What Should a Christian Game Show Look Like?
As I set about writing an introduction for this piece, I realized that I would be hard-pressed to invent anything more fitting than the following from David Bentley Hart:
It is one of the most indelibly memorable scenes, and certainly the best twist ending, to have come out of the cinema of the 1960s: Charlton Heston riding his horse along the beach, Linda Harrison mounted behind him with her arms wrapped around his waist, both quite fetching in their late Pleistocene dishabille, until they come upon some gigantic object, visible to the viewer at first only from behind, and just fragmentarily familiar from the ruinous silhouette of its torch and spiked coronal. Heston dismounts, an expression of dawning understanding on his face. The surf breaks about his feet. “Oh, my God!” he exclaims and falls to his knees. “They finally, really did it!” Beating the sand with his fist, he cries out, “You maniacs! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!” The white foam swirls about him again. Only then does the camera draw back, now from the opposite angle, to reveal the shattered remains of the Statue of Liberty. The screen goes dark, but the sound of waves can still be heard.
I don’t really want to talk about The Planet of the Apes just now. I mention the scene only because, quite unintentionally, I found myself reenacting it only a few days ago, uttering the same lines almost verbatim, sinking to the earth under the same burden of world-darkening despair. Oh, there was no bleak, blinding prospect of the gray and silver sea stretching out toward an impossibly distant horizon, there were no waves breaking with a desolate sigh on the barren strand, there was no horse, no fallen copper colossus, and certainly no beautiful, scantily clad woman nearby. There was, however, the same frantic look of terrible recognition in my eyes, the same pitch of hopeless horror in my voice, the same sense of doom. I had just discovered that some malevolent wretch had done it at last: had made a film of Atlas Shrugged.
I don’t really want to talk about Atlas Shrugged just now. I mention the scene only because, quite unintentionally, I found myself reenacting it only a few days ago…when I discovered they had done it at last: had made the Bible into a game show.
Our boy, Abraham Kuyper, famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Nevertheless, I am at a loss to answer the question posed in my title. It is a question I wouldn’t have thought worth answering, wouldn’t have thought even to ask, until recently when I discovered that the folks on the Game Show Network already had an answer: The American Bible Challenge.
I exaggerate slightly by comparing a bible trivia game show with Atlas Shrugged, of course, but I still feel uneasy about the whole thing. The program, hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, pits teams (of nuns, wrestlers, rabbis, Xian tattoo artists, etc.) against each other in a mix of bible quiz questions and tricky coordination-based physical challenges recognizable from other recent game shows (Guy Fieri’s Minute to Win It comes to mind). The program’s web page adds another dimension to the experience, featuring the video testimonies of Christian recording artists, a daily bible study exercise, and endorsements from several celebrity pastors. Among those who offer their endorsement is the ever-marketable Max Lucado and, while my initial gut reaction to the game show was admittedly negative, it was his comments that seemed to raise the greatest concerns for me. He repeatedly compares the Scriptures to vegetables—unpleasant things that, though undesirable by themselves, are essential to our health—and celebrates the American Bible Challenge as a wonderful way to help people stomach a little of God’s Word.
His remarks reveal an answer to the question, “what should a Christian game show look like?” and that answer is subordinate to a second question: “why have a Christian game show in the first place?” Why have one? To help people forget how unpleasant the Bible can be. Thus, what should it look like? As in so many areas of Christian popular culture, it is simply made to look like its popular, appealing, secular cousins. The chief problem with Lucado’s defense of the game is the failure to recognize that the scriptures are not only spiritually healthful (like asparagus), but are in themselves sweet, pleasant, desirable, and engaging (like asparagus rightly considered). The second problem, akin to the first, is the misconception that reducing the Word of God to (literally) trivia—entertaining tidbits abstracted from their context and narrative significance—undercuts the intended goal of spiritually equipping the game show’s audience and instilling real biblical literacy.
For all of the American Bible Challenge’s ostensible celebration of the bible, it ultimately seems to argue for a diminished vision of the scriptures: healthful but repulsive, like a spoonful of medicine. One wonders if the program will ever feature a quiz question about God’s promise regarding His Word, that it not only brings life to those that eat it, but is sweet to the taste.
What, then, should a Christian game show look like? I still can’t claim to have an answer, though my instinct says ‘anything but a bible quiz’ (a game like Jeopardy seems far less embarrassing to the scriptures, for instance). Yet I think, as Mr. Lucado indicated, the answer should flow out of our answer to the other question: why a Christian game show at all? And, as answers to that question go, we should aspire to much much more.
Sean Johnson is a graduate student who likes to think he would be pretty good on a game show.