The Simpson Ministry

By Phillip Zonkel

© Long Beach Press-Telegram, December 15, 2001.

It may come as a surprise, but America's most irreverent, longest-running animated family does turn to the Lord in prime times of pain and suffering, though in a less conventional and more unorthodox fashion.

In fact, the Simpsons seek redemption and salvation on a regular basis. During the show's 12-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."

On Sunday, the series keeps preaching the gospel (8 p.m. FOX, Channel 11). In "She of Little Faith," Lisa, shocked and appalled that Mr. Burns becomes a corporate sponsor of the First Church of Springfield and begins selling seats, converts to Buddhism.

In his new book, "The Gospel According to The Simpsons" (Westminster John Knox Press, $12.95), Mark Pinsky, the religion writer with the Orlando Sentinel and a former Belmont Shore resident, looks at how the animated series reflects the role that religion plays in American life. Pinsky presents his ideas in chapters such as "Heaven, Hell, and the Devil: I'd Sell My Soul for a Donut," "The Bible: I Think It May Be Somewhere toward the Back" and "Miscellaneous: Hindu! There Are 700 Million of Us!"

"The show is about as trenchant, as life-affirming, as socially critical a prime-time sitcom as we can expect on a major commercial TV," Pinsky says.

But don't just take Pinsky's word for it. We spoke with the Rev. Michael Meyer of Resurrection Lutheran Church, Rabbi Rebecca Y. Schorr of Temple Israel and Marie Heim, assistant professor of South Asia religions at Cal State Long Beach, for their opinions of the series.

Press-Telegram: Do you like "The Simpsons"?

Meyer: I enjoy the sense of humor of the show. It pokes fun at and is a good presentation of what Lutherans believe the human condition is - We are bound in our web of sinful relationships, with ourselves, our environment and other people. We are broken and needy and narcissistic. Even when we're trying to be our best, we're all Homer Simpson.

If you'd watch me during my day, you'd hear me going 'D oh!' all the time, even during the service. I even say stupid things during confession.

Schorr: On first viewing, this is not the type of family life we hope to instill in future generations. These don't really seem like role models that we aspire to. Upon deeper reflection of the show, we do see behavior that can be the type to aspire to. Even with all the crudeness and ridiculous nature of life in Springfield, we do see this is a family that strongly believes in family. We do see examples of ethical behavior portrayed as the right thing to do.

Heim: It's multifaceted, and there's an irreverence that's healthy and good for us. It's healthy for us to put religion in perspective; we're a very religious society and it's good for us to challenge our ideas.

P-T: Some people, such as conservative commentator William Bennett and former President George Bush, have criticized the show as a bad influence on the nation. What do you think of that assessment?

Meyer: Healthy people can make a distinctions between a cartoon and reality. The trouble with "The Simpsons" is that the sense of humor is too sophisticated for people who are uptight. Jesus used sarcasm. The parables that Jesus talked about were incredibly sarcastic.

Schorr: First of all, one of the most important values that needs to be maintained across the board is freedom of speech. Someone like William Bennett, or some of these other conservative folks, whether it's political or religiously conservative, who just slap a label and say something is negative and should be pulled from television without looking to see what's redeeming about it is misdirected.

P-T: Other critics of the show have said some of the content is blasphemous. What makes you turn the other cheek?

Meyer: I can laugh because God's sense of humor has a full appreciation of who we are and he loves us anyway. If there's a moral to "The Simpsons," it's that life goes on; God's love goes on. Whether it's Marge's bitchy sisters or Mr. Burns, evil incarnate, the message to me is that God's love is still there, and he hasn't abandoned them.

Schorr: In "The Simpsons," they are pretty indiscriminate about who they poke fun at. If I want to be insulted, I could find something to be insulted about. That's true with any group. If we walk around with a huge chip on our shoulder, people will succeed in making our worst fear come true.

Heim: Everybody on the show takes a beating. People watch "The Simpsons" because they have a sense of humor.

Apu (Nahaasapeemapetilon, the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store worker) is more sympathetic than Homer Simpson. Homer is the stereotypical white, suburban male. He comes off as a goofball whereas Apu stands for a lot of really good things. He's very gracious; he's very tolerant; he's an immigrant success story in the classic American tradition.

The way Hinduism is injected into our popular culture is brilliant. There's an episode where one of the characters says, "You only live once," and Apu pipes up, "Speak for yourself."

Many times it's Rev. Lovejoy or Homer who appear very provincial and ignorant when Apu is there. That's what Apu brings, a more global perspective. When Rev. Lovejoy performs Apu's marriage, Marge congratulates him and says thanks for performing a Hindu ceremony, and Rev. Lovejoy says, "Well, Christ is Christ." Once again, someone who is completely clueless.

P-T: Does any particular episode stand out as poignant?

Meyer: Lisa and her saxophone. It was her playing the saxophone and people didn't understand her music. At the end, she sat on the bridge at the sunset and played her music, which was "The Note of Hope." She's not understood. She's a pilgrim on a spiritual journey. Her own family doesn't fully understand her. The note of hope is you continue on.

The message for me was, when it comes down to it, in our birth and in our death, we're essentially alone. But the beautiful sunset was there, showing God's creation was there, God's presence was with her on the bridge as she played. She may be playing for herself and God alone, but she was giving vent to her existential angst and her grief about her family and her journey that she didn't fully know where she was going. But the music itself was a statement that she was going to trust the one who created her and she was going to continue on. That's the gospel. God created us; God redeems us; God calls us each day to play our tune, to comfort ourselves but to comfort other people, and to keep going.

P-T: How about Ned Flanders?

Schorr: He's so funny. I don't think people come away saying it's ridiculous to be Christian. One of the things Ned presents to us is there are people living amongst us who really, honestly believe it's possible, if not to always be good all the time, to always attempt to do the right thing and always attempt to be charitable to one's neighbors and always attempt to try to be the best person and have a complete faith in God.

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Last updated on May 3, 2002 by Jouni Paakkinen (