'Simpsons' Has Its Spiritual SideBy Cary McMullen
© The Ledger, February 17, 2001.
Whenever religion falls into the hands of pop culture, believers usually have reason to tremble.
A couple of generations ago, movies and TV used to treat religious practice and clerics with an excess of respect, resulting in less-than-realistic portrayals. Now you can hardly find an on-screen minister who isn't a clown or a child molester.
I have never watched much of "The Simpsons," Fox Television's heavy satire of American middle-class life, so to the extent it dealt with religion, I assumed it took a sledgehammer approach. A forthcoming book by a fellow newspaper religion writer argues otherwise.
"The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of American's Most Animated Family," by Mark Pinsky of The Orlando Sentinel, is scheduled to be released in November by Westminster/John Knox Press, the imprint that a generation ago gave us Robert Short's "The Gospel According to Peanuts."
Pinsky clearly has caught a wave. The Jan. 31 edition of The Christian Century (a magazine for liberal Protestants) features his book in a cover story by John Dart. And the Feb. 5 edition of Christianity Today (a magazine for evangelical Protestants) reprinted the chapter of Pinsky's book on Ned Flanders, the Simpsons' earnestly evangelical neighbor. The cover of the magazine depicts Flanders as a medieval saint.
Pinsky, 53, is on leave from the Sentinel while he finishes the book, and I caught up with him by phone at his home, where he had just finished giving an interview with a Christian radio station in Detroit.
He told me he had never seen "The Simpsons" until 1999. Then, in a familiar pattern, he was confronted with a parental dilemma.
"My kids were 8 and 11, and they wanted to watch the show. I said, 'I'll watch it with you. If it's OK, then you can watch it.' We began to watch the episodes, and I began to notice all these references to religion. It was totally counter-intuitive. I reached for my notebook and began making notes."
Pinsky began digging into the show. He found that, however it is played for laughs, "faith plays the role it would play in a family like the Simpsons. It's the role it plays for most Americans. You wouldn't know that if your model is American TV shows."
His take on the most religious characters in the show: Marge, Homer's wife, is "a longsuffering true believer." Lisa, daughter of Marge and Homer, shows a spiritual insight that prompted a chapter titled "Does Lisa speak for Jesus?" The Rev. Lovejoy, pastor of the nondescript Protestant church where the Simpsons regularly attend, doesn't come off as well: "He's kind of venal and hypocritical."
But it is Flanders, Pinsky said, who is the best exemplar of religion. "He's a doofus, but he's not hypocritical, which has been the sin of most American religious leaders. He's an essentially good person."
Although the writers poke fun at Flanders' virtues, such as his zeal -- he keeps kosher, "just in case" -- they do not question his faith, Pinsky said.
"There's an episode where Flanders has lost his eyesight because of a botched laser operation. The doorbell rings, and he says, 'Is that you, Jesus?' He always and honestly expects Jesus to return at any minute. I say in the book, 'He's lost his sight but not his vision.' " Pinsky conceded that the show can't stay serious very long, with satire never more than a few seconds away. But he insisted, "Even though it's got this anti-establishment wrapping, it's very conservative in its presentation of religion. That other shows exclude it only makes it stand out more."
Some fail to see the humor in the show's irreverence. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights put pressure on Fox after a couple of jokes poked fun at Catholic practices, and the network told its writers to back off.
But it's worth noting that religion isn't singled out in the show for ridicule. It's simply part of the broad fabric of culture that the producers have considered fair game. As long as it is not done in a mean-spirited way, pointing out our foibles by exaggerating them -- the essence of satire -- is actually a useful service.
As the British writer C.S. Lewis pointed out, the worst thing a believer can do is take himself too seriously. It's a form of pride, which is the worst of all sins, and instead of leading to godliness it leads to the demonic.
And now I've missed 12 years' worth of "The Simpsons"? D'oh!
Last updated on June 26, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)