Extreme Makeover: Religion is Worth It (For the Lucky Few)

The first year of Porterbrook Omaha just wrapped up as 25 students turned in their final assignments. The theological and cultural reflection these students are doing is so good that I asked some of them if I could share their work with a larger audience. Doug Stevens, a PBOmaha student and pastor/elder at Core Community, offered the following critique of the Extreme Makeover TV franchise.

For years now, one of the largest cultural artifacts shaping young families and sappy people everywhere is the television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.  The show is driven by emotional, heart-tugging stories of people in tough spots.  The show’s webpage repeatedly makes references to sniffles and tears and the need for Kleenex.  Another hallmark of the show is its extravagant nature: the house behind the bus is pimped out to the extreme.  Apparently, the formula makes for a successful product.  The show has consistently averaged 10 million viewers, peaking out at nearly 16 million in 2004.

At first glance, Extreme Makeover seems like a lavish outpouring of generosity – maybe even a picture of the gospel.  But upon further look, it just might be one of the most dangerous shows on television, making Dexter look like a Saturday morning cartoon.  In particular, I want to highlight 2 dangers:

1. Religion is Worth It (For the Lucky Few)

To be selected to receive a new home, there are at least two requirements:

  1. The family must truly be in need, and
  2. The family must be truly deserving of the change.

The message is simple: you have to deserve this generosity.  You have to earn it.  And the way you earn it is by working hard, doing good deeds, giving back to the community, and making something of your life.  Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.  If you do, then maybe – just maybe – EM:HE will show up and reward you for your hard work with an extreme makeover.  Rags to riches in a moment!  This is the message of religion, American style.

The truth of the gospel abhors religion like this.  The gospel of God says that religion is like filthy rags tossed in the back of some production trailer on the set or flushed down a portable toilet a few blocks away.  God’s grace is completely unmerited and undeserved.  And this is precisely why Americans don’t like the gospel: we would rather deserve it.

Furthermore, ABC only selects a few.  All the other boot-strapping, hard-working down-and-outs don’t get ABC’s generosity.  In the end, religion is only worth it for the lucky few.

2. Emotional Worship

EM:HE’s website says it best: We don’t know about you, but it is what’s lurking behind that big bus which keeps us absolutely riveted from week-to-week.  Riveted is a worship word.  As millions of Americans watch the show, their hearts are crying out in worship to the American dream.  “Please notice me, American Dream! You are worth it.  Worth my hard work and efforts and religion.  Or at least worth me watching this show and crying when the bus moves.”

As CS Lewis wrote, “We are far too easily pleased.”  The emotional connection to the possibility of a new home satisfies our starving souls when the pleasures of God are offered to us in Jesus Christ.


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  1. I never really even thought of the show until I ran across it on accident one day. I was very surprised to see that the family for that episode ran a food pantry/clothes closet non-profit that I had done some work with during graduate school. I was amazed, not by the decadence of the new house or the vacation they got to go on or whatever, but by how the community around them pulled together to help out a family who had given so much, expecting nothing in return. Okay, so the new house was pretty cool, too.

    All that to say, I know from personal experience that this family didn’t live how they did or do the work they did to be put on tv and get a big house. I did not see their responses as “wow, we gave of ourselves, so we deserve this!” I saw a family who was overwhelmed primarily by the support of the community they had loved and served, who were grateful and humbled to be noticed and nominated, and who were blessed through getting a new home. Yes, there are a lot of things about the show to be concerned about, to critique, and to question. But, at least for that family, I will rejoice with them.

  2. JT – Thanks for the feedback. I would agree with you that the vast majority of families definitely don’t seem to “expect” the response of generosity. They are humbled, grateful, and eager to keep giving themselves.

    Overall, the critique is more about the show as a product, as a message sent out by a TV studio…and less about the grateful families who get selected. Or, another way to say it, I am talking more about HOW they get selected and less about who actually does get selected.

    Thanks, again! Much appreciated.

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