The Bible and Clergy According to CBS

In a recent, short-lived series, Living Biblically, the CBS Network took a stab at religion -- literally though unintentionally. It focused on Chip Curry, played by Jay R. Ferguson, a newspaper columnist who is married to Leslie (Lindsey Kraft), a doctor. Leslie is expecting their first child.

 Chip is drawn to the Bible after a close friend dies. He decides to live the Bible “to the letter,” at least until the baby comes. Even after he accidentally on purpose casts a stone against an adulterous co-worker (Chip’s take on biblical behavior), his other co-workers and cynical overbearing boss (Camryn Manheim), and also his wife, accept his biblical leanings and encourage him. (His wife’s only concern is that he will throw away inappropriate rap materials.) He is promoted at the office from movie critic to a lead columnist writing on his effort to live biblically.

 Writer/creator Patrick Walsh told us in the first episode that Chip’s mom did not approve of his dead friend whom she has already damned to “devil country,” “area code 666,” and that she condemned her son for no longer attending church. Could there be some passive-aggressiveness in pleasant Chip’s return to religion?

When first resolving on his unusual course, Chip confides in his priest, Father Gene (Ian Gomez) whose initial reaction is to laugh in his face. Once the priest realizes that Chip is serious, however, he softens his approach and tells him that one can live by the Bible in general but that it is not practical to “live it 100%.” Father Gene cites as an example the biblical prohibition of wearing mixed fabrics and Chip does mention to his wife that he’s not supposed to touch her during her menstrual period (though it is never mentioned that Orthodox Jewish communities find a way to observe these). 

Patrick Walsh decided to feature a skull-capped Rabbi Gil Abelman (David Krumholtz) as well as a priest. Conveniently, Chip frequently runs into both of them in a bar at which they hang out. In one episode (“Love thy neighbor”) Walsh has Chip’s wife tell the priest-rabbi “God squad” (a reference to Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Tom Hartman who appeared together on TV to offer perspectives on various issues): “Are you guys always here at the bar?”

 Right off, the rabbi makes a silly circumcision joke (TV rabbi fare) but he does quote a Talmudic admonition about gossip when Chip mentions his colleague’s adultery. That was, to my memory, the first and the last time that the rabbi tried to quote an appropriate passage.

Indeed, it was taken as a matter of faith in this series that clergy are around to be sidekicks in a bar room or to serve as comic relief.  These roles are mainly given to the rabbi, often the third wheel, especially in a creepy episode written by Jon Silberman and Josh Silberman about Rabbi Gil crashing Chip’s home just when the latter is open to practicing biblical teachings about hospitality. 

In that episode, the rabbi leaves home because of rumors “swirling around the temple” about his wife receiving a backrub “at the hands of the new young handsome Rabbi Trent.” (It seems that rabbis had adultery on the mind in this series.)  Rabbi Gil heard this from “some very reliable gossips.” (It seems that Chip’s rabbi guides his life by gossips instead of by religious teachings against gossip, even though he cites them.) Before following Chip’s wife’s advice to confront his wife directly, Rabbi Gil finds five or six drinks helpful.

As if offering kudos to the gossips (and contempt to its only Jewish woman, who is mentioned but never seen), the show has its rabbi report that he smashed the window of a car in which he saw his wife kissing Rabbi Trent.  Once ensconced on Chip’s living room sofa, Rabbi Gil does not do too much better controlling his impulses. He fails to ask permission to bring along a cumbersome sleep apnea machine, makes popcorn at 4:00 a.m., and suffers from night terrors and morning terrors with loud oy-yoy-yoy noises.  He plays Celine Dion at night, accidentally streaming the music to the speaker in his hosts’ bedroom. 

Indeed, this rabbi is so into pop culture that he does not spend much time studying Torah or offering pastoral care to congregants. In one episode  he spends much of his time preparing to attend a Beyoncé concert with Chip’s wife. The most that can be learned from Rabbi Gil, spiritually speaking, is that “God and germs are everywhere.” He doesn’t do as well at Chip’s bar room “Bible games” (which reduce sacred scriptures to trivia!) as does Father Gene. He shows bad sportsmanship by taunting his priest friend with bald jokes.

Chip brings the-guest-who-stays-too-long Rabbi Gil to the newspaper office (with a joke about “Bring Your Rabbi To Work Day”), explaining that “Catholics can have rabbis.” Yet the latter says that it is difficult to make himself at home anywhere “without a man…having sex with my wife.” Chip’s rabbi-catcher boss barks, “Unless he’s performing your bris [circumcision], he’s got to go. Hey, shmuck, scram!” 

The episode concludes with the rabbi sounding off inappropriately, and insisting on taking a “quick bath” before ending his unsolicited stay. Still, Chip appropriates Yiddish terms to praise his rabbi: “I love that maniac to death. He’s a real mensch. But when he’s having marital issues, he can be a pain in the tuches.” 

As for Chip, actor Ferguson is so likable that he literally brightens up a dull, drab and unpleasant series. All the other characters, including the rabbi and priest, are rather unlikable, with the exception of Chip’s wife and his office buddy Vince (Tony Rock). The series was particularly nasty in its depiction of an Indian-American office worker. The funniest character was an obnoxious obituary writer played by Sara Gilbert (who has wisely returned to Roseanne), but the laughs were at the expense of humiliating the actress.

I couldn’t help thinking many times that the writers did not have to make the other characters less likable in order to make Ferguson’s most likable character more likable. That just made the others increasingly unlikable.

As regards the “religion” theme, the series offered nothing. Writers Bill Martin and Mike Schiff tried to get their characters to say something meaningful about prayer, even if they had to exploit panic in a stalling and jerking elevator to do it. The rabbi’s the one who finds it “easy to be cynical” about whether a certain prayer worked. The priest is more philosophical, describing prayer as “quality time spent with God” (in the spirit of Abraham Joshua Heschel who said that prayer is not asking for something but being with Someone). Still, vulgarity crept in with Bible bathroom humor (during a visit from Leslie’s mother) and a remark about “this thing” (the Bible) which “never shuts up about it”—namely, prayer. The writers could not resist referring to a key chain with an image of Jesus as a “Keysus.”

That’s about as profound—and witty—as it got. One episode by Walsh about Chip trying to honor his selfish dad ends up with the spouting of New Age doctrine: “When you forgive someone, we open up ourselves to healing—and then you can really honor them by not making the same mistakes that they did.” Sharing this at Father Gene’s church with young men in need of a meaningful message, Chip concludes by advising them to “use the Bible as a general guide. Take it from me, it can change your life. That’s all I got.”

And that is all that this series had, spiritually and intellectually speaking.

Instead of citing “weird law but real” and as depicting the Bible as trivia (in every way and not only in the aforementioned “Bible game”), Living Biblically could have done a service by explaining that Catholics and other Christians and Jews believe that individuals and communities cannot live by the Bible alone, which can seem contradictory and archaic without an authoritative living tradition that determines practice and interpretation. But that most basic and fundamental point was not even made in this series.

The clergy were made to toe a New Age line. Hence, their total endorsement of a do-it-yourself approach to the Bible, which bypassed any kind of religious authority (Rabbinic, Catholic Magisterium) that brings authenticity and community to religious practice.

Particularly disconcerting about Living Biblically was the lack of passion of these clergymen for their religions. The writers of CBS’s Numbers (2005-2010), in which Krumholtz played a mathematician/crime solver, gave that character more passion for mathematics than Living Biblically’s writers gave to Krumholz’s rabbi, not to mention to the priest.

 Though I have no reason to doubt that the intentions here were good, the series did not foster appreciation of the Bible (which Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine just obnoxiously declared to be over-rated reading!) and depicted the clergy as cynical, lazy, and rooted in pop culture if not in bar stools.

Update: Corrected spelling of Camryn Manheim

In a recent, short-lived series, Living Biblically, the CBS Network took a stab at religion -- literally though unintentionally. It focused on Chip Curry, played by Jay R. Ferguson, a newspaper columnist who is married to Leslie (Lindsey Kraft), a doctor. Leslie is expecting their first child.

 Chip is drawn to the Bible after a close friend dies. He decides to live the Bible “to the letter,” at least until the baby comes. Even after he accidentally on purpose casts a stone against an adulterous co-worker (Chip’s take on biblical behavior), his other co-workers and cynical overbearing boss (Camryn Manheim), and also his wife, accept his biblical leanings and encourage him. (His wife’s only concern is that he will throw away inappropriate rap materials.) He is promoted at the office from movie critic to a lead columnist writing on his effort to live biblically.

 Writer/creator Patrick Walsh told us in the first episode that Chip’s mom did not approve of his dead friend whom she has already damned to “devil country,” “area code 666,” and that she condemned her son for no longer attending church. Could there be some passive-aggressiveness in pleasant Chip’s return to religion?

When first resolving on his unusual course, Chip confides in his priest, Father Gene (Ian Gomez) whose initial reaction is to laugh in his face. Once the priest realizes that Chip is serious, however, he softens his approach and tells him that one can live by the Bible in general but that it is not practical to “live it 100%.” Father Gene cites as an example the biblical prohibition of wearing mixed fabrics and Chip does mention to his wife that he’s not supposed to touch her during her menstrual period (though it is never mentioned that Orthodox Jewish communities find a way to observe these). 

Patrick Walsh decided to feature a skull-capped Rabbi Gil Abelman (David Krumholtz) as well as a priest. Conveniently, Chip frequently runs into both of them in a bar at which they hang out. In one episode (“Love thy neighbor”) Walsh has Chip’s wife tell the priest-rabbi “God squad” (a reference to Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Tom Hartman who appeared together on TV to offer perspectives on various issues): “Are you guys always here at the bar?”

 Right off, the rabbi makes a silly circumcision joke (TV rabbi fare) but he does quote a Talmudic admonition about gossip when Chip mentions his colleague’s adultery. That was, to my memory, the first and the last time that the rabbi tried to quote an appropriate passage.

Indeed, it was taken as a matter of faith in this series that clergy are around to be sidekicks in a bar room or to serve as comic relief.  These roles are mainly given to the rabbi, often the third wheel, especially in a creepy episode written by Jon Silberman and Josh Silberman about Rabbi Gil crashing Chip’s home just when the latter is open to practicing biblical teachings about hospitality. 

In that episode, the rabbi leaves home because of rumors “swirling around the temple” about his wife receiving a backrub “at the hands of the new young handsome Rabbi Trent.” (It seems that rabbis had adultery on the mind in this series.)  Rabbi Gil heard this from “some very reliable gossips.” (It seems that Chip’s rabbi guides his life by gossips instead of by religious teachings against gossip, even though he cites them.) Before following Chip’s wife’s advice to confront his wife directly, Rabbi Gil finds five or six drinks helpful.

As if offering kudos to the gossips (and contempt to its only Jewish woman, who is mentioned but never seen), the show has its rabbi report that he smashed the window of a car in which he saw his wife kissing Rabbi Trent.  Once ensconced on Chip’s living room sofa, Rabbi Gil does not do too much better controlling his impulses. He fails to ask permission to bring along a cumbersome sleep apnea machine, makes popcorn at 4:00 a.m., and suffers from night terrors and morning terrors with loud oy-yoy-yoy noises.  He plays Celine Dion at night, accidentally streaming the music to the speaker in his hosts’ bedroom. 

Indeed, this rabbi is so into pop culture that he does not spend much time studying Torah or offering pastoral care to congregants. In one episode  he spends much of his time preparing to attend a Beyoncé concert with Chip’s wife. The most that can be learned from Rabbi Gil, spiritually speaking, is that “God and germs are everywhere.” He doesn’t do as well at Chip’s bar room “Bible games” (which reduce sacred scriptures to trivia!) as does Father Gene. He shows bad sportsmanship by taunting his priest friend with bald jokes.

Chip brings the-guest-who-stays-too-long Rabbi Gil to the newspaper office (with a joke about “Bring Your Rabbi To Work Day”), explaining that “Catholics can have rabbis.” Yet the latter says that it is difficult to make himself at home anywhere “without a man…having sex with my wife.” Chip’s rabbi-catcher boss barks, “Unless he’s performing your bris [circumcision], he’s got to go. Hey, shmuck, scram!” 

The episode concludes with the rabbi sounding off inappropriately, and insisting on taking a “quick bath” before ending his unsolicited stay. Still, Chip appropriates Yiddish terms to praise his rabbi: “I love that maniac to death. He’s a real mensch. But when he’s having marital issues, he can be a pain in the tuches.” 

As for Chip, actor Ferguson is so likable that he literally brightens up a dull, drab and unpleasant series. All the other characters, including the rabbi and priest, are rather unlikable, with the exception of Chip’s wife and his office buddy Vince (Tony Rock). The series was particularly nasty in its depiction of an Indian-American office worker. The funniest character was an obnoxious obituary writer played by Sara Gilbert (who has wisely returned to Roseanne), but the laughs were at the expense of humiliating the actress.

I couldn’t help thinking many times that the writers did not have to make the other characters less likable in order to make Ferguson’s most likable character more likable. That just made the others increasingly unlikable.

As regards the “religion” theme, the series offered nothing. Writers Bill Martin and Mike Schiff tried to get their characters to say something meaningful about prayer, even if they had to exploit panic in a stalling and jerking elevator to do it. The rabbi’s the one who finds it “easy to be cynical” about whether a certain prayer worked. The priest is more philosophical, describing prayer as “quality time spent with God” (in the spirit of Abraham Joshua Heschel who said that prayer is not asking for something but being with Someone). Still, vulgarity crept in with Bible bathroom humor (during a visit from Leslie’s mother) and a remark about “this thing” (the Bible) which “never shuts up about it”—namely, prayer. The writers could not resist referring to a key chain with an image of Jesus as a “Keysus.”

That’s about as profound—and witty—as it got. One episode by Walsh about Chip trying to honor his selfish dad ends up with the spouting of New Age doctrine: “When you forgive someone, we open up ourselves to healing—and then you can really honor them by not making the same mistakes that they did.” Sharing this at Father Gene’s church with young men in need of a meaningful message, Chip concludes by advising them to “use the Bible as a general guide. Take it from me, it can change your life. That’s all I got.”

And that is all that this series had, spiritually and intellectually speaking.

Instead of citing “weird law but real” and as depicting the Bible as trivia (in every way and not only in the aforementioned “Bible game”), Living Biblically could have done a service by explaining that Catholics and other Christians and Jews believe that individuals and communities cannot live by the Bible alone, which can seem contradictory and archaic without an authoritative living tradition that determines practice and interpretation. But that most basic and fundamental point was not even made in this series.

The clergy were made to toe a New Age line. Hence, their total endorsement of a do-it-yourself approach to the Bible, which bypassed any kind of religious authority (Rabbinic, Catholic Magisterium) that brings authenticity and community to religious practice.

Particularly disconcerting about Living Biblically was the lack of passion of these clergymen for their religions. The writers of CBS’s Numbers (2005-2010), in which Krumholtz played a mathematician/crime solver, gave that character more passion for mathematics than Living Biblically’s writers gave to Krumholz’s rabbi, not to mention to the priest.

 Though I have no reason to doubt that the intentions here were good, the series did not foster appreciation of the Bible (which Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine just obnoxiously declared to be over-rated reading!) and depicted the clergy as cynical, lazy, and rooted in pop culture if not in bar stools.

Update: Corrected spelling of Camryn Manheim