Believers with too much leisure time

Word Spy rightly honors journalist Alex Heard as the father of the word hathos, which he defined as “a mixture of hatred, disgust, embarrassment, and pathos” (The New Republic, Feb. 11, 1985).

GeReligion now honors Heard further by creating a category for hathos.

Think of it as the flip side of Creeping Fundamentalism: A time for the editors to salute a well-aimed arrow at certain figures from the religion world whose brush with popular culture does not give the Kingdom of God a healthy image.

Our first hathotic entry comes from the Sept. 24 Entertainment Weekly, which tweaks Christians who make God their conspirator on network “reality” shows.

Consider how Adria, a contestant on Big Brother 5, explains her suggestion to evict Will, a gay man, and Marvin, an African American: “Things were revealed to me in my prayers.”

Or consider Brandon, a contestant on The Amazing Race 5, praying with his girlfriend, Nichole, after they declined to cut their hair in a traditional Hindu ceremony: “It’s okay, baby. You want me to pray for us? Lord, we just trust you ’cause you’re ultimately gonna get us to wherever you want us to be. In Jesus’ name, amen.”

Set aside for a moment the ethical dilemma of whether Christians should busy themselves as contestants on these shows. Have they really convinced themselves that God is concerned about who will triumph in these competitions?

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  • LaTonya

    Doug, I’ve missed hearing you use this word. I’m glad hathos is back!

  • tmatt

    OK, I have a question. I have a question about traditional religious believers being in these shows (and recently urged one of my best students to take a pass on an invitation from CBS to a final audition gig for one) and I see hathos all over this.

    But I have to ask: What’s wrong with Brandon’s prayer?

    One more thing: I still cannot believe that there has not been a great feature story written somewhere on the whole token Christian plot element in so many of these shows, especially the MTV history of that. The whole ends-justify-the-means element of these shows is ripe for Godbeat writing.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    There’s nothing wrong with Brandon’s prayer, in itself. My post objects to the notion that Brandon assumes God’s interest in his role on a TV show like Amazing Race 5. Other than that, Brandon’s use of “just” certainly assures me that extemporaneous prayer among young Christians is about as agitating as it was in the latter half of the 20th century.

  • Mark D.

    Interesting. I happened to be watching at a different point in the Amazing Race when Brandon and Nicole were burrowing around in hot mud looking for their next clue. Of course one has no idea how long they were actually in there – but it was intercut with other contestants making forward progress and made to seem as if they were really stuck.

    And at about 8:48, Brandon decided to pray that they find the clue (“Look how long it took them to do that”) and behold! at 8:49 they found it (“God answered their prayer”).

    There are a lot of ways to read that, of course. I’m just saying: CBS chose quite consciously to edit it that way. And one way to read it is, God answers prayer.

    Doug: why *wouldn’t* God be interested in the outcome of the Amazing Race? Isn’t his eye on the sparrow?

  • William Meisheid

    I agree. If God is interested in the rising and falling of kingdoms and even when a sparrow falls, he is interested in such mundane media things as a race, or even a sporting event, or a time at bat, or whatever. It is not God’s interest in these things that is in question, however, which I feel is a given, but our interpretation and use of that interest.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    I’m glad you mentioned Brandon’s search for a hidden clue, Mark, because that quote also was in EW’s short feature, and I should have chosen it instead. Here’s how EW described it:

    Thou Shalt Not Forget to Split the Million-Dollar Prize With Me: “Lord help us find this clue! I believe you can … Lord, I belive you’ll lead me right to it … Found it!” — Brandon, praying to find — and then finding! — a clue buried in a mud pit.

    Yes, I agree God’s eye is on the sparrow. I also believe God expects us to rely on his sovereign power and grace for something other than the backstabbing, greedhead game shows of network TV. I believe God no more cares who wins Amazing Race 5 than who wins the Super Bowl. People can make a fine case that God cares about how these games are played, how people treat one another in playing the games. But what difference does it make to God’s kingdom — or, more immediately, to the quality or beauty of American culture — who prevails in these competitions?

    It’s one thing for two Christians to be bewildered at being asked to cut their hair in an ancient Hindu ceremony. Wouldn’t it be better if they were to ask the prior question of whether they belong on a TV game show at all, given its appeal to greed and vanity?

    I make self-indulgent and sinful choices every day of my life, but I try not to insult God’s holiness by asking that he help me make those choices more efficiently.

  • jeff

    Douglas wrote: “I believe God no more cares who wins Amazing Race 5 than who wins the Super Bowl.”

    Perhaps God’s plan is for someone to win or lose precisely because of what they would learn from it. Perhaps those ‘backstabbers’ who play on reality shows watch themselves on the TV and realize their misguided ways. Nothing’s more jolting than to see your behavior from another perspective (like on a video tape).

    There are so many possibilities as to why something happens, that it’s hard to understand immediately. What at first seems like nonsense may be a life-changing event.

    In addition, someone’s life circumstances dictate their burden. Some people have greater burden’s than others and so what seems unimportant to some is vital to others. Ever hear the story about the Christian who wants a new cross? God agrees and the Christian tries many other crosses of all shapes, sizes, and weights. In the end, he leaves God with the same cross. None of us know another persons cross, only our own.

  • ralphg

    >CBS chose quite consciously to edit it that way.

    Umm, no. The Amazing Race is created by an independent production company, who sold the broadcast rights to CBS (in the USA), CTV (in Canada), and so on.

    It would have been the decision of the independent producer which scenes to cut and which to leave in. I like to think he was sending a message proclaiming his own faith.

  • Jeff the Baptist

    “I also believe God expects us to rely on his sovereign power and grace for something other than the backstabbing, greedhead game shows of network TV.”

    Do you honestly think God wants us to stop relying on his soveriegn power? Ever? In all things we do, we are to do it for the glory of God after all. Whether its brushing out teeth in the morning or what have you.

  • Charlie

    Doug writes: “Wouldn’t it be better if they were to ask the prior question of whether they belong on a TV game show at all, given its appeal to greed and vanity?” No doubt many Christians in our wealthy society pursue all sorts of activities that are of questionable importance in the grand scheme of God’s plan. When we could be feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, we’re off skiing at Aspen or vacationing in the Virgin Islands, or globe-trotting in pursuit of a million bucks in a game show.

    I think perhaps Doug’s frustration (or mine, anyway) has to do with followers of Jesus who fail to take discipleship and servanthood seriously enough to question whether God has a more significant life in mind for them, more transformational, more salt-like, than just pursuing the same markers of success and and achievement (and fun!) that everyone else is going after.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Thank you, Charlie. You’ve said it so well that I have nothing to add.

  • latimer

    Full Disclosure: I knew Brandon during undergrad

    While I watched Amazing Race, I cringed at some of Brandon’s statements-so cheezy-but I kept thinking: what would I do differently? Consider.

    He treated his girlfriend Nicole with respect and gentleness that I could only hope to emulate under such competitive circumstances–a stark contrast with his mean-spirited adversary Colin, who missed no chance to yell and cream at his girlfriend when she struggled. Brandon never got upset and never lost perspective even when I, as a viewer, became frusturated. (Anyone who saw the ski-slope incident on the last episode knows what I’m talking about.) I doubt CBS did him any favors in the editing room, but even still, what’s to criticize? Even the prayer mentioned in the original post seems like an earnest attempt to keep things in perspective.

    But some readers will argue that of course he shouldn’t have lost perspective-it was a worthless reality show. True enough, but be honest and put yourself in his shoes-a 25 year old atheletic male in a nationally televised race testing will and wit. That’s no easy place to be, especially when your girlfriend is (shall we say?) high-maintenance.

    Others would criticize his mere participation in such a show as vanity. True enough, but again consider Brandon’s situation. He has the OPPORTUNITY to be a light in a dark place that few or no others have. I tend to see it as a positive that a solid Christian guy went on national television and showed millions how to treat a girl (not even his wife) with respect and care. I think it’s a good thing that there’s at least one Christian model who turns down Abercrombie and refuses to do underwear ads.

    How many times did Brandon mention the money? Not often. But it was indeed often that it occurred to him to pray, and no matter how corny that may have come across on tv it’s still a profound deviation from the thought process of most of his MTV saturated admirers.

    And on that note, Brandon knows that he’s coming across as a bit of a geek. But I admire his willingness to do it anyway. If not for those little prayers and bits of encouragement, how would he evidence his faith on the show? He could internalize it all, but what good would that do. He decided to just lay it out there at the cost of “coolness” and much admiration he may have otherwise won.

    I felt the same tendancies that the original poster here wrote about, but when I examined the issue I saw things differently. I know Brandon is a sincere, solid guy. As a matter of fact, he was the chaplian of a Christian organization of which we were both members and he did a fantastic job in that ministry. I’m sure that my knowing him is what led me to give him the benefit of the doubt in the first place, but I feel that it may be a healthy exercise for others as well.

    Perhaps I’m missing the big picture, but all in all I think Brandon served honorably and sincerely in a tough situation. Just my two cents.

  • Mark D.

    On the strength of this conversation I watched the last episode – thank you, Latimer, for a clearer perspective. Thanks also to ralphg for the reminder about who actually produces. Which leads to this reiterated observation – editing is everything in this medium. The hand on the splicing knife decides precisely how to shade any and every aspect of the show. He/she decided quite consciously to make Brandon and Nichole the “Christian” team – though several others were also heard uttering prayers of varying intensity (and, one must assume, sincerity.)

    For that reason, they *were* assuming an evangelical role. I am more than willing to give them all the benefit of the doubt – that they saw the opportunity for Christian witness, that they knew they were being watched (!!) and chose their actions with their faith in mind, that their prayers were born not just of exasperation or greed. And that they were in fact being “fools for Christ,” and not just for $1m.

    I see it as a win-win-win – the producer got vivid (and effective!) constestants with a good narrative hook, C & N got the opportunity to stretch themselves in several dimensions while avowing their faith in a very public way, and the society got a look at a couple of not-too-weird Christians participating in a reality show which (for better or worse) is a hot genre in our culture.

    No one has more respect for the holiness of God than I – it’s one of my own main “themes.” If He wants to use $1m to activate witness in His servants, it is the Lord, let Him do as He sees fit. He’s done wierder and more wonderful things than that to show his glory to the nations!