Doubts became search for show's message

By Allison Kennedy

© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer , September 8, 2001.

It started out innocently enough.

Two years ago, Mark Pinsky's two young children asked if they could watch "The Simpsons." Knowing the show's somewhat controversial reputation, Pinsky nervously agreed. Armed with the remote control, he was ready to censor. But didn't.

"(What) I noticed was how much reference to religion and faith there was, and how favorable it was. I reached for my notebook and began to write," said Pinsky, 54, religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel.

Pinsky - who's Jewish - would eventually write an article for his paper about the show's religious themes. That turned into an article for Christianity Today.

Then, last Saturday, Westminster John Knox Press released Pinsky's book, "The Gospel According to the Simpsons." Its 13 chapters confront the characters' good-humored and often irreverent dance with faith.

In writing about "The Simpsons," did you contact the show's producers? Do you know if they're intentionally trying to introduce religion into something secular?

My contact with them was incremental. They liked the article. Then they saw it in Christianity Today. Then they made some other writers and producers available to me.

... As for religious messages, what really happened after so many seasons, they began running out of sitcom material. In part, it was a desperation to find parts of life that were not mined out and they stumbled their way onto religion. That gave them a freshness they were looking for.

Do you see a conflict between the show's good-humored religious jabs and its more serious messages?

I think it's part of the whole cloth. The Simpsons are skeptical about all institutional organizations, and religion comes in for much rougher treatment. God is not mocked.

When I was doing the book, I contacted Rev. Robert Short, a Presbyterian minister in Arkansas. He wrote "The Gospel According to Peanuts." He said that when people watch commercial TV, the comedies, their guard drops and their mind is more open to (spiritual) things. He found that more serious messages can sometimes slip in while people are laughing. But I don't want people to tune in because it's about religion. It's about a family in which religion plays a significant role.

Which of the show's characters do you relate to the most?

Politically and theologically, I'm closest to Lisa. The proponents of the social gospel that I believe in, she believes in, such as stewardship of the earth and speaking truth to power structures.

I also have a great affection for Ned Flanders, who's a stand-in for evangelical Christians. He has such good heart - he always returns scorn with love.

For someone who writes about religion, particularly about evangelical Protestantism in the sunbelt, I have an affection for Rev. Lovejoy. He experiences some of the same trials that I've seen pastors in real life experience. He started out very idealistic and became burned out. He has trouble with money and trouble making sermons interesting.

What's next?

I'm working on "The Gospel According to Disney: Cartoon, Faith and Values," which is about all the full-length Disney films from 1936 to the present. The premise is from the emergence of videos. So many children watch them over and over again. It's a fair thing to look at. ... And I'm working on Sunday school curriculum and a study Bible for "The Simpsons." Youth pastors think it's really cool to use "The Simpsons" as a point of entry - "If faith and God are OK with the Simpsons, then maybe it's OK with you."

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Last updated on September 23, 2002 by Jouni Paakkinen (