Several years ago John De Mol started an international sensation called Big Brother. It first started overseas in the UK and spread eventually to the United States once Survivor proved there was an audience for prime-time reality competition.
I don’t remember much about the first season of Big Brother; it was a long time ago. I only remember Chicken George but have no clue if he won or not. Several summers passed, and I neglected to watch the series consistently, though I did tune every now and then.
This year was the first time in sixteen years I decided to really give the show a shot and watch through an entire season. It was Donnie, the southern groundskeeper from North Carolina that caused me to keep tuning. But as each week passed and the production brought me new insights to the cast of characters, I started watching for other reasons.
I couldn’t stand the annoying and flamboyant personality of Frankie, the openly gay brother of Ariana Grande. I was impressed with Victoria’s ability to pretend to be so dumb (or was she pretending), and I cheered as the fake, bow-tie wearing, female word of faith pastor Jacosta, who seemed to be using the Big Brother house as an audition for Preachers of LA, finally got sent to the jury house.
It struck me that Big Brother wasn’t just Real World with weekly evictions. It’s not even really focused on sexuality or the immorality that occurs in such contrived environments (though in other countries this is exactly the focus of Big Brother). Instead it was an incredibly intense physical and mental game. It was both athletic and academic. It’s probably the most complex version of Chess ever made. To CBS’ credit, they treat the show as a professional sporting event.
For those who are not familiar with the basic premise of the show I will sum it up.
14 people enter a house of over 70 HD cameras that are constantly filming every square foot. Each week there are three competitions that vary in some way from season to season.
First is the Head of Household (HoH) competition. The winner becomes, as the name implies, the Head of the Household. His or her responsibility is to nominate two people for possible eviction at the end of the week.
The second competition is the Power of Veto competition in which the winner can receive the ability to take someone off the block, making them immune to eviction. The winner can choose to use it on himself (if they are nominated), or they may choose to not use it at all. Think immunity idol.
If the Veto is used, the HoH has to select someone else to be nominated to fill the vacant chair. This is where the strategy can come into play. When someone is placed on the block as a replacement, they have no hope for immunity. A key strategy at this point is to backdoor a stronger player by placing them up with no chance of saving themselves, but who do you put up as a pawn to sit beside them? Who is really the pawn?
In some seasons there will be an additional food competition in which the housemates compete as a unified team to win food or be punished by only being allowed to eat a terrible oatmeal like concoction called Big Brother slop. No one cares about this competition, but it fills the time. Luckily, in season sixteen, this competition was omitted in favor of another critical gameplay competition which made the show far more enjoyable.
At the end of the summer, the final two houseguests are placed before a jury of previously evicted, bloodied and backstabbed houseguests who must vote for the winner.
The entire premise of the show relies on whether or not you can trust anyone. The Big Brother house is built on lies, gossip, cheating and manipulation. On one hand you can play the game honestly, and you will probably lose. On the other you can play the game maliciously, but only to an extent. You must remember that the people you backstab have to like you enough to vote you as the winner in the end.
So how does one play Big Brother?
The many winners of the past sixteen years all have had different strategies. Some work behind the scenes and use others to do their dirty work. Others pretend to be crippled and weak until the critical moment requires them to rise up and strike a knife in the back of unsuspecting players.
But as I watched Big Brother a more critical question entered my head: How on earth could a Christian play this game?
Let us assume for the sake of argument that a Christian could use the constant blinking lights and motor hums of the cameras as accountability. Knowing his elders were watching along with his friends and family, it could be possible that he could avoid the sexual temptation of living in a house with the opposite sex. You’re not really ever by yourself in the Big Brother house. There’s a team of production members right behind the paper thin walls, and your mother probably falls asleep watching you sleep on her all access live feed. You’re more likely to be alone with a member of the opposite sex at summer camp or in the backseat of a Church van on a youth group field trip than you are in this house.
But what about the lying?
This is the question that bugged me while watching it. Several of this years cast claimed to adhere to a Christian worldview. You had Jacosta the word of faith pastor, and Caleb the Beast Mode Cowboy who rocked a NOTW tattoo.
How on earth can someone claim to adhere to a Christian worldview and enter into a game in which lying is the primary and most important strategy?
It’s this question I posed over and over this season and as I binged watched previous seasons alongside it.
I brought this question up in small group at my Church. One person brought up a party game called Mafia in which the players are given a secret identity and must deceive people into not guessing their correct identity. That game, like Big Brother requires flat out deception while looking into the eyes of your friends.
So is that game sinful?
What about tricking your opponent into taking that lonely pawn in a game of chess or a quarterback faking a pass? Can Christians play poker if they can’t bluff?
At first glance the Bible seems pretty clear: “Thou shalt not lie.” It’s in the Ten Commandments. You can’t be more specific than that. But perhaps, like most seemingly simplistic passages of Scripture, “Thou shalt not lie” is not as simple as those four words appear to be.
Doug Wilson when preaching through Psalm 59 preached a sermon called Deception and War where he argued that much like there is a biblical difference between killing and murder, there is also a difference between lying and deception.
From his study guide for the sermon:
In a state of peace, lying is a great evil. The lake of fire is reserved for liars (Rev. 21:8). We are told not to lie to one another (Col. 3:9). We are commanded not to bear false witness against our neighbor (Ex. 20:16).
In a condition of war, deception is not the kind of lying we just noted. It is not a sin to paint your tank to look like a bush when it is in fact not a bush. But you are deceiving the enemy pilots . . . The Hebrew midwives lied to Pharaoh, and so God greatly blessed them (Ex. 1:17-19). Rahab hid the spies, sent them out another way than she said she did, and James tells us that this deception was what vindicated her faith as true and living faith (Jas. 2:25). In her case, faith without such a deception would have been dead. David pretended to be mad when he was not (1 Sam. 21:15). God told Joshua to deceive the soldiers of Ai with a fake retreat (Josh. 8:1-2).
So then is Big Brother war? Or more specifically do games and sports qualify for the same lying versus deception distinction?
I would argue that to some extent they do. With Big Brother you have several people entering into a competition where they know the rules and they know what needs to be done to win the money. There’s no one clueless as to the predicament that they signed up for. But of course ninety days is a long time and some people seem to forget they are playing, or they are just really bad at playing and become emotional wrecks for the joy of the story editors and the entertainment of the viewers.
But we should also remember that war allows for killing, whereas games do not. Christian’s cannot kill for sport, though any QB might argue that a surprise sack can come pretty close.
Any deception in any game should never come at the cost of maliciously destroying an image bearer of God. The command to love our neighbors as ourselves still applies, even in war.
This is perhaps why I felt so uncomfortable while watching Dan Gheesling play in season 14. Dan Gheesling, a Catholic college football coach was the winner of Season 10. He played a pretty stand up game, brilliant at deception, in a way no one could fault him for.
But when he returned in season 14 to play alongside first time players who were aware of his nice guy strategy he turned into one of the most villainous players in Big Brother history. Early on Dan found a girl named Danielle who was very easily manipulated by her emotions. He befriended her and gained her undying trust. Time, after time again, in the most shocking moments of reality television history he betrayed her. Leaving her to nothing more than a pile tears before her fellow housemates. He regained her trust simply by stating that he gifted her with so much sympathy among the other housemates that no one could ever nominate her for eviction. He was right; it worked. You have to leave your heart at the door,” he told her. “I left my heart at the door when I stepped into the house.
In tears she laughed as she forgivingly threw a pillow at Dan’s face…but only to be betrayed by Dan once again with finality in the final weeks of the game.
Dan is widely hailed as the best player in the history of Big Brother and it would be hard to disagree.
I watched cheering on his brilliant deception and gameplay. It was truly astonishing, but the way he used Danielle just didn’t sit well. It seemed as if Dan crossed a line between honest deception, strategic gameplay and emotional abuse. But what do you expect from someone who by his own words will simply “go to confession once [he] leaves.”
The jury agreed, and, even though he clearly should have won, they voted against him because of his ruthlessness.
Whether in war time, reality television, professional sports, or just playing a game with friends there is no possible scenario in which one can abandon his worldview.
Football has penalty flags and no one enters the six sided ring without knowing they can tap out. These rules we have created for sport are to protect image bearers of Christ. Even friendly competition can go too far. The problem with Big Brother is that there is no way to regulate the ethics of your gameplay…that is, until that first dinner outside the house with your elders, who watched your every move.
I admittedly don’t have all the answers to the moral and philosophical questions Big Brother brings up but maybe one day the casting agents for Big Brother will decide to hire an authentic Christian as opposed to the caricatures of Christians that they normally do. Then we can see how deception in gameplay is accurately partnered with loving one’s enemies.