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. …