This former castaway says it's not just voyeuristic television

by Clint Kelly


       When the apostle Paul shipwrecked on the island of Malta, he narrowly escaped drowning and execution only to have a poisonous viper sink it's fangs into his hand. But Paul was God's man and survived.

      Fast forward nearly 2,000 years to another man of God marooned on an island. Only this time the man is substitute teacher Dirk Been (pronounced "bean") from Spring Green, Wisconsin, the island is Pulau Tiga in the South China Sea, and the resident viper is the slightly more standoffish reticulated python. Chosen to compete against 15 other castaways for a $1 million prize, Been helps make TV history. The phenomenon known as Survivor captures one of the largest viewing audiences of all time.

      Been never saw the million. He was whisked from the island after just 15 days, voted off by his peers at one of the heavily hyped "Tribal Councils."

      He was shocked. What went wrong? Could it have been his outspoken faith? When allowed to take but one "luxury" item with him to the island, he had chosen to take his Bible. There was talk that his regular Scripture reading and prayer rankled some of the other contestants on the show. Still, Been boldly and openly preached the gospel.

       "I told them [ the other contestants ] that the best thing that could happen to any one of them was to know Jesus Christ," he explains. "I told them I was available to talk anytime." He left his Bible on the island at his exit and reports that a couple of the marooned have since shown a real spiritual interest. The Bible's whereabouts, however, are unknown.

      During his 15 days on the island, Been faced his share of challenges: eating rats, gulping down beetle larva, bathing in a mud volcano and having his every move recorded by a TV production crew of 140, then beamed into tens of thousands of households across America. Divine appointment or bizarre booking? Wait. A much greater survival challenge gathered steam just around the corner.

      As the summer rolled on and viewership soared, every one of the 16 castaways became a hot commodity, both on and off the island. Been estimates he has given close to 500 interviews since being dumped, including nationwide chats with David Letterman, Jay Leno and Bryant Gumbel. The latter introduced him as "the Bible-toting proud virgin." (He happily pleads "guilty" to both charges.) Been has also appeared in a commercial for an herbal cold remedy and posed barefoot in a red sarong for a six-page feature in People magazine.

       "It's insane," Been says. "I did 80 interviews in one day."

      His mother Diane handled the calls at first. (She had to be especially careful to screen out the supermarket tabloids.) Her son now has a publicist, a manager and two agents who agreed to take him on knowing full well his Christian principles might limit the number of acceptable offers.

      Been's own walk with God has taken on a new dimension now that the 24-year-old's day are filled with promotional offers and guest appearances. "My focus has sharpened. It had to. I have to rely even more on the Word of God and prayer. The Lord has protected me from a lot of stuff."

      One area of challenge has been sexual purity. Been has met hosts of beautiful women and made the mistake of listing on the CBS-TV Web site that his favorite things include blind dates. He has turned down all offers. "At college, I was taught to choose every day to follow Christ, that it is a conscious choice," he says. "Survivor has given me a platform, but I'm still in control of who I am. I'm a Christian. This is where I stand."

      Although Been says that the hardest thing in his life was working his family's 600-acre dairy farm in 60 below weather, survival in the 100-degree-plus heat of the Malaysian tropics ranks high on the list. "The Bible sure took on a new meaning," he says. "When we are starving and I, a fisherman all my life, couldn't catch any fish, Christ's feeding of the 5,000 became very literal to me, especially when it was my only food." (In addition to whatever scant edibles were native to the island, contestants were allowed only a daily ration of rice.)

      He takes issue, however, with those who dismiss Survivor as simply voyeuristic television. "A lot of people don't want to face their own lives," he explains. "Hopefully, they could watch this show and afterward say, "I can't believe someone would do that,' ask themselves if they treat others like that in their own lives. With the stand I took on the island, it forced a lot of Christians to think about who they are and what in their lives need to change."

      But Been says his dream is to use the Survivor experience and all the frenzy that has followed to help people on a larger level: "Every step along the way, the Lord has opened doors. I want to meet every day with one question: 'What's the next step, Lord?"

      As Been wonders about what's in store once all the hoopla dies down, he's content to take what each day brings and to be grateful for it. Like he said on his last night on the island: "Thank you God...Thank you Jesus Christ. Thank you Holy Spirit. Thanks for all those supporting and praying for me."

      Could Paul, God's other castaway two millennia ago, have said it any better?

Reprinted with permission by New Man, January 2001. Strang Communications Co.