It’s not often that a major television network launches a new TV show about religion, let alone Christianity, let alone the Bible. But that’s what CBS is doing tonight, when the new sitcom Living Biblically premieres (9:30/8:30c).
The show, loosely inspired by A. J. Jacobs’s book The Year of Living Biblically, follows a New York film critic named Chip (Jay R. Ferguson) who picks up a Bible at a bookstore and decides to start living a strictly biblical life. But what does that mean? And why does he do it? The latter is an easier question to answer. Unlike Jacobs, whose “year of living biblically” is just a stunt to write a book about, Chip’s motivation is earnest. He’s just lost his best friend, and his wife, Leslie (Lindsey Kraft), is expecting their first child. At a crossroads and seeking “to be a better man,” he turns to the Bible for answers. Chip assembles a “God squad”—comprised of a Catholic priest (Ian Gomez) and Jewish rabbi (David Krumholtz)—to guide him (often over drinks at a local pub) as he embarks on a spiritual journey to live his life “100 percent by the Bible.”
Though conceits like this are usually an attempt by secularists or liberal Christians to point out the seeming inconsistencies of Scripture and how Christians “pick and choose” the biblical commands they follow, Living Biblically seems genuinely more interested in grappling with the Bible and its bearing on our lives. Is the show a powerhouse of sound hermeneutics and biblical scholarship? Decidedly not. But it does approach faith and the Bible with a respect and engagement rarely seen on network TV.
Thoughtful, Respectful Comedy
Chip’s wife, who works in medicine, is not a fan of her husband’s newfound interest in faith. When he brings home the Bible and announces his desire to live biblically, she protests: “What if I don’t want to raise our kid religious? I work in medicine. Faith isn’t so easy when you see the things I see all day.”
Chip responds: “But you’ve got to have faith. I mean, what about sunsets, or season four of The Wire?”
“What about super gonorrhea?” Leslie retorts. “Didn’t God design that too? And if so, why?”
Exchanges like this are everywhere in Living Biblically. They play for laughs but also raise real issues about faith in a secular age.
In one episode focused on prayer, Chip’s astrophysicist/atheist mother-in-law challenges him on the supposed power of prayer (“Faith is what people turn to when they’ve given up on science,” she says). In another episode focused on idols, Chip realizes that one idol in his life is his smartphone. Perhaps inspired by Exodus 32:20, he smashes it on the table in a bar, to the horror of his friends.
Living Biblically wants to be a comedy that both Christians and atheists can watch and laugh at—one that provokes both sides without belittling or dismissing them. This is not an easy task, and we’ll see if the show maintains this balance, without feeling boring or neutered, for the rest of the season.
Not Meant to Make Christians Look Dumb
In an interview with TGC, the show’s creator, Patrick Walsh (2 Broke Girls), said he is fascinated by religion and believes it should be more often (and more respectfully) engaged in TV and movies. He said he is not a fan of perspectives on religion that make it seem ridiculous (e.g., Bill Maher’s Religulous), but neither does he like religious entertainment that villainizes atheists (e.g., God’s Not Dead).
“I find they are both doing the same thing,” Walsh said. “What they are both angry with that the other side does, they are doing themselves.”
Walsh described Living Biblically as a platform to have respectful discussions about faith, which is a significant part of the lives of most people in the world.
“A big part of my pitch was that 84 percent of the world aligns themselves with some sort of religion, and it’s never talked about,” said Walsh, who was adamant that the show it not a “gotcha!” project meant to make fun of Christians in primetime.
He wants believers to feel respected by the show, but he also hopes non-religious skeptics watch it and see religion’s value, “the difference it can make in people’s lives,” and the meaning in can offer in tumultuous times.
“I think a lot of people feel very lost,” Walsh said. “They don’t know what to do. That’s where we find Chip at the start of the show. This is a time when a lot of people will turn to religion, to the Bible, to things from the past, because the present is looking pretty scary.”
Biblical Faith or Inoffensive Inspiration?
But what are people turning to when they turn to the Christianity of Living Biblically? Is it a truly biblical faith, or is it a Western, Oprahfied, “become a better you” type faith? While the show feels comfortable engaging biblical topics like prayer, repenting of idolatry, and loving one’s neighbor—the “living biblically” stuff that everyone can applaud—I doubt it will have an episode on Romans 1 or Matthew 19. I’d be surprised if Chip’s rabbi/priest God Squad walk him through the exclusivist implications of John 14:6. It would be a wonder if the show presented the “take up your cross” cost of following Jesus rather than posing faith as a “best life now” path to happiness.
What are people turning to when they turn to the Christianity of Living Biblically? Is it a truly biblical faith, or is it a Western, Oprahfied, ‘become a better you’ type faith?
This is where Living Biblically—and its self-conscious striving to be inoffensive to all viewers—is problematic. The show’s hybridized, self-improvement-project brand of faith comes across as a “positive influence” on families and society, yes, but also incoherent.
On one hand, the show has a decidedly Catholic flavor to it (Walsh describes himself as a lapsed Catholic) and strongly pitches faith, and Scripture particularly, as a roadmap for virtue and better living. “Bible” could stand for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” the priest maintains. And Chip himself repeatedly describes his project in terms of becoming a “good person.” At one points he describes his journey this way: “I found faith in something bigger than myself, and it’s making me a better person.”
But is this really what Christianity is about? It remains to be seen whether the show will find Chip encountering Jesus, grace, the cross, and the true gospel (I’ve only previewed three episodes), or whether it will continue exploring faith through the vague, but sadly pervasive lens of moralistic therapeutic deism.
Me and My Bible. But No Church?
And what about the church? Aside from a few visits to a Catholic confessional booth, Chip’s journey is largely of the “personal path” variety, unencumbered by institutional accountability or ecclesial authority. And in this way his faith is a bit more Protestant. It’s just Chip, the Bible, and his experience, with dashes of “clerical guru” wisdom from his ecumenical God Squad sidekicks.
Though meant for laughs, this one-liner from Leslie (describing her husband’s spirituality) is telling: “He’s not super religious. He’s just living 100 percent by the Bible.”
Indeed, Chip’s journey is thoroughly recognizable and normal in a “spiritual but not religious” world, where every quest is unique and customizable, and where seekers are “engaged in assembling their own personal outlook, through a kind of ‘bricolage,’” to quote Charles Taylor (A Secular Age, 514). Chip can read his Bible like a self-improvement manual, gleaning wisdom from it alongside Dr. Phil, Richard Rohr, Jordan Peterson, Enneagram podcasts, and whatever else is currently feeding his soul.
Have Protestant evangelicals—in downplaying religion and ecclesiology in favor of “personal relationship” individualism—been complicit in this trend toward hyper-subjective, DIY, “bricolage” faith? Probably. But it’s not too late to course correct.
Have Protestant evangelicals—in downplaying religion and ecclesiology in favor of ‘personal relationship’ individualism—been complicit in this trend toward hyper-subjective, DIY, ‘bricolage’ faith? Probably. But it’s not too late to course correct.
Shows like Living Biblically remind us that there is real cultural interest in faith, real seeking after God. The world is confused, the present is scary, and the ideologies du jour leave people wanting more. They know they need the Bible, but they’re mistaken if they seek in it “good advice,” morality tales, and arbitrary pearls of wisdom rather than God’s self-revelation and a cohesive narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
There is clearly a void that coherent biblical truth can fill in our culture, if taught soundly, preached winsomely, and lived consistently by Christians. Are we up to the task?