The Simpsons:

Devoutly Sarcastic

By Peggy Fletcher Stack

© The Salt Lake Tribune, November 3, 2001.

    "Perfect teeth. Nice smell. A class act, all the way."
    That, of course, is how Homer Simpson described God to his cartoon family one night at dinner -- one of the many theological ruminations on "The Simpsons," a half-hour show on the Fox network now in its 12th season. And such pronouncements are among the reasons many fans watch the show, well, religiously.
    Indeed, Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa Simpson, along with their Christian, Jewish and Hindu friends and neighbors in the fictional town of Springfield, are the most religious people on television, says author Mark Pinsky, in a new book titled: The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family.
    "The gift of 'The Simpsons' is that the characters' fundamental beliefs are animated, but not caricatured," writes Pinsky, a religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel in Florida. "God is not mocked, nor is God's existence questioned."
    The Simpsons are the only TV family to attend church every Sunday, pray over meals and wrestle with the nature of God, heaven and hell, church-going, religious pluralism, predestination and divine retribution.
    And it touches America's funny bone right where most people live -- seesawing between faith and doubt.
    "This cartoon sitcom is supposed to be about an outrageous, dysfunctional family in Middle America, but all too often I realize that it's about me -- and about my religious convictions and lifestyle," writes Pinsky, who is Jewish. "Both the hypocrisies and the virtues of the Simpson family and the other characters on the show are too often my own."
    The show began in 1987 with 30 two-minute, animated vignettes using characters created by cartoonist Matt Groenig in his syndicated column, "Life in Hell." The vignettes ran between segments of the Tracey Ullman Show. By 1990, the Simpsons had their own half-hour series on Fox.
    During its first three seasons "The Simpsons" was roundly condemned by many Christians because of the series' irreverent, anti-authority tone, particularly the disrespectful dialogue of 8-year-old Bart Simpson. Bart's pat phrases like "Bite me" and "Eat my shorts" seeped into the American vernacular and were emblazoned on T-shirts, causing many Christians to reject the show as negative and juvenile.
    In the third season, however, the focus began to shift to Homer, a suburban father and Everyman struggling with family and work issues, and with that, the show began to attract believing viewers.
    Dori Marshall, director of Christian education at Cottonwood Presbyterian Church, long ago discovered the benefits of using "The Simpsons" in faith discussions with youths.
    "We have a lot of kids who watch the show so I decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em and turn 'em to God," Marshall says.
    Homer is an agnostic who is constantly negotiating deals with God in times of crisis, making promises he never keeps.
    Asked by Bart what the family's religious beliefs are, his father answers, "You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life. Uh, Christianity."
    But Pinsky says that within the Simpson family, as well as its neighborhood, a spectrum of beliefs are represented:
    Lisa, the sister, is a feminist, vegetarian and peace activist who represents the "social gospel" movement, which preaches the way of salvation includes good works.
    Marge, the mother, is a simple-minded and kindly true believer, with super-human patience.
    Ned Flanders, the next-door neighbor, represents evangelical Christianity; he can be almost unrelentingly aggressive in his preaching, but is also kind-hearted and well-meaning.
    Krusty the Clown is really a Jew named Herschel Krustofsky who struggles with his faith and its traditions.
    Apu Nahaasapeemapetilon, a Hindu volunteer firefighter and convenience-store owner, is an almost saintly character, whose goodness is presented as an outgrowth of his faith and Indian culture.
    Over the years, the cartoon show has made fun of Protestant, Catholics, Jews and Hindus but has avoided spoofing Muslims, Pinsky says.
    One of the show's writers told Pinsky that none of the staff knows enough about Islam to comment honestly.
    "It's a faith where you don't want to offend because we're not Muslim and we're not sure what might be offensive," the writer said.
    Although Catholics "squawk the most" about the show's digs, New Age worshipers and Unitarians are much more likely to be pilloried, he says.
    In one episode Homer says that if Unitarianism turns out to be "the one true church, I'll eat my hat."
    Most of all, it is a show that works on many levels and rewards intelligence, Pinsky told The Salt Lake Tribune. "The more you know [about religion], the more jokes you get."
    Three months after his book was published, Pinsky's interest in the Simpsons' faith has not abated. He now is working with a Protestant writer on a guide connecting episodes of "The Simpsons" to the Sunday school curriculum used in Protestant churches, which is expected to be out by summer. Pinsky is also working on a sequel to the Simpson book. It will be titled, The Gospel According to Disney: Cartoon Faith & Values.
    Both the study guide and Pinsky's new project are following the lead of the Rev. Robert Short's classic, The Gospel According to Peanuts, which was published more than 30 years ago and blazed the trail connecting religion and popular culture. Since then, others have looked at the so-called moral lessons of televisions shows such as "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Brady Bunch" and "Star Trek."
    The earlier guides were aimed at aging Baby Boomers and their nostalgia for the shows of their youth, Pinsky says, while "The Simpsons" guide is for youth pastors who see the show as a way to reach middle- and high schoolers.
    " 'If God, faith and spirituality are OK for the Simpsons,' these pastors tell the kids, 'maybe it's OK for you, '" he says.
    Using the cartoon helps open discussions with normally recalcitrant teens, Marshall says. "When we discuss things that have taken place on the shows, we can get in a lot of theology in an almost painless style."
    Marshall's favorite episode is the one in which Bart thought his soul was useless, so he sold it to a friend at school for $5.
    "The rest of the story was about Bart thinking he didn't have a soul anymore, and it opened the way to talk about some of those intangible things with young people," she says.
    Marshall says using familiar stories from secular culture helps to connect with today's youth and "that's how Jesus taught, too."

CAPTION: Homer and Bart Simpson have a lot of father-son dialogue on topics, including religion. When Bart asks what the family's religious beliefs are, Homer replies, "You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life. Uh, Christianity."

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Last updated on September 23, 2002 by Jouni Paakkinen (