The Problem with Spiritual Dabbling
CBS’s new sitcom, “Living Biblically,” is anything but what it claims. Nothing chaffed Jesus more than those who advocated for an outside-in spirituality. Jesus was about heart transformation not behavior modification. Chip Curry (played by Jay R. Ferguson), the central character in “Living Biblically,” has about as much to do with genuine Christianity as the cliché sayings outside of Trader Joe’s has to do with religion. The writers of this show have gotten Christianity 100% backwards. ABC got in trouble with the faith community for its satire “Good Christian Bitches [“GCB”] several years ago. This one is open to even greater protest.
While I think it is healthy for religious types to be able to laugh at themselves. The tendency is for them to take themselves too seriously. I greatly appreciated Kim Gatlin's biting satire of Good Christian Bitches portrayal of the superficial Christian subculture in Dallas, Texas. Its humor had the addition of cultural insight.
But “Living Biblically” seems to promise even more. I had dinner recently with a Tibetan Buddhist filmmaker from Scotland. He was serious about his Buddhism having studied it at the University of London. He was particularly wary of the DIY spirituality of contemporary millennials who fail to take seriously a given historic religious tradition. “Dabbling is not apprenticeship,” he said. Herein lies the problem with the premise of “Living Biblically,” which was adapted from A.J. Jacobs New York Times bestseller The Year of Living Biblically. What is presented, as “biblical living,” is DIY Christianity told through the eyes of a New York lapsed Catholic. It has as much to do with Jesus as a pseudo form of Buddhism that advocates gluttony.
Chip Curry is grieving the loss of his best friend. His grief is paralyzing and only compounds his slothfulness and indifference towards life. But then in a small epiphany stemming from his wife’s pregnancy, he decides to go on a nine-month “soul cleanse” by seeking to follow the Bible’s 600+ rule literally. He consults with a Catholic priest, who laughs at the prospect, but does not reflect the anger that was typical of Jesus when others in his own day tried the same. In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces seven woes on those who promote this kind of superficial spirituality. Jesus had no patience with posers. These are “blind guides,” “hypocrites,” and a “brood of vipers.” He asks, “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” This is not the meek and mild loving Jesus, this is Jesus really pissed off.
Why would Jesus get so chaffed at the premise of this sitcom? It is not in its humor but in its religious pretense. In the Sermon on the Mount he explained to his followers, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees were those tried to follow rules as a means of spiritual authenticity. Jesus countered: “It can’t be done.” Behavior modification will not change the inner personality, one’s character, or to use religious language “one’s heart.”
Chip Curry is doing everything, but a genuine “soul cleanse,” because this is not how the soul is cleansed. Jesus tells a story about the ludicrous nature of this kind of DIY spirituality. You are like the person who paints the outside of the coffin, while inside the maggots multiply. “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28).
This is the opposite of biblical Christianity as articulated by Jesus. Sadly many well-meaning Christians also get it wrong. So if one takes the sitcom as a satire on what Ross Douthat calls “bad religion,” there is much that can be learned. One assumes that A.J. Jacobs and Patrick Walsh (the showrunner) know that living biblically in this manner cannot be done. And here they are totally correct.
The writers will seek to make Christianity seem oddly quaint, like the Amish. Their transgressive humor will each week contrast biblical sexual mores with what is generally accepted today. In the first episode, Chip throws a stone at his cheating coworker in a half-hearted attempt to follow the Old Testament mandate to stone adulterers.
Even the biblically illiterate will remember the contrasting attitude of Jesus when confronted with a woman actually caught in the act of adultery. His actions were directly aimed at contrasting those of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. Jesus asks, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). So whether it is matters of anger or sex, these writers have so distorted the message of Jesus as to get it totally backwards.
It has long been observed that if you want to get rid of rules, make everything a rule. The absurdity of such a life will make the antinomian [lawless] alternative patently attractive. The accepted cultural premise is that genuine freedom is freedom from all constraint. Individual autonomy reigns. The emphasis on “choice” makes it a market reality and “freedom” mildly patriotic. This is the story we tell about the nature of the good life that has been collapsed in to dictates of the individual self. Rarely is freedom expressed positively—as freedom to, freedom for the good, to flourish, to empower service to the other. Rarely is freedom understood as the purposeful alignment of the self with reality. This freedom is less dictated by choice as by what we love. None of this positive freedom is explored in “Living Biblically.” Its aim is more subversive to make any form of religious constraint a laugh line. Its mission is to foster the reasonableness of the unbounded self.
It’s second mission is to make orthodox Christian belief seem quaint, an historical anachronism. If Christianity can be shown to be quaint like the Amish, then it can be easily abandoned and reasonably marginalized—the eye rolls as we drive by the horse and buggy in Lancaster County. There are many beliefs and practices of orthodox Christian believers that are out of synch with contemporary secular cultural expectations. This is not surprising and is how it should be. One would not be surprised to find the same true of Hinduism or Zen Buddhism. But the distinction needs to be an honest one not a cheap caricature.
This kind of DIY spirituality Jesus most strenuously protested against as false religion. The aim of this sitcom is not faith friendly humor or satire. Rather it seeks to make orthodox belief a cultural anachronism so as to further the status quo’s antinomian and dismissive attitudes toward faith. Perhaps we can expect nothing more than this from a New York lapsed Catholic, but Hollywood elites and the Christian church should know better.