What do Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have in common with Oprah, Mickey, Bart and Harry?
They all have gospels.
So says a Louisville-based publisher that has issued a series of books on the "Gospel According to" such pop-culture powerhouses as Oprah Winfrey, Disney, the Simpsons and Harry Potter.
The central theme is that these "gospels" have deeply embedded spiritual messages that, for many people, are more influential than any church or preacher.
"With all of these pop culture icons, it's a way for people to enter into a religious discussion in a non-traditional or less threatening way," said David Dobson, director of product management for Westminster John Knox Press.
For example: Bart Simpson's mealtime prayer - "We paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing" - prompted a sermon by an Illinois preacher on how the cartoon character was being more honest than most Christians who give insincere thanks.
That's in Mark Pinsky's "The Gospel According to the Simpsons," which argues that the cartoon depicts more religion than most of prime-time television, with its screwball cast of evangelicals, liberal Protestants, Jews and Hindus.
The Harry Potter fantasies often reflect Christian values, such as Harry's mother sacrificing her life to save him, author Connie Neal said.
Her "Gospel According to Harry Potter" sought to respond to Christians who said the books promote the occult.
Winfrey's talk show resembles a worship service with its music, message, confessions of guilt and testimonies of success, author Marcia Nelson wrote in "The Gospel According to Oprah."
Not everyone is thrilled with the modern "gospels," saying they don't square with the orthodoxy of the originals.
Conservative Christian columnist Charles Colson said the focus of Oprah's gospel is "not on God. Oh, sure, God gets mentioned here and there, but only as a means to : self-fulfillment."
In the beginning
The first book, "The Gospel According to Peanuts," by Robert Short, has sold 10 million copies since it emerged in 1965. The publisher began expanding the franchise with the "Simpsons" book in 2001. It now has seven, with more on the way, listed at $14.95.
Other publishers have joined the bandwagon, with works on such unlikely evangelists as Dr. Seuss, TV mobster Tony Soprano and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The latest book published by Westminster John Knox, "The Gospel According to Oprah," said the TV star promotes generosity, forgiveness and gratitude.
"These are things that religions teach us and have taught us in the past, but people are not necessarily getting that message anymore," said Nelson, author of the "Oprah" book. "They're not in their houses of worship, they're in front of their television."
Besides the "Peanuts" book, the other "Gospel" volumes have sold 380,000 copies, a healthy total for a church press.
"Gospel" books published by Westminster John Knox Press:
"The Gospel According to Peanuts," by Robert L. Short (1965, reissued 2000)
"The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family," by Mark I. Pinsky (2001)
"The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-Earth," by Ralph C. Wood (2003)
"The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Spirituality in the Stories of The World's Most Famous Seeker," by Connie Neal (2002)
"The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust," by Mark I. Pinsky (2004)
"The Gospel According to America : A Meditation on a God-Blessed, Christ-Haunted Idea," by David Dark (2005)
"The Gospel According to Oprah," by Marcia Nelson (2005)
The Enquirer Sunday January 1, 2006 page B3