A Brief Review of
Reality TV: Theology in the Video Era.
Paperback: Chalice Press, 2009.
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Reviewed By Brent Aldrich.
I was intrigued to see Stephen Faller’s book Reality TV: Theology in the Video Era, as I am invested in both theology and video forms of art, and was hoping to see a critical theological consideration of video/film. Instead, rather than looking at the underlying representational structures of television or video as mediums, or questioning the extent to which these media are formative processes, Faller instead picks apart isolated fragments of reality TV shows and moralizes about them, in pithy references to the parables of Jesus. And I have heard this done often before – cultural references to movies, TV shows, or pop songs that can be ‘sermonized’ by ignoring broader contexts, namely the medium itself. The reasoning runs as follows: “We relate to each other. We relate to our beloved…We relate to ourselves. We relate to God. We have a lot of relationships, and, maybe more than anything else, we use those relationships to define ourselves. So it makes perfect sense that the mirror of Reality TV reflects our preoccupation with relationship” (26). It is as simple as finding a ‘topic’ to moralize about (relationships, in this example), then find a popular reference you enjoy that tangentially has to do with said topic (Reality TV), and then use the reference regardless of its broader social implications.
We have been citing this book for weeks around here, but Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion is instructive by coming to the opposite conclusions of Reality TV: “The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television shows, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal. Education, building community, honesty, transparency, and sharing are qualities that you will see, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, voted off a reality show” (Hedges 30). Compare this to Faller’s disregard of the ramifications of celebrity culture:
Obviously, people are tuning in to Reality TV for a reason. Reality TV is filling a void and touching a nerve that would otherwise be ignored. A demand is being met. Just by being on television, people are seeing something that they want to see and thinking about things they want to be dreaming about – and that’s a good thing…Maybe the show has been edited and produced to heighten the dramatic effect, but these are not fictional characters bumbling around a make-believe world. Real lives are changing (100).
We absolutely need critical engagements of theology with the embodied world; but they must be aware of a much more nuanced and complete vision of culture. Read Empire of Illusion paired with Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom for a telos of the church and culture that is more substantial than the topical moralizing in Faller’s Reality TV.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com