Survival, by Tyler Smith

4 May

“Survivor” has long since established itself as a prime time staple.  In many ways, it has paved the way for reality competition programs.  Challenges, alliances, confrontations; it all started with “Survivor.”  I myself was never a big fan of the show; like so many others, I wrote it off as “just another reality show.”

And, indeed, there is plenty to dislike about the program.  In its run, “Survivor” has become something of a machine.  Each season runs pretty smoothly.  The producers know what the audience expects and they’re more than happy to deliver.  Anybody claiming that “Survivor” feels a little overproduced can point to any current episode- with its musical stings and sweeping shots- as evidence that the show isn’t quite as chaotic as it would seem.

However, I started watching the show about two years ago.  My wife would watch while I did something else, but I invariably found myself drawn to the show.  While the production mechanism is obvious and unrelenting, the specific personalities that we’re exposed to in each season is what attracted me.

Of course, in watching the show for a few seasons in a row, I have noticed that, even within the varied attitudes and personalities, the same types of people keep showing up.  There’s the wily middle-aged man.  The flirtatious blond.  The no-nonsense Southerner.  The schemer.

And, as always, the religious one.

Much like MTV’s “The Real World,” there always seems to be the inclusion of an outspoken Christian.  Sometimes this person is the sensitive type.  Sometimes they’re sheltered and narrow.  But, no matter what shape they take, there will always be the single cast member whose beliefs are meant to reflect those of Middle America- a demographic that Hollywood producers desperately want to cater to while not specifically understanding.

This season of “Survivor” is really no different than any of the others.  All the archetypes are there.  And it became pretty clear pretty fast that a long-haired pre-med student named Matt would be fulfilling the Christian requirement for this season.  From the very first, Matt trotted out many of the overtly Christian terms with which fans of reality television- and those that grew up in the church- will be very familiar.  Talk about trying to “glorify my God” was at the forefront of everything that Matt said.

It became rather tiresome, actually.  As ashamed as I am to admit it, even I found myself sighing whenever Matt would bring up his beliefs.  I felt like, by seemingly refusing to discuss the game or strategy, Matt was falling victim to that which many Christians- including myself- are prone: An earnest desire to represent Christ while never really relating to other people on their level or circumstances.  Matt’s enthusiasm was admirable, but ultimately frustrating.

But then something changed.

Matt, in the first blindside of the game, was voted off.  His positive outlook and spirit of good sportsmanship rubbed some members of his tribe the wrong way and they sent him packing.  However, unlike other seasons of “Survivor,” getting voted off doesn’t mean a cast member is off the show.  Instead, they go to a place called “Redemption Island,” where they compete against other vote-offs in a one-on-one duel.  Whoever wins the duel gets to stay on Redemption Island and will be allowed to re-enter the game somewhere down the line.

When Matt was sent to Redemption Island, he certainly wasn’t expecting it.  But he took it in stride, claiming that God must have some purpose in it.  He beat his first competitor pretty handily.  Then he beat the second.  And third.  It wasn’t long before Matt wound up winning six duels in a row.  And all the while he gave credit to God, stating that God must want him to stay in the game for some reason.

To my surprise, Matt’s positive attitude and faith in God was starting to grow on me.  In spite of the fact that he had been blindsided and sent to live alone on an island with a revolving door of competitors, never knowing if he was going to win or go home, Matt maintained a strong belief that he was going to be there for as long as God wanted him to be.  If he lost a duel and went home, so be it.  If he won and had to stay, great.

What didn’t surprise me, though, was the reaction of bloggers and internet commentators.  They saw Matt’s faith as something to be mocked.  They found his optimism to be annoying, just as I had early on.  With each duel win, there would be another mention of God, and with it a slew of jibes and insults.  One refrain that became very familiar was that of mocking curiosity as to why God would ever be interested in one guy possibly winning a million dollars on national television.  Each and every week, a new commentator would laugh at the idea of God’s being at all invested in Matt’s plight.  Why would God care about something so trivial?

I remember reading these comments and getting frustrated.  I’m always fascinated when people that aren’t Christian feel as though they can speculate on why God might act a certain way, often having not done any sort of research into theological opinions on the subject.  As silly as one might find “Survivor” to be, it is consistently one of the top-rated television shows; perhaps God saw value in allowing a devout follower to talk in great detail about his faith on national television for several months.  Or perhaps God was just trying to teach Matt something about dependence and faith; He’s been known to do that from time to time.

Things got much more interesting as Matt was finally allowed back into the game.  His hard work and faith had paid off.  However, his first day back, his former tribe decided that he was too much of a liability and immediately voted to send him back to Redemption Island.  This time, Matt wasn’t quite so go-with-the-flow.  He started to question God a little more, frustrated with himself for not seeing this coming.  Some other members of the tribe felt sorry for him; most notably an older woman named Julie.

Matt’s second round at Redemption Island has been a very difficult journey.  The loneliness, the sense of betrayal, and the general stress of the situation are slowly starting to get to him.  As exhausting and taxing as being on “Survivor” can be, most cast members take solace and strength from being around others in the same situation.  Matt hasn’t really had that option.  His lonely, tearful confessions to the camera have been a bit difficult to watch.  However, throughout it all, he has never doubted God’s involvement in his situation.  At one point, Matt stated that God has “literally been carrying me.”  After several more days, Matt confessed that he felt that he was ready to leave the game- that he felt he had done his best to glorify God in this frustrating situation- but that he would stay and fight as long as God would let him.

Last week, in yet another Redemption Island duel, Matt won, beating out the aforementioned Julie.  Host Jeff Probst asked Julie what she was feeling.  She went on to discuss her reasons for wanting to be on the show.  Some people go on “Survivor” to try to prove themselves, others want to be famous.  She just wanted the money.  Raising two daughters, and a house in foreclosure, Julie tearfully admitted that she was looking for a way to get her life back on track.

It was at this point that Julie gestured to Matt, stating that his faith in God- even in the midst of trying circumstances- was a great inspiration to her.  She went on to say that she would try to find a church when she got back home.

I found myself smiling and even getting a little tearful after Julie left.  The show went on, but this moment was, for me, the pivotal moment of this season.  As a Christian, we often go through trials.  There are days when we feel like we can’t even get out of bed and are reliant on God’s strength and grace to get us through the day.  As we do this, we wonder why God would allow this to happen to us.  We want an answer and, when somebody replies that God must be allowing it so that He can work His will somehow, we demand a clear cause-and-effect scenario.  We want the satisfaction of having personal knowledge that our trials are serving a larger purpose.  We want to see it.

But sometimes God uses our negative circumstances in ways we couldn’t possibly predict.  Perhaps He let it happen so that we could grow stronger and more dependent on Him.  Perhaps He’s trying to teach us something.

Or maybe it has almost nothing to do with us.  Maybe it’s about somebody else; somebody watching from afar, looking for some sort of hope.

For all the speculation as to why God would care at all about Matt’s “Survivor” plight, it became clear in an instant that there was a purpose to it after all.  And that purpose probably has nothing to do with Matt winning a million dollars or proving how strong a competitor he is.  It would appear that the purpose of Matt’s double blindside and desperate loneliness- and his subsequent leaning on God to get through it- was to give hope to a woman whose life outside the game is infinitely more difficult than the few weeks spent in the game.

I don’t know what will happen to Julie.  Maybe she’ll actually follow up on her comments and seek out a church and personal relationship with God, maybe she won’t.  But in that moment, her future looked a little brighter.  And, as we all know, Julie is not alone.  There are thousands of Americans in a similar situation.  Maybe some of them were watching Matt, too.  Maybe watching a random Christian rely on God to help him survive in a game will help them rely on God for their survival in life.

Not bad for a reality show.

One Response to “Survival, by Tyler Smith”

  1. Nicole Christian May 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    That was very well written. I too had a bit of a roller coaster opinion of Matt. In the beginning admittedly even I pinned him as the ‘token’ over zealous and a bit removed from reality Christian. But it wasn’t long before his persistence and faith grew on me as well as his unashamed admittance that it was all in God’s hands and his willingness to share his faith with others. When he finally joined the others again I was glad and rooting for him and excited he seemed to be making a smart move by joining the other tribe in blind-siding Rob (as great of a player as he is) and though it was a dumb move to tell Rob everything. So I kind of lost a little respect for him in regards to the game. But I too have learned much since then. He isn’t very concerned with winning the money or even being the best at the ‘Survivor’ game, he is however concerned with honoring God ABOVE all else and not being shy about where the glory is do an that moment you described with Julie was also a pivotal moment for me as well. An ‘it has all been worth it even for that moment, and that one person’s life’ feeling. Isn’t that what we are all called to as Christians, to give our all and to honor the Lord unashamedly with our lives looking to Him for guidance and giving credit where credit is due – even if it is just so one more person could Know Him? Or maybe we won’t even see the reason why – but trusting He has a plan bigger than ours? That His Thoughts and Ways are in fact higher than our like he tells us in His word? I have for sure been inspired by Matt. I also was inspired by Mike this week as He quoted scripture and made a decision based on what Jesus would do saying he asked God to let him win the challenge and felt he was just doing what God wanted him to do (letting the 6 who voted him off spend time with their loved ones rather than spend time with his loved one). ‘Loving your enemies’ some may say it was only to win favor, but I believe there was something more to what he said and it seems that act inspired even Matt. What a GREAT season!

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