O brother, where art thou?

In 2000, we began a social experiment which in many ways has transformed TV watching. Big Brother started and then its spin off Celebrity Big Brother. Fading stars restarted careers, politicians looked foolish, ordinary people became stars for a moment and got to the giddy heights of ‘Hello’ magazine. I watched it once and couldn’t see the point. A dear friend became utterly hooked. Its success has had two enduring effects on TV and two other effects which are the point of the article. 

The two enduring effects on TV is that most scheduling now relies on reality shows of one sort or another. TV becomes like a Victorian freak show – the amazing hairy child, the fattest man, the shrinking woman, the naughtiest children etc. We opened up our private lives for all to see. We let the TV in everywhere – really, everywhere. Real sex on Big Brother!! Then, secondly there was the voting. Big Brother seemed to spawn other shows – Come Dancing, X Factor and all their spin-offs in which expert judgement and feedback is overwhelmed by public thumbs up or down. The 51% consensus rules. We were being educated in how everyone’s opinion matters whether we know anything about the subject or not. Imagine for a moment getting a vote on Mastermind or University Challenge.

There are two more serious points. The first is that technology followed in the wake of Big Brother. With social media we could all be on Big Brother. We could chat banally, share photos, punish each other and quarrel, bully and film each other fighting or performing sexual acts. We are still continuing an experiment in how much privacy we really want. Oddly, the revelations of Edward Snowden, which I understand are genuinely damaging to Western security and which indicate that eavesdropping is happening on a massive scale by America, receives muted interest. We already share so much – why do we need secrets or privacy? Lost something in ‘the cloud’? The NSA have it stored somewhere in Nebraska. There are over 30 street cameras within a few yards of the flat where George Orwell wrote 1984.

The second issue is that it trained us in the 51% consensus. I am a fan of Masterchef and TGBB because I enjoy watching clever people doing things I do a little of and getting expert judgement. I learn a lot. I admire expertise and commitment to excellence. God forbid we should be asked to vote! We have experts, John Torode and Mary Berry, who hold the contestants to account. There is a high standard of excellence, of taste, of presentation and contestants are held to it.

But think a little more widely about the implications of everyone getting a vote. If there are no objective values, no sharp edges to the moral universe, if nothing gets fundamentally out of true when we lie or cheat or steal or are cruel, then what matters is not right or wrong but whether a thing is legal or not. A woman said about the scandal of the over statement of MP’s expenses, ‘What is worrying is that they don’t seem to understand that even if it was legal, it was still wrong’. Well, quite, but that is a rather quaint view resting on that old Judeo-Christian foundation. If there are no objective moral values, no ethical universe in which we all live, then we are left with political correctness and the HR department. What is right or wrong is left to the 51% consensus and the legal teams which define right or wrong for us. And the baying crowd represented by the tabloids.

The Christian church was ruthlessly repressed, corrupted and attacked by Hitler and Stalin because it represented something they abhorred. It represented transcendence, an objective moral universe which had rough edges, consequences and ultimately judgement. There was something infinitely greater than the 51% consensus. Only if our lives have great worth are they worth judging. It is that judgement to come which confers on us our dignity, the challenge to live well along the moral grain of the universe. It is necessary for the church to be seen to be obeying the best standards of employment practice. There is still too much cronyism in the Church of England. There is still too much protectionism in our Catholic brethren. But HR only holds us up to the legalities of that 51% majority which is found in a deeply relativistic society.

There is quite another standard that upholds the universe, a moral grain that runs through it, a transcendent objective ethical truth and a holy God. That standard should be the life blood, the very atmosphere of the church we serve. It is whether we are living in the context of that standard that will matter for the integrity of our ministry.

Tim Marks
November 2013