Lesson 4: Life as a Reality Television Show

Celebrity Apprentice boardroomYears ago, students of technology warned that everything in a technological society becomes entertainment. Usually they were speaking about the evening news, and their prescience is downright obvious there. Today, news has become 24/7 entertainment, political talk show hosts rationalize their inaccuracies by claiming they provide entertainment and not news, and every network is open to the half-truth that they are fake news.

However, the warning goes beyond news programs. Politics has also become entertainment. Two and maybe three of the last six US presidents have been entertainers. We all know Reagan was a movie star. A good case can be made that Clinton falls into this category. And I believe Trump was elected as a reality television star, not a businessman. His administration is certainly the epitome of this style. We awake each morning to hear the next episode in an indecent soap opera. No matter what our political positions, we are entertained as nuclear war, the power of the wealthy, the neglect of the needy, climate change, etc. are discussed as if they are fascinating topics, not threats to our well-being and existence. Perhaps even worse, we allow such political entertaining from both sides to divert us from international corporations trumping governments, technology eliminating human work, and endless wars draining our financial and moral resources.

Of course, this reflects the denigration of truth in our culture. Most of us no longer believe it is possible to identify a meaning or purpose for life. We cynically declare that history is written by the winners and reflects their self-serving parochial ideologies. We fatalistically accept the fantasy that everything can be understood in terms of winning or losing. Those who win at any cost are admired and those who lose in spite of any circumstance are deprecated.

In this situation, the Church becomes critical because Christianity places us in an entirely different context. For starters, our Bible is a record of the losers in history. Believers suffering under oppressive empires wrote most of it, and often they were trying to explain how God could be with the losers.

The Vatican II Council seemed to appreciate this when it chose the Servant model to express the Church’s relationship to modern society. I suspect the selection was made conscious of what was then the textbook list of models identified by Avery Dulles: the Church as institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald, servant, and community of disciples.

The council thought “servant” best expressed their desire to become a visible community that provides an example of humility and self-sacrifice in ministering to humanity. The model captures a realistic picture of the Church’s place in our society, as well as God’s call to care for the weak and the poor.

I was reminded how complex the biblical understanding of servant is after recently reading Sarah Ruden’s, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. Rudin is a classic scholar who reads Paul in the context of Greco-Roman culture. She makes clear nobody in that society would appreciate being called a servant. The word could well be translated slave, and in a society where the master had complete privilege, the slave was less than human. He had no identity or self. As the Centurion maintained in Matthew 8:9, “when I say do this, he does it.” The servant is not a person. His only being is a reflection of his master. When you see the good servant, you see the master.

It is in that light that the leading biblical saints, Paul, Peter, John, and Mary call themselves God’s servants. Indeed, Jesus himself was often identified as God’s perfect servant. When you see Jesus, you see God, and when you see a saint, you see Jesus.

Vatican II recognized that this applies to the whole people of God. Isaiah speaks of Israel as God’s servant who even suffers in following his will. Jesus’ parables often feature servants called to obey their masters even when he is absent. Mary’s “I am the Lord’s servant, let it be according to your word” becomes the perfect example. And, Jesus reminds us how absolute this is when he warns we can not serve two masters.

The Bible very effectively uses the lowest of human society as a model for discipleship that turns all upside down. Jesus himself proclaims he did not come to be served, but to serve, even to give his life as a ransom for many. He also claims anyone else who wants to be first or great must be servant of all.

Significantly, Vatican II, like the Bible, uses this model to express the dignity, rather than the sin, of persons. John does that when Jesus, God’s perfect servant, serves his disciples by washing their feet. Immediately, he proclaims he will no longer regard them as servants but as friends, because they now know what God is doing. The divine operates in love, not power, making those once regarded as less than human his friends. Responding in love replaces taking orders.

Vatican II’s model is especially critical in our time when so many Christians are still trying to operate as an Imperial Church wielding power. Sadly, they engage in society’s reality television show by making power alliances that leaves them endorsing the indecency that daily entertains us.

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