LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — When Chris May decided to start a new Sunday-school class a few weeks ago, he searched for a lesson book that wouldn't be controversial or too heavy. He wanted something to unite the class while stirring discussions about life.
He found it in the black- and-white reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show."
Every Sunday morning, Mr. May and a small group of 30-somethings gather in the preacher's office of Henderson Methodist Church here to watch and learn from the TV program's timeless values.
"You realize that Andy is like God, and Barney's the rest of us," says May. "It's nonthreatening and gives you a different and new way of thinking about life."
Mayberry, R.F.D., seems an odd place to look for religion and the answers to life's secrets. Sheriff Andy Taylor, his son, Opie; deputy Barney Fife; Aunt Bee; and town drunk Otis also seem like the most unlikely of spiritual guides.
But from Georgia to New Mexico, Bible-study classes are turning to the golden age of television for classic spiritual lessons, while teaching scriptures through characters that almost everyone can relate to on some deeper level. But what is gained in accessibility may be offset by what critics see as a cheapening of spirituality. Possibly, they point out, watching TV is not meant to be a substitute for prayer.
"Many of the older shows offer brief lessons on a variety of virtues, such as honesty, trust, courage, and hard work and the importance of love and friendship and community," says Tom Hibbs, a professor at Boston College. "They also subtly reinforce the trustworthiness and reliability of authority figures like parents and teachers."
Joey Fann, a long-time fan of "The Andy Griffith Show" and a software engineer, began the class at Twickenham Church of Christ in Huntsville, Ala., two years ago, along with a friend. Through the Internet, the class swept the country and crossed denominational lines as it offered moral guidance in a simple way - by teaching to be good and do good.
Now, video tapes and a Bible study book that link related Scriptures to 12 episodes are available for classes to use.
* Opie accidentally kills a mother bird with his slingshot, and Andy makes him care for the orphaned babies. (Romans 8:28, ''And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.'')
* Andy tries selling his house, and Opie makes him tell prospective buyers about the flaws. (Luke 8:15, ''But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it....'')
Looking to TV shows for salvation doesn't inspire everyone. Some religious leaders say that such teaching leads people away from the Bible while trying to find peace and meaning in a story meant for entertainment.
"It doesn't say much for our generation, or the state of religion in this country, if we are having to look to fictional characters to find meaning in Jesus Christ," says Rod Martin, a Southern Baptist minister in Little Rock. "It's fine to watch the show and teach morals from it, but to actually read Scripture from a show that was meant to be just entertainment is a little much."
Still, classic shows are being treated like video-age parables, which use lovable characters in simple situations to teach people hungry for spiritual direction. Pop-culture experts point to shows from the same era such as "The Donna Reed Show" and "Leave It to Beaver," which wrap up each episode with a lesson.
Bill Hill, chairman of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, remembers discussing Andy Griffith in his childhood Sunday religion classes.
"I don't think it's a big stretch to do that," he says. ''The show always satisfies the eternal quest for the good prevailing. There are real clear-cut distinctions of what's right and what's wrong."
While contemporary eyes may find "The Andy Griffith Show" to be overly sentimental and simplistic, it was also a show that didn't fit the mold of a traditional nuclear family. Sheriff Taylor was a single father raising a small son after the death of his wife. And the showed aired during the 1960s, a time of turmoil and uncertainty.
The episode lessons taught today in Bible classes are the same ones that have been seen over and over through the years, thanks to reruns.
At Henderson Methodist, two more Sunday school classes - one for middle-aged members and another for youth - have decided to adopt the Mayberry way. Various age groups take different lessons from the show. For many of the young people, this is the first time they have seen the show.
May's wife, Holly, said that at the end of the lesson, she walks away with a warm and fuzzy feeling that carries her through the week.
"It's nice to know that a place like Mayberry exists," says Mrs. May. "There are times during the week when I actually find myself thinking about something I learned. It makes you feel good."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society