Redemption Island was just a twist. When the Survivor producers prepared for yet another season of one of television’s oldest reality programs, they knew they needed to keep it fresh. They did this in the same way reality programs typically keep the competition interesting: the altered the mechanics, throwing a wrench into the plans of those playing and making the outcome less predictable.

Indeed, one of the most unpredictable outcomes of Redemption Island was an ongoing focus on what it was like to be a Christian and play Survivor, by way of Matt Elrod. Probably because it was such an apt companion with the “redemption” theme, Matt was given a chance to tell his story of faith, from the beginning to the end of the series. What we saw was encouraging and relatable, because there was no performance involved: Matt was a real guy, unwilling to downplay his faith for the sake of the game or the viewing public.

Naturally, it wasn’t easy for Matt. He was voted out of his alliance earlier than he expected, and spent most of his time on the limbo-esque redemption island. Once he came to the realization that those in his alliance didn’t have his best interest in mind, he was faced with a choice: he could wallow in self-pity or he could simply bide his time, do his best, and trust in his Creator.

Sometimes, this was hard to do. Matt found himself spending much of his time feeling frustrated and bitter, asking God why (out loud). He had built real relationships with those in his alliance and felt double-crossed. Matt never lost sight of the fact that he was a part of a game, but he began to reconsider his place in that game. In an interview with Christianity Today, he declared that his intention was singular: to proclaim the glory of God. He did this in the best way possible – by stepping aside and letting God do the work. In a crucial moment, he declared to host Jeff Propst and his fellow players that he desired to go home, while simultaneously leaving his situation in the hands of the will of God. He won that challenge, and ended up staying in the game until the very last episode.

The most striking thing about Matt’s presence on the show was that he did what almost no other Christian reality-tv star has done: he presented a picture of the faith that seemed sane, reasonable, thoughtful, sincere, affable, and attractive. While most other self-proclaimed Christians in Survivor history spent most of their time avoiding immunity-“idols”, asking those around them to watch their language, and accusing others of playing a game that lacked integrity, Matt chose to simply live out his faith in the context of the game and build relationships with those around him in the meantime. In other words, he saw himself as a regular guy who relied on Christ – not Christ himself.

Christians are notoriously bad at the game of Survivor because they want the game to be something that it’s not: a game of physical and mental challenge. In truth, Survivor has always been as much about the “social game” as it has been about the physical and mental game. If you are not willing to play the social game to the furthest extent, your chances of winning it plummet. Season after season, we see players complaining about the way their fellow players lack integrity – what they’re actually claiming is that the game itself is flawed. They have no love for Survivor.

The truth is, Survivor is a very long game, and so one’s investment in it is huge. The stakes are high. In any sport or game, tempers can flare – people can become frustrated with themselves, and with others for beating them. In Survivor, the game doesn’t stop for more than 30 days. Those involved are challenged, not only with surviving under significant physical duress, but with the frustration of being outwitted and double-crossed within that context. Like football, Settlers of Catan, Hockey, Basketball, Halo, and Balderdash, Survivor is a place to experiment with crossing moral and social boundaries. We do things to others that we would never do in real life. It’s a safe place to experiment. But those playing have to go in with these expectations in order to appreciate it. In Balderdash, though, we can convince ourselves the outcome doesn’t matter. In Survivor it takes real selflessness to keep from being a sore loser.

We saw Matt struggle with this – we saw him at his most frustrated halfway through the season. But ultimately, Matt understood that the game was all about understanding the context of what was happening and accepting defeat and frustration as gracefully as possible. In the end he never burned bridges and never accused anyone of lacking integrity. He played the game as he felt called, and didn’t begrudge the rest for playing it their own way.

Because of this, he was able to build actual friendships and make an actual impact on those who were in the game with him. Several players declared definite spiritual benefit, not only from the game of Survivor, but from talks with Matt. They could see that Matt’s faith was real, and to them, it was attractive. This attraction to Matt’s story wasn’t limited to the players, either. Matt came in a close second to the season winner in Sprint’s Player of the Season contest, in which the audience votes for their favorite personality. By remaining open and transparent about his faith and the struggles relating to it, Matt managed to win over his audience rather than alienate them.

That’s the real twist.


3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the great article, Rich. It makes me hopeful that in other contexts (say, the workplace or the neighborhood) our own survivor stories can also have a positive, lasting impact on others in a way that brings honor to the name of God.

  2. Excellent article! It was great to read, both on the perspective of being a Christian and as a fan of the show. I’m really glad that you outlined what Survivor, as a game, is actually about, because yes it does involve actions that we normally wouldn’t do in real life. But I agree that Matt eventually came to that realization and played as far as he could. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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