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The gospel of Simpsons

Grace Episcopal youth find meaning behind 'Simpsons'

By Leigh Landini Wright

© The Paducah Sun, February 27, 2004.


It seems an unlikely partnership teaming one of the longest-running cartoon TV sitcoms with a Bible study.

After the Fox network debuted "The Simpsons" in 1990, critics of the program about a middle-aged American couple with three children deemed it profane and said children shouldn't watch. Stefan Jagoe, a retired Paducah police officer and now youth minister at Grace Episcopal Church, saw something else a religious undertone. He's now using "Simpsons" episodes as a Bible study tool for 8-10 youths ranging in age from 6th through 12th grade.

"I think a lot of people watch a couple of episodes and see a dysfunctional family with Bart as a kid who talks back to his parents," Jagoe said. "It portrays life as it is. Nothing works as it's supposed to, but somehow, it all comes together. I think that sums up everyone's career, relationships and marriages. A lot of sitcoms out there don't portray the message."

Jagoe is taking clues from Mark Pinsky's book, "The Gospel According to the Simpsons," as he leads his class through the episodes. "It's so real," he said. "I think you can see your own family from time to time in 'The Simpsons.' "

Bart is the smart-talking, spiky-haired 10-year-old. His sister, Lisa, is a sweet 8-year-old, and baby Maggie constantly sucks on her pacifier. Beer-bellied dad Homer is a safety inspector at the local nuclear power plant. His wife, Marge, is a long-suffering stay-at-home mother.

"Bart and Lisa are night and day," Jagoe said. "Homer and Marge, in a couple of episodes, are tempted (by others) but never give in. Unless you see enough episodes, you don't see that."

Jagoe says using the popular show allows him to talk to youths about a difficult subject. It gets it down to their level. "Most of them haven't experienced problems that force them to turn to God," he said.

The teens laugh at the jokes on the show, but when the final credit rolls, Jagoe turns their attention toward serious issues.

For instance, Bart suffers consequences after he pulls a prank at church by selling his "soul" to Milhouse. Of course, he really didn't sell his soul, just a piece of paper with the words "Bart Simpson's Soul" for $5. Lisa warns Bart that something bad will happen, but he doesn't believe her until he can't pass through automatic doors, and animals are afraid of him. Bart tries to buy his soul back but finds that Milhouse sold it to the Comic Book Guy, who sold it to an unnamed person. Turns out, Lisa bought Bart's soul and returned it to him. All's well again.

Jagoe asked the teens their beliefs about the human soul and what the Bible says about it. "That got interesting," he recalled.

The Bible study has proven such a hit that the students show up asking for Simpson episodes at every session. If the answer is no, they're dejected.

"One thing that I try to impress on them is that God is aware that you have a personal life," he said. "God is in everything that you're doing. .... I would love to sit down with them and break out the Bible, but you have to go in the back door spiritually. It's a whole lot easier."

Lone Oak High School junior Johnny Thompson, 17, said the show makes biblical concepts easier to understand. "It clarifies the Bible and the stories," he said, adding that the study particularly has helped the younger students grasp tough concepts.

Jagoe offered "The Simpsons" study to adults last year during Lent. Many had never watched the show and had negative opinions. He plans to continue the youth study as long as Fox continues the show.

"Organized religion is poked at, but God is never ridiculed," he said. "God is always God on 'The Simpsons.' You can tell that the writers know that religion is a big part of American life."

He says 69 percent of the episodes contain at least one religious reference, with 11 percent centering on a religious issue.



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