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Lead Us Not Into Temptation Island

What is it about watching others be put to the test? Why are we drawn to watch?

It’s not a new phenonemon. The ancient Greeks did it playfully with their Olympics. Modern sports, at their best, emulate those games. The Romans had a far more cruel version. Our martyrs died while blood-hungry crowds cheered. Today we are reduced to watching all manner of trials emanating from theater screens and glowing tubes.

We flocked to the recent film Gladiator. We still swarm to watch people like us squirm in the hot seat while Regis Philbin asks questions—dumb or not—that might change a contestant’s life forever by making him or her a millionaire.

TV producers realized early in the TV game how powerful the game-show format is. But the old games like Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune—even Hollywood Squares, The Match Game, Truth or Consequences and so on—seem benign. We watch people sweat with everything to gain and only prize winnings to lose.

Maybe it was The Dating Game that raised the ante. Eligible bachelors were interviewed by a prospective date from behind a screen. The TV audience watched both sides of the interaction. Now we were playing with real bullets.

From Mild to Wild

But The Dating Game was nothing. As our culture has become increasingly fascinated with—and dependent upon—computers, home videos, pagers, cell phones and other technology, we crave natural reality all the more.

Thus, the past few years have witnessed the birth of so-called reality TV. In part we can blame technology for creating the opportunity. Before the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, most everyone was a survivor, wrestling crops from the earth or battling poverty in the city to get along in the world.

As we became more prosperous, we could turn to magazines and books to observe others’ trials (Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Melville’s Moby Dick are two examples that have stood the test of time). Audiences would wait for each week’s installment of “reality tales” in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, on the scene when St. Anthony Messenger first appeared in 1893.

Super-duper cameras, microphones, satellites and buckets of TV-generated wealth have made reality tales all the more immediate. And what the audience wants, the media provide. The mock trial of a benign game show could not be enough for long. Now we go to new Treasure Islands and watch NBC’s Survivor firsthand. Worse yet, we go to Fox’s Temptation Island and indulge in voyeurism as “people like us” (or perhaps our younger selves) run the morality gauntlet.

The Problem With Temptation Island

Satan himself could not have devised a better setup than Temptation Island. Here we bring people with hope—thin or not—of long-term commitment and see if it can be broken by manipulation.

The basic setup of this show is well-known: a group of unmarried couples who have been “together” for some time go to an isolated, exotic area where they are split up and seduced, one at a time, by “dream dates” who in some cases even expose themselves (“tastefully” handled barely off-camera or by video distortion).

The seductions are orchestrated by an on-the-scene director, a pleasant, seemingly reasonable authority figure, who offers videotapes of the other partners’ trials and proposes to rearrange the rules of the game.

It’s cast as a morality play, but any hint of true morality was cast adrift before this show was conceived.

Readers of this magazine know that faith, hope, love—nurtured in the community of the Church—are the most likely indicators of successful long-term commitment. And, old-fashioned as it might sound, avoiding “near occasions of sin” is a safeguard of fidelity. Our Lord taught us to pray “lead us not into temptation” for good reason.

Temptation Island is a cynical rejection of these Christian values. It mocks us. And lots of people are watching.

What's Really Real

Survivor and its progeny aren’t much better. That show does not have an explicit lust theme—it promotes another of the cardinal sins, greed. Whoever can pull off the most backbiting, manipulating and disloyalty (along with other, ultimately more tame, wilderness survival feats) gets the prize.

So-called “reality TV” shows are highly contrived. They use isolation and manipulation to call forth the worst in human nature.

We know full well these shows aren’t reality. They have such a huge following, though, because we know there is a real struggle in the world. And humans, given some spare time from actual survival, have always been interested in reenacting the drama.

The problem with Temptation Island and Survivor is that there is no moral to their story. These shows teach us nothing. They degrade us.

Our faith tells us there is a real struggle between darkness and light, between good and evil, between the abundant blessing of God and the tendency of humans to reject it.

Rather than set us on a Temptation Island with a guileful director manipulating us into sin, God gives us a far better reality. God gives us a world, yes, of free choices, but also gives us grace, within each of us and through the Church, to strengthen awareness of truth within us. Rather than manipulate us into sin, God nudges us, implores us, begs us, toward goodness.

That’s what’s real. We would do well to cast Temptation Island and Survivor overboard. —J.B.F.

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