John Calvin, Philip Ryken, "Reality TV", and the American Idol

I haven’t had time to write the concluding post that has been developing in my mind and heart the last couple of weeks as I have posted article after article on TV and technology.  John Calvin is often credited with the quote that “the human heart is a perpetual factory of idols.”  The Henry Beveridge translation of The Institutes that includes this quote reads:

In regard to the origin of idols, the statement contained in the Book of Wisdom has been received with almost universal consent—viz. that they originated with those who bestowed this honour on the dead, from a superstitious regard to their memory. I admit that this perverse practice is of very high antiquity, and I deny not that 97 it was a kind of torch by which the infatuated proneness of mankind to idolatry was kindled into a greater blaze. I do not, however, admit that it was the first origin of the practice. That idols were in use before the prevalence of that ambitious consecration of the images of the dead, frequently adverted to by profane writers, is evident from the words of Moses (Gen. 31:19). When he relates that Rachel stole her father’s images, he speaks of the use of idols as a common vice. Hence we may infer, that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols. There was a kind of renewal of the world at the deluge, but before many years elapse, men are forging gods at will. There is reason to believe, that in the holy Patriarch’s lifetime his grandchildren were given to idolatry: so that he must with his own eyes, not without the deepest grief, have seen the earth polluted with idols—that earth whose iniquities God had lately purged with so fearful a Judgment. For Joshua testifies (Josh. 24:2), that Torah and Nachor, even before the birth of Abraham, were the worshipers of false gods. The progeny of Shem having so speedily revolted, what are we to think of the posterity of Ham, who had been cursed long before in their father? Thus, indeed, it is. The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labours under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth. That idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited, appears from the example of the Israelites: “Up,” said they, “make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wet not what is become of him,” (Exod. 22:1). They knew, indeed, that there was a God whose mighty power they had experienced in so many miracles, but they had no confidence of his being near to them, if they did not with their eyes behold a corporeal symbol of his presence, as an attestation to his actual government. They desired, therefore, to be assured by the image which went before them, that they were journeying under Divine guidance. And daily experience shows, that the flesh is always restless until it has obtained some figment like itself, with which it may vainly solace itself as a representation of God. In consequence of this blind passion men have, almost in all ages since the world began, set up signs on which they imagined that God was visibly depicted to their eyes.

I italicized portions of the text above in order to emphasize certain points.  I would encourage you to read again what John Calvin has written here, and how what he wrote applies to us today (especially what I italicized).

The really sad thing is that the modern trend is not even to make God into something formed with human hands, but rather to 1) Deny God by human invention; and 2) to attempt to remake man into some sort of false image of what we would like himself to be.  Twisted.

And daily experience shows, that the flesh is always restless until it has obtained some figment like itself, with which it may vainly solace itself as a representation of God. In consequence of this blind passion men have, almost in all ages since the world began, set up signs on which they imagined that God was visibly depicted to their eyes.

With the medium of television–especially in the context of “Reality TV” as Philip Ryken writes in an article from a few years back, we have actually stopped setting up signs and imagining God visibly depicted; instead we have abandoned Him altogether and imagine ourselves in His place, but the depiction is equally delusional.  Oh, little box of great idolatry.  The television is an apt representation of what is really in our hearts.

Luke 11:29-36
29    When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.
30    For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.
31    The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
32    The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

33    “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light.
34    Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness.
35    Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness.
36    If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”

Unreality TV
(by Philip Ryken)

They call it “reality TV,” but I’m really not sure why. To me, the term is an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp” or “white chocolate.” But whatever we call it, reality TV is a cultural phenomenon that tells us some significant things about spiritual life in the twenty-first century.

What is reality TV? The best definition I’ve seen comes from the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute in St. Louis. In an article called “Surviving the Real World: Voyeur-Vision and the Quest for Reality,” Michael Gordon describes these shows as “television programs that present ordinary people in ‘scripted unscriptedness’ with sensational circumstances for the purpose of entertainment” [Perspectives, Summer 2002, p. 3]. And the circumstances often encourage some form of immorality, or at least folly.

Reality TV probably started with “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” the show on which a wealthy bachelor had dozens of women competing for his hand in marriage. Then it was “Survivor,” and all its successors, on which adventurers compete to be the last person left in some exotic and dangerous locale. There was “Temptation Island,” on which couples that were dating were tempted to be unfaithful, and “Fear Factor,” on which people were forced to face their fears—the more disgusting the better.

The list goes on and on. The biggest hit was “Joe Millionaire,” on which an eligible young bulldozer driver supposedly inherited 50 million dollars and had his choice of 20 beautiful young women. And just this week we were introduced to “Married by America,” on which the participants didn’t even get to choose: Instead, their partners were chosen by a national television audience. Where will it all end?

Needless to say, these programs are all highly contrived. There is almost nothing real about them. They ask us to believe that, for example, a man climb off his bulldozer, inherit 50 million dollars, move to a French chateau, and have his choice among 20 beautiful young women. That’s not reality; it’s fantasy. And in reality the people who appear on these programs are actors—not professional actors, but actors nonetheless. They are carefully selected on the basis of their looks and personality to play a character in a drama. When they appear on camera, they know that America is watching, and it shows. The situations are artificial; the scenes are staged; the conversations are stilted. Then the program is heavily edited. Hundreds of hours are video are reduced to a few hours of air time and spliced together to tell some kind of coherent story. Reality TV is not real at all. It is casted, scripted, edited, and marketed for the viewing public.

The fantasy can only last for so long. I hope you will not be too disappointed to learn that none of the couples on the reality romance programs are still together. As it turns out, the reality is what happens after the TV, when the couples break up, the recriminations start, and the lying young bachelor gets booed in public. Now that’s reality!

What does the popularity of these shows tell us? One thing it tells us is that nothing is more fascinating than watching human beings and the way they react in various situations. What will they say? What will they do? How will they respond when they are forced to confront their worst fears? How will they act when the only way they can win is by forcing someone else to lose? How will they feel when they get rejected? We love to watch people try to start a relationship. We love to see what they will do when the pressure is on. And frankly, we love to see them squirm when they get caught doing something wrong.

All of this proves there is something special about human beings. What else could possibly absorb our interest and attention in this way? Only people who were made to be like God (see Gen. 1:27), but are now struggling to make things work in a fallen world.

The stunning success of so-called reality TV also tells us that Americans have nothing better to do. What kind of culture produces a television program like “The Bachelorette”? Only a culture that is bored with reality and has lost all sense of purpose. Apparently, our own lives are not interesting enough to hold our interest. We want to put somebody else in an unreal situation and watch what happens. Reality shows never would have appeared in the 1950s. It is only at this late stage of cultural decadence that such programming is even possible.

Reality TV is very different from, say, watching a good film. When someone writes the script for a movie, they are telling a story that shows something about life. If the story is morally ennobling, then rather than merely serving as a form of escape, it enables us to gain deeper understanding into what it means to live in God’s world. Reality TV—or unreality TV doesn’t do that. It just wastes our time. It may amuse us for a while, but it does not equip us to live for God. We end up living in someone else’s fantasy instead of doing what we ought to be doing, which is getting involved with real people and their real problems.

If you enjoy reality TV, you ought to try just plain old reality. Really, you should. The kind of reality I have in mind comes from living an authentic Christian life that is dedicated to helping others grow in grace. “Now we really live,” wrote the apostle Paul, “since you are standing firm in the Lord” (1 Thess. 3:8). Don’t just sit there watching people do trivial things on television. Go on a short-term missions trip to a place where the church is struggling. Live in community with other Christians or get involved in ministry and then try to love the people you have to live with and work with. Spend time praying with somebody who is trying and sometimes failing to make a relationship work. But whatever you do, get real.


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