Jeff Foxworthy, famous for telling people why they might be a redneck, has had one hell of a second act as a game show host. After two years on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? on Fox (retroactive spoiler: few of the benighted contestants were), he’s decamped to the Game Show Network, and to an area of quizzing much more comfortable for the great American populace than 5th Grader’s geography and chemistry questions.
He’s hosting a game show about the Bible.
And this is hardly a fringe enterprise. Flying under the radar in part due to its place on the TV dial (unless you’re a devotee, you likely aren’t sure if you even get the Game Show Network) and in part due to its specialized subject matter (the Bible’s one of those things you either know or you don’t), The American Bible Challenge, this past summer, became the cable network’s biggest hit ever (beating a documentary on Press Your Luck). The show hit 1.7 million viewers; its website exhorts potential viewers to take some time away from Bible study class and “Believe in the Hype.” Two young fans are shown at a taping, waving posters reading “HIStory in the MAKING.” Sure, the game show’s historic–especially given its integration into iPhone and iPad apps, which rank among the most popular trivia games out there–but it’s all a part of a divine plan.
To do what, exactly? Beyond a loaves-and-fishes-style miracle for GSN, it’s not immediately clear what this show’s purpose is. Though it’s produced in association with the American Bible Society, proselytizing It seems a literal evocation of the phrase “preaching to the converted”; watching the show without substantial knowledge of Biblical chapter and verse would seem to be, for lack of a better word, dispiriting. People who can’t ever buzz in generally don’t watch Jeopardy! People who’ve never been to a grocery store have little interest in The Price is Right.
But then, a lot of people know a little bit about the Bible: the show’s not meant to perform mission work for the heathens. It’s bringing the lapsed back into the flock. Said Mr. Foxworthy in an interview with the Record (the online publishing arm of the American Bible Society, which helps produce the show): “I think there’s probably people that grew up in faith that walked away from it, [who will] hopefully watch this, and they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I know that story, or I know the message of that parable,’ and…it might be an opening to draw them back in.”
Your author grew up with the Bible and, as a child, enjoyed the parables: Jonah and the whale was a particular favorite. Removing the context of a sometimes stultifying church service and replacing it with a flashy game show could hardly hurt in terms of drawing someone like me back to the flock–especially since, like church, any guilt is expiated by the fact that all the winnings go to charity.
The production values of American Bible Challenge are high: it’s of a piece with the early-2000 game shows that took America by storm, even as the cultural references are soothing enough for a Ned Flanders-y audience that wants to show the kids a game show but is worried about the raciness of some of those Who Wants To Be a Millionaire questions: categories on the show included “Faithbook” (from whose wall did these posts come? “The Wailing Wall” is not an option”) and “CSI: Holy Land” (self-explanatory, still, somehow). Even the dull questions get a dose of GSN sizzle: a question about respective lengths of Bible books would make the faith seem like little more than rote memorization if it didn’t come toward the end of an episode, with everything on the line. Knowing the very specific aspects of the Bible is not pedantry: it’s an aspect of your faith on which you may be tested! If it weren’t already ingrained in the culture, this show would be the one that made knowing more about the literal facts of the Bible than its themes of compassion and love a virtue worth rewarding.
But it’s pabulum of a very comforting sort: in the episode we watched online, when Mr. Foxworthy introduces a question by mentioning that the proverbial Prodigal Son was so hungry in the desert, the audience shouts back, “How hungry was he?” This sort of audience engagement is what a preacher dreams of, even if the mini-parable is followed not with any sort of moral lesson but with another opportunity for contestants to prove their memory.
If there’s one thing that can draw in people who are really meant to be a part of modern evangelical Christianity–a subset of a peace-loving religion that hinges on megachurches real (all those quasi-arenas out West) and metaphorical (1.7 million GSN viewers!)–it’s this show. After all, there’s no motivation that drives a certain type of ultra-pious than one-upsmanship. The beginning of each episode grants each team the opportunity to explain why their chosen charity is the godliest, and send a message to the other teams. “Don’t get too close to us, or you’re gonna get burned!” says one team, sounding more Book of Revelations than Book of Ruth. Very Christian indeed. This is, finally, the show that allows its contestants to make text what’s always been subtext in a strain of American spiritualism, that thing that resurrects itself every election cycle with policy proposals rooted in the letter of Biblical law, if not the spirit. It’s the desire to prove yourself more religious than someone else.
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