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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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org