D'oh God! 'The Simpsons' and Spirituality

A new book examines the diverse religious threads--Christian, Jewish and Hindu--that permeate the long-running TV show.

By William Lobdell

© Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2001.

"Ezekiel and Ishmael, in accordance with your parents' wishes, you may go out into the hall and pray for our souls."
--Bart Simpson's elementary school teacher, excusing two Christian students before a sex education film is shown

Mark I. Pinsky says the secret to writing his new book, "The Gospel According to the Simpsons," an appreciation of the surprisingly rich spiritual life of the Simpsons and their Springfield neighbors, was to weave a couple of the show's jokes onto each page. "I'm mildly amusing at best," says Pinsky, whose book hits stores today. "There's a laugh on every page of my book, no thanks to me."

Between the jokes, Pinsky, a religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, has sandwiched plenty of theological meat, all taken from the adventures of Fox's most popular animated family.

To a degree unappreciated by many viewers, writers for "The Simpsons" have dealt with many major and minor religious themes during the show's 12-year run: the nature of God and man, the existence of hell, the effectiveness of intercessory prayers--even whether hooking up illegal cable breaks the eighth commandment.

"Perfect teeth. Nice smell. A class act, all the way."
--Homer Simpson, describing God in a dream he had

The show, which had 14.7 million weekly viewers last year and 4 million more watching syndicated reruns, has also given America:
  • One of its most recognized evangelical Christians in the lovable Ned Flanders, the Simpsons' next-door neighbor, so devout that he has his church's and pastor's phone numbers on speed dial.
  • The wonderfully complex Jewish characters of Krusty the Clown ("I'd like to thank God for all my success, even though I never worshiped or believed in him in any way") and his disappointed father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky of Temple Beth Springfield. "Seltzer is for drinking, not for spraying," he admonishes his son, the clown. "Pie is for noshing, not for throwing."
  • The nation's first regular Hindu character in Apu Nahaasapeemapetilon, the owner of the Kwik-E-Mart who has to deal with the ignorance in Springfield. When the Rev. Timothy Lovejoy categorizes Apu's religion under "miscellaneous," the immigrant explodes, "Hindu! There are 700 million of us!" To which the reverend replies condescendingly, "Aw, that's super."

"What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we're just making God madder and madder."
--Homer Simpson, trying to get out of going to church

In the end, readers will experience a revelation that religious scholars and hip clergy have known for some time: "This is one of the really interesting places in the culture where religious diversity is getting on the air," said Kate McCarthy, the co-editor of the book "God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture." " 'The Simpsons' is totally ironic and satirical and pokes fun at everything, but ultimately it represents the celebration of religious diversity."

Thanks, says Tom Martin, a former senior writer for the show, but most of that is by accident.

"People think it's a result of some deep effort. Mostly it's just about trying to be funny," he said.

"I don't know who or what God is exactly. All I know is, he's a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together."
--Lisa Simpson

Pinsky, 54, who earlier in his career worked for the Los Angeles Times, had his own epiphany about "The Simpsons" two years ago. He was doing some television scouting for his two kids, who wanted to watch the show. He hadn't seen the program before, and soon came to the belief that not only was it appropriate for his children, but that religion played a major role in the lives of the characters.

"I grabbed a reporter's notebook and began scribbling away," he said.

He wrote a lengthy Sunday essay in his newspaper about that theme, but his book proposal was rejected by eight agents and 17 publishers.

"If Baby Jesus gets loose, he could really do some damage."
--Ned Flanders, taking down the manger scene as a winter storm approaches

Pinsky was undaunted. "I thought I had something. . . . It's a funny, counterintuitive subject." He watched about 150 of the 269 episodes, reviewed scholarly work on "The Simpsons" and talked with the show's writers and fans. (He said the encyclopedic fan Web site,, which stands for Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, Homer's place of work, was especially useful.)

His work generated cover stories about "The Simpsons" at both ends of the Christian spectrum, from the conservative Christianity Today to liberal The Christian Century, both magazines. He finally sold the book for a modest five-figure sum to Westminster John Knox Press, taking a total of five months off from work to write it.

The small Louisville publisher had released "The Gospel According to Peanuts" 32 years before. That examination of the intersection of a pop icon and religion has sold more than 10 million copies. Its author, Robert L. Short, a Presbyterian pastor, says Pinsky's book has "converted me to a certain extent to be a 'Simpsons' fan."

"Dear Lord, thank you for this microwave bounty, even though we don't deserve it. I mean . . . our kids are uncontrollable hellions. Pardon my French, but they act like savages! Did you see them at the picnic? Of course you did; you're everywhere, you're omnivorous, O Lord! Why did you spite me with this family?"
--Homer Simpson, saying grace

Much of the religious material on "The Simpsons" came out of necessity: When characters never age, you must go deeper for fresh materials and points of view. Religion, normally unexamined on television yet a part of so many Americans' daily lives, was a perfect target--especially for an animated show, where, as Martin says, "everything is a little less real."

The show's writers included atheists, nonpracticing Jews and Christians, and a few church- and temple-goers, Pinsky said. Yet the atmosphere often turned spiritual during the writing sessions, Martin said.

"We did nothing but think all day," he said. "So naturally a lot of thought turned to life's big questions."

"Nice try, God, but Homer Simpson doesn't give in to temptation that easily."
--Homer Simpson, after being accidentally hit in the face with an ice cream cone while on a hunger strike

The edginess and irreverence of the show at first drew criticism from conservative Christians. Yet many of them now embrace "The Simpsons" as a cutting-edge depiction of religion in America.

"There is more spiritual wisdom in one episode of 'The Simpsons' than there is in an entire season of 'Touched by an Angel,' " concluded The Door, a Christian humor magazine.

After Bart Simpson said this prayer at dinner, "Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing," best-selling author Lee Strobel wrote a sermon titled "What Jesus Would Say to Bart Simpson." In it, Strobel contended that in many ways, Bart was "merely more honest than most."

The show's effectiveness lies in its ability to make the religious pluralism of Springfield, from Flanders' evangelism to Apu's Hinduism, seem merely part of the town's basic fabric.

"When their guard is down, these things can come into their consciousness rather painlessly," Pinsky said. "It's more religion than people in the general population are usually willing to listen to outside of their sanctuary.

"What I discovered is that you can find God in the funniest places."

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Last updated on October 10, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (