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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."

Irresistable

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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