Reality TV

The cartoon strip, Mixed Media is off-beat. Sometimes itís funny, sometimes itís not. I donít know that Iíve ever laughed out loud reading it, as I have done reading Dilbert on several occasions. But the strip featured in the Monday, August 28th paper was poignant, though not too hilarious. The scene was a board room, and the guy at the head of the table was saying something to the effect of, ďYou canít vote me off the island - I own the island!Ē

Reality sinks in for the cartoon characters. Thatís odd: it would have worked on TV. Thatís what really makes the phenomenon of ďReality TVĒ so weird: itís not reality. In a real competition of ďsurvival of the fittest,Ē you donít really become king of the hill by garnering votes. And what is the major accomplishment of triumphing over women and old Navy guys?

What if you were invited to appear on a reality based show? Suppose you got a telephone call, telling you that you have been named to appear on the Jerry Springer show, at your mateís request. Would that make you happy, or unhappy?

Saint Augustine was born into a middle-class Roman pagan family, became a master of, and opened his own school of rhetoric. That would be the modern-day equivalent of opening your own law school. His profession was oration, and he taught the techniques used to persuade courts to rule in your favor, even if youíre in the wrong, through orchestrated eloquence. He was a genius, and prospered abundantly.

In his genius, he sought to understand the mysteries of creation and meaning of life, just like the geniuses of Greek philosophy reknown. He dabbled in astrology, and immersed himself in a couple of the dominant intellectual pagan religions, only to come up dissatisfied in his quest for knowledge. All the while, his mother, who had converted to Christianity during his youth, pleaded with him to turn to Christ with many tears and entreaties. But Christianity didnít appeal to him, because it seemed simple, and womanish.

But after testing all the various philosophies and theologies, his curiosity to Christianity was piqued by a guy named Ambrose, who taught that the seemingly simple aspects of scripture, served as allegory to deeper, spiritual truths. This key to unlocking mysteries captivated Augustine, prompting his conversion to Christianity, where he applied his genius to explaining and teaching those truths, rather than the art of lying via rhetoric.

In 397 AD, he penned The Confessions, detailing his odyssey, and it has been treasured as an authoritative masterpiece of western civilization ever since. His theology has been criticized by some schools of thought, but the genius of his insight is irrefutable. Following is an excerpt from the Outler translation of Book 3, Chapter 2 of Augustines Confessions:

Stage plays also captivated me, with their sights full of the images of my own miseries: fuel for my own fire. Now, why does a man like to be made sad by viewing doleful and tragic scenes, which he himself could not by any means endure? Yet, as a spectator, he wishes to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very sense of grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched madness? For a man is more affected by these actions the more he is spuriously involved in these affections. Now, if he should suffer them in his own person, it is the custom to call this "misery." But when he suffers with another, then it is called "compassion." But what kind of compassion is it that arises from viewing fictitious and unreal sufferings? The spectator is not expected to aid the sufferer but merely to grieve for him. And the more he grieves the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. If the misfortunes of the characters--whether historical or entirely imaginary--are represented so as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and complaining. But if his feelings are deeply touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy.

It just astounds me that this was written in 397 AD, and not 1997 AD. You could replace ďstage playsĒ with ďtelevision,Ē and a treatise written 1600 years ago becomes instantly current, and relevant for our age.

The inherent danger that Augustine imputes to obsession with entertainment, is the cathartic effect on conscience by a false sense of self-virtue, because sympathy for fictitious others has been experienced. This epidemic curiosity into the affairs of others, has made our society susceptible to basing our sense of morality on a surrogate reality. And since much of what we consider news has been contorted by the sheer liberal bias of the media, it could be rightly deemed fiction as well.

If we continue to follow in the footsteps of the fallen Roman Empire, history will show that systems of justice based on situational ethics, in the place of moral absolutes was, as with the Romans, the catalyst of that fall (Before the preeminence of enlightenment philosophy in universities, the womb of situational ethics, Augustineís Confessions were required reading in academia, universally. Now that modern translations are available, if youíve got time to read, I highly recommend clicking on the link above, and perusing it).

The convenience of alternative reality, concocted by screenwriters and newscasters, in the absence of commitment required by the spectator; as Augustine pointed out, your emotions are stirred, but youíre not expected to act on them. Hence, we as a culture are being seduced into uncommitted involvement. Thatís whatís producing the atmosphere where children grow up, reasoning that itís perfectly acceptable to vent your rage by spraying bullets indiscriminately, or smothering babies, and tossing them in the trash. Augustine continued:

I have not yet ceased to have compassion. But in those days in the theaters I sympathized with lovers when they sinfully enjoyed one another, although this was done fictitiously in the play. And when they lost one another, I grieved with them, as if pitying them, and yet had delight in both grief and pity. Nowadays I feel much more pity for one who delights in his wickedness than for one who counts himself unfortunate because he fails to obtain some harmful pleasure or suffers the loss of some miserable felicity. This, surely, is the truer compassion, but the sorrow I feel in it has no delight for me. For although he that grieves with the unhappy should be commended for his work of love, yet he who has the power of real compassion would still prefer that there be nothing for him to grieve about.

So, in Augustineís logic, we should get involved in real peopleís lives, rather than get involved in fiction.

Funny, thatís what God says too (James 2).

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