Television viewers have an opportunity this fall and winter to witness two very different sets of games from the land down under. Both will provide tests of mental and physical endurance, and both will provide previously anonymous competitors a few minutes of fame. But the games will be very different: one ancient, the other (post)modern; one about highly trained athletes chosen for their skill, the other about "real people" chosen for group dynamics. One is the Olympics; the other is Survivor II: "Swifter, higher, stronger" vs. "outwit, outplay, outlast."After establishing itself as the highest-rated summer series in television history, CBS's Survivor will return this winter with new castaways, this time "stranded" in the Australian outback with a TV crew again taping them at random. As before, one individual will be "voted off" each week, and the final survivor will win $1 million.Thousands of men and women have sent in applications to be a part of the show, and millions will watch the carefully edited program, which is scheduled to begin airing in January.The possibility of fame and fortune has always made people do silly things, so it's not surprising that self-respecting persons would willingly abandon the comforts of home for a diet of rats and rice in the company of contentious strangers. Others have done worse for less reward.But why do we bother to watch? And what can we possibly learn in the process? In particular, what can we learn about human nature, and what lessons might that provide for the church?

Contrived reality

In Darwinian terms, the "survival of the fittest" is accelerated by competition for resources. When the food supply is limited, some people will go hungry, and when they die, we surmise they must have been less fit for survival. Those who do survive are thought to be more fit, or perhaps just more lucky. Either way, the whole process wouldn't be much fun to watch. Had CBS been more serious about "reality TV," with the castaways contending for genuine survival, Survivor might have looked more like Lord of the Flies. We can be thankful that CBS wanted the program's title to remain metaphorical.There wasn't much food on Pulau Tiga, but since the network wanted even the less fit to be able to go home, it established some ground rules. Sixteen "castaways" were divided into two equal tribes, competing against each other in organized contests for both "rewards" and "immunity" in each episode.The tribe that won the reward gained some physical or emotional edge over the other tribe. Equipment for spearing fish, for example, made the Tagi tribe "more fit" for survival on a tropical island. Their Pagong rivals continued to eat captured rats. The immunity challenge was even more consequential: the losing tribe had to send one of its members home.All these circumstances were obviously contrived, but the simulated struggle for survival allowed the tribes to demonstrate one of the most basic principles of human nature and politics: driven by the self-interest of their members, groups will always act in their own best interests.Reinhold Niebuhr expressed the point memorably almost 70 years ago in Moral Man and Immoral Society: "As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic, and national groups they take for themselves whatever their power can command."Beginning by eliminating the physically weak, the tribes inevitably made decisions that hurt the least. With each vote they did what they thought was best for the group.The rules of the game changed halfway through the series, when the two tribes merged. Individualism would now replace group identity; at least that's what most viewers thought. But real life doesn't work that way, and neither did the TV show. As the saying goes, there is safety in numbers. Like Cain, who refused to be a wanderer and sought protection by founding a city, individuals typically form alliances in pursuit of personal gain.That's why nobody should have been surprised when several members of the old Tagi tribe continued to vote together as a bloc even after the tribal merger. They protected one another's interests by lining up against each of their competitors, beginning with the strongest. When the others didn't form a similar pact, believing alliances to be bad form, they had little chance to survive.Of course, you don't have to be a temporary TV star on a deserted island to find your career path blocked by someone else's Machiavellian alliance or good-old-boy network. The same dynamics are familiar to those who understand corporate politics. That's why some were surprised to see B. B., the successful business executive (i.e., the corporate survivor), depart the island so quickly. He actually asked the others to vote him off, but he may have been in trouble even without issuing an invitation, especially given the youthful makeup of his tribe. When B. B. had to leave, one of the younger men mocked, "Arrr! And a good leader ya were, too!"Such attitudes come easily to those who view their leaders through the lens of postmodern cynicism. No longer following the idealistic notion that our leaders are somehow better than us, and moving beyond the modern refrain that anyone can grow up to be president, many today think of leaders and executives as not uncommon men and women who have sold their souls to the devil. Like Richard, the corporate trainer who won Survivor's $1 million prize, they are not necessarily more talented than the rest of us, nor are they more virtuous, but they do know how to play the game. In the comic strip, Dilbert's pointy-haired boss may be an incompetent demon, but he knows how to win.So what is the moral of the story so far? In the real world, whether or not it's shown on TV, the selfish tend to survive, especially when they are selfish enough to form alliances.That is not to say, of course, that they truly succeed. After all, Jesus said the first will be last and the last first. By seeking a reward that is beyond this life, believers may be defeated until the parousia, but they will ultimately be first. "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for my name's sake shall receive many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19:29, NASB).

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Are we any different?

That kind of promise raises a significant question. Are we who are seeking a better city just as motivated by self-interest as the competitors on Survivor? After all, they were willing to endure difficult circumstances for a short time in the hope that they might become rich. How is that different from our suffering "for a little while" as we anticipate our final salvation (1 Peter 1:5-9)?First, our hope is more relational. Put simply, we do not hope for more stuff; we hope for Christ.Second, our hope is more communal. It is a shared and inclusive hope, not one in which personal survival demands the defeat of others.The church is to be a place where there are no winners or losers, no competition for survival. The weak are not voted off but embraced, strengthened, and encouraged. The strong are not rejected as rivals but freed for ministry. Leaders are trusted, not mocked, and the diversity of gifts is appreciated.Unlike the tribes on Survivor, and unlike other groups in the world, the church is safer when it isn't trying to win.

Robert Pyneis professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of Humanity and Sin: The Creation, Fall, and Redemption of Humanity.

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Related Elsewhere's Lance Morrow wrote a Web essay, " Why 'Survivor' Left Me Feeling Sad and Dirty."To read about events of the Summer Olympics, or October's Paralympics in Sydney, visit is a site for those who love to pontificate and criticize. Currently it displays gossip about the upcoming show and a countdown clock to the premiere of Survivor II.Read Entertainment Weekly's predictions for the cast of the original Survivor as they negotiate their newfound fame.For reams of Survivor reports including the latest gossip about the possible site of Survivor II, click here.CBS's Survivor sites include an ad for Survivor II in Australia and the official Survivor site with interviews and personality profiles from the old cast.Previous Christianity Today stories about Survivor and the Sydney Olympics include:Olympic Chaplains Not Taken Seriously, Christians Claim | Australian Christians say the Olympic committee views chaplains as just another group of volunteers. (Sept. 18, 2000) A Bible for the Likes of Mike | German athletes collaborate on an Olympic "sports Bible" that even Michael Johnson could love. (Sept. 18, 2000) Is Reality TV Beyond Redemption? | CBS hooks viewers with new lowbrow programming. (Aug. 2, 2000) Weblog: Is CBS's Survivor Pro-Abortion, Pro-Euthanasia, and Pro-Evolution? (June 19, 2000)

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