In the program Big Brother redemption takes the form of the “The Power of Veto”. The house-guest who wins the ‘power of veto’ may use this power to save someone nominated for eviction. One can either use it upon themselves or another player, thus ensuring continual involvement in the house. Here, redemption is reserved for the one who is victorious in challenge. Importantly, then, redemption is a power to be won or lost. In Big Brother, redemption is a force to be used to thwart one’s opponents, or as a means to maintain control.
Back in season 22, Survivor introduced the dynamic of “Redemption Island.” This was a change to the previous concept of Exile Island (introduced in season 12). In this twist of the game, a contestant voted off the tribe is not truly out of the game. One could still battle their way back into the tribe by the winning of challenges and the defeat of opponents. Here, redemption means survival – a survival procured through one’s own work and effort.
The hit cooking competition, Top Chef, has followed due course with their introduction of ‘Last Chance Kitchen.’ Like Survivor, an ousted chef can earn their way back into the competition, thus proving their skill and fortitude in the culinary world. In fact, in season 10, contestant Kristen Kish battled her way through Last Chance Kitchen and not only re-entered the competition, but won the whole show. In Top Chef, redemption is a display of skill. A chef only realizes their redemption insofar as they are able to prove themselves better than another.
Perhaps the closest approximation to the Biblical notion of redemption has come from the current season of Survivor. Titled “Blood vs. Water”, this season involves returning contestants competing against/with their loved ones. Redemption Island is back in play, although this time it takes a different twist. Instead of simply being another level of challenges, on “Blood vs. Water”, an individual may choose to swap places with their redemption-vying loved one. A contestant who was not voted out (and possibly from another tribe) may voluntarily give up their space on their tribe in order to take their loved one’s place in the redemption challenge. They who sit in freedom voluntarily divests themselves of that status in order to take on the condemnation of their loved one. Paul’s words that ‘God made him who who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might be the righteousness of God’ immediately jump to mind. (2nd Corinthians 5:21) Here redemption means freedom. It means a reversal of one’s condemnation and exile. Redemption equals a renewal of life.
What does it mean to be redeemed? Is redemption something that we win for ourselves, or is it something that is handed to us? Furthermore, once we receive such redemption, what are the instances and reasons for which that redemption could be lost? Are the plot devices of these hit reality shows highlighting a deeper and spiritual question? The myriad of redemption-like depictions on television would seem to suggest that they are. The multitude of such occurrences also suggests a deep dissatisfaction with the answers provided by popular culture. After all, a system of redemption that can be easily lost doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
The church, then, has a profound opportunity to speak about something that is central to our faith. The exploring of redemption in reality television creates the space for the church to enter into such conversations. To those feeling the personal agony over lost redemption, the church is able to speak the truth of God’s ever presence. When Top Chef shows redemption as proving one’s self as better than another, the church can live out the reality that true redemption is steeped in grace and love. And, as the fans of Survivor watched as Rupert took on the condemnation of his wife, giving her his freedom, the church is able to act as a witness to the one who came ‘to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Matthew 20:28)