Reality or Something Like It

Let's be honest, why would anyone want to watch a race between a human and a giraffe, or eavesdrop on a blind date between annoying strangers, or listen to terrible singers wail like banshees? That we do want to watch is unquestionable. So-called "reality" TV is changing the television business. The public has a seemingly insatiable appetite for these shows, and, as one network executive told the New York Times, " . . . we've got a responsibility to satisfy that appetite." And as if what the networks are turning out weren't bad enough, Gloria Goodale reports in the Christian Science Monitor that the public bombards producers with new ideas. Favorites include people falling off buildings or out of airplanes, televised brawls in prisons, and street fights between homeless drunks -- already an Internet favorite. The producers have said no to these and other dangerous and degrading ideas, but how long will that last among people who think they have "a responsibility to satisfy that appetite?" Goodale notes that when Natalka Znak first had the idea for Temptation Island -- sexy singles romping in the tropics -- she was told that it was over the top. Today, it's old hat. The title of a new book by Richard Winter, a psychiatrist and associate professor of practical theology at Covenant Seminary, gives away his diagnosis for the sorry state of TV and why we watch it. The book is titled Still Bored in a Culture of Entertaintment. "When stimulation comes at us from every side," he writes, "we reach a point where we cannot respond with much depth to anything. Bombarded with so much that is exciting and demands our attention, we tend to become unable to discriminate and choose from among the many options. The result is that we shut down our attention to everything." That is, we get bored. Over-stimulated and bored, we start looking for anything that will give our jaded spirits a lift. Winter says that boredom explains the rise in extreme sports, risk taking, and sexual addiction. "The enticements to more exciting things have to get louder to catch our dulled attention," he writes. And so reality TV gets more risqué and more degrading by the day -- a trend that shows no signs of abating. Natalka Znak says that death is a line that no one will cross. I think she's wrong. Boredom will lead us right down the Roman road to the bloody lust of the Coliseum. Richard Winter not only diagnoses the problem, but he also offers a solution: We must recover a sense of passion and wonder. He notes that boredom is part of life in a fallen world. There are times when we will be bored. But engaging the world rather than passively watching can mitigate much of our boredom. He writes, "Finding interest and joy in life involves active engagement with the world. . . . [T]he person who wants to be involved with life knows that it is necessary to move toward someone or something, to want to understand and know." And engagement with the world -- that is, wanting to understand and know -- is also central to developing a Christian worldview. So if you're bored, read Richard Winter's book, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertaintment. Your boredom can be a wake-up call not only to reality TV, but also to pursuing passion, wonder, and a Christian worldview. This commentary first aired on February 13, 2003. For further reading and information: Richard Winter, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertaintment: Rediscovering Passion and Wonder(InterVarsity, 2002). Bill Carter, "Reality TV Alters the Way TV Does Business," New York Times, January 25, 2003. (Archived article; costs $2.95 to retrieve.) J. Budziszewski, "The Vixenette," Boundless, January 23, 2003. Gloria Goodale, "Even reality TV producers turn some ideas down," Christian Science Monitor, January 28, 2003. Gloria Goodale, "Changing Channels," Christian Science Monitor, February 7, 2003. Gina Dalfonzo, "Not Dead Yet: Shame Exists -- for Now," BreakPoint Online, May 2, 2002. Roberto Rivera, "Survivor Ex Nihilo: Creativity in the New Wasteland," BreakPoint Online, August 1, 2000. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030314, "Torture TV: Creating a 'Lust for Cruelty.'"


Chuck Colson


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