Would Jesus watch reality television?

Recently I was at a meeting that involved a priest who is a leading commentator on film and television or, if you like, ‘popular culture’. In a coffee break, following a chance remark by some bishop or church bureaucrat, our popular culture man began holding forth on the need for us all to be watching reality television in order to be in touch with the prevailing values in our society.

He mentioned in particular Married at First Sight (MAFS) as the key to understanding where our society is up to in its understanding of marriage. He’s probably right, but I confess that I could only undertake that sort of viewing as a pastoral duty and, to take a phrase from Menzies, a ‘melancholy duty’ at that.

First let me declare a conflict of interest.

I have a nephew-in-law who was a TV producer. After a season or two of ‘doing’ a reality show, he chucked it in as professionally unsatisfying and opened a brewery. I think he had romantic views about the production values of a Hitchcock or Spielberg, but, in any case, his attitude to the ‘reality’ genre has no doubt influenced mine. It is TV done on the cheap, in every available sense of ‘cheap’.

If I had been doing my duty and watching reality in recent years, it would have been a lot of work. We’ve had MAFS, of course, but also shows following people marrying against their parents’ wishes, people marrying into different cultures, and probably others that I haven’t noticed. And there have been similar formats used in other areas of life, like cooking and home renovation.

They are all promoted in similar ways, short station ads showing conflicts, outrageous rudeness to other contestants, cheating on the game, or on each other in the marriage shows, and participants having emotional meltdowns of some sort. Some of these promos are quite amusing, because the people aren’t professional actors and the faces they pull to show shock or outrage are such as haven’t been seen since the worst hamming it up of the silent movie age. As the shows are popular, I have to accept that they are probably less awful than the promos, but even so…

But back to the question: is it my pastoral responsibility to watch this stuff to understand contemporary mores?

I think that I already know that people can be mean and bitchy, that they can collapse emotionally under sufficient pressure, that they can do whatever it takes if that’s what the show needs. I think I’ve already noted the decline of the notion of marriage into ‘a relationship that will fulfil all my personal and emotional needs, at least for now’. So do I have to be steeped in contemporary culture, or can I go on watching the old British detective re-runs much further down the channel list?

The old Christian maxim was that one must be ‘in the world but not of it’. What does that mean today?

Jesus lived very much in the real world of his time. He was famous for hanging around in places and with people that the religiously respectable types would not have touched with a barge pole, quite literally. But he often didn’t like what he saw, either of the great and the good, whom he sometimes called hypocrites, or of the crowds who followed him simply hoping for the excitement of a miracle or because they ‘had all the bread you wanted to eat’.

He knew and loved his people - but begged them to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God’ not just comfort, pleasure or entertainment. Where does knowing ‘popular culture’ come in that mix?

You tell me: Would Jesus have watched MAFS?

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Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.

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