Chip was doing just fine without faith.
Sure, he knows about God and Jesus and all that. He was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, after all. But, like many folks, he came to a point where religion just didn't feel like it was all that relevant to his day-to-day life. Jesus doesn't do the dishes for him. The Holy Spirit never points out a prime parking spot. I mean, he's a movie critic, fer cryin' out loud. How's faith going to help him write a review of Black Panther? (Unless he goes to work for, say, Plugged In, I mean?)
His wife says, "I consider Chip Catholic like I consider Olive Garden Italian."
But Chip's perspective on religion changes when his life suffers a one-two blow. First, his best friend of 30 years unexpectedly dies. Second, wife Leslie announces that she's pregnant. Like many folks, Chip finds newfound relevance in religion in the wake of these massive life-changes, and he feels the need to reconnect with God.
But Chip is kind of an all-or-nothing guy. It's not enough to start going to church or just setting up some quiet time. He wants to live by the Good Book, as it were: "to the letter."
Wow. To the letter. Leafed through the book of Leviticus lately?
A Chip off the Old Book
Yes, we could tell fictional Chip that he doesn't need to follow the Bible's laws to the letter: Paul says in Romans 6:14 that Christians "are not under law but under grace," which means that I can eat a bacon cheeseburger without overwhelming spiritual guilt. We're made right with God by faith in Jesus, not by our own moral perfection, Paul adds in Ephesians 2:8-10.
And we wouldn't be the only ones delivering that message to Chip. "You do realize it will be impossible to truly live by the Bible, right?" Father Gene, Chip's new spiritual adviser, asks him at the outset. And Leslie simply asks, "Couldn't you go to church one time before making this huge commitment?"
No, Chip says. Half measures won't cut it—not when he's trying to transform himself into a better husband, future father and all-around awesome human being. Seeing his commitment, Leslie—despite being a nonbeliever herself—offers what support she can.
But as Christians know, it's pretty hard to live biblically even when we ignore the instructions to the Israelites about, say, wearing different kinds of fabrics: Temptations lurk all around us. Every situation seems to lure us with compromise. Every human, worldly instinct we have encourages us to lash out when we should be turning the other cheek. It's not a question of if Chip will fall off the biblical wagon, but when and how often.
The question is—as it is for all of us—will he get back on?
If CBS has its druthers, Chip'll be on that wagon for several seasons.
Let me confess: I was leery about watching Living Biblically. Dreading reviewing it, actually. Loosely based on A. J. Jacobs' bestselling nonfiction book The Year of Living Biblically, I thought that the show would likely skewer religion and, by extension, mock those who believe and adhere to the Christian variety.
But when I talked with the show's creator, Patrick Walsh, he said that wasn't the show's purpose at all.
"I think a big reason that CBS took the gamble on the show was just me saying, I do not wish to mock faith. I have a great deal of respect for faith. I was raised very strictly Catholic, and all of my friends were extremely religious," he said. "The only time you ever hear about religion is Bill Maher saying terrible things about people of faith, or on the flip side, [explicitly religious entertainment] that is maybe a little exclusionary to people who are not of faith—shows that appeal only to people with that exact same viewpoint. So my goal was to kind of bridge that gap and to hopefully serve all these people looking for entertainment about their lives, [but] not finding it."
Let's be honest: Not everyone will find Living Biblically entertaining, regardless of Walsh's intentions. The sitcom does not come to the table content-free: We hear a bit of bad language. We might be exposed to plot points involving behavior such as infidelity or lying. Most of the show's deepest theological discussions take place in a bar.
And Living Biblically does poke fun at faith sometimes. If I've learned anything in my gig as a Plugged In reviewer, it's that we Christians can take ourselves, our faith and our entertainment really, really seriously. Living Biblically, in its sometimes winking attitude toward religion and its sometimes casual relationship with orthodox theology, will rub some would-be viewers the wrong way.
Here's a good litmus test to determine whether you (or someone you know) might respond that way: If you're offended by the fact that Chip has a tiny Jesus figure on his keychain and calls it "Keysus," this show's probably not for you.
But all those caveats aside, there's also a great deal to like about this show. In fact, in some significant ways it’s a refreshing and welcome addition to prime time.
Yes, faith can be funny, Living Biblically tells us. But it's also a really positive force in Chip's life. He turned to the Bible to make himself a better person. And you know what? It's working. When was the last time you saw a network sitcom do that? Ever?
Morality matters here. Prayer matters. Faith matters. And it matters in the best of ways.
Then there's the interplay between Chip and his secular friends and family. I find the relationship between him and his nonbelieving wife particularly touching. She can't buy into Chip's newfound biblical devotion (yet?), but she sees the changes that his spiritual journey is making in his life. And when her angry, atheist mom comes to visit, trying to play an unwelcome spiritual "gotcha" game with Chip, Leslie tells her to lay off. "This whole Bible thing, it's really good for him," she says.
"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," Walsh told me. "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."
No, Living Biblically doesn't get everything right. And when we try to live biblically ourselves, neither do we. But it's trying. This show may not reflect our faith perfectly, but it does attempt to reflect the power and beauty that we see in it, and that we'd like others to see.
And again I ask: When was the last time a show did that?