It started with Linus.
On Dec. 9, 1965, while half of all American households tuned in, the little cartoon boy with a poet’s heart and ever-present blue blanket walked to the center of his elementary school stage. While his friends stood in the shadows of the spotlight trained on him, Linus delivered a soliloquy that united the once disparate worlds of faith and popular culture by reciting the Christmas story as told in the gospel of Luke.
As the 51-second scene ends — "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and goodwill towards men" — Linus turns to his friend and says, "That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Inspired, Charlie Brown picks up his sad Christmas tree and takes it home to decorate.
Today, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is a holiday tradition, but in 1965, TV executives wanted to pull the plug, believing families didn’t want to be confronted with Christ at Christmastime. "The Bible thing scares us," said one CBS vice president after an early screening. But "Peanuts" creator George Schulz insisted and eventually won the standoff.
That same year, Robert Short, a 28-year-old pastor working his way through seminary, published "The Gospel According to Peanuts," using Schulz’s characters to put a familiar face on the teachings of Christ.
It has since sold more than 10 million copies and spawned a host of books looking for examples of the Christian faith in popular books, movies and TV shows.
‘I find Christ everywhere’
There have been "The Gospel According to …" books published on everything from "Star Wars" to Starbucks, from The Beatles to Harry Potter. There are books on the gospel according to superheroes, Disney, even the alternative rock band Radiohead.
"I find Christ everywhere. It’s incredibly comforting to know that his teachings can be found even in the mostly unlikely places," said Christy Duke, a 43-year-old mother of three living in Oxford.
Duke admits to being something of a "nut" when it comes to superhero movies and TV shows, but her heart truly lies with Harry Potter. Ever since the first books came out, she’s been "obsessed" with the boy wizard, even during the fervor within the Christian church that accused the series and its author, J.K. Rowling, of normalizing witchcraft to a generation of kids.
"I never saw it that way," said Duke, who has read "The Gospel According to Harry Potter." "There’s magic, sure, but really, the books are about Harry and his friends’ journey to defeat evil."
Except for maybe "Star Wars," no other recent pop culture phenomenon more easily lends itself to a faith-based reinterpretation.
"Rowling’s 4100-page epic was the best and most powerful contemporary retelling of the gospel narrative I’d encountered," said Greg Garrett, author of "One Fine Potion: The Literary Magic of Harry Potter."
According to Danielle Tumminio, in a review of "The Gospel According to Harry Potter," it’s no coincidence that Potter plays Seeker on of the Hogwarts Quidditch team.
"Harry’s a lot like many modern-day seekers who find themselves on a journey, searching for ways to grow closer to God and live more fulfilling lives as a result."
Jesus used cultural references
Using that which is familiar to get a message across is not a new idea, said Dale Clem, senior pastor at Anniston First United Methodist Church.
"In Jesus’ day, he talked about what his audience knew about, and related his teaching to those messages," Clem said. "For example, he saw a whitewashed tomb, and Jesus said, ‘The Pharisees are like whitewashed tombs.’
"He was probably near a little rock enclosure where shepherds brought their sheep at night and the shepherd laid across the opening, and Jesus said, ‘I am the gate.’
"People knew about farming and he said, ‘The kingdom of God is like a seed.’"
Clem has found Christian messages in secular books. In his sermons, he has used illustrations from "Star Wars," Harry Potter, pop songs and Disney movies. Yet he knows such examples fall short of delivering the good news of the gospels.
"Whatever stories, parables, words, music, drama, or art we use to talk about the mystery of God will always have limitations and only be part of the truth," Clem said. "So to even speak is to only share a partial truth.
"Although kids and families usually enjoy it, older persons sometimes are uncomfortable and would prefer that I only tell Bible stories. If the young people were as familiar with the Bible stories as they are with ‘Frozen,’ then it would work, but they are not."
Use with caution
"The Gospel According to …" books can be both positive and negative, said Vic Minish, who teaches philosophy and apologetics at Faith Christian School in Anniston.
"These ‘According to …’ books can be a launching pad to get people thinking about theological things, but that doesn’t mean that are practicing theology," he said.
Books that interpret the gospel through the lens of pop culture should be approached with caution, according to Bob McClain, pastor of Living by Faith Ministry in Oxford.
"Nowhere in the Bible does the brand of Christianity that we witness today, especially in America, exist," he said. "Men have written books and will continue to write books and produce movies as well, as long as this present world exists," McClain said. "Books don’t explain the Gospels, and no matter how much men try to secularize the message, the true message according to the men who walked with the messenger will always be what it was."
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.