Originally at: http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/07/how-arrested-development-taught-me-to-read-the-scriptures
by Roberto De La Noval
Like any show with a cult following, Arrested Development is a show you can’t leave alone; better, it is a text you can’t put down. I use the word text intentionally, for Arrested is verbose—not quite in the style of Gilmore Girls, but rather in a hypertextual kind of way. The show compels and rewards re-watching because of the incredible amount of internal referentiality the dedicated viewer can find in the series.
For instance, much of the hilarity of Buster Bluth’s (spoiler alert) eventual dismemberment comes from the fact that it happens at the hand (mouth, actually) of a loose seal. The joke is rich: Buster earlier in the season had won a baby seal plush toy from a claw machine, and the careful viewer will now look back on that event as a foreshadowing of his prosthetic hook. But the joke is even more complex and punny, for what defines Buster more than anything else is his vexed Freudian relationship with his mother, Lucille (“loose-seal”), and his romantic involvement with his mother’s nemesis, Lucille 2. And for those who remember Season 4, the very first episode (“Flight of the Phoenix”) features a bronze seal (insignia) falling (coming loose) from the wall in a dramatized courtroom during a production of “The Trial of Captain Hook”—another allusion to Buster’s predicament.
The “loose seal” jokes are just one example of the density of the show’s writing. Check out NPR’scatalog of every running joke in the show—though I suspect that even this catalog is not comprehensive.
Now, what does any of this have to do with the Bible?
An appreciation of Arrested Development is perfect for honing the textual attention that is necessary for a fruitful reading of the Scriptures. And it is the Scriptures that I am concerned with—not biblical texts as records of discrete historical times, but rather the Bible as a coherent unit, brought together under the auspices of the Holy Spirit and fitted in God’s providence for leading Christians to the contemplation of the Triune God as revealed in the text, the Church, and the world. If such contemplation seems a lofty topic to set alongside Arrested—well, it is. But if grace builds on nature, we should not be surprised that the enjoyment of this cult show may prepare us for the reading of sacred texts.
On to particulars. One of the reading strategies pursued by the Church’s historic biblical interpreters is that of “associative reading” (so called by theologians John O’Keefe and R. R. Reno). According to this practice, particular words in the Bible may be illuminated by comparison with occurrences of the same words elsewhere. Consider 2 Samuel 22:3. Here David speaks of God as “my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation.” On the surface, this text expresses exultation in God’s salvation of David from the hands of the homicidal Saul. But in a broader, scriptural light, David’s prayer expresses the truth of Christian salvation.
Take the first of David’s terms for God: “my rock.” In First Corinthians, St. Paul identifies the title “rock” with Christ himself. He does this by linking Christ with the rock in the Exodus story. And in recalling Exodus, we may remember that in Exodus 33:22, God himself hides Moses in the “cleft of a rock” so that Moses may safely witness the passing of God’s glory. This reference accords beautifully with David’s next statement, that God is the one “in whom [he] takes refuge.” Just as Moses and David took refuge, so too may we take refuge in Christ, our God and our Rock.
The devoted reader may pursue these associations, finding more and more of them. Such bridge-building between texts is the very interpretative practice that makes Arrested so absorbing. My summary of Buster’s relationships with claws, seals, and his mother is one example—all these disparate texts from various episodes linking up to form one coherent joke. The result is that whenever we watch an individual episode, any appearance of a seal (whether sea mammal or insignia), or of a claw, or of a hand, will evoke the network of associations. Each individual text is present simultaneously in every other.
Probably everyone can admit that this is a valid way of reading a text like Arrested, which is the work of a coherent group of writers who plan together the network of associations. But some may wonder whether it really is suitable for the Scriptures, whose human authors were distant from each other in time and space, and never gathered together in a television writers’ room. To this we may reply, with the Church Fathers, that the Scriptures were breathed out by a common Spirit, operating mysteriously in union with the free agency of the biblical writers in their varied times and places. This grants to the Scriptures a unity that encourages us to pursue these sorts of deeper readings.
So far, our analysis of Arrested has focused on word-play, but close viewing will reveal all sorts of patterns and allusions, many dealing with images rather than words. Another reading strategy that may be applied to both Arrested and Scripture is the one traditionally known as typology. A “type” is not easy to define, but I hope that an example found in Arrested will make it clear.
In the first episode of Season 3, “The Cabin Show,” we witness multiple flashbacks to a young Michael Bluth sitting on the stoop of his home, waiting to be taken on a camping trip by his father, George Sr.—waiting in vain, as it turns out. These flashbacks take on new significance when, a few minutes later, we see the adult Michael promising a camping trip to his brother “G.O.B.” (George Oscar Bluth II, who had similarly been disappointed by George Sr.)—only to break that promise later in the episode in order to camp with his own son, George Michael, instead. The joke goes on, as later in the episode we find the secretary of the infamous attorney Barry Zuckerkorn sitting at his desk, in camping clothes, disappointed at the no-show Barry who was supposed to take him on a similar trip. A few minutes later we find an expectant George Michael, settled on a stoop and ready to camp, dejected when his own father, Michael, tells him that their camping trip is canceled. By the time George Michael asks, “It’s not happening, is it?” and Michael replies with the expected, “Something came up” (uttered beforehand by his own father, George Sr.), the audience is already laughing.
The repetition works typologically: One figure in a temporal sequence prefigures one who is to come. In “The Cabin Show,” the typology of “the son figure disappointed in a father figure” is worked out in multiple ways, with George Sr. and Michael, with Michael and G.O.B., with Michael and George Michael—and later again, with G.O.B. and his (unknown to him) son, Steve Holt (!). This kind of humor is typical for Arrested, which is obsessed with family dynamics. But it also illustrates the attention to repetition that can open up the Scriptures for us. We find plentiful examples of such repetition in a text equally concerned with family: the Book of Genesis.
As has been often noted, Genesis disrupted the family values of its Ancient Near Eastern context—above all, the convention of primogeniture. Again and again in Genesis, the firstborn is overlooked when the blessings of the family, and the divine blessing, are dispensed. Ishmael is Abraham’s firstborn, yet Isaac is the child of promise; Esau loses his birthright to his scheming younger brother, Jacob; and Joseph, of the famous multi-colored coat, is the child of divine choosing, despite being the eleventh-born of Jacob.
Though Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph are not firstborn sons, nonetheless they are “beloved sons” of their fathers—a fate fraught with both curse and blessing, as biblical scholar Jon Levenson has shown. In the Gospels, Jesus himself is God’s “beloved son” (Mark 1:11; Matt. 3:17). Remembering the difficulties of the beloved sons of Genesis—remembering, in other words, what it means when a son is depicted on a stoop with his camping gear—we know that Jesus’s destiny will be dark, but with a glorious vindication. Biblical typology enfolds and unlocks meaning, to our great anticipation and delight.
Arrested is one of the richest texts ever to air on television, so I could go on. But I wish to point out only one more overlap between the reading of Scriptures and the enjoyment of this show. Arrested fans are the type to quote lines from the series (insatiably at times) and to apply them to everyday life. We do this because we sense that texts shape how we see the world, and the world shapes how we read texts. The same principle, as Christians know, applies to the Scriptures. Our lives and the sacred page inform each other, and the more we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, the more we find in our lives those “Aha!” moments of allusion or illumination.
All that to say: Keep re-reading, keep re-watching—and may Season 5 thicken Arrested’s plot and pleasures. Of making many books there is no end, and of reading rich texts there should be none, either. After all, there’s always money in the banana stand.