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Christian pastors mine popular TV for sermon starters

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

Mark Pinsky, a longtime religion writer and author, is not an evangelical Christian, but he found enough faith connections in the long-running animated series "The Simpsons" that he wrote and published "The Gospel According to 'The Simpsons.'" The book that's now in its third edition from Westminster John Knox Press and boasts a separate study guide for small-group use.

The tales of Homer, Bart, Marge, Lisa and their neighbors are not an evangelical story, Pinsky said, but faith is a key element of the show.

"It's not a TV series about Christianity or about religion. It's a TV series about a lower-middle class family in Middle America, a part of whose life is their religion and their faith," he said. "The notion that the faith component of American life is so widespread that the family would not be believable if faith were not a part of their life. It's a consistent part of their life."

The effort to contextualize the Christian message with culture is sometimes difficult to resist, Pinsky said. The "Desperate Housewives" story line might not have fit with a biblical worldview, but the notion of housewives living in quiet anguish easily resonated, he said.

"I think there you have a case of where there's a greater temptation to have a real overlay," he said. "So many megachurches are in the suburbs, and there is sort of a quiet desperation. … That concept would be like catnip to a megachurch pastor."

Sacred or sacrilege

Callaway, who is writing a book about faith and television, is in the process of developing a class at Fuller on the subject, and said it's possible to use pop culture references in Christian discourse without endorsing the negative elements portrayed in shows such as "The Sopranos" or "Breaking Bad."

He said, "There are ways you can interact with these different pop cultural things without baptizing it or approaching it as if it's real, serious and thoughtful stuff of our lives and worlds."

Callaway noted that with "Breaking Bad," about a teacher-turned-methamphetamine dealer, the moral questions center on a character that is "one decision away from a trajectory that's tragic."

And for critics who see hints of sacrilege in sermons that mention TV themes, Hollywood consultant and Christian author Phil Cooke has a retort: consider the life and teachings of Jesus.

"He based (his) stories on practical issues people dealt with everyday — work and wages, open and closed doors, lost sheep, weddings and feasts (parties), sick people, lost coins, and much more," Cooke said of Jesus. "Today, popular culture is the crossroads where people are, so it's perfectly natural to use some of these incredibly popular TV programs and movies to illustrate eternal truths."

And, like Callaway, Cooke found a spiritual message in the 5 1/2-year saga of "Breaking Bad's" main character Walter White.

"I'm watching 'Breaking Bad' on a marathon right now, and it's as dark as any TV series I've ever seen," Cooke said. "But what a morality tale. What an outstanding example of how sin has consequences. What a brilliant story of making wrong choices and the results of those choices."

Authors Wesemann and Cooke cited the St. Paul's messages in Athens, in which the missionary apostle quoted local poets to make a point. Does Cooke hope the practice of blending culture and Christianity is a lasting one?

"I certainly hope it continues," he said. "If we're going to reach this generation, we need to be speaking in a language and style they understand. If they don't place any value on Biblical authority, then we need to start the conversation at a place they value. If that's a recent movie or TV series, (then) count me in."

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