This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Lessons from ‘American Pickers’

Mediaculture: Reflections on the effect of media and culture on our faith

The History Channel has discovered a jackpot: viewers who want to watch reality shows about antiques. One has become especially popular: “American Pickers”(Mondays at 9 p.m. ET). But the recipe for its success does not include the usual ingredients for TV shows. Photogenic subjects are one ingredient missing, but that makes the reality more convincing.

Thomas Everett 2“American Pickers” is about two men, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fitz, who drive all over the country looking for what they call “rusty gold.” They look for “no above-ground pool, no brand-new satellite dish, no swing set, no brand-new truck, the yard not mowed, no new landscaping and tarp on the roof.” The goal: to sell what they pick for a profit.

Their business, Antique Archeology, is anchored by an employee named Danielle Colby-Cushman at their home base in LeClaire, Iowa. The reality part of the show often begins and ends with Danielle, at times the target of the men’s frustration and at times the target of their admiration. She researches possible sites for them to pick. If she sends them to a site where they can collect some of their specialties (old bicycles and ancient cans of motor oil are two examples), they are happy with Danielle. If she sends them to a site where the collector is unwilling to part with anything in the collection, they grump about Danielle wasting their time.

As Chris Jordaon wrote in his TV Squad column on Aug. 29: “‘American Pickers’ is one of the few remaining places—perhaps the local news being the other—where a viewer can watch real people being real. Granted, the [subjects] of the show are eccentric, but they’re certainly without pretension or artifice. Wolfe, Fritz and a small production crew find genuine people in remote places far from any casting agent’s office. They’re often a little screwy, but that’s the fun of it. You’re certainly not going to see them in another reality show next week.”

The real gold is the “screwy” people. Since most of them are elderly, they are the “rusty gold.” As Wolfe and Fritz sift through mounds of detritus, it’s the person whose inventory they “pick” who becomes the focus. After each pick and as the two men drive away, the camera usually lets the collector describe his or her experience.

This finding of treasure is parallel to Jesus’ three parables in Matthew 13:44-50. Here’s the first one:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (v. 44).

This “someone” is a biblical picker. But what is the treasure that would be in a field? A sack full of coins? A diamond in the rough. Crude oil? A rare plant with medicinal properties?

In “American Pickers,” the real treasures are the people featured, not the objects with enough sentimentality to be profitable.

Jordaon points out that hoarders are shown in a negative light in many other TV shows. But here they are shown respect for their practice. Their knowledge of history or the value of cherished items is affirmed. They are affirmed.

What would happen if we spiritualized this as an application for congregational life?
As we age, all of us accumulate baggage, maybe even junk. We do so because we treasure it. I would find it affirming if someone would “pick” through my hoard and find value in it—doing so with respect.

Everett J. Thomas is editor of The Mennonite.

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