The Simpsons Keep the Faith

By Tom Lassiter

© The Orlando Sentinel, Books, September 2, 2001.

An advantage of being a Roman Catholic kid in the 1960s was getting "Treasure Chest," a comic book brimming with religious and political dogma. Most of the stories concerned life's challenges, such as how to protect the communion wafers when godless communists invaded your town.

"Treasure Chest" masqueraded as a comic, but funny it was not. The publication largely failed in its attempt to influence young readers, for its messages were strict and out of touch with American life. If only we could have watched The Simpsons and discussed the show in catechism class.

Not because the Fox Network animated series looks favorably upon Catholics, for virtually all major faiths get skewered. The show, Orlando Sentinel religion writer Mark I. Pinsky argues, is a mirror that allows us to see ourselves through the misadventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and their neighbors. Despite Bart's irreverence and Homer's buffoonery, episodes usually resolve with characters making caring, tolerant and morally correct choices. What faith can argue with that?

"Given the world we live in, and the economic system we live under," Pinsky writes, "The Simpsons is about as trenchant, as life-affirming, as socially critical a prime-time situation comedy as we can reasonably expect on a major, commercial television network."

Moreover, Pinsky points out, religion plays a greater role in The Simpsons than any other prime-time show without specific theological overtones, such as Touched by an Angel. The characters, whether Christian or Jew or Hindu, have fully developed personalities colored by faith to the extent that religion plays a role in their lives. In Homer's case, it's a wash. He calls on God only when he needs a favor. Next-door neighbor Ned Flanders, on the other hand, is a good-hearted evangelical Christian who lives out the teachings of his religion. Other characters fall between these two extremes.

Pinsky, a parent of school-age children, paid no mind to The Simpsons until his own kids wanted to watch. Like many, he was wary of its influence on his youngsters, thanks to Bart Simpson's sordid reputation and widespread criticism, even from the White House of Bush the First. Yet it didn't take long for the Pinskys, who are practicing Jews, to become fans of the show, now in its second decade.

Pinsky discovered a show that had matured beyond its early juvenile focus to explore a larger community, populated by citizens of diverse backgrounds who wrestle with internal as well as external conflicts. The characters are caricatures, made real by portraying the dichotomies of human nature, which doesn't always fit neatly into denominational boxes.

Ned Flanders, eternally berated by Homer, always gives the boor another chance. There's evidence that this true Christian enjoys a beer now and again. Apu, the gentle Hindu shopkeeper, has a mediation garden atop his store. He's also guilty of egregious overcharging.

But viewers don't watch The Simpsons because of its moral messages. People watch because Homer and company are funny. Pinsky's book, which is highly readable though firmly grounded in scholarly and broad-based theology, provides strong arguments that humor and religion are not mutually exclusive.

Lay readers may be tempted to explore more of the work of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote "Humor is a p relude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer."

Pinsky's introduction, called "Epiphany on the Sofa," stresses that unfamiliar viewers should not be led to conclude that The Simpsons is about religion. Instead, the show "includes a significant spiritual dimension; because of that, it more accurately reflects the faith lives of Americans than any other show in the medium."

Pinsky builds a solid case, one that enriches the enjoyment of this most animated family. The parables played out in The Simpsons illuminate the foibles of our society, instructing while entertaining.

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Last updated on September 23, 2002 by Jouni Paakkinen (