Four Nerds and the Limits of Science

 I’m not sure what it is that I like about the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory. I don’t share many of the characters’ values especially when it comes to relating to women, but it could be the fact that they are nerds so I don’t feel like I have to measure up to them anyway. Maybe it’s that they have ordinary names like Sheldon and Leonard (coming in at #487 and #228 respectively on a list of the most popular one thousand names of the 1980s) instead of names like Brandon (#17) or Adam (#22). Or Penny instead of Ashley or Caitlin or Latoya or Toyota or Katyusha.

Or it could just be the fact that zingy one-liners, though there are plenty of those, take a back seat to characterization. These are definitely real people living in real apartments who have real jobs, real lives and a real perpetually broken elevator. Plus, I can relate to the fascination with comic books, since at one time I wanted to be a full-time comic book writer for Marvel, back in the day before Tobey MacGuire was even born.

All that said, I regularly tune in at 9:30 pm on Mondays, except that I’m currently between television sets. (The volume on my previous model died a long and tortuous death. I gave it away to Goodwill about the time I had to sit 4″ from the screen to hear anything.)

The Big Bang Theory is about life. And though the four male protagonists are all scientific geniuses, science is not all they’re about—although the conceit of the show is that this is exactly what Sheldon is all about, or so he believes. In fact, they’re also about Thai food, relationships, comic books, laundry, Klingon Boggle—all the sorts of things that comprise “real life” (OK, not everyone’s real life, but someone’s).

Behind and beneath the science there is something that allows us to connect to the characters. Which is as much as to say, at the end of the day science only takes us so far, because so much in life is non-scientific. Sheldon tries hard to quantify as much as he can, working the Laws of Sheldon into his life (Monday night is always Thai night; Saturday at 8:15 pm is always laundry time), though it’s fairly clear that part of this is due to some sort of OCD. But even Sheldon has made a brave effort to learn what irony and sarcasm are.

In a way the show feeds into our postmodern world. In hindsight, the scientific endeavor of the past centuries brought not only scientific truth but also claims to be more objective than is possible and more in control of the world than is possible, along with sheer arrogance that saw scientific progress as the panacea to all problems. It’s no longer clear that this is the case. Science certainly doesn’t exactly help Leonard in his relationship with Penny, which is a lot messier than string theory.

Having said all that, this is a Jews for Jesus blog, so I need to segue into matters of faith. On the Big Bang Theory Whiteboard there is a discussion as to whether Sheldon is a Christian, since his mother is. Among the responses:

“His mother is, that’s for sure. About Sheldon it’s not certain, but very highly probable he’s an atheist; statistics would say that the great majority of ‘real scientists’ (as he describes himself in the same episode his mom appears) do not believe in any kind of personal god.”

And another:

“I do not think Sheldon is a Christian. He may have Christian morals embedded into his psyche because of his mother, but other than that I do not believe he is. It could also be that he has embraced science fully and chose not to believe in God and go with the more believable and scientific approach. (Just an assumption, I do not mean to offend anyone.)”

So here’s my segue. As I observed above, science can only takes us so far, because so much in life is non-scientific. Our Big Bang Theory protagonists can’t live entirely in a scientific bubble. They have lives apart from their science, lives which can’t be explained through equations. Maybe Sheldon doesn’t even understand the Bible enough to reject it. His brand of science may come with its own biases, though as we learn from other episodes, his Christian mother may have for whatever reason contributed consciously or not to Sheldon’s faith-rejection. Maybe a future show will tell us.

Which brings me to Jewish mothers, or Jewish parents, and the Jewish community in general.  As Jews, we have often been raised with our own biases, particularly against faith in Jesus, sometimes against any kind of religious faith (e.g., back in the day, Jewish socialists who were atheists; more recently those who abandoned faith after the Holocaust). But we can’t live without faith, even if we say we can—the very existence and history of the Jews is a pointer to God. For Sheldon and company, the non-numeric part of their lives also points to the reality of God.

The Big Bang Theory can’t explain it all. And the sentiment that “Jews don’t believe in Jesus” doesn’t explain it all either.


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Rich Robinson | San Francisco

Scholar in Residence, Missionary

Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.

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