The show, starring Jay R. Ferguson as a lapsed Catholic who rediscovers the Bible, premiered on CBS this week.
Want to figure out what Americans value? Turn on the telly. Ever since its inception, television has served as a funhouse reflection of American society — not wholly accurate, perhaps, but still illustrative.
Just take a look at the most durable TV staple of all, the television sitcom: The 1950s and 60s were inundated with comedies centered on traditional families. In the early 1970s, social criticism crept into the fray with shows like All in the Family. The Reagan-era 80s marked a return to traditional values (seen in The Cosby Show and Family Ties), while the 90s pivoted to single friends in the city (Seinfeld, Friends).
Yep, point to an important cultural moment or theme, and you’ll be sure to find an echo of it on the American sitcom — with one massive exception: religion.
The United States has always been a deeply religious country. Even now, as America grows more pluralistic and less religious, more than 70 percent of us say we’re Christians, according to the Pew Research Center. But you wouldn’t know it from television sitcoms. Faith is as rare as a poor single person in Manhattan.
But, if a recent article in USA Today can be believed, that may be changing. The American sitcom has seen a sudden rash of faith-oriented shows, according to reporter Patrick Ryan — many of them offering nuanced or even sympathetic portrayals of religion. Case in point: CBS’s new sitcom Living Biblically.
The show focuses on lapsed Catholic and expectant father Chip Curry, who tries to become a better person by following the Bible — not just its basic precepts, but its every rule and guideline, down to its deepest, weirdest Levitical laws. “Couldn’t you go to church one time before making this huge commitment?” Chip’s non-believing wife, Leslie, asks in the pilot.
I had a chance to talk with Patrick Walsh, the creator of Living Biblically, who believes that television is beginning to wake up to religion. And he thinks it’s about time.
“This is just a very tense time in America, and I think if everyone just keeps to their own kind, let’s say, I don’t think that’s going to help,” Walsh told me. “I think people just need to see more positive portrayals of religion and people of faith.
Living Biblically is a sitcom, not a theological treatise. The show ribs religion at times. But it does so gently and mostly respectfully. At least that was Walsh’s intention. A priest and a rabbi looked over every show script in an effort to honor the show’s myriad religious viewpoints.
“I think a big reason that CBS took the gamble on the show was just me saying, ‘I do not wish to mock faith,’” he said. “I have a great deal of respect for faith, I was raised very strictly Catholic and all of my friends were extremely religious. … I think there’s a real desire for [religious] entertainment that isn’t so furious, that can show a lighter side to it without ever mocking or making fun.”
In truth, Walsh was a little surprised at how receptive the folks at CBS were to his show.
“To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a religious sitcom, at least in my lifetime,” he said. “I just went in and explained that 84 percent of the world aligns itself with a faith, with a religion of some kind. And so often, entertainment for people of faith — religious entertainment — is often very somber and solemn. And,” he added, “there’s a huge fear among people of religion that [any sitcom dealing with religion] will be mocking.”
While Living Biblically does gently rib faith at times, the show focuses more on the positive difference it’s making in Chip’s own life. It stresses that the decisions we make matter. It suggests that prayer really may work, and it insists that faith can indeed be a cornerstone of a healthy, happy, productive existence. Even Chip’s skeptical wife sees the change in him. And when her own atheist mother comes for a visit and spends most of her time insulting Chip’s newfound piety, Leslie tells her to lay off. “This whole Bible thing, it’s really good for him,” Leslie tells her mom.
Walsh says that he didn’t want to demonize Chip’s mother-in-law. But he did want to illustrate the vitriolic dialogue that too often surrounds religious conversations these days. “My goal was not really to vilify any of the sides, but you just see the differences in atheism between Leslie, who is open-minded and wants to learn, and her mom, who is much more, ‘I know more than you,’” he says. “That’s not the way to go about any of those discussions, I don’t think.
“For me, an aspect of this show was to present a lot of people with extremely different beliefs who are coming to a better understanding of each other,” he added. “They might not always love what the other one is saying. They might not change their whole lifestyle because of it, but at least they’re listening with respect.”
Walsh hopes that, in its own small way, Living Biblically might help bridge the growing divide between believers and non-believers. He’d love for priests and pastors to talk about the show from their pulpits on Sunday mornings. And he’d like the show to impact how viewers look at faith. He says making the show has impacted his own views on faith. Indeed, he purposefully brought together a group of writers from all sorts of faith backgrounds, and the process challenged and enriched them all, Walsh believes.
“[People] need something to turn to, I think,” he says. “It’s hard to say [that religion’s] on the rise again, but I really do think it is. People need answers.”
Living Biblically doesn’t offer many answers. But it does point people to a source that does. And in a society where entertainment — particularly television — tends to ignore Christianity’s eternal truths completely, that’s worth noting.