Does the reality-TV series "Big Brother" have a spiritual message? Ousted "Big Brother" contestant William Collins, who had made headlines because of his reported connection to the New Black Panther Party and was voted off the show for antagonizing his housemates, seemed not to think so. "You've seen me with my gun, but you haven't seen me with my God," Collins told reporters at a press conference afterward, referring to a 1998 photo showing him armed at a rally--and also to the CBS producers who, he said, had edited out shots of him praying frequently during his two weeks in the "Big Brother" house.

The rest of us might agree with Collins' inference that "Big Brother" neglects, if not defies, the spiritual dimensions of life--but for vastly different reasons. The Dutch-produced television show is an exercise in public eavesdropping on an electronically monitored houseful of strangers that took Europe by storm before it was adapted for U.S. audiences this summer. It makes peeping Toms of us all--in a country that touts its devotion to independence, privacy, autonomy, and individual rights. Strange.

Stranger still, the show itself is basically boring, slim on substance, and mundane to the maximum. At the same time, it is a marvel of slick editing that siphons off 22-minute fragments of drama out of 24 hours of the commonplace in the lives of the 10 strangers who have agreed to live in the "Big Brother" house. It also includes a string of commentaries on the action from a host of professionals who get only snippets of time to talk about important issues--group dynamics, personal relationships, and social exclusion--that are the grist of the show.

It's easy, then, to dismiss the series as pandering to the "voyeurism" of audiences at worst, or the idle exhibitionism of the house members at best. But the show is not patently sexual in content, and these people know we're evaluating them. They know they are this week's live soap opera. In the end, large numbers of people watch the show whatever the criticism, and the housemates agree to do the show whatever the obscenity of making the private public. The question is: Why are we all there--in the "Big Brother" house or watching it--and does it have anything to say about us spiritually?

In its own perverse way, I think it does. "Big Brother" is a cultural microscope, a cyberspace laboratory in social psychology for a Western civilization that has become atomized, alienated, insulated, and transient. We don't know the names of the people in the apartment next door. We don't visit the neighbors across the street anymore. And we move and move and move--from one job and one city and one house to another. We are a people without anchors, without roots, without long-term role models, and with a declining consensus on values and direction. We are no longer sure what "normal" really is, let alone if we're it. To gauge ourselves and to obtain some approximate measure of the rightness or wrongness of our actions, we watch strangers live life for us.

"Big Brother" raises important questions, spiritual questions. As a culture, have we really taken to measuring our own responses against those of strangers, and then tried to figure out what we might have done in the same situation? Is this how we "do" morality nowadays? Is "Big Brother" this century's substitute for the ethical formation that was once the stuff of families, churches, schools, and catechisms?

"Big Brother" is life by proxy. When another person in the house says, "What a stupid thing to do," or "That was brave," about something that we know we would have done or not done in the same situation, we get a pathology report on our own existence. It brings us to the bar of the self and makes us examine our own behaviors, our own attitudes, our own social standards--our own sins. In a country that worries about values but doesn't know how to teach them anymore, this may not be all bad. It may even give us an opportunity to talk to friends, to family--to children--about emerging social values in a context that is not fictional but is not directly threatening, as the same situation in our own lives might be.

But is that enough? The drawback is that "Big Brother" does not give us criteria, moral or religious, by which to judge conduct. Moral ideals and the building of a value system need to come out of our own souls, not the comments of people we watch on television. And that takes the kind of searching, of study, of reflection, of community, of worship, that no virtual reality can provide.

"Big Brother," in other words, may be performing a kind of vicarious spiritual direction, a brand of surrogate mentoring, a new type of virtual examination of conscience for cultural and religious isolates. Its methodology, however, is at most only a catalyst for the beginning of questions. Let no one presume it to be a canon of answers.

"Big Brother" may touch most the souls of those who are trying to do life with little or no companionship on the journey. And that is no small thing. But whatever the social setting in which it is watched, it must, in the end, function as at least a reminder of our enduring need for spiritual depth and personal growth, even in this age when it is all too easy to live life by surfing it from screen to screen.

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