“Survivor” and the Hope of Redemption for Teenagers
At the beginning of the pandemic, my wife decided to watch a few old seasons of a show she enjoyed with her family growing up: Survivor. I was familiar with the oft-quoted concept of people getting “voted off the island,” but I doubted the authenticity of the show – or any reality show for that matter – and decided I’d read while she watched it.
However, as the episodes played in the background, I found myself paying closer and closer attention to what was happening on screen. Eventually, this would lead to my wife merely watching Survivor while I became obsessed with it.
My obsession was not born simply out of strong editing, surprising twists, and scenic environments. No, the show seemed to ring deeply true about the world we live in. The premise of the show essentially states this when the host, Jeff Probst, introduces the concept as twenty people, dropped in a remote location, who will have to set up a new society. But over the course of each season, we don’t see a new society emerge. Rather, each season in its own way actually reflects the world we live in: broken and in need of redemption.
In other words, Survivor puts mankind under the microscope, and what it reveals is how desperately we need the gospel – for ourselves, for the teenagers in our ministries, and for the whole world.
Surviving God’s Creation
Set in an idyllic environment (one season is even subtitled “Earth’s Last Eden”), the show sees strangers introduced into a world of breathtaking beauty. In the early seasons of the show, this placed survivors in Borneo, Australia, Kenya, China, Panama, and many islands in the South Pacific Ocean. Castaways hunt for coconuts in tropical forests. They fish along barrier reefs for colorful fish of all shapes and sizes. In many ways, the primitive nature of the setting reminds us of God’s glory displayed in the handiwork of his creation (Ps. 19:1).
But in the midst of this setting there is also a reminder of the curse sin introduces into the world in Genesis 3. The castaways scavenge for food “in pain” and “by the sweat of their face” (Gen. 3:17-19). They are exposed to the elements – even being left in a hurricane in a couple of seasons. The environment lashes out at their attempts to control it leaving them hurt, hungry, and hopeless. Even in earthly paradise, they are reminded that they are indeed “east of Eden” (Gen. 3:24). But in their survival of God’s creation, they experience longing.
The castaways are taught to long for home, for comfort, and for daily bread. Even the mention of family or the promise of a bed to sleep in that night renders them in tears. God’s creation is beautiful, but sin has rendered it brutal. In their longing for creaturely comfort, they are pointing the viewer to a more fundamental longing: the restoration of all of God’s creation back to its original intent. The longing for home teaches us to long for our heavenly home, wrapped in the Father’s love. The longing for comfort teaches us to long for heavenly comfort, held in the Father’s arms. The longing for daily bread teaches us to long for heavenly feasts, laid out for us by the Father’s great pleasure. Surviving God’s creation points us forward to the consummation of God’s creation.
Teenagers feel this longing on a deep level, though it is often inexpressible. As youth ministers, we have the opportunity to draw out that feeling of longing and to show how it is answered in the gospel. Survivor brings us into closer touch with our own longings so that we can notice and address the longings our students experience in a broken world.
Surviving One Another
Like the wonder of God’s handiwork in creation, the show demonstrates his handiwork in creating human beings. Each season is punctuated with short interviews with the castaways about their life, the game, and their relationships with others on the island. At the center of the show is mankind and the stories God has woven in their lives, whether they recognize it or not, and this is often a beautiful reminder of the ways God reveals his own beauty in different cultures, and personalities. The show catches a glimpse of the image of God, leaving us asking, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him (Ps. 8:4)?”
However, sin’s crime and curse reveals itself most powerfully in these same humans. In this “new society” the castaways form bonds and alliances to avoid getting voted out. This leads to bonds built by underhanded deals and cheap promises. When these bonds are broken through backstabbing, people are always left hurt and wondering where they could have gone wrong. They fail to see that their bonds were built on a weak foundation: mutual self-interest.
This driving force in the show points youth ministers to two realities that are powerful testimonies to students. First, it points us to the reality that sin’s devastation in the world wreaks havoc on our relationships. Sin teaches us to treat humans as tools for our own glory rather than image bearers of God. Sadly, many teenagers have seen this devastation in their own lives at home and school. The relational brokenness the show portrays is powerfully real to our students.
Second, the bond Christians have with one another is different. In Ephesians 4, Paul rattles of seven “ones” that speak of Christian unity, and the foundation of all of them is that they are “one body and one Spirit.” Christians are one because we are one in Christ, rescued by him and indwelt by his Spirit. The “new society” the show promises is only truly fulfilled in the new society based around the love of Christ. The radical otherness of Christian love in comparison to the world’s attempts at unity and love offers healing and hope to students living in brokenness or simply wanting more than the world has to offer. Part of the work of youth ministry is demonstrating to students the love and unity that is offered in the church through Christ.
The ultimate glory of Survivor is being named the “Sole Survivor,” when all the members of the jury who were voted out of the game choose one person to win a cash prize of one million dollars. Men and women forge deep relationships, face enormous adversity together, but are ultimately unable to deliver one another from the prospect of further life on the island. Only one person is left standing at the end, holding a bag of cash that can’t ultimately satisfy.
The show teaches mankind a lesson we so desperately needs to hear: We cannot save ourselves and we cannot attain glory for ourselves. The show appears to be about human achievement, but it portrays human inability. In a world that constantly pushes students towards self-glorification, this portrayal of inability is startling. But in the face of such an example of human inability, we see the wonderful grace of what God has done for us.
God has not left his creation to groan unheard in the pains of childbirth (Rom. 8:22). God has not left human pain and brokenness unheard in the inward groans of our eager waiting (Rom. 8:23). No, God has been working out purposed and promised a redemption that is founded within himself. The Father has sent the Son to achieve redemption by dying on the cross in the place of sinners. He has betrayed no one. He has not given cheap promises. He has promised that all who place their trust in him will be redeemed, and he has promised that one day he will return to bring this world to its ultimate destination.
God has not left this world simply to survive. No, God is working in this world to bring it to new life. This is the hope for all human beings and for the whole world, and this hope is taught to students even through a show like Survivor.
Notes on Watching Survivor
Survivor is family friendly and can lead to numerous beneficial conversations between parents and children. This time could be extremely beneficial in helping children process other worldviews, ethics, and motivations through real life examples. However, parents should research individual seasons before they watch them in order to prepare for these conversations. The show is not scripted, and this can lend itself to beautiful moments but also deeply troubling and heinous moments from contestants in a couple of seasons, including sexual harassment, exposing deeply personal information, and the mishandling of these events. These moments are few and far between across the shows 40 seasons, but parents should be aware.