Sunday, February 7, 2016

Law and Mayberry

I grew up with The Andy Griffith Show, a 60's sitcom set in the sleepy town of Mayberry, North Carolina. We watched every Monday night on our family’s black and white tv as Andy and his son Opie walk down to the fishing hole while Earl Hagen whistles the catchy theme song. But back then, the theology of Mayberry went right over my head.

Re-watching it now, I find it to be deeply theological. It's all about law and grace.

Sheriff Taylor’s deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts)—whose catchphrase is “Nip it, nip it in the bud”--represents the letter of the law. Barney wants to play by the book and keep every jot and tittle of every nit-picky city ordinance. One day, while Andy was out of town, Barney locked up just about every citizen of Mayberry, including the Mayor and Aunt Bee.

But easy-breezy, pickin'-and-grinnin' Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) is willing to cut people some slack—good guys and bad guys alike. He represents grace and mercy.

In one episode, a state inspector is outraged to find that Andy’s jail is furnished with handmade doilies and fresh flowers and that the deputy is forbidden to keep a bullet in his gun. Why doesn't this bumpkin sheriff take the law seriously? The inspector goes ballistic when he finds out the officers are throwing a birthday party for their prisoner—Otis, the town drunk.

But when Andy’s relaxed police procedure is put to the test, he always gets his man, and the snooty-patooty nay-sayers are always put in their place.

Because in the town of Mayberry, pride goes before destruction (or at least before a good come-uppance). Conflicts are solved with forgiveness. Neighbors help each other, and Good Samaritans abound. Musicians gather on the front porch to make a joyful noise. And many times, a little child leads them. It’s all very biblical. This show hearkens back to a simpler time with timeless values.


Mayberry makes us homesick for a day when social interaction happened not with memes on screens but in living rooms and soda shops and porch swings and barber shops, on creek banks and at choir practice  and county fairs. It makes us yearn for a place where quirky characters are cherished, where freckle-faced children say "please" and "thank you," where prodigals are welcomed home, and the supper table is spread with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and hot, buttered biscuits. Pies are cooling on the window sill, and nobody ever heard of cholesterol or body mass index.

Come to think of it, the Bible does describe such a place. It's called Heaven! A place, incidentally, that we law-breakers enter only by grace.

In one of the most popular episodes, Barney arranges for a Russian-American summit meeting to take place at Andy's house. (Willing suspension of disbelief here.) The politicos are at a standstill until they all wind up in the kitchen late at night, raiding the icebox. While feasting on Aunt Bee's delicious goodies, they manage to achieve world peace--or at least share some pickles and a few laughs.

In an episode called "The Christmas Story," Andy lets all the prisoners go home for Christmas. But the curmudgeonly Ben Weaver insists that Andy arrest Sam Muggins for making moonshine. In a brilliant counter-move, Andy brings Christmas to the jailhouse. Andy arrests Sam's family and puts them in the cell with Sam. Then Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea and Ellie celebrate the holiday at the jailhouse too. Now Ben is jealous, since he obviously has no Christmas waiting at home. While Andy and Ellie sing "Away In a Manger," Ben looks through the window and sadly sings along.

Sam, Ben, and the moonshine

Ben then tries repeatedly to get arrested so that he can join the party, but his plans are continually thwarted--until Andy gets the message that Ben is lonely. Then Andy arrests Ben, allowing him to stop by his department store to pick up presents for everybody.

We the viewers start out being mad at Ben, but then we feel pity for him and are happy when his Christmas wish comes true. It reminds me of how God brings Christmas to our imprisoned souls.

And if that isn't grace, what is?