T. S. Eliot once said something to the effect that as a species, we humans cannot bear too much reality. Perhaps that explains our fascination with sports, movies and all things diverting: those things allow us to take our minds off other things. After all, it is hard to be grieved over the hungry when we are on the treadmill trying to flatten our own stomachs. It is tough to give over-much thought to the homeless when we are engrossed in March Madness and fiddling with the reception on the plasma-screen TV. Who will hear that the bell tolls for us when we suppose the only battles being fought are far away?
And who really wants to be a peacemaker? Probably not those with stock in CNN or Fox. War is big business and prime-time entertainment: if we but objectify, politicize and trivialize the most horrible aspects of life, we only prove Eliot’s point. We turn our griefs into bad jokes, our tragedies into B-movies, our foibles and fetishes into sitcoms and talk shows—St. Paul must have had afternoon TV in mind when he said that we glory in our shame. Or, if you are like Simon on Idol, you glory in another’s shame.
All that to say that, as Americans we do not deal with reality as much as we gloss it, buff it, package it and sell it. A night in front of the Zenith is nothing more than a stroll through the carnival’s midway as hucksters—we call them announcers—invite us to this amazing sideshow or that: Come see the freaks and the crazies! Come watch a man eat unhatched gooney-bird eggs and a woman get in a coffin with a thousand live snakes! Watch folk face their deepest fears, even if their fears are staged and hyped and hokum.
Reality TV is anything but, but there are others with their hands in this cookie jar.
In fact, Eliot’s insight interprets a large segment of our economy. Think for a second: How many businesses (and late-night infomercials!) hope to lure you and your money with a promise of protection from the “realities” of life? Insurance? Cosmetics? Health care? How many industries offer an “escape” from those same realities? Sports? Entertainment? Travel and resorts? Even TV religion, sad to say—prosperity preachers.
We avoid reality the best we can, most of us, and if that explains why some folk love TV religion, it also explains why others avoid the real thing. Faith is a matter of life and death and the deepest realities of human experience. And it is just so much easier to wonder what movies are opening, where we will eat, or who won last night’s game.