The Gospel according to Andy

The Associated Press

TULLAHOMA, Tenn. — After praying, church members retreat to a back room to learn the Gospel through Barney Fife. Bibles in hand, they watch black-and-white TV reruns to see how the bumbling deputy can bring them closer to God.

‘‘Finding the Way Back to Mayberry’’ is a Bible study class developed by two Alabama men who believe watching ‘‘The Andy Griffith Show’’ can help lead to spiritual enlightenment.

‘‘Mayberry may be fictitious, but its lessons are not,’’ said Pat Allison, a preacher who leads a class at the Bel-Aire Church of Christ in Tullahoma. ‘‘Not only are the episodes funny, cute and clean, the principles are there and need to be emulated.’’

Allison sees God in Aunt Bee’s nurturing, in Andy’s wise counsel and Opie’s innocence. Even Barney has something to teach, the minister says, but it’s mostly about how not to act.

‘‘Someone has to be the instigator. . . . He stirs things up and makes a mess of things,’’ Allison said of Barney, the sidekick played by Don Knotts.

The idea for the class came from Joey Fann, 33, and Brad Grasham, 38, members of the Twickenham Church of Christ in Huntsville, Ala.

The concept has spread through Fann’s Web site and word of mouth. Classes are being taught in Alabama, Tennessee and other states, and inquiries have poured in from as far away as New Mexico.

Fann and Grasham grew up watching Andy keep the peace in the North Carolina town where Otis, the town drunk, was the jail’s most frequent visitor, and a dinner date for Barney and Thelma Lou was about as racy as it got.

Fann, an engineer, said that as a college student he began to see a deeper meaning in the show.

‘‘To take a break and relieve stress, I would pop a video in and watch the show,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s when I started to realize that some episodes brought some good Christian moral values that we all can appreciate.’’

Fann and Grasham consulted their minister to choose a few episodes for a class last summer, then found related Bible passages to draw out the lessons.

Among their choices:

- 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 . . . .’’)

- A businessman passing through Mayberry has car trouble on a Sunday. The local service station owner prefers to sit on his porch and read the paper on his day of rest, and the man eventually steals a truck. (James 1:3, ‘‘The trying of your faith worketh patience.’’)

About 20 people attended the first class. Within weeks, Sunday night attendance grew to more than 200, Fann said.

‘‘Most everyone’s familiar with the show and enjoys the show,’’ he said. ‘‘When you mention it, you can see people’s eyes light up.’’

Fann posted the lesson plans on his Web site, where he evangelizes and offers a little commentary. ‘‘Outstanding performance by Buddy Ebsen as Mr. Dave the hobo,’’ is among the notes.

Actor George Lindsey, who played Goober and lives in Nashville, said he wasn’t surprised by the class since Griffith and his writers purposely wove moral themes into their stories.

‘‘We made a wonderful show . . . If it can be of value to somebody, I think that’s just topping on the cake,’’ he said.

Bill Hill, who researches popular culture and is 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 said. ‘‘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. It’s always the good, the more virtuous that wins out.’’

On a recent Wednesday night, Allison walked his congregants through an episode in which Andy confronts Opie about a hatchet the boy claims was given to him by a man in the woods. A skeptical Andy asks his son to admit the man doesn’t exist. Opie insists the man is real and, at the end of the episode, he’s proven right.

‘‘Could you see Opie’s convictions?’’ Allison tells the crowd of about 70, turning the program into a lesson in sticking to the truth, regardless of pressures.

Reading Romans 12:2, he says: ‘‘And be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed.’’

As the class dismissed, 64-year-old Barbara Jett clutched her Bible and observed, ‘‘There are so many tidbits in there. It’s entertaining, yet you’re learning when you’re watching it.’’

Willie Mosley, father of a 3-year-old boy, said he was surprised by how much he learned about parenting.

‘‘At first I was curious. How are they going to get a moral story and tie it to ‘Andy Griffith?’,’’ he said. ‘‘When you look at what’s on TV today, they’re giving just the opposite meaning Andy Griffith would.’’

But does ‘‘Finding the Way Back to Mayberry’’ trivialize Christianity?

Allison said no, adding that the Gospel itself provides a precedent for teaching moral lessons through simple, compelling stories.

‘‘It is, in a way, like a parable,’’ he said.

Joey Fann’s Web site is