Tuesday, September 24, 2013

WIFE SWAP's Atheists and Christians: Reality Television and Lessons on Civility

I don't share many of my teenage daughter's interests in television, particularly the expressions of reality TV that she enjoys, but yesterday I found an episode of a program she turned on interesting. It was a past episode from the show WIFE SWAP from 2007 as it turns out. The basic premise of the show is to find two very different families and lifestyles and then swap the wives to live with the other families in order to set up a very uncomfortable two weeks for the women and the families they are staying with. The first week the wives have to live as the wife who lives in the home, and the second week the wives get to turn the tables and make the families live as they do in their own homes. Depending upon the types of families that participate, the program can be very interesting to say the least.

The episode re-aired yesterday brought together a family of white atheists and a black family of Evangelical Christians. These families could not have been more different as each embodied the stereotypes often attributed to them, the atheist family being heavily tattooed with edgy hairstyles and a wife with a shaved head, and the Christian family being very conservatively dressed. The atheist family prided themselves on being freethinkers, not only in the area of religion but also in regards to letting their children do whatever they wanted, and exposing them to almost everything in life, including their parents liberal attitudes toward sex. The Christian family prided themselves on the centrality of their faith that informed every aspect of their lives, including ideas about male and female gender roles in the home and workplace to the influence of God in every aspect of life such as having their children pray before tests so that God could remind them of answers for higher grades. In the atheist home the wife worked long days in an in-home Internet business while the husband took care of the cooking and cleaning, while in the Christian home they followed "what God's Word says" as the husband worked outside the home and the wife and daughter were responsible for all the cooking and cleaning. The husband and son did none of it because of "Man Law," the allegedly biblical ideas related to masculine and feminine roles.

After the wives swapped homes there was the much anticipated shock of the women and the families they were staying with. The clashes were expected by the audience, but what was most interesting was the way in which each of the wives and families attempted to present their alternative worldview perspectives to others who were at odds with them. Being at such polar opposites it was clear that the families would never likely persuade each other and held irreconcilable differences. What then to do? Unfortunately, each took the path of coercion and ridicule. For the atheist family with the swapped Christian wife, they made it clear that God was a myth and a crutch, and Christians were anything but freethinkers, conspiring to force their limited view of reality and restrictions on fun on others. The constantly reminded the Christian woman of not only their choice in skepticism, but their need to mock what others held sacred. In the Christian home with the swapped atheist wife, they too felt compelled to share their beliefs with a lack of any sensitivity or framing for the perspectives of their unbelieving guest. They forced the atheist woman to go to church and participate in a Bible study against her express desires. She relented only because of the rules of the television program. When it was time for the wives to impose their will and perspectives on the other families, they followed suit and coerced family members into conformity with their understanding of reality. The atheist wife took away all religious items and icons, and the Christian wife forced the family to go to church and made her temporary "husband" preach with a Bible in hand in public "like he believed it" as punishment for violating her rules. The result of much of this was anger, conflict, shouting, ridicule, and confirmation on both sides that the perceptions of "the other" was confirmed and their lifestyle with its supporting worldview was justified and the only legitimate way to see things.

Even with these clashes there were positive aspects of this program. At one point when the atheist family went to church with the Christian woman they expressed their surprise that rather than being preached at they were able to play games and socialize with others that seemed to care for them. The atheist father goes on record sharing his appreciation for these kinds of expressions of Christianity. In another segment the Christian father comes to reassess his assumptions about the roles of men and women that he has connected to his faith, along with a willingness to allow his teenage daughters greater freedom in socializing with boys and girls. When the participants in this television program were willing to move beyond coercing and abusing others with and through their respective traditions and ideologies then positive things happened.

And this is where we can learn something positive and important from an unlikely source in pop culture. While WIFE SWAP thrives on the drama of the clash of personalities, and in so doing presents the all too common ways in which human beings interact with each other over their differences, at times it can also remind us of the way in which to navigate more carefully through them. While retaining confidence in our convictions, rather than using coercion to impose our perspectives upon others in the hopes of persuading them to join us, there is great value in respect and a softer hand. At the conclusion of this program the two couples come together to discuss their experiences and what they learned. At one point the topic of forcing perspectives on others comes up with examples on both sides, and the Christian woman states that at least the atheist father could have respected her in her faith commitments even while seriously disagreeing with her choices. At the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy we practice The Way of Openness, a set of guidelines that are put into place as we interact with others. One of these guidelines is "Be Kind:"
Kindness will go further towards building trust than any other virtue listed here. Kindness is never outdated. It is not weak, or naive, or small. It changes hearts and minds and can quickly tear down walls because genuine kindness is easily recognized and understood by everyone. BUT...nothing is more offensive or destructive than kindness that is forced, phony, or insincere.
WIFE SWAP is produced for entertainment, for viewers to take joy in the clash of competing family perspectives. When an atheist and a Christian family go head to head, the audience is given the fight that it was hoping for. But in this episode it got a little bit more. The clash of these families is not contained within the walls of the family homes, but instead is found within the public square. It is also not restricted to these two groups but involves a multiplicity of religious and ideological perspectives. For those interested in moving beyond the clash of perspectives we are reminded that kindness and respect not only work toward civility in a mutifaith public square, but they also hold greater persuasive power.

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