Andy, Opie and the Almighty

Andy's Bible ministry has reached far beyond Barney.
Mark Poutenis

A sign saying "Lemonade 5 cents" hangs over the door. An American flag is on the far wall, and a drab Persian rug lies on the floor. The right wall is taken up with the false front of a happy yellow house. The front porch is potted in fake daisies, daffodils and tulips.

"It adds ambience," says David Gay, standing inside Lake Jackson's Church of Christ. About 90 people gather in this room every Wednesday. Bibles in hand, they sip Styrofoam cups of cold lemonade, watch The Andy Griffith Show and later talk about what they, as Christians and parents, learned from each episode. The idea of bringing Andy, the series launched in 1960, and the Bible together originated a few years ago at the Twickenham Church of Christ in Alabama. Since then, Bible study groups have sprung up across the country, and study guides are posted on the Internet. Every episode has a moral and a lesson (not like the fake ones quickly dismissed on South Park); there isn't a single show about "nothing" (like on Seinfeld).

So parents, Andy Griffith fans and people who like reading the Bible aloud gather with Gray one night a week. Many would like to be like Griffith's Andy Taylor. He's always calm, contained and controlled. He never loses his temper; instead of yelling, he laughs.

Parents have turned Andy into Dr. Spock. Andy was a God-fearing man who -- even though he never said it on the air -- always asked himself, "What would Jesus do?" They want to raise their kids as Andy did. (You haven't heard any behind-the-scenes child-star trauma from Ron Howard, have you? No, Aunt Bee didn't have an affair with him, and Gomer didn't make Opie touch him down there, because the set and the show were wholesome --unlike the white trash working on The Brady Bunch.)

Gay, an engineer at Dow Chemical, teaches tonight's class. He looks a little like Opie grown up with a red beard and a gentle smile. Gay was a card-carrying member of the official Andy Griffith Rerun Watchers Fan Club while a student at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. There are 1,111 chapters worldwide, and the organization has a Web site with cast members' birthdays and bios. It even sells Aunt Bee's cookbook.

"We didn't do a whole lot," Gay says. "It's not like we were members of a Star Trek fan club; we didn't walk around with Andy Griffith hats."

(He does have a bumper sticker. And somewhere in storage he has a synopsis of all of the episodes.)

They just liked that Andy's world was a place where people had time to fish and whistle and not worry. Andy's life was a permanent summer vacation.

"We could escape school," Gay says, "escape tests and everything else for 30 minutes. Their biggest decision at the end of the day is sitting on the front porch wondering whether to go to the malt shop."

Andy's black-and-white world (actually, 90 of the 249 episodes were in color) still appeals to Gay. Andy lives in a land without cell phones, conference calls or late-night business meetings. Andy never has to work through dinner, and the TV is never on while his family eats: They talk. Andy's kid doesn't keep secrets from him or smoke dope. Opie never slams his bedroom door, tells Andy he hates him and yells at him to stay out of his life. Opie's a good kid, the kind of child most of these parents would want to raise.

"Their values are what our values should be, and aren't anymore," says Martha Wenzel, the church secretary.

Lake Jackson may be a small town, but it's bigger than Mayberry. Parents worry about their kids being raped, contracting AIDS or not getting into the college of their choice. So last Wednesday night about 50 people gathered in an over-air-conditioned room for 22 minutes of old-time TV.

"I never liked Leave It to Beaver," says Jim Brown, a 33-year-old world history teacher at Brazoswood High School. "Beaver was too stupid. Andy [Taylor] was very wise. He always knew the right things to say."

Three TVs pointing in three directions (so everyone can have a decent view) are switched on. Something's off with the sound. Andy's mouth moves before he talks; it's like a badly dubbed Japanese horror flick. Tonight's episode: "Barney Fife Realtor."

Barney decides to make big bucks selling houses. He talks Andy into the idea of buying the Wilson place, a pretty white house on the hill that Andy always points to when he drives by. Andy goes home from work that night and finds Opie trying to sell his bike to another boy for $5. Opie doesn't tell the kid what's wrong with the bike, because the kid doesn't ask. Caveat emptor. Andy tells Opie that isn't quite honest.

After dinner, Barney brings a couple over to look at Andy's house. Opie blurts out that the pipes rattle and the roof leaks. Andy is furious. Opie is very confused -- Andy just told him an hour ago that he's supposed to be truthful. "Kids should be honest, and grown-ups don't have to be?" Opie asks. Andy is caught. He wants to sell his house, but he also wants to set a good example for his son. He sends Opie to his room.

In the end, the place Andy has always wanted has a broken radiator and two feet of water in the basement. The moral is something along the lines of always be honest and things aren't always as good as they look.

The TVs turn off just as Andy starts whistling. Some of the older people in the audience are still laughing.

"Let's see what we can learn from it," Gay says. His Bible sits on the front podium.

It's materialistic and wrong for Andy to want the beautiful house on the hill, they say. Andy doesn't need more room for three people.

"There's nothing wrong with having a bigger house," says a guy in the back, a little defensively.

They open their Bibles to Matthew 6:25. It basically says that birds fly around without houses and God feeds them, so people shouldn't worry about anything (like new houses), because God will take care of them. It's a passive, follow-the-leader view of religion. If you just sit on your ass, God will bring you a burger and a blanket.

Debbie Lee, a 41-year-old bird-watcher and homemaker talks about how she lived in an apartment and always said she'd host a Bible study when she got a house. But when she got a house, she said she wouldn't host a class until she got new furniture. Then the church called and asked if members could come over. "God was telling us our furniture didn't matter," she says. So they prayed on plastic lawn chairs in the living room. Amen?

Gay turns the discussion to what makes them happy. They make of list of what makes the world happy, and what makes a Christian happy.

"If you're gonna be happy, first thing you need to do is turn off the television," says Howard McNair, a retired engineer. Tonight, many people agree. (There was a little controversy over bringing TV into the Bible study class.) They say commercials make people materialistic and devilish.

The group reads another Bible verse about being happy and not looking at appearances or covering up their true selves. Then Monte Womble, 33, leads the closing prayer. They thank God for his goodness and ask Jesus to keep away the devil.

We whistle the whole way home.

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