Delivering even a single joke about religion or faith in a show or movie is a delicate, tricky maneuver that many shy away from altogether. No matter what religion you're talking about, the line between a light jab and something genuinely offensive might be razor thin.
Then there's the problem of representing said religion fairly. Even when you set out to portray "American Christianity" on a screen, what does that actually mean? Are your sources of inspiration Baptists? Protestants? Lutherans? Catholics?
CBS is tackling the challenge head on with Living Biblically, a sitcom that premieres Feb. 26. It's loosely based on A.J. Jacobs' book The Year of Living Biblically, in which the author attempts to spend a year following the rules of the Bible as closely (and as literally) as possible.
The show centers around Chip (played by Dallas-born Jay R. Ferguson), a lapsed Catholic who is still grieving the death of his best friend when his wife (Lindsey Kraft) tells him that she's pregnant. In an effort to make a better man of himself, he decides to dedicate himself to following the Bible "to the letter" as much as he can.
To the show's credit, one of its primary sources of religious wisdom immediately laughs at this idea. After Chip confesses to sometimes getting high on marijuana and then sharing his plan to live a 100 percent biblical life, Father Gene (Ian Gomez) asks, "Are you stoned right now?" (He says this after making a 4/20 joke, because Father Gene is much cooler than Chip.) It's impossible to live by the Bible to the letter, he says. Chip is already breaking the rules, in fact, by wearing mixed fabrics.
Sadly, Father Gene stops there, which is a problem for anyone who hopes Living Biblically will dive too deep into specific aspects of theology. Why did Mosaic Law ban wearing mixed fabrics in the first place? Since it's part of Old Testament law, is it one of those things New Testament followers can brush aside? Do modern Christians really need to care whether their T-shirt is 100 percent cotton?
It's hard not to compare Living Biblically to NBC's comedy The Good Place in moments like these. While Living Biblically so far only skims the surface of Christian belief, The Good Place isn't afraid to literally give its audience a lecture on the philosophic teachings of Immanuel Kant. While Thomas Aquinas does get name-dropped in Living Biblically, so far the series doesn't seem to trust its viewers as much to think deeply about its subject matter.
Still, Father Gene and his Jewish counterpart, Rabbi Ableman (David Krumholtz) are precisely what the show needed to balance the nigh-zealous soul-searching of Chip. While Chip is off literally casting a stone at an adulterer (though it's in a lighthearted, not overly violent way), Ableman compares himself to Chandler on Friends. This makes for good comedy, but it also presents a much more honest and realistic picture of modern faith. Even a Rabbi doesn't have his head buried in scripture 24/7 — sometimes he just kicks back and watches Netflix.
Even Chip doesn't go too far off the deep end, though. He assures his very-atheist mother-in-law that he still believes in science and is "still on board" with the idea that the universe is billions of years old.
As a Christian, I went into the pilot episode extremely skeptical. I wasn't too afraid of my faith being mocked, but I'm often afraid that depictions of my faith will lack nuance. Thus far, I'm pleasantly surprised by its handling of certain subjects and am happy that it presents Christianity in a positive light while also knowing that it's OK for people of faith to laugh at ourselves sometimes.
Living Biblically is pleasant, but perhaps too much so. Chip's life gets significantly better immediately after rediscovering his faith, and while I personally believe that life is better when listening to God, perhaps we need to have a conversation about setting unrealistic expectations.
In the three episodes that CBS sent along for review, Chip has yet to encounter much severe resistance to his renewed faith. When he prays, his prayers appear to be answered, and while Father Gene goes out of his way to stress that theists don't believe prayer is some sort of magic spell, the show also doesn't ask questions like, "What do you do when prayers seem to fall on deaf ears?"
There is also room for things to go south quickly. The pilot episode sets up the fact that Chip's boss, a woman, lives with her girlfriend. That subject hasn't yet been touched with a 10-foot pole, but when it inevitably comes up, it will have to be handled expertly. However the show decides to approach homosexuality, the result will likely be controversial with many.
Living Biblically is cheesy in the way that sitcoms typically are. Many of its gags feel forced, and the laugh track doesn't help. But like so many comedies, it could fall into that "comfort food" level of cheese once it settles into a rhythm.
So far, Living Biblically is striking a good balance between appealing to people of faith without alienating non-religious viewers. I don't subscribe to the feeling that Christianity is under constant attack on today's TV shows, but if you're aching for a program that places religion's wholesome and helpful aspects front and center, this show could be an answer to your prayers.
Living Biblically premieres Monday, Feb. 26, at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.