Arrested Development and the Old Testament

Many of us, including myself for a long time, view law as something negative–a list of don’ts, punitive rules, commands that box us in and restrict our lives. And for this reason many people, even some Christians, have a negative disposition toward the Old Testament. It is true that the laws in the Old Testament (and also the New) act to constrain our behavior. But constraints are not always bad. In some sense, the only way to truly live is to observe certain boundaries. Instead of stifling creativity and eliminating fun, constraints often enhance artistic creation and produce greater human flourishing.

A recent example of this can be seen in the critical reaction to the new season of Arrested Development. It ran for three seasons as a network TV show and after a long hiatus Netflix released a fourth last weekend. The pre-Netflix show was fast paced, zany, frantic, kinetic, even. Almost every episode was a constant series of hilarity–both overt and subtle–packed cheek and jowl. The new series, I have read, is bloated and overwrought.

There are probably several reasons for the apparent decline in the show’s quality but one of the most relevant to our discussion is the fact that, time after time, critics point to the lack of constraints at Netflix. James Poniewozik, TV critic for Time, put it this way:

Hurwitz was famously constrained by the network system at Fox, but he made genius of necessity. Restrained by content standards, he wrote a kind of poetry of innuendo. Confined by commercials, he compressed and chiseled episodes into sculptures of diamond. On commercial-free, watch-at-your-own-pace Netflix he’s free — to write incredibly intricate plots, to vary the length of acts, to make episodes over 30 minutes long.

The typical length of a pre-Netflix show was about 22 minutes while some of the Netflix episodes push 35. Without constraints, the show lacked creativity, energy, focus, and verve. The way to fix it? Force the creators to work within boundaries:

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It’s like this with the rest of human life too. If we are free to do absolutely whatever we want, most of us will end up in decision paralysis or the same kind of flaccid, dullness that apparently characterizes Arrested Development’s new season.

In like manner, if we approach the biblical legal corpus as a set of boundaries intended to create the conditions for human flourishing instead of as a list of rules designed to punish us, we will embrace them more easily and learn from them more readily. And in the process we will adopt a perspective a bit closer to that of the authors that penned them.

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