“The Andy Griffith Show” is one of my favorite televisions shows. It isn’t just that it’s well written and well acted, it’s that it’s life affirming. It sends consistently positive messages about people’s potential for goodness. I’ve heard it characterized as saccharine. It isn’t though. The peace of Mayberry, the little town of which widower Andy Griffith is the sheriff, is repeatedly disturbed by drunkards, con men, and even violent criminals, to say nothing of jealousy, pettiness, and mistrust. Even Andy succumbs occasionally to mistrust.
There is an episode in the first season where Andy mistakenly assumes his son Opie’s reluctance to contribute to a charity to which all the other children in his school have given generously stems from selfishness, only to find out in the end that Opie has been saving his money to buy his girlfriend a coat because her family is too poor to buy one for her. There’s another episode where Andy assumes that Opie’s claim that he did not start a fire in the barn of a local farmer is a lie, only to find out later that Opie had been telling the truth, that the farmer had started the fire himself.
My favorite episode, and the one that has occasioned this post, is the first one from the third season. The episode is entitled “Mr. McBeevee.” The opening scene is of Opie riding his imaginary horse, Blackie. Later Opie explains that he can’t help his father clean the Sheriff’s office because he has to help his new friend Mr. McBeevee, a man who, he explains, wears a shiny silver hat, walks about in the treetops, jingles as if he were wearing bells, and can blow smoke out of his ears.
Both Andy and his faithful sidekick Deputy Barney Fife assume, from this description, that Mr. McBeevee is as imaginary as was Opie’s horse Blackie. Opie insists, however, that Mr. McBeevee is real.
The plot takes a dark turn when Opie shows his father a quarter he claims Mr. McBeevee gave him. Where can that have quarter come from? Andy informs his Aunt Bee, who serves as his housekeeper and surrogate mother to Opie, that if Opie will not admit that Mr. McBeevee isn’t real, he’s going to have to “get a whipping.”
Andy makes his way up to Opie’s room and explains to him that he won’t punish him if he will admit that Mr. McBeevee isn’t real.
“Opie,” he says, “there comes a time when you have to stop the play acting and tell the truth, and that time is now, right now. Opie, I want you to be man enough to tell me that Mr. McBeevee is just make believe. That’s all you have to say and it will all be forgotten. But if you don’t, then something else is going to happen. I believe you know what I mean, don’t you.”
“Yes, Pa,” Opie mumbles without looking up.
“Alright,” says Andy, “I want you to say that Mr. McBeevee is just make believe.”
But Opie can’t do it. He tries, but he stops before he can complete the sentence.
“I can’t Pa,” he says trembling and looking directly into his father’s eyes. “Mr. McBeevee isn’t make believe. He’s real.”
Andy shakes his head sadly.
“Don’t you believe me Pa? Opie asks pleadingly, ”don’t you Pa?”
Opie, lower lip trembling, is on the verge of tears. Andy stares disappointedly into his son’s face. Then suddenly his expression changes. There’s a brief look of incredulity, not at what his son is saying, but at something else, something at which the viewer can only guess. He sighs resignedly, smiles slightly, and responds:
“I believe you.”
When Andy comes downstairs again to Barney and Aunt Bee, he informs them that he has not spanked Opie after all.
“Well that’s good,” says Barney with obvious relief. “He learned his lesson. A good talking to is the best thing. Making him stay in his room…”
“I didn’t do that either,” says Andy, lighting a cigarette.
“Well what did you do?” asks Barney.
“I told him I believed him,” responds Andy.
“You told him you BELIEVED him,” Barney blurts out. “But Andy, what he told you is impossible!”
“Well,” Andy explains, “a whole lot of times I’ve asked him to believe things that to his mind must have seemed just as impossible.”
“But Andy, the silver hat, the jingling, the smoke from his ears, what about all that?”
“Well,” says Andy, “I guess at a time like this, when you’re asked to believe something that just doesn’t seem possible, that’s a moment that decides whether you’ve got faith in somebody or not.”
“Well how can you explain it all?” asks Barney.
“I can’t,” responds Andy.
“But you do believe in Mr. McBeevie?”
“No,” responds Andy. ”But I believe in Opie.”
You can hardly get a more Kierkegaardian picture of faith than that! It’s not faith in Christ, of course, but it is faith in all its improbabilistic glory. I wouldn’t go so far as to try to argue that Andy Griffith, or the show’s writers, must have read Kierkegaard. There is an Andy Griffith-Kierkegaard connection, however, that may surprise readers. Griffith had originally planed to become a Moravian minister before he turned to music and acting.
The Moravian Church, also known as the Bohemian Brethren, or the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), dates from very early in the fifteenth century and is thus the oldest protestant denomination, predating even Martin Luther’s break with the Church of Rome. A group of Bohemian Brethren established a village called Herrnhut in Berthelsdorf, Germany and hence became known as the Herrnhuters.
Kierkegaard’s father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a member of the Herrnhut sect. Its view of Christianity had a profound influence on his own and hence on the view of Christianity with which Kierkegaard was raised.
The Moravian Church, interestingly, has no official doctrine.
“Just as the Holy Scripture does not contain any doctrinal system, so the Unitas Fratrum also has not developed any of its own because it knows that the mystery of Jesus Christ, which is attested to in the Bible, cannot be comprehended completely by any human mind or expressed completely in any human statement,” its Ground of the Unity document states.
That is probably partly why Kierkegaard’s own view on the importance of doctrine is so minimalistic. Personal faith was emphasized over doctrine in the pietistic tradition of the Herrnhuters.
Back to Andy Griffith… After his talk with Opie, Andy takes a walk in the woods where Opie claimed to have been helping Mr. McBeevee.
“Mr. McBeeving” he blurts out in exasperation as he swats at the grass with a stick.
“Hello,” replies a voice from the treetops. “Somebody call?”
Andy looks up to see a telephone repair man descending one of the tree trunks, or what at least appeared to be a tree trunk, the tools dangling from his belt jingling like bells.
“McBeevee at your service,” he says when he finally reaches the ground. “What can I do for you?”
“You walk around in the trees,” Andy says grinning incredulously. “You’ve got a silver hat, and you jingle. You can make smoke come out of your ears, can’t you!” he says. (This, it turns out, is a trick Mr. McBeevee showed Opie where he exhales cigarette smoke into his cupped hand and then releases it after moving the hand to his ear.)
“I sure am glad to meet you!” says Andy, who then proceeds to shake Mr. McBeevee’s hand with a vigor that threatens to remove his entire arm from its socket.
So Andy’s faith in his son was justified. He couldn’t have known this, though, when he chose to believe his son, or when he realized that he did believe his son, despite the apparently fantastical nature of his story. Griffith would have realized, of course, that faith is rarely justified in a manner that is demonstrable to others. I think that was the message of the show, that love and faith are inexorably intertwined and that we must hold fast to them – especially when life makes that difficult.