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When the reality television genre burst on the scene, I was positive it would be a passing phase. Like the run of game shows and judge court shows before it, people would lose interest and hopefully we would move on to better things concerning television entertainment. It has been about 21 years since the premiere of the first reality show I remember. MTV blazed the trail by introducing “The Real World” in 1992, and our entertainment world has not been the same. It is one thing to watch a soap opera where actors marry or divorce, have affairs, engage in casual sex, manipulate, fight, and destroy each other’s characters. At the end of the day, those actors go home to their “real” lives, which include families and communities. It is a completely different experience watching “real” people engage in these same activities (however scripted) and calling it entertainment.
The market for reality series has been particularly harmful to the African-American community. According to a Reuters poll released in August 2013, “40 percent of white Americans and about 25 of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.” When almost half of the White American population do not have intimate relationships with people of different races, they are also unaware of the experiences and values of those ethnic communities. What little they know—however misinformed—is shaped by what they have been told by others or what they have seen, normally through television. Since there are currently still so few people of color and so few African American leads on primetime television, the images portrayed through reality TV can be extremely damaging to the way African Americans view themselves as well as how they are viewed by others.
In the particular brand of shows like “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Love and Hip Hop,” and “R&B Divas,” we see the devaluing of sisterhood, a breakdown in the unity God desires in male and female relationships, and the images of human beings destroyed. Considering the disappointment of Christian reality shows like “Mary Mary” and the quickly canceled—thank God!—”The Sisterhood” (a.k.a. The Real Preachers’ Wives of Atlanta), the credible witness of the Gospel is also compromised. The heavily promoted “Preachers of LA” and “Thicker Than Water: The Tankards” surely put more holes in our Christian armor. Are reality shows purely entertainment, or is there something more to consider? After all, it’s only a show. What harm can it do?
That is the critical question. In our post-modern, information-gathering age, it is important that we learn to use a Christian worldview to process the information we receive. A Christian worldview takes the information provided to us and asks important questions like: What is being communicated? What is the purpose or intent of the communication? What am I expected to get out of this? What is God’s standard on this issue (a question we must reference the Bible to answer)? Finally, as a Christian, how should I respond to the information that I have received?
So, let’s do a Christian worldview analysis on the reality television genre. We already know the content and messages that are being distributed through this particular brand of reality television. Let us now consider how God’s Word speaks to this relevant issue:
At the core of every human being’s identity is the reality that we are all created in God’s image. As humans, everybody is created to reflect the Triune—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—God’s intimacy, unity in diversity, His creative ability, and His desire to see goodness reproduced or multiplied on the earth (see Genesis 1:26–31).
Because every human being is created in God’s image, our lives have value and God cares about the way we treat each other (see Genesis 9:6; Leviticus 24:21). These passages primarily speak about why we should not murder. It is important that we not miss the primary standard: The reason there is a consequence for someone who commits murder is because God values the life of human beings; He values all life.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus raises the standard concerning murder. He taught, “You have heard that is was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (from Matthew 5:21–22, NIV). In this teaching point, Jesus moves from the letter of the law, i.e., “Do not murder,” to the spirit of the law, i.e., “Do not sin against another in your anger” (cf. Ephesians 4:26–27, NIV). Human sinfulness causes the anger that makes us sin against others by physically murdering them or just by killing them with our words (see James 1:14–15).
James’ letter also reminds us that gossip and other forms of verbal abuse are not the Lord’s will. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (James 3:9–10, NIV). As Christians, we must learn how to become disciplined with the use of our tongues. This is not a virtue that we see practiced in the Christian reality shows previously mentioned.
In Chapter 8 of Mark Labberton’s book “The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor: Seeing Others Through the Eyes of Jesus,” he talks about the importance of how we name other people—that is, the names we call them and how we refer to them. Naming begins first with how we see ourselves, then it considers how we treat and respond to others. One of the first jobs that God gave Adam was to name the animals (Genesis 2:19–20). Therefore, “naming is as primary to our being made in God’s image as almost anything else we might, well…name” (Labberton 121). When we celebrate people who call others outside of their God-given names—when we celebrate being rude and “chewing someone out”—then we are treating their victims worse than we treat animals. We must learn to name rightly through love. Love makes us “transformed namers.” The Gospel changes how we name God, ourselves, and our neighbors. Labberton concludes, “It’s not about a new set of labels. It’s about learning to live in the world as people who are named from the inside out by the God who made us, who is now remaking us and wanting us to be agents of that grace toward others” (pg. 122). This is right in line with what Peter says when he reminds Christians how God called us His people, even though we weren’t a people to begin with, and how He brought us into the light, which now empowers us to show our goodness to the world and give God glory (1 Peter 2:9–12).
Consider your favorite reality show: Does it reflect the value that God places on all human life? Does it encourage discipline of the tongue? Does it cause you to name others correctly? If not, then we might want to break the negative cycle of celebrating reality TV and reconsider what we consume as entertainment.