The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family
By Mark Pinsky '70.
Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
164 pages, $12.95.
Could Homer Simpson be the patriarch of the most religious family on television? Could he be the lead character in the most religiously integrated and authentic television show? Homer Simpson--who in one episode of The Simpsons sells his soul to the devil for a doughnut?
According to Mark Pinsky, he is indeed. In its earliest seasons, The Simpsons was most closely identified with the antics of the eight-year-old Bart, who was a proud underachiever given to quips like "Don't have a cow, man" and "Eat my shorts." Could this seemingly vulgar and sacrilegious juvenile cartoon show have become the most religiously informed and sensitive show on television?
Pinsky's message is that The Simpsons is the most insightful TV show there is, that it helps families and individuals think through what it means to live as a religious believer in a pluralistic society. He makes a powerful case, not least because the book is hilariously funny.
The Simpsons need little introduction. Now in their thirteenth season on Fox television, they are among America's biggest celebrities. In 1998, more Americans could name one of the Simpsons than could name then-vice president Al Gore, who himself happens to be a big fan of the show.
What has not been noticed is how much the religious beliefs of the Simpsons permeate their lives. Though Homer might sleep through the sermon, the Simpsons go to church every Sunday. Although Bart is liable to pray "Dear God, we paid for this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing," the Simpsons always say grace before meals. Various family members regularly talk to God, especially when in need. Marge kneels in prayer for Homer before going to bed. Bart prays fervently when he's on the verge of failing fourth grade. Homer prays for tickets to the big football game. Even just and righteous Lisa occasionally forgets to prepare for a test and prays, "I need a miracle. C'mon, you owe me."
An analysis of a random sample of the 275 episodes of The Simpsons found that almost 70 percent of its episodes include religious references, and 11 percent of the episodes turn around religious themes. The only prime time network dramas or sitcoms with a greater religious presence are the "boutique" religion shows like Touched by an Angel and Seventh Heaven. Considering that such shows "require" religious content, The Simpsons stands as the TV show that best integrates religious issues and questions into the everyday hurly-burly of life.
Pinsky's book devotes considerable attention to those episodes driven by religious themes. "Homer the Heretic" is about what happens when Homer decides to give up going to church and start his own religion. "Lisa the Skeptic" focuses on credulity regarding religious apparitions. "Homer vs. Lisa and the Eighth Commandment" has Lisa at odds with her father for arranging to get cable hooked up illegally so he doesn't have to pay for it. "Like Father, Like Clown" is a takeoff of the 1927 classic movie The Jazz Singer, which portrays a conflict between a rabbi and his entertainer son. In this episode, Bart and Lisa work to reconcile Krusty the Clown (a.k.a. Herschel Krustofsky) with his father Hyman Krustofsky, the Orthodox rabbi at Temple Beth Springfield.
According to the evangelical Protestant minister and professor Tony Campolo, who writes a long foreword to the book, The Simpsons is not really about an outrageously dysfunctional American family. Rather, as he puts it, "I find in the beliefs and behaviors of the Simpson character those same beliefs and behaviors that at one time or another have been evident in my own life."
The character Campolo says he identifies with is Ned Flanders, Homer's evangelical next-door neighbor. While Flanders' character gets parodied like the rest of the characters on the show, it's generally positively, so much so that the evangelical Christian magazine Christianity Today placed Ned Flanders on the cover of its February 5, 2001, issue, proclaiming him the most well-known Christian on American college campuses.
Throughout the book, Pinsky draws upon intellectual analyses of contemporary culture and sociological analysis to show that, rather than parodying or mocking religions or religious beliefs, The Simpsons is more likely to make fun of the perceptions of Americans about various religious beliefs. When the unctuous Reverend Lovejoy refers to Hinduism as a "miscellaneous religion," Apu Nahaasapeemapetilon, the Hindu operator of the Kwik-E-Mart, responds, "Hindu! There are 700 million of us." To this, Lovejoy drawls in response, "Aw, that's super." Though Homer is constantly abusing his next-door neighbor, referring to him alternatively as "Saint Flanders," "Charlie Church," and "Churchy La Femme," Flanders usually winds up benevolently rescuing Homer from a wide variety of comic mishaps.
In the midst of their wacky adventures, the big questions about the nature of God and how humans respond to God are raised constantly. In one scene, Marge, fearful that they are about to be killed by a hurricane, prays, "Dear Lord, if you spare this town from becoming a smoking hole in the ground, I'll try to be a better Christian. I don't know what I can do. Umm, next time there is a canned food drive, I'll give the poor something they actually like, rather than old lima beans and pumpkin mix."
In another episode, Lisa accidentally creates a microworld in her science class and finds herself being venerated as God by a city of microscopic people. When she notices one nailing something to a cathedral door, she figures she must have created Lutherans. At one point, she is shrunk down to their size and is asked why she allows bad things to happen to them. Not sure of an answer, she responds, "Shouldn't you people be groveling?"
In the world of The Simpsons, prayers are not only made but also answered. When Homer prays for tickets to the big football game, the next moment his neighbor Flanders--whom Homer is trying to avoid--appears at the door. Flanders has tickets and wants to take Homer. Homer slams the door on Ned, crying aloud, "Why do you mock me, O Lord?"
As for the secret of its success, Pinsky credits the wisdom of Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons. While in one sense the show is the antithesis of a "reality" show, Groening says that's not the whole story: "We try to put real human emotion into it.... Most other cartoons...are just about surface emotion. [The Simpsons] has a rubber-band reality. We stretch it way out into the far reaches of human folly, and it snaps back to relative sanity."
Ironically, The Simpsons deals more straightforwardly and deeply with the struggles of human life than do supposed "reality" shows. And that cannot be separated from what makes the show so continuously funny. To quote one of Homer's many bits of wisdom: "It's funny 'cause it's true."
Berkman, a visiting theologian and biomedical ethicist from the Catholic University of America, is spending a year at Duke Medical Center's Institute on Care at the End of Life.