The Simpsons as TV's Holy FamilyBy Douglas Todd
© The Vancouver Sun, December 1996.
Grace is a part of mealtime in The Simpsons' household. "Dear God, we paid for all this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing," anarchistic young Bart Simpson intones.
"Dear Lord, thank you for this microwave bounty, even though we don't deserve it," prays his no-more-mature dad, Homer. "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've omnivorous. O Lord! Why did you spite me with this family!"
Totally sacrilegious, eh? Don't have a cow, man. The Simpsons is the most religious show on television, according to a Canadian specialist in popular culture who is also a committed Christian. Preachers, the religious right and former U.S. president George Bush have fulminated against The Simpsons.
But they missed the joke, says Canadian Nazarene College professor Gerry Bowler. The Simpsons is a "very moral TV show," he says. "The good guys never lose."
When it came to The Simpsons, Bowler, 47, who earned his PhD in history at the University of London, and now runs the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the Christian liberal arts college where he teaches in Calgary, was like many parents: He had a steep learning curve.
He initially forbade his children to watch.
But when they pleaded for him to give Bart, Homer, Marge and Lisa a chance, Bowler had a conversion. He realized The Simpsons was one of the few shows on television that took North Americans' religosity seriously enough to satirize it.
Bowler, who calls himself a "mainstream evangelical," gathered evidence for his theory by down-loading 138 scripts of The Simpsons off the Internet, where web sites and chat groups abound on the show, which is watched by more than 15 million Americans and Canadians each Sunday night.
Bowler found scripts about bratty Bart on his way to heaven, spitting over the side of the escalator and instead getting sent to hell, which he liked.
He read about Bart selling his soul to a chump friend for $5, then becoming uneasy and wanting it back, only to discover his friend has already traded it for Pogs.
When mother Marge, a mainline Christian like daughter Lisa, 8, suggests allowing the emotionally disabled school bus driver to stay at their house, Marge tells Homer: "Doesn't the Bible say, 'Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me?'" Homer, a pagan who thinks he's a Christian, stammers: "Yes, but doesn't the Bible also say, 'Thou shalt not take moochers into thy...hut?"
Nearly all the characters in The Simpsons go to the First Church of Springfield, a semi-typical mainline Protestant church. The town's non-Christians, such as Hindu store owner Abu [sic], with his burbling accent, worship the elephant god, Ganesh, and share vegetarianism with precocious Lisa. Krusty the Clown canvasses for the Jewish clown charity and prays in Hebrew, which Homer calls "funny talk."
Instead of complaining about The Simpsons, the faithful may wish to praise its indirect affirmation of faith. Maintains Bowler: "God, the Devil, Heaven, Hell and angels are all treated as having objective reality."
The Simpsons' neighbour, Ned Flanders, is a prime model of the moral, though not angelic, Christian. Although Flanders is over-conscientious and "forgiving to the point of insanity," Bowler notes how he gives up his place in his own bomb shelter, donates his lungs and liver and volunteers at the Helter Shelter, founded by Reverend Helter.
Need more proof that The Simpsons is pro-religion? Many atheists disapprove of it. Bowler found atheists on the Internet saying The Simpsons "has become more of a Sunday school program than ever. The central message of the show is that the only good people are religious."
However, The Simpsons also takes deserved jabs at religion. Flanders' wife, Maude, went to a church camp to learn how to be more judgmental. "I don't judge Homer and Marge," she says. "That's for a vengeful God to do."
The town minister, Reverend Lovejoy, complained about a character refusing to be married inside a church, opting instead for "the cheap showiness of nature."
Bowler adds, however, that nuclear-power industry, which Homer works for, takes far more devastating hits than religion on The Simpsons, as do TV and commercialism. One businessman on the show advertises: "In honour of the birth of our saviour, Try-N-Save is open all Christmas."
Although The Simpsons writers still occasionally go over the top into bad taste, such as when they depicted Flanders trying to forcibly baptize the Simpson kids, Bowler says the show has softened since it began in the late 1980s. Like mearly all TV, it's become mainstream.
Homer and Bart's depravity is always thwarted or turned to ultimate good. And Bart no longer says "Eat my shorts" and "Don't have a cow," his trademark put-downs, which were faithfully mimicked by thousands of rebellious school kids, much to the horror of teachers and parents trying to inculcate a spirit of mutual respect.
All this is not say [sic] that The Simpsons is uplifting, or ideal for young kids. But there's little wrong with The Simpsons lampooning the extremes of society, faith and immoral characters.
Many Christians incorrectly think Jesus wouldn't have got a joke if he sat on it. And some religious people may miss the humour in The Simpsons simply because, as Bowler believes, it's one of the most culturally literate shows on TV, with its references to obscure Gnostic texts and rappin' rabbis who sing "Don't eat pork, not even with a fork."
Bowler's highest praise for The Simpsons is that, unlike most TV shows, such as Friends, Home Improvement and ER, where religion is virtually invisible, The Simpsons' characters have some sort of spiritual life.
Until the entertainment industry values religion as more relevant, Bowler says, "We may have to make do with Ned Flanders as our televised spiritual mentor."
Last updated on August 26, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)