‘Living Biblically’ on CBS shows audiences how to live out faith in a modern world

  Jay Ferguson and Ian Gomez as Chip and Fr. Gene, “Living Biblically” (Michael Yarish/CBS)

Patrick Walsh is the executive producer of “Living Biblically,” a new CBS sitcom about Chip, a husband and expectant father in New York City who decides to become a better Catholic after his best friend dies. Mr. Walsh is the son of a Catholic theology professor and a practicing Catholic. The cast on his new show includes a priest (Father Gene, who helps Chip translate the rules of the Bible to a modern world) and a rabbi (Gil Abelman, who respects Chip’s chutzpah and is glad to serve as a sounding board when they meet at their local bar).

Mr. Walsh’s writing and producing credits include “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Outsourced” and “2 Broke Girls.” On Feb. 8, I interviewed Mr. Walsh by phone about “Living Biblically,” which debuts on Feb. 26. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.

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A CBS sitcom about a lapsed Catholic who decides to “live biblically” seems unusual in today’s TV landscape. What inspired this show?

It’s inspired by the book A Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs. And [executive producer] Johnny Galecki’s company has the rights to it. I read it, I loved it, I could not believe they were going to make it into a TV show—and I just thought I had really great experience for the job. I was raised very strictly Catholic, and I’ve always been something of a student of religion, fascinated by it.

I’ve had friends from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. All of them, myself included, have always wondered why, if there are so many people—84 percent of the world, according to the most recent statistic—aligning themselves with religion, why is there so little entertainment made for and about people of faith?

How much of your own life resonates in this show?

I would say a great deal. Chip, especially in the early stages of the script, was very much based on me. I’m engaged to be married, which of course makes you think about life, getting yourself on track and not being a kid anymore. In this case, in Chip’s case, he learns that his wife is going to have a baby, his best friend dies abruptly and he’s feeling lost.

It’s a very confusing time in America; there’s a lot of fighting going on. I think a lot of people feel lost. I could certainly say I do. I wake up every morning, get on Twitter and put myself in a bad mood with all the news stories of the world. And I, much like everyone, am sort of looking for help. A lot of times that search leads you to religion, or back to religion. That’s where we find Chip at the start of it: He’s looking for guidance, looking for help, and he finds it through living biblically. He’s a guy who does everything “all in” and he really goes “all in” with this.

And I, much like everyone, am sort of looking for help. A lot of times that search leads you to religion, or back to religion.

Why did you put this concept into a sitcom rather than drama format?

Mainly because I consider myself a comedy writer, but also—and most important—because so much of the material made for and by religious people is so somber and serious and so pious that it’s unwelcoming to people who are not of faith. For me, I think laughter is a great uniter, it brings people together. When I get together with my friends of various religions and we all start talking about religion, there’s a lot of laughter there and it’s not mocking. The show’s tone is not mocking, but is just people coming to a better understanding of how others live their life. With a topic as sensitive as religion, I just think laughter was the way to do it, the best way to break through people’s uptightness about discussing it. Everyone’s so concerned about offending others.

Patrick Walsh
Writer-Producer Patrick Walsh (Cliff Lipson/CBS)

You wrote some funny scenes of Chip talking with his priest, who tells the young film critic it’s impossible to live completely by the Bible without adapting it to our times. What are some ways the world today makes it hard for Chip to be a Catholic?

They’re the things that would make anyone struggle with it. I think the reason Father Gene, the Catholic priest in the show, is telling him it’s not going to be possible is that the world has changed. You know, you’re not going to stone an adulterer in 2018. That’s sort of a joke, but we also do an episode on lying. Chip says “that will be an easy one, I just won’t lie.” But he doesn’t realize how often—daily, hourly—people are telling lies to not hurt feelings. Even if their intentions are pure, they’re still lies. We do one where he’s struggling with his relationship with his father, and the premise is kind of: “How do you honor your father if your father is a jerk?”

Chip also receives qualified support from his pregnant wife, Leslie, a rabbi he meets in a bar, his coworker and his boss at the newspaper. How do they affect his quest to live biblically?

Leslie, his wife, is an atheist—so that is certainly a struggle. One of the more interesting episodes is “Submit to Thy Husband.” Once she starts digging into the Bible, she says: “Is this going to change our marriage? If you’re really living it 100 percent, what does that mean for our marriage? Are you in charge of me now?” That was one of the more interesting and difficult episodes to do. But what’s great about their marriage is that, at the end of the day, she is supportive of him, she sees the positive changes it’s having in his life.

His boss, Ms. Meadows, is pretty cynical at first. But over the course of the show, her opinion and the opinion of his co-workers change from gentle mocking to being impressed at the changes in his life. The only times he starts to rub people the wrong way are when he becomes overly judgmental or says “my way is the only way.”

That happens in the episode where Chip spars with his mother-in-law, a scientist, about the power of prayer. How does the show treat believers and non-believers in these kinds of debates?

That was very tricky because I didn’t want to make the atheist character a villain, as is often the case in movies about faith. I just wanted it to be an open discussion. She’s coming at it from a place of science, he’s coming at it from a place of faith, and they both learn from each other. Chip says “I’m a man of faith, but I believe in science as well,” which is a surprise to her. Then she’s saying to him “I don’t believe in prayer,” but he prays for her during a health issue and it works, and she’s very thankful for that. The message of that episode is if you talk with people about their beliefs, you’re going to find a lot more understanding and common ground than you may think.

What makes “Living Biblically” different from other shows on network television?

I think it’s drastically different from most shows on television just for being about religion. I can’t think of any sitcoms right now that are tackling these issues. In terms of CBS sitcoms, it’s also a cleaner show, very much by design. I wanted it to be a show that families can discuss, couples can discuss—that can be discussed in a sermon or homily on Sunday. It brings these biblical issues to our modern day in a way I hope really connects with people and opens up discussion.

Any final thoughts?

Most important, I would just like to say we took this very seriously. I think a lot of the early feedback, in terms of internet comments, has been: “Oh no, Hollywood is going to make fun of us again; Hollywood is going to do what it always does and mock my faith.” So I really want to stress that our goal is love and respect, opening up discussion between nonbelievers and people of faith. We had a priest and a rabbi on staff who read every draft of the script, removing any concerns about making stuff up or taking liberties with the Bible, so I hope we caught most of that through the dialogue of our priest and rabbi characters.

More than that, at the end of the day, I just think it’s a funny show that people will really enjoy. I hope they aren’t scared of the subject matter or how they are portrayed, because I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a special contributor at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Nora Bolcon
7 months ago

I got to the nonsense about it being "a plus" to the husband's behavior, and something the wife ended up being happy about, that St Paul's letter mistakenly tells women to submit to their husband's. This is something, Jesus, by the way, never taught and he never supports in any Gospel and which breaks the direct command for St. Paul and all believers to treat all other believers exactly the same as they wish to be treated.

Yeah, I got to this part of the article and realized yep! I don't need to watch this dumb show. If I want to see men screw up teaching the Gospel message to women, I can go to my convenient Catholic Church and be taught by the experts of sexism and poor prioritizing of scripture values. Its such a great message to the young that the male priest and male rabbi helped to clear up this guy's understanding so that he knows that he does not have to treat his wife the exact same way as he wants to be treated, even though this belief is a basic tenant of both Judaism and Christianity. But that's right nothing matters more than using St. Paul's unfortunate words which he never intended anyone to use as any kind of scripture to support treating all wives like lesser people.

Evidently, the NONES must increase to twice what they are with mostly x-Catholics and Catholicism be down to the extreme elderly and a few priests and bishops only practicing before we learn this lesson: Sexism is hate. Period.

Sadly, it is not shocking this was clearly written by someone of Catholic beliefs. Shows like this push women away from religion, church and Christianity.

Thank you America Magazine. I was going to give this show a try. Now I won't waste my time.

Sean Salai, S.J.
7 months ago

Nora, thanks for reading. I appreciate your point that the show, reflecting the author of the book and the CBS producers, unfolds from a man's perspective. However, I believe Patrick was telling me in the interview that the episode on "submit to thy husband" actually corrects the misunderstanding of St. Paul that you mention, which actually seems to be a common one among people who aren't super close to the church. As he says elsewhere in the interview, it's impossible to live out the bible's teachings literally, and the show gets some mileage out of the protagonist's misguided efforts to do so -- it's a growth experience for both him and his wife who is not a believer. You're certainly welcome to skip the show, but I can say the three episodes I previewed are certainly respectful of different perspectives, and there's a sort of gentle compassion to the writing for people (both believers and non-believers) who have to outgrow some of the attitudes that both you and Mr. Walsh point out do not work today. I suppose we'll have to see what sort of response it gets from the critics -- one intriguing thing about the show is that it charts a middle ground of dialogue in an age of "confirmation bias," which makes me wonder if it's almost too balanced to be successful in today's pop culture landscape.

Nora Bolcon
7 months ago

Dear Sean, I appreciate your response. I am a married practicing Catholic. I will give this show a try after yours and Mr Walsh's comment. There are some things you should understand, most women and many men never believed marriage should have been unequal in any age, even during much earlier ages. It was always sinful to treat a wife this way and we still do not teach this as sin in our church and we should. This passage is still in the Catholic lectionary as an option for lectors to read. Most lectors refuse to read it.

I was called to the same ordained priesthood as you are in but was rejected and led to believe that I was some kind of heretic or fool for claiming the same exact calling you claim and no doubt our leaders were thrilled to hear you claim. While we continue to treat women less and keep them from same sacraments these issues are still representative of very open and bleeding wounds. Many don't want to risk further pain watching a show about the Bible when many before have been full of sexism and pain. You are a priest and your voice is needed by your sisters to stand up for them while they are continually being cut down against what Christ taught us is just .

Patrick Walsh
7 months ago

Hi Nora! Patrick Walsh, the creator and showrunner of "Living Biblically." I've yet to respond to any internet comments about the show directly but I felt this was such a serious misrepresentation, I wanted to reach out and clarify the article. (Spoilers ahead for anyone who wants to watch the show!) Leslie does like that her husband, through living by the Bible, is more honest, more kind, more present, yes. All those great things. But in the episode dealing with the verse "Submit to Thy Husband," she does NOT see this potential change in their marriage dynamic as a positive one, at all, in any way. Quite the opposite -- it infuriates her. The plot is this -- Chip brings up Leslie quitting her job down the line when their baby arrives, and she is offended by the suggestion. After researching what the Bible says about women and the husband/wife dynamic, she becomes alarmed that Chip will carry these beliefs into their marriage as well. Chip's priest tells him, flat-out, there are some areas of the Bible where he will have to "live by a more modern interpretation," and marriage is one of them. Chip and Leslie reconcile when Chip stresses to her that times have changed, men and women, husbands and wives are equals, and he thinks that the two of them should "Submit to Each Other" instead. The episode was written by a married couple and it has a beautiful message, a feminist message, an anti-sexism but pro-religion message and it makes a subtle plea for couples of faith to treat each other as true partners and equals. AND, if I don't say so myself, it's really funny. I hope this minimizes your concerns and I hope you still check out the show, particularly this episode! From what you've written here, I actually think you might love it.

Nora Bolcon
7 months ago

Hello mr. Walsh, I wanted to thank you for commenting back. I didn't actually expect you to do so it's a nice surprise. I have liked other of your shows which was why I was going to try this one out and I think I will do so after reading your comments and Sean's above. one question I do have for you is, your right this so seem to come from a man's point of view, so why not have at least a female Rabbi or a female Priest from a Protestant religion? It just seems that it's very rare that in TV shows there are women in roles leading in religion and that can be a real problem for women trying to grow in this Arena. Religion tends to spawn sexism more than any other source unfortunately. I love my church but it is a real problem and there is definitely still sexism alive and well in Catholicism so I wonder what reason do you have for not having a balance in the advisors who are religious? Perhaps it was just an oversight. I also don't know why all the women are unbelievers. Nevertheless, I thank you for writing me back and I will be checking the show out. Peace, Nora

Arik Issan
7 months ago

The literalism of "literalism" and the instantiation of "as" confuse the situation if no one listens and is attentive to others. Start with what you know and continue with what has promise. The point is to be willing to learn and repeat when necessary. As Plato wrote, "Back again..."

Al Cannistraro
7 months ago

Sean Salai SJ.: Does the show explain why the protagonist believes it necessary or beneficial specifically to live biblically? Is it merely assumed to be the right thing for him to do?

Sean Salai, S.J.
7 months ago

Al: In the three episodes I previewed for this interview, the protagonist believes it's beneficial to "live biblically" because of his lived experience that doing so produces positive changes that are evident to himself and others. But it's a very human, messy, and imperfect journey with mistakes and bumps along the road, allowing for some humor. As Mr. Walsh said in the interview, sometimes the protagonist's ideas don't play out in real time the way he imagined, requiring him to continue learning from his experiences and from other people like his spiritual advisers, but also including agnostics as well as non-believers. So the answers to those questions are not simple for him, but unfold as part of a process of reflecting on experience. Hope that's helpful.

Jackie St Hilaire
7 months ago

When I first saw the previews on TV I made a judgment that it would be a conservative show . Meaning that it would take the Bible literally.
Thank you for the article, you have given it a different spin .

Dionys Murphy
6 months 3 weeks ago

If you read the book upon which it is based, you likely wouldn't have that preconception.

Sue Harvey
7 months ago

Finding very little on TV that is interesting, fun and thought-provoking..I'm ready to watch this. Best of luck, I'm asking friends to give it a look.

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