National Edition

Christian pastors mine popular TV for sermon starters

Published: Friday, Feb. 7 2014 4:00 a.m. MST

From left, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Kiefer Sutherland, and executive producer Howard Gordon are seen during the panel for "24: Live Another Day" at the FOX Winter 2014 TCA, on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, Calif.

Richard Shotwell, Invision, Associated Press

The commercial enlivened a largely static Super Bowl XLVIII: Jack Bauer, the tough "24" agent-with-a-heart-of-gold who defended the U.S. against terror, would return in May as actor Kiefer Sutherland reprises the role in "24: Live Another Day" on FOX television.

Will Bauer soon return to many American pulpits, too?

It's not that strange a question. During the show's first run, Christian author Tim Wesemann's "Jack Bauer's Having a Bad Day: An Unauthorized Investigation of Faith in 24: Season 1" (David C. Cook) was a surprise best-seller in the evangelical market, and it's likely many pastors referenced the show in their Sunday messages.

"Whether or not ("24") reflects a Christian world view," said Kutter Callaway, director of church relations and an affiliate professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., the show, "because of its popularity, could be a point of departure for asking the question, 'What does it mean to be a community of faith in a world of violence and terrorism?'"

The trend of preachers incorporating a Christian message tucked away in a "secular" television show or film dates back at least to shows such as "The Simpsons" and even recent reruns of the 1960s classic "The Andy Griffith Show."

More traditional pastors might shy away from such references, but younger and "edgier" pulpiteers such as Houston's Chris Seay, who found Gospel links in "Lost" and "The Sopranos," embrace the usage.

Reaching out

Wesemann, who's since gone on to write devotional titles and other books, says that while his Bauer title went out of print, the book had a surprising impact.

"One of the things that surprised me, I was shocked to find out — because I didn't write this with it in mind — the book was a finalist for 'Outreach' magazine's resource of the year award," he said. "I had a lot of people come up and say this is a way to (reach non-believers). I thought it was cool that people could buy it for that purpose."

In particular, Evangelical pastors have long been known to seize on cultural trends and topics to attract and retain hearers. Billy Graham's sermons often touched on world headlines or social conditions. A generation before Graham hit the sawdust trail, another revivalist, former baseball player Billy Sunday, often used baseball references in his messages.

Today, a public that in earlier times would have had at least a passing knowledge of the scriptures is likely to be far more familiar with who the current "American Idol" winner is than they are to know about the idols set up by Hebrew King Jeroboam as discussed in the Bible's book of 1 Kings.

So citing "24" or "Desperate Housewives" — the latter being a hot megachurch sermon subject for a time — is one temptation preachers find hard to pass up, Callaway said.

"Obviously, pastors want to try to take advantage of any cultural phenomenon that's going on," he said, adding that such attempts "could be great or it could be a disaster."

Striking the proper note is essential, Callaway said: "In a worship environment, there's a fine line between doing something that's titillating and doing something that's conducive to that worship setting."


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