The Strange and Consuming Spectacle That Is “Extreme Home Makeover” and “Oprah’s Big Give”

The Strange and Consuming Spectacle That Is “Extreme Home Makeover” and “Oprah’s Big Give” March 17, 2008

I confess that until recently I had not watched a minute of the ABC show “Extreme Home Makeover.” Then, randomly, I watched a few moments several weeks ago, my snobbery at mainstream American entertainment (temporarily) overcome. I came away touched by the show’s heart, even as I found aspects of it quite interesting.

There’s another show remarkably similar to this one, called “Oprah’s Big Give” or something like that. The thing I find most interesting, and potentially troubling, about both of these shows is that they marry “consumerism and altruism”, as a recent New Yorker piece by Nancy Franklin put it. Both shows involve lots of money and product being spent and given to help people. Now, let me say that I am not certainly not against money and materials being given to people. However, we should note that this is perhaps a uniquely modern way of philanthropy. Forget the monks of centuries past who would renounce all in order to live with and serve the poor. Now, we enlist corporate America, build the needy a McMansion, and adjust the television cameras to just the right angle to get that killer close-up. Does all this negate the positive effects of the so-called “consumerist charity” entertainment fare mentioned above? I’m not sure that it does. But then again, I’m not really sure what exactly to think of this brand of entertainment. It is quite clearly a mix of positive and concerning traits.

With my concerns quickly registered, I will say that I think that Christians should watch at least one episode of “Extreme Home Makeover”. The show’s host, Ty Pennington, seems to have a heart for people. He’s a little wired and a little youngish for me, but he does seem to care for the needy, and he has, in his own way, helped many. Of course, his deeds don’t seem to be done out of a redeemed heart (though I don’t know what he claims religiously), and thus they aren’t ultimately worthy, but in an earthly sense, it is convicting and encouraging to see a person working for the betterment of other people. All of the above qualification applies, but at the end of the day, I watch the show, and I think to myself, wow, this guy is doing stuff. What am I doing? How much do I do to advance the gospel and heal the broken everywhere around me? Do I even think of such people and such needs? Or do I think far, far more about me and my interests and my concerns and my own little atomized life?

For just a little while, this show makes me want to live for others, makes me want to reorganize my priorities so that my life is one long stream of blessing pouring into the lives of others. I can make a biblical and theological case for relaxation and enjoying God’s good gifts and the importance of free time, as many can, but at the end of the day, I have to ask myself, where does the balance lie? It’s easy to cast aside shows like “Extreme Home Makeover”, to sniff at them, to deride them as thoughtless, silly, done out of wrong motives, culturally lowbrow, and so on. Some of those critiques would be true. But none of this does anything to change the fact that this show actually does reflect, however imperfectly, one of the fundamental tenets of biblical Christianity, namely, that we should live for others and not for ourselves. We who are redeemed are called to share and live out the gospel in our world, and this means sharing the faith verbally and then putting it into practice in tangible ways to heal, mend, and bless.

“Extreme Home Makeover” is not perfect. But perhaps it is a little gift of God in the form of a prodding–if overcaffeinated–reminder to we who are redeemed that our faith should not be passive but active. If the lost around us outdo us in caring for others, what does this say of our faith? More to the point, what does it say of our hearts? One wonders what Ty Pennington and his crew are like when the cameras are off. But for us, there is no need to wonder. Most of us do not have and will never have cameras on us. What people see is what we are. What do they see? Is our faith alive? Is it working? Or is it self-consumed, self-serving, or more scarily, dead?

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