Every so often, there’s an article out there that’s truly a pleasure to read and it makes some interesting points about life and faith, even if the piece isn't hard news. Such is the case with the Times of London’s take on an upcoming reality TV show.
GetReligion does not ordinarily cover opinion pieces, but this was a mix of analysis and news, so I grabbed it.
The writer, Helen Rumbelow, shows a keen awareness of the human condition as she describes the comedic collision of party girls and nuns when a group of wild twentysomethings are sent to a convent in rural Norfolk. They don’t exactly swap their go-go boots for godliness but there are subtle transformations.
Plus, the piece shows how easy it can be to write profound observations on something as everyday as a reality show.
Five new girls arrive at the Daughters of Divine Charity convent in Swaffham, deep in rural Norfolk. The first, Paige, 23, has, between her red go-go boots and her miniskirt, a gap large enough to display the entire face of Nicki Minaj that is tattooed on her thighs. She is struggling to pull a suitcase the size of a small wagon across the gravel courtyard. It’s full of her clubbing lingerie. She is joined by Rebecca, 19, another committed hedonist who seems to sum up their situation when she realises what their new home is, crying: “F***, I’m in a f***ing nunnery.”
It’s a fair guess that this Channel 5 reality-TV experiment, called Bad Habits, Holy Orders, wouldn’t have taken much of a “sell”. “Think Sister Act,” the executive would say, “crossed with St Trinian’s.” …
The five women had been told only that they were going on a “spiritual journey” and had imagined a yoga retreat in Bali. Instead they were to be confined to a nunnery off the A47 with a bunch of mature ladies in wimples, whose modesty was far more shocking than anything they could think up.
What follows is a photo showing an elderly nun face-to-face with one of the sultry five. I’m guessing that the reality show paid the nuns a good amount to film this show on their property, for why else would a religious order put up with this craziness?
After describing some of the habits of the young women, the writer notes:
They are post-God: accountable only to the all-seeing, all-knowing Instagram. They glory in their lives -- fun, free and pleasured by the flesh; no reason not to if they are only going to end up as ash in their graves. But if it makes them happy, why are they so sad?
It was not clear in the Times piece how long these women lived at the convent, but some of the holiness appears to have rubbed off. A related piece in the Daily Mail says the show only happened after a year of negotiations with the Catholic Church.
I would've liked to have heard a few more on-the-record facts about that. How about you?
Yet the young women are lost souls. On the first day at the convent they show themselves to be fragile, prone to crying, crippled by their addiction to selfies and social media and keen to expose their bodies although they have not shown their faces without a mask of make-up for years. What no one in the TV production anticipated was how much this unlikely group would find solace in a religious order. Swaffham is their Damascus, to the point where each woman I speak to wishes that every young woman could have a nun experience.
At the end of the piece, the reporter tells how each of the quintet was profoundly changed by her experience -- although none made any moves toward embracing Christianity much less a convent. Instead of covering the show from her desk in London, the reporter drives out to the convent, where she discovers a sub-story in the life of the nuns.
Last year this convent welcomed its first new British nun for 40 years. It was a cause for rejoicing, given the tiny numbers of new recruits to religious orders. The younger nuns here are mostly from the Catholic eastern European countries.
One of the stars of the show is Sister Michaela, from Slovakia, who at 23 is the same age as the visitors. Each of the women cites her as the central challenge to their way of thinking. Here is a young woman who had been a party-going, make-up-crazy, boyfriend-loving atheist. But she felt empty. That she is content with her blond hair scraped back beneath a medieval wimple, occupied by acts of charitable servitude, is a radical reply to the tyranny of selfie culture.
The article started a few worthwhile theological discussions in the comments section, which is better than many religion news pieces manage to do these days.
Of all the articles on this upcoming show, the Times piece was the one thoughtful and profound piece out there. I mean this as an encouragement to scribes on the religion-news beat: The stories are out there and people want to read them.