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Last Updated: Monday, 10 March, 2003, 09:17 GMT
Reality TV, featuring God... online
A pair of lions
A dozen Biblical characters, and animals two-by-two

Reality TV has been damned as mindless cultural fluff, but an internet-based contest aims to raise the philosophical bar, throwing 12 strangers together on the Ark with God Almighty at the helm.

While those in the Big Brother house had just a few chickens to keep alive and coax into laying eggs, the Divine Dozen selected for a new internet reality contest will have to care for two of every animal under the sun.

The Ark - setting virtual sail on Easter Sunday - is billed as 40 days and 40 nights of games, challenges, topical discussions and arguments about mucking out the gorillas: "Theology meets showbiz meets cowpats - and there are no lifeboats"

A shipmate will be voted off by visitors to the site every fourth day and at voyage's end, one passenger will step onto dry land to pick up a "handsome" cash prize - 666.

The Ark cast includes...
Bathsheba: "Is stunningly beautiful, a bathroom hog."
Eve: "Is an earth mother, secretive, veggie, fond of apples."
John the Baptist: "Is a special diet freak, something of a loner."
Samson: "Is strong and thick, excellent at DIY jobs, has an eye for the ladies."

For those who assume that mixing religion and pop culture is an idea doomed to failure, the project's creators have already successfully re-invented The Simpsons' often mocked Ned Flanders as a positive role model for Christians.

Not content with that, the satirical religious webzine Ship of Fools has also just launched (in a "baptism of fur") the Rowan Bear - a cuddly teddy homage to the hirsute Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

Dallying with kitsch low culture - far from debasing the Church - could be the salvation of organised Christianity, says Ship of Fools editor Stephen Goddard.

Would you Adam and Eve it?

"Bible stories are being pushed to the margins of our culture, when in fact they are really interesting tales of people struggling against temptation.

"We're trying to popularise theology, using the Big Brother format to bring these fascinating Biblical characters to life and introduce them to a whole new generation."

Ned Flanders from The Simpsons
Can Ship of Fools work the Ned Flanders trick twice?

Canon Andrew Walker - a professor of theology at King's College, London - says church leaders have "bemoaned the failure of religion to permeate popular culture", and he predicts The Ark "might even precipitate a flood" of interest in religion.

Before entries closed on 28 February, more than 120 people - the faithful and non-believers - from as far afield as Australia and Canada had applied to be virtually set adrift.

Those finally selected will have to adopt a Biblical persona - Old Testament "babe" Esther is the most popular choice - and react as they think their character would to whatever their shipmates or God throw at them.

Knowing ways

Just as Big Brother had psychologists to pass judgement on the housemates, The Ark has enlisted a panel of theologians to interpret the shipmates' actions and advise them on what their characters might do.

With man-eaters Jezebel and Bathsheba both sashaying up the gang plank, and Eve being followed around by the evil snake, Mr Goddard expects the sparks to fly on The Ark.

Helen Adams and Paul Clarke from Big Brother
What will Samson and Bathsheba get up to?

Unlike the Big Brother house, each Ark passenger has a cabin to themselves - or to share with whoever to get to know better (in the Biblical sense). "I'm looking forward to seeing what happens," says Mr Goddard.

Surfers visiting the Ark will be able to wander the decks watching cartoon avatars of the contestants interact in real time by way of speech bubbles.

They will also be able to eavesdrop shipmate confessions to God in the Ark's version of the diary room - the crow's-nest.

Mr Goddard says the design of the site - masterminded by the people responsible for The Osbournes hip MTV homepage - is a "real advance".

"It has never been an attempt before to have 12 characters interacting together using speech bubbles."

The Ark hopes to set the standard for future religious projects online - being technologically bold, rather than following far behind the new media pioneers.

"We want to appeal to seasoned gamers - the sort of people who might be very sniffy about picking up a Bible."




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