Living Biblically and the need for good hermeneuticsWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
Back in 2007, Esquire editor A.J. Jacobs wrote a bestselling book called The Year of Living Biblically, in which he chronicled his efforts to follow every rule he could find in the Bible, as literally as possible. This went well beyond the Ten Commandments and loving one’s neighbour, to things like not wearing clothes made of mixed fabrics, to trying to stone an adulterer – in modern-day New York. Needless to say, hilarity ensued.
A decade on from the book’s success, CBS has adapted it as a half-hour comedy titled Living Biblically. The show’s executive producer, Patrick Walsh, has stated that he intends to avoid any unkind stereotypes of religious people, and instead engage their beliefs with respect. He wants the series to appeal to both believers and non-believers, and maybe even stimulate some discussion about matters of faith.
Those are admirable goals, especially for network TV, and the show has stuck to them for the most part, at least in its first few episodes. But like its source material, the series is beset by a major problem – its definition of living Biblically is not very, well, Biblical.
The basic premise
Living Biblically tells the story of Chip Curry, a young New York film critic who’s also a lapsed Catholic. After his best friend dies and his wife announces that she’s expecting their first child, Chip takes stock of his life and resolves to become a better man. When a copy of the Scriptures falls into his hands in a bookstore, he decides to pursue his newfound goal by living “100 per cent by the Bible – to the letter.”
And he’s 100 per cent serious. He shows up for work wearing an all-white suit (no mixed fabrics, remember). When he catches a co-worker at a restaurant cheating on his wife, he hesitantly tosses a small rock at the co-worker’s head. He even recruits a priest and a rabbi, with whom he meets at a neighbourhood bar, to help him navigate his Biblical journey.
Chip’s wife, Leslie, works in medicine and is an atheist. At first, she’s less than enamoured with his new spiritual project, but she comes around. After all, she reasons, if it helps make him a better husband and prospective father, then she’s all for it. Upon meeting his priest and rabbi at the bar, she affectionately dubs them his “God squad.” (That’s right: a priest, a rabbi, a lapsed Catholic and his atheist wife walk into a bar. Cue the laugh track.)
The Bible as a self-improvement manual
Leslie’s attitude sums up the first hermeneutic gaffe of Living Biblically: the show and its characters treat the Bible as little more than a therapeutic manual for self-improvement. There’s nothing here about the holiness of God or the sinfulness of humanity or the grace of the Gospel. Instead of pointing to God, the Scriptures are reduced to a tool for living happier, healthier, more fulfilled lives here and now.
Even Chip’s priest, who should presumably know better, advises him that the Bible could stand for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. He counsels moderation, telling Chip that it’s fine to follow the Scriptures in general, but not to get too hung up on the specifics. In fact, he admits that no one is able to follow everything in the Bible to the letter.
In this, of course, he’s quite right, but for the wrong reasons. The massive body of Biblical precepts – including the weightier matters of the law that Jesus spoke of – were never intended as a series of steps to self-improvement. Neither were they meant to be ignored as unrealistic. They were given by God to show us our desperate condition and to point us to Christ, the only remedy for that condition.
The Bible as a bowl of fortune cookies
In the show’s intro, Chip says that he’s “becoming a better man, one verse at a time.” And therein lies the second hermeneutic misstep of Living Biblically: approaching the Bible as a homogenous collection of unrelated precepts, much like a large bowl of fortune cookies.
But the Bible is nothing of that sort. In reality, it traces an overarching narrative of God’s redemptive plan as it unfolds throughout history, from beginning to end. It contains a variety of materials in service of that narrative. There are different styles of writing, each with its own interpretive rules. Some passages are prescriptive, others descriptive. Some portions are temporal and have been fulfilled at the coming of Christ. Others are eternal and will attain their full fruition at the end of the age.
None of that is evident in Living Biblically, however. Precious little attention is paid to context or genre or authorial intent. Instead, the Scriptures are flattened into a series of potentially useful nuggets for self-improvement, differentiated only by their level of affinity to the modern mind. Avoiding office gossip is good. Throwing a rock at a co-worker is weird, and also illegal. While the show acknowledges those distinctions, in its world there’s no real qualitative difference between idolatry and wearing a suit made of mixed materials.
A mirror for the church
Without a doubt, Living Biblically makes an earnest (and welcome) effort to treat religious issues with respect, or at least with fairly good-natured humour. Chip isn’t mocked for his belief and Leslie isn’t demonized for her skepticism. Rather they’re portrayed as an attractive, loving couple whose different viewpoints lead to lively questions about faith.
To be sure, the series is no model of sound Biblical interpretation. But being a network TV comedy, perhaps it can be forgiven that shortcoming.
More sobering, however, is the fact that the show’s approach to the Bible is not all that different from the practice of many Christians, particularly in North America. Rather than seeking an encounter with the glory of God and the grace of the Gospel, they view the Scriptures as a means of self-help and personal fulfillment. Instead of engaging with the Bible’s historical and theological contours, they read their own experiences and biases into it, making it all about them.
If nothing else, Living Biblically might serve as a mirror for the contemporary church, waking it up to the pressing cultural need for good Biblical hermeneutics. After all, that’s the responsibility of Christians, not sitcom characters. Writing for The Gospel Coalition, Brett McCracken sums up the challenge, and the opportunity:
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?
Sources and further reading
Alicia Cohn, “Unlike the Bible, ‘Living Biblically’ plays it safe,” Christianity Today, February 26, 2018.
Brett McCracken, “New CBS sitcom ‘Living Biblically’ brings faith to primetime,” The Gospel Coalition, February 26, 2018.
Branson Parler, “The hermeneutic challenge of CBS’ Living Biblically,” Think Christian, February 26, 2018.
[Note: this article
does not constitute an endorsement of the TV series, Living Biblically, by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the
full review at Plugged In to help you determine whether Living
Biblically is appropriate for you or your
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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