You probably aren’t looking forward to the new CBS television comedy “Living Biblically.” Not if you are a person of faith attempting to live your life under the authority of Scripture.
The show is an adaptation of the popular book by A. J. Jacobs, in which a man attempts to live according to a literal reading of the Bible’s directives. That premise has serious Bible-people already wincing and raising objections before having even seen the first episode. It’s not that we don’t have a sense of humor, nor is it that we take ourselves so seriously. It’s just that we have already heard this joke before.
People of faith are well-accustomed to the distorted caricature television, movies, and popular media use to depict them. More than that, we have already heard all the jokes that secularists and social progressives think are so clever: “If you obey the Bible, why don’t you sacrifice animals? Why don’t you stone your neighbor for breaking the Sabbath or committing adultery? Why don’t you put your rebellious children to death or sell your daughter into slavery?”
Johnny Galecki (“Big Bang Theory”), the executive producer of the new series, says that he wants to inspire thoughtful conversation about religion and faith. He was surprised by the amount of backlash the show has already received before its premiere. Galecki said he was disheartened by early speculation that the show would be “scathing and sarcastic” in its portrayal of a religious lead character. Patrick Walsh, creator of the new series, claims that the show intends to be “accurate and respectful.” He hastened to add, “We have a priest and a rabbi read every draft of the scripts and tell us where we are wrong or where we could use a better example from the Bible.”
The never-gets-old comedy routine works like this. Select a statute or law from the Old Testament that the religious right disregards, no longer understands, or considers abolished by the New Testament. Make sure that the commandment has a certain amount of shock value, such as the command to stone a rebellious son or one of the Levitical laws about bodily fluids. Then take that Bible passage out of its context, apply it literally into a modern context without any regard for the traditional interpretation offered by Judaism (the religion to which the Scripture under scrutiny belongs), and ask contemporary religious people why they aren’t “living biblically.” Hilarity ensues.
For example, the Torah (the Law), contains a commandment that warns about contracting Levitical defilement from contact with a menstruating woman. According to the rules in the Bible, anyone who even sits in a chair upon which the woman has recently sat will contract Levitical impurity:
And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. (Leviticus 15:22)
Now take that rule and plop it into a modern sitcom and get ready for big laughs. Behind the studio laugh-track, the unstated but obvious implication is that the Bible is an obsolete legal code with little or no relevance to modern society. The punchline is a dogmatic social agenda criticizing the religious right’s campaigns against same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and freedom of sexual expression on the basis that those concerns are primitive and superstitious bigotries informed from a primitive and superstitious religious text that no modern person should take seriously. In short, it’s a game of undercutting the authority and credibility of the Bible.
Here’s the problem. Even though these are the oldest jokes in “the book,” pastors, priests, and clergymen have no compelling rejoinder. Instead, they find themselves stammering about how the Old Testament laws were done away with by grace and that one must distinguish between ceremonial laws and moral laws. The explanations sound like nonsense, and they contradict the clear teaching of Jesus:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)
So how should you answer the secular comedian who wants to know how your morning burnt offering went or if you stoned any adulterers or Sabbath-breakers over the weekend? Here’s a simple strategy.
- Look at the context around the commandment. Make sure you understand it’s function within the culture and circumstance of ancient Israel.
- Ask yourself if the commandment was intended to apply universally and under current circumstances, or was it intended for specific people (eg., Jewish people, Levitical priesthood, judges on the Sanhedrin), in the land of Israel, under the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin (a religious court of Torah-law), when a functional Temple or Levitical priesthood was in place.
- Look at the traditional interpretation of the commandment. How does the Jewish community explain and apply that statute? Remember that the Torah itself gave the judges and religious leaders over Israel the authority to interpret and apply the commandments (Deuteronomy 17:8-11; cf. Matthew 23:2-3; Romans 3:2, 13:1).
If you follow these three simple steps, it’s going to take most of the fun out of the old jokes. Of course, that’s a lot of work. It assumes you are more biblically literate than the average churchgoer, that you have a good handle on the domains of Old Testament law, and that you are familiar with rabbinic exegesis and interpretation. But don’t worry, we’ve got your back. Just for fun, we’ll be writing a review and commentary on every episode of “Living Biblically.” Subscribe to this blog to follow along so that you are ready to give an answer the next time someone makes a joke about eating lobster or a wisecrack about living biblically.
Meanwhile, you can learn the basics of Old Testament law yourself in my book Restoration: Returning the Torah of Moses to the Disciples of Jesus. Once you understand the meaning of the Torah and its role in the world today, you’ll know how to “answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5).