Funny and irreverent, 'The Simpsons' shapes America's understanding of religion

© The Knoxville News-Sentinel (wire reports), February 1, 2003.
As the 300th episode of the award-winning comedy series "The Simpsons" sets to air in February, groups as diverse as evangelical churches and liberal arts colleges are continuing to find ways to study the impact that the show has had on American culture.

The show, now set to become the longest-running television sitcom in U.S. history, has done a lot more than add catch phrases like "Don't have a cow, man" and "Aye carumba!" to the nation's lexicon. It has even shaped the way Americans understand religion.

A book by Mark Pinsky, "The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family," published in the fall of 2001, has found fans in everyone from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to Attorney General John Ashcroft to NBA star Shane Battier. A companion study to the book was released last summer, designed for use in Sunday schools and youth groups.

"The Simpsons," which was just recently renewed through the 2005 season, has become a staple of American culture, but Pinsky's book explored the religious commentary the show provided. An episode scheduled to air in February, titled "Pray Anything," will see Homer decide that praying is the secret to material success, a subtle jab at the successful Prayer of Jabez books.

"The Simpsons," watched by more than 18 million viewers weekly in the U.S. alone, is so much a part of the culture that Homer Simpson's trademark "Doh!" has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. And TV Guide recently named Homer Simpson the second most popular cartoon character in history, behind only Bugs Bunny.

During the show's 13-year run, it has addressed such religious issues as the existence of heaven and hell, the nature of the soul, the power of prayer and whether hooking up illegal cable breaks the Eighth Commandment.

A study at Cal State San Bernardino found religious content in 70 percent of the episodes. The Christian monthly PRISM, published by Evangelicals for Social Action, called the series "the most pro-family, God-preoccupied, home-based program on television. Statistically speaking, there is more prayer on 'The Simpsons' than on any other sitcom in broadcast history."

The show is "about as trenchant, as life-affirming, as socially critical a primetime sitcom as we can expect on major commercial TV," says Pinsky, who is also the religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel.

Pinsky says that theologians find the show is "the most consistent and intelligent treatment of religion on TV," Pinsky said. Complex theological issues, such as the nature of the soul, and moral dilemmas such as adultery, are regularly addressed on the series. God himself appears in several episodes and Jesus, heaven and hell, the Bible, and prayer also figure into the lives of the Simpsons and their neighbors.

The show offers diversity, and the family is often dealing with friends and neighbors who are evangelical Christians, Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Pentecostals, cults and new age believers. In many instances, the characters are defined by their religion.

In a 2001 episode, Lisa, shocked and appalled that Mr. Burns becomes a corporate sponsor of the First Church of Springfield and begins selling seats, converts to Buddhism.

"The Simpsons" only seems to question conventional wisdom and values, says Pinsky. He says the show's consistent message is that family and faith are the only reliable defenses against the vagaries of modern life.

"The Gospel According to The Simpsons" has landed on Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Religion Books best-seller list for five straight months, and reached the No. 1 spot among religious best selling books in the United Kingdom. It has sold nearly 100,000 copies since its release. Pinsky will follow up this book with "The Gospel According to Disney," in which he will explore the religious imagery and themes of the full-length animated Disney features from 1937 to the present.

The publisher, Westminster John Knox Press, is a trade imprint of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, denominational publisher of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).

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Last updated on February 13, 2003 by