As peacekeeper of one of the most law-abiding towns in TV history, Sheriff Andy Taylor spent most of his time meddling in the affairs of the colorful townsfolk. Rarely did he have the need to throw the book at any bad guys.
Instead, he threw the book at the citizens of Mayberry -- the Good Book.
At least that's the premise of what is arguably the Valley's most unusual Bible study class -- a weekly fellowship that uses The Andy Griffith Show reruns to examine Scripture.
"Almost all of these episodes have some sort of relational family message," says George Cushman, pastor of Central United Methodist Church.
Since early November, members of Cushman's congregation have gathered at the Phoenix church for a Wednesday evening viewing of a selected episode, followed by a discussion of the program's religious implications. "It's a good opportunity to have a laugh and to learn something in the process," he explains. "And there's nothing like it on TV today."
With all due respect to town lush Otis Campbell and visiting harlots the Fun Girls, the folksy hamlet that's the focus of the long-running '60s sitcom isn't exactly Sodom or Gomorrah. Which, say advocates, is not to suggest that the show is Mass for Shut-Ins with a laugh track, either. "It's an intriguing way to mix entertainment with a valuable message," says Cushman.
And let us not forget that the Lord works in strange and mysterious ways.
"It sounded like a blast," says associate pastor Nancy Cushman, who last year heard about Mayberry Bible study programs being held elsewhere around the country. Then, earlier this autumn, the church received a phone call from a local TV station that wanted to send out a camera crew, mistakenly believing the studies were already under way (turns out another local church was already doing it). Interpreting the call as some sort of omen, Cushman decided her congregation was Mayberry-bound. "Man, we're being directed to do this!"
Following the lead of other Griffith Bible study groups that have sprung up around the country in the past few years, Cushman sees Mayberry as a timeless microcosm of Christian values -- one whose moral messages are as applicable today (if not more so) as they were when the series first aired on CBS 40 years ago. Between knee-slappers, chuckles and the not-infrequent teary moment -- Who can ever forget the episode in which Opie, after accidentally killing a bird with his slingshot, dutifully tended to a nestful of baby birds left behind? -- parishioners ponder principles like responsibility, work ethic and the importance of honesty in our daily lives.
The Cushmans' congregation is exploring Mayberry parables through a commercial tape/lesson plan study marketed by Nelson Word, a Tennessee-based Christian supplies company that has licensed 12 episodes from Paramount. (The tapes are identical to those shown on television, except for plot-appropriate Biblical proverbs that appear where commercials used to be shown.) Other church groups have approached the Mayberry studies from a more grassroots level, using cable TV dupes in conjunction with lesson plans downloaded from a Web site (www.barneyfife.com) maintained by Joey Fann, a pastor in Huntsville, Alabama, who originated the Griffith ministries two years ago. (Although Paramount did not return calls, the studio has apparently turned the other cheek about unauthorized use of the Griffith episodes; to date, no churches using the programs have heard from the studio's lawyers.)
A ratings winner during its eight-season network run, the rustic crowd-pleaser is now proving to be equally popular on the pew circuit; in Phoenix, the reruns have reportedly drawn bigger crowds than a class devoted to a biblical view of domestic abuse and a group discussion with a panel of "born again" drug addicts.
"It's a traffic-stopper, all right," says church secretary Meryl Ahart of the bright yellow "Andy Griffith Bible Study" banner strung across the church lawn at Palm Avenue and Central. According to Ahart, after the sign went up in late October, her office was flooded with inquiries; perhaps because Andy Griffith has recorded a series of gospel albums, many people mistakenly assumed the actor would be appearing in person.
Instead, his most famous TV persona is there in spirit, which is good enough for the nearly 100 parishioners and curiosity seekers who showed up at Central United Methodist on a recent Wednesday evening. Mostly middle-aged or older, the friendly group could pass as off-duty Mayberry extras as they line up for a pre-study dinner catered from Aunt Bee's Mayberry Cookbook.
"You should have been here three weeks ago," says one attendee as she loads her plate with sauced pork, a vegetable casserole, rice, coffee and -- mmmm! -- apple pie. "Some of us came in costume, dressed as our favorite Mayberry character. We had a lot of Aunt Bees."
But when the dinner dishes are cleared away, that doting homemaker is nowhere to be found in tonight's audio-visual sermonette. Instead, Opie, Andy and Barney (a perpetual chapter-and-verse object lesson in what not to do) take center stage in a 1963 morality play titled "Opie and the Spoiled Kid."
The brat in question? One "Arnold Winkler," a conniving little cuss who convinces Opie that tantrums and tears are the ways to manipulate Andy into giving him a bigger allowance. Naturally, Opie learns otherwise and the episode ends "happily" when, at Andy's suggestion, Arnold's indulgent father finally leads his prodigal son off to the woodshed for some long overdue parenting.
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At episode's end, under Nancy Cushman's guidance, the congregation ponders just a few of the many life lessons crammed into the 22-minute sitcom: respect for others and yourself, the importance of discipline, appreciation of a job well done and the danger of flirting with alternative lifestyles. However, for one reason or another, short shrift is given to what (by today's standards, at least) are the episode's thorniest issues: the misguided notion that a spoiled child is the product of his own behavior and the suggestion that nine years of poor child-rearing can miraculously be cured with a hickory switch. ("I guess that wouldn't work today," concedes one parishioner. "But the story wasn't really about the spoiled child, it was about Opie and his father.")
Although the Andy Griffith studies will run through January, leaders of Central United Methodist are already looking ahead toward the church's next TV-tie. But what in heaven's name could possibly top The Andy Griffith Show?
"Star Trek!" says Nancy Cushman. "If we could get permission to use that, I'd write the lesson plans myself."
In the immortal words of Mayberry's most God-fearing grease monkey, "Golll-eeeee!"