life also has seen a transition from the representative to the participatory, Sweet said. “Everything is becoming participatory, except the church,” he said. “This is a karaoke culture,” where people don’t want to just watch and listen, he said; they want to be part of the show.

Images are supplanting words in the new culture, Sweet said. Seminaries teach ministers to exegete words; but the world now thinks in images, not words, he said. “These images are living in your head,” he said, noting that the gospel is “image based,” because Jesus is the image of God.

Connective represents a transition from the merely individual, Sweet said. Postmodern culture is combining the individual with the communal and creating something that has never been seen before, he said; it involves a stronger individuality while recognizing that the individual can only flourish in the communal. “Me needs we to be.”

Sweet also applied this cultural understanding to sports. The days of the National Football League’s popularity are numbered, he said. “It’s not a postmodern sport. It’s boring — 20 seconds of action, 20 minutes of deadness.” That’s why people have to have luxury boxes to enjoy it, he said. College football is different, he said, because it is “much more participatory.”

Sweet predicted, however, that “there will be a new sport invented in the 21st century,” and it will fit the EPIC mold.

“The significance of this … and the excitement of it,” Sweet said, is that “we’re now back to the Jesus method of communication,” where he used parables to communicate his message. “Twenty-first century ministry is much more like first-century ministry.”

And it needs to be geared toward experiences, Sweet said.

“Postmoderns collect experiences like modernists collected things,” he said. “People are hunting for and starving for experiences. They’re starving for an experience with Christ, but church is the last place they expect to have it.”

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  • Ferrell Foster