Religious Dialogues in Prime TimeBy James L. Hall
This thesis is an examination of the television cartoon series, The Simpsons, and the religious ideas it discusses.
Specifically I examine the nature of religion within Springfield (the fictional town where The Simpsons is set) in relation to the theories of Albert Camus. I also discuss specific characters from the show and how their characteristics help to create certain attitudes towards religious theories. In particular the theories of Kierkegaard and de Certeau are discussed in relation to notions of authenticity and Pascalís The Wager.
The main focus of the discussion is the difference between the characters of Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders in terms of both their religious beliefs and their everyday behaviour. Other characters closely considered are Reverend Lovejoy (who represents the institutionalised side of religion) and Lisa Simpson (who constitutes a halfway state between Homer and Ned).
After discussing the show and its portrayal of religion and religious issues, I attempt to illustrate the showís overall attitude to attitudes of theism, non-theism and the self.
As the puffy white clouds part, they give way to a choir of soft, angelic voices and frail gold writing that reads, The Simpsons. Whether the television programme itself is sent from the heavens or not is a matter of personal taste, but the religious notions - such as belief, faith and spiritual freedom - it introduces, discusses and, perhaps most importantly, makes a strong comment upon, are not so insignificant.
The show, first aired as a series in 1989, revolves around the life of a lower-middle class family, the Simpsons and their daily life in the fictional town of Springfield. Father Homer works as a safety inspector at the Springfield nuclear power-plant while Marge stays at home and looks after the house and baby daughter Maggie. The two other children are almost polar opposites: son Bart (aged 10) is an affectionate hell-raiser and Homer-to-be whilst daughter Lisa (aged 8) is a conscientious student with an IQ well beyond her years. In the course of their day-to-day lives the Simpsons interact with all facets of modern society including the institutions of education, religion, television and justice.
The varying nature of the showís characters and story lines mean that a great number of issues or themes can be addressed. In particular, the show has a re-occurring theme of religion and religious practice (for the purposes of this discussion, religion refers to the concept of a superior being - God - and the acceptance of such a concept). Through its multiple and diverse characters the show is a melting-pot of religious view points, ranging from the devout Christianity of Ned Flanders and the rest of his family, the ethics of Lisa Simpson, the Eastern mysticism of Apu (the owner of the Kwik-e-Mart), the cynicism of Bart Simpson, the arm-chair theism of Homer Simpson and the underpinning indifference of Reverend Lovejoy. On the whole, the majority of The Simpsonsí religious themes are directly related to the broad branch of Western religion known as Christianity.
In terms of structure The Simpsons is much a like a sit-com. In fact itís more like a sit-com than any other genre of programme, the only differences being there is no laugh track, and that the action is animated rather than acted out on a set. The freedom which this brings is taken advantage of by the show's writers. The nature of the show means that it can achieve almost whatever the creative forces want (within the confines of animation of course) and in turn discuss any issue or circumstance they desire. It is through this stylistic freedom that the show is capable of satirising innumerable facets of modern day life. As Gerry Bowler (1996) suggests "The Simpsons is a satire using the cartoon format to disarm the viewer and to encourage a slightly askew but ultimately clearer look at the world".
Entertainer Peter Ustinov once described comedy as "simply a funny way of being serious" (in Farrer, 2000) and The Simpsons is a perfect example of this. Inside most of the jokes the show dispenses there lies a grain of truth, almost as if each joke has a moral. As the show makes jokes about the 1996 Presidential race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in "Tree-house of Horrors VII" (episode number 4F02, first broadcast 27/10/1996), it is also critiquing the modern political system of America and the essential pointlessness of their democratic system which is essentially - as the Alien invaders dub it - a "two horse race". However, the showís satire is not limited to the world of politics, as Goldburg (may 1, 2000) writes:
but the satire of The Simpsons is not primarily aimed at political figures. It is aimed at all of societyís false pieties and therefore works at many more levels than other TV shows. Serious issues like environmentalism, immigration, gay rights, and Christian fundamentalism get the full treatment. But so do comic book and science-fiction nerds, Jerry Lewis, the French, you name it. Many jabs are highbrow and well hidden, making them all the more rewarding.
Any fan of The Simpsons would agree that the show makes jokes at the expense of almost anything. As executive producer of The Simpsons, Mike Scully commented, The Simpsonsí writers need to have "a healthy disrespect for everything Americans hold dear" (in Andrew Billen, 1996, p. 49). Yet whilst the show is well renowned for its satirical element, not all people find this a positive characteristic, particularly when it comes to issues such as politics and religion. Possibly the most famous attack to date on The Simpsons came from the mouth of former US President George Bush who told a group of national religious broadcasters in 1992 that "we need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons" (in Pinsky, 1999).
It is unwise to believe that all of the jokes made by The Simpsons concerning religion are going to be considered as well-constructed satire. Just as George Bush seems to have taken some form of offense from the show, so too may many other viewers. The fact of the matter is that no matter what the individualís religious standpoint it, it is likely that The Simpsons offers concepts, situations and comments that challenge or correlate with their own religious belief. To some this is acceptable, to some it may be blasphemy, some may not care at all, we cannot be completely sure what specific individuals reactions are, but what we need to realize is that the religious satire of The Simpsons has the potential to both amuse and offend. The issues that arise between the show and the theistic (and non-theistic) television audience will be discussed a little later. For the moment I would like to discuss the importance of the showís themes in general.
Logically we should now ask: what is it that The Simpsons offers to religious discussion? For if it offers nothing then this entire discussion would be futile. Firstly, we recognise that the show does include religious themes, but we must ask on what level. If they are superficial thoughts that offer no unique concepts or inspiring views then their importance must surely be undermined. However, I would like to argue that The Simpsons offers views that have close ties with some modern philosophical theories of religion, those of Kierkegaard, Camus and de Certeau.
Now this may seem like a long bow to draw, but, as I plan to illustrate, it is not the case. Television shows in the past have been described as containing philosophical elements and whilst it is very rare for this label to hold true, it is none the less true on occasion. The most common of these instances is Star Trek:
This is the role of Star Trek in Ďdoing philosophyí. Many of the situations in Star Trek resemble those in the thought experiments of philosophers, and watching a Star Trek scenario unfold forces us to entertain notions that our home prejudices would otherwise blind us to (Hanley, 1997, pp. xv-xvi).
This is also true for The Simpsons. It contains concepts and points of view rarely entertained in popular prime time television programmes. In particular, it contains philosophical attitudes towards issues of religion and spirituality, a topic very rarely entertained in prime time. The Simpsons by no means stands completely alone in this respect. In 1980 Michael McFee wrote a study of the popular television show Bonanza and its Biblical undertones:
Bonanza subtly embodied a variety of theological structures which were essentially Christological, sometime Old Testamental, and even medieval in spirit (1980, p. 426).
Whilst we can see that popular television programming can feasibly contain traditional philosophical aspects, we also realise that it is a very rare occurrence. What makes The Simpsons different to the other television sitcoms that occupy prime-time slots such as Friends, Frasier and even the comedy-drama Alley McBeal, is that, as well as rating consistently well for a decade, the show contains plausible philosophical discourses.
Furthermore, the cartoon style of the show and amusing-looking action gives the show great appeal for the younger generation who may not be worldly enough to appreciate the satire. The result is that The Simpsons can be watched and enjoyed on a number of different levels and therefore by a number of different generations. As David Owen wrote in American TV Guide in 1998, "Just about the only things we do as a family are argue about table manners and watch The Simpsons". The fact of the matter is that The Simpsons is accessible to people from ages 8 to 80. In this way the show increases the number of people it can communicate its ideas with.
We should now ask what the importance of all this is. We understand that the show has wide-ranging appeal and, this combined with the undeniable presence of religious themes within the show, gives the show an aspect that few others have. The show has the potential to influence or at least reach the viewer and at the same time it propagates well-known and relevant theories regarding the philosophy of religion. It is in this way that the show has a unique characteristic. Where other prime-time shows are sprouting catch-phrases and elevating its actors to mega-celebrity status, The Simpsons takes a deep look at the nature of modern, Western religion and hurls it into the living-rooms of the unsuspecting mass audience who assemble in front of it, whilst cultivating catch-phrases at the same-time.
It is this idea that I wish to pursue: The Simspons has mass appeal and as a result of this has the capacity to influence its many and varied viewers. Furthermore, The Simpsons does not just make stabs at religion - it discusses some of the issues involved in both the glorification and condemnation of Western Christianity. Its unique take on specific religious themes makes it not only an informed programme but one which stands out from its television schedule peers.
The Media and Television
At this early point skeptics may ask, what is the relevance of this? Even if The Simpsons does contain religious principles and messages, what is there to show that this means anything within modern society? One might argue that the showís messages have a negligible impact on the consciousness of modern society. However, this is not the case. Television is one of the more predominant influences in modern society.
One school of thought, which would deny the importance of religious notions being entertained on television, has a tendency to brush off television as an ideological tool, suggesting that it is "just entertainment". However, this notion of television being nothing more than mere entertainment is becoming widely disowned.
In the context of a modern, Western culture, television is a major part of everyday life. It disperses news, education and entertainment, and for the majority, it is easily accessible. If one needs some form of proof for televisionís massive potential audience then all they need to do is look at the hundreds of millions world-wide who switched it on to watch world media events such as Lady Dianaís funeral and the Olympic opening ceremonies. Furthermore, the growing prominence of services such as pay-television and the impending emergence of digital television show there is indeed a fair amount of public demand for such luxuries.
It is both naive and foolish to assume that all television, or all entertainment for that matter, should be considered simply on a superficial level. It is perfectly legitimate to suggest that "All entertainment is making a statement. Everything we read, hear, or watch espouses a world-view, or philosophy of life" (Solomon, 2000, p. 137). Whether one is considering The Bold and the Beautiful, Friends, The Brady Bunch or South Park, all shows propagate something. No television show is utterly hollow. They reinforce ideas whilst contradicting others, they impose stereotypes, introduce new modes of speech into society, condone practices, condemn others and offer ways one can live or choose not to live life.
In Seeing Through the Eighties, Jane Feuer discusses the links between specific television programmes, the television industry as a whole and the Reaganist American Government. She puts forward the idea that "Both Dynasty and MTV could be said to be symptoms of the Reagan age" (1995, p. 1), and whilst she acknowledges the relationship between these two forces are not purely cause and effect, there still exists a reasonably strong relationship. Feuer suggests that even a show such as Dynasty (a soap opera) has some social and cultural significance - no show can be reduced to nothing but empty entertainment.
The fact is that the human mind has the capacity to store fragments from our lives: "movies, television programs, music, and video games experienced today will be recorded in our computer-like minds and replayed for years to come." (Lane and Lane, 1991, p. 209). Any statement, any idea, any philosophy viewed today may stay with us for years to come. The shows we watch today may well hold more relevance for us in the future, that is if they fail to hold a major significance already.
As Christopher and Melodie Lane discuss in their book, Parenting by Remote Control, this media-dominated world is capable of significant influence, especially over children:
modern entertainment is much too powerful and persuasive to be considered just another leisure activity. Its ability to invade our homes and impact our kids is real (1991, p. 225).
Not subscribing to the theory of television as mere entertainment, the Lanes make issue of the fact that television is all too capable of teaching young children ideas, beliefs or even statements that conflict with the ideals of their parents. However, this is only one dimension of televisionís influence; it can also play a role in the shaping of the opinions held by the parent. Television is a very relevant part of modern, western society. As Malcolm Muggeridge states:
It is a truism to say that the media in general, and TV in particular, and BBC [the station which screens The Simpsons in the UK] television especially, are incomparably the greatest single influence in our society today, exerted at all social, economic and cultural levels (1977, p. 23).
Logically young children with little experience of life, and therefore the real world, are understandably impressionable and are thereby prone to strong influence by powerful forces such as television. At the same time, the grown adult, who presumably will have some kind of moral, ethical and philosophical grounding or bias can also be influenced or indeed persuaded by the power of the media.
The world of politics is a prime example. As John B Thompson writes in Media and Modernity (1995, pp. 114-116), the anti-Vietnam war movement and the falling of the Berlin war were all influenced on a major scale by television coverage. Thompson discusses the transformation of visibility in detail (pp. 119-148), highlighting how televised instances such as debates, gaffes, scandals and public performances which backfire - all events which we learn about via television amongst other mediums - can lead to serious ramifications. A poor public performance from one political candidate, compared to an impeccable public performance by another, can have a telling influence on polling day.
Religion is by no means an exception to this standard. Just as the purveying of political images and sounds on television can affect how people regard certain candidates or issues, so too might the representation of religion on television influence the belief of an individual. The weak point here is that people tend to be more headstrong about their religious beliefs, whereas political persuasions in the modern western world can be relatively transitory. The relatively ineffectual and pedestrian nature of modern political parties makes them interchangeable. The political climate of quasi-democracies such as the United States, Great Britain and Australia leads to a situation where radical policies have no chance of being implemented. Politics is largely constituted of a two horse race with both the major parties sitting somewhere in the middle of the two ideological wings. On the other hand, religious belief is not as elastic. Most people will not adopt a Christian belief for three years then change to Buddhism for another three before turning back to Christianity. However, whilst Western religious belief is not likely to be hijacked via a collection of sitcoms and talk shows, it may be challenged. Yet this depends on the starting point of the viewer. A young adult, or even a child, whose religious beliefs may still be undecided or a matter of personal reflection will be more open to adopt or consider the ideas put forward on television shows. Meanwhile, the believer will find their beliefs are either confirmed or challenged in some way. What needs to be realised is that the mediaís effect on religion is by no means negligible. In Media and the Transformation of Religion in South Asia, Lawrence A. Babb discusses the noticeable impact which mass media (specifically printed images, comic books, audio recordings and moving images) had on religion in South Asia:
what do we learn from these studies overall? The most important general lesson is probably that modern media have had multiple and, in some respects, contradictory effects on religious belief and practice in South Asia (1995, p. 16).
Christopher and Melodie Laneís book Parenting by Remote Control is a look at the influence the media can have over a Christian family. They examine the issues discussed, the concepts put forward by the modern media and how they can affect the stability of a Christian family. Specifically they address conflicting moral issues such as violence and sex on television but on the whole their discussion is aimed at contra-Christian agendas. Their opinions are clear:
entertainment, in and of itself, is neither inherently good nor evil, but it can be used effectively for either purpose....the media is one of the foremost means for tempting, deceiving, and corrupting families - especially childrenÖParents also function as gatekeepers, deciding what should and should not be admitted into the home. Discernment is a gatekeeperís best friend. Should that video game be allowed in, or could it become an instrument of enemy sabotage? What about that new rap group, or that movie? Should they be allowed entrance to the living room? These are the sorts of questions todayís gatekeepers need to be asking (pp. 14 and 221).
Here the "enemy sabotage" they refer to is essentially non-pro-Christian thought or concepts. In this instance the idea of the media as an influence is centred around kids. The Lanes see television as a threat in that it can implant ideas (positive or negative) within a childís mind. Given that a childís sense of what is right and what is wrong is less developed than its parents, it is seen as a danger that the television can encode children with an ethical code or a sense of morality in opposition to that of its parents.
Furthermore, the possibility of mental contamination via the media is seen as a real danger by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman makes reference to the ten commandments, specifically the second commandment:
ĎThou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness or anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.íÖIt is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. (1993, p. 9)
Here it is suggested that perhaps God, foreseeing the advent of global media, told his followers to deny the portraits of "false Gods" painted by any cultural institution. Is it possible that when God decreed to Moses the Ten Commandments he had the dominance and influence of the 21st century media in his mind? Perhaps, but this may be a long bow to draw.
At this point I would like to re-introduce The Simpsons as the main focus of this discussion. As mentioned earlier, the show has mass appeal and "offers a million moral messages, enough to instruct any child or even any adult attracted by the showís entertainment value" (Neumann, 1996, p. 25). The show has religious messages, satirises aspects of modern spirituality and has a variety of opinions on a number of facets of Western religious activity.
As mentioned earlier, Lane and Lane discuss modern television with reference to protecting Christian youth from opposing viewpoints:
so as Christians it appears that we will continue to have the same dilemma: Do we reject the medium or do we redeem it? Because we are called to glorify God in all that we do, it appears that we should not leave watching television out of this mandate. Let us commit ourselves to the redemption of television (Solomon in Solomon, 2000, p. 152).
Now this school of thought promoted by Jerry Solomon, whilst having the good intention of protecting youth from corruption, intrinsically lends itself to the exercising of censorship over children and in turn adults. The Simpsons has recently become entwined in this issue.
We must ask ourselves, given that religious sections of the community find offense in, say, the religious digs made by The Simpsons, is it then permissible for them to try and "redeem" the show? This issue raised its head in 1999 when the conflict between The Simpsons and the Catholic community made the newspapers. The sequence in question appeared in the episode "Sunday, Cruddy Sunday", (episode number AABF08, first aired on 31/01/1999) in which Homer and a swarm of Springfield men flock to Florida to watch Superbowl XXXIII. The sequence in question occurs during a break which Marge and Lisa are watching, keeping in mind that slots during the breaks in the Superbowl are renowned for their high price.
The ad shows a geeky looking guy pulling up to a deserted petrol station in the middle of the desert. After waiting for service a number of overly breasted females race out of the store and begin to buff his car. There follows a couple of sexual allusions such as the petrol pump entering the petrol tank. As one of the scantily clad women bends over the carís bonnet to reveal her plentiful cleavage our attention is drawn to a golden crucifix dangling freely. The voice over speaks, "The Catholic Church. Weíve made a few...changes."
Reporting on the incident, Howard Rosenburg in the Los Angeles Times (June 2, 1999) noted that Fox vice president of broadcast standards, Roland McFarlane advised executive producer Mike Scully to change the phrasing, suggesting they change Catholic to "ĎMethodist, Presbyterian or Baptistí anything but Catholic". The fact was that McFarlane didnít want to upset the hundreds who had protested against the show already. Scully claims it was obvious from the letters that few of those who made complaints had actually seen the show. Many letters came from third graders asking Scully "please donít make fun of my religion". Scully implied that parents had already enforced some kind of control by making their children write such letters, suggesting that a child that young wouldnít compose such a letter of their own accord.
Interestingly enough this is not the only time Fox executives have attempted to alter the showís jokes. As reported by Craig David, series creator Matt Groening, during an on-stage conversation with English interviewer Jonathon Ross, read out a list of changes advised to the showís staff. Groening commented, "I think the executives donít get The Simpsons. They get the ratings but I donít think they quite understand the show."
It is apparent that Fox executives are wary of complaints and criticism being thrown from various sectors of society. The fact of the matter is that The Simpsons does get laughs from jokes concerning theism (primarily Catholicism). It seems as if the Fox executives are aware of the contrary opinions they are broadcasting. But it is right for these jokes to be pulled from the air? If people such as Jerry Solomon and those who complain in writing about The Simpsonsí religious satire had their way, we would be left with nothing but Christian-based programming. Television would no longer be a collection of different and opposing views, it would be a single ideology. There would be no atheism, no immorality, simply a single view. I suggest that this would cripple the appeal of modern television, eroding away diversity, hiding ideas, silencing opposition, crippling totally the little remaining editorial freedom that remains in the television industry.
Oran in Springfield
Let us look at Springfield, the imaginary town (named after the town in which patriarchal 60ís sitcom Father Knows Best was set) in which The Simpsons exists. It is made up of mostly white lower-middle class (or as Homer describes it "upper-lower middle class") families. There are ethnic minorities (Apu Nahasapeemapetilon), capitalists (Monty Burns), homosexuals (Smithers), celebrities (Krusty the Clown, Kent Brockman) and all the other types of people who are the fabric of modern Western society: teachers, policemen, corrupt politicians, reverends and the like. Springfield is in many ways an enclosed community. It is self-sufficient; the police and mayor create and enforce the laws; the nuclear power-plant provides the electricity. There is also Springfield Elementary where all the young children go. It even has a tribal-esque rivalry with Shelbyville (the next town over).
So how does religion function within this enclosed community? Well, the majority of the population is Christian, going to the Springfield church to listen to (or rather sleep through) Reverend Lovejoyís sermons. Religion is seen as both present and boring, everyone practices it but hates doing so. But what in terms of its function? Springfield shows religion as existing, but what is the result of this? To answer the question of the impact The Simpsons shows religion as having on society I would like to examine the episode entitled "Homer the Heretic" (episode number 9F01, first broadcast on 8/10/1992).
The episode begins one cold, wintry, Sunday morning. Outside the Simpsonsí house it is 11 degrees below zero and Homer lies in his warm bed comfortably dreaming about being back in the sanctuary of the womb. However, when Marge wakes him up to go to church Homerís peace of mind is disrupted. He reluctantly gets out of bed and starts to put on his "itchy" church pants. However, as Homer tries to fasten his trousers they split and in a fit of trademark anger he refuses to go to church. Instead he decides to stay at home and do as his heart desires. Home alone, Homer turns up the central heating, dances around the house in his underwear, urinates with the door open and makes his "patented, space-age, out-of-this-world moon waffles", which is basically a waffle wrapped round a stick of butter.
What follows is a series of random events which are satisfying for Homer but annoying to his family and the rest of the church going public. To begin with Reverend Lovejoy apologises for the heating in the church not working, whilst Homer is in his home turning the heating up to 100 degrees. The service then ends and the faithful realise the church doors are frozen together and they cannot get out, whilst Homer sits on his couch watching television and is overjoyed when a dreary televised debate is replaced with an exciting, high scoring football game. This is followed by Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie trying to start their car and finally setting off home unsuccessfully but back at Evergreen Terrace, Homer, upon finding a penny on the floor, declares that this is his perfect day (better than his wedding day).
When his family arrives home after a dreadful morning, Homer is exceedingly pleased with his decision not to go to church, so much so, he declares that he is never going to church again. Marge is quite unsettled by Homerís new-found active indifference to his religion (rather than going to church and falling asleep he is now refusing to go to church altogether, preferring to sleep at home).
That night Marge prays to God asking him to show he husband "the error of his ways". Moments later Homer is asleep and in conversation with God.
God: Thou hast forsaken my Church!
Homer: [in fear] Uh, kind-of... b-but...
God: But what?!
Homer: Iím not a bad guy. I work hard and I love my kids. So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how Iím going to hell?
God: Hmmm. Youíve got a point there. You know, sometimes even Iíd rather be watching football. Does St. Louis still have a team?
Homer: No they moved to Phoenix.
Given the blessing of the God which the Springfield community feels he is betraying, Homer carries on living in accordance with his own religion, walking through the park in a monkís robe and creating a religious holiday (the feast of Maximum Occupancy) in order to get the day off work.
"Homer the Heretic" raises many issues concerning religion including the nature of worship, the ideals of Christianity, the possible repression of the individual through theism and indeed the nature of God himself. However, for the purposes of this discussion I would like to examine the final message which is verbally explicated at the end of the episode.
It all begins the following Sunday when Homer, basking in the glory of his new religion, lies on the couch smoking a cigar and reading old copies of Playdude. Meanwhile, church carries on as usual and Reverend Lovejoy gives a fiery sermon entitled "When Homer Met Satan". As Homerís comfort consumes him he sighs to himself "everyone is stupid except for me", and with that he falls asleep with the lit cigar in his hand. Within a matter of seconds the house is engulfed with flames and Homer has passed out with smoke inhalation.
To Homerís rescue comes a cross section of the Springfield community. Ned Flanders drags him out of the house whilst Apu (Hindu), Krusty the Clown (Jewish), Chief Wiggum (policeman) and Barney (alcoholic) all help in putting the blaze out.
In the aftermath Homer deduces that God is vengeful and the burning down of his house is His way of condemning Homerís religion. But he is told otherwise:
Ned: Homer, God didn't set your house on fire.
Rev. Lovejoy: No, but he was working in the hearts of your friends and neighbours when they came to your aid, be they [points to Ned] Christian, [to Krusty] Jew, or [to Apu] miscellaneous.
Apu: Hindu! There are 700 million of us.
Rev. Lovejoy: Aw, that's super.
From this Homer decides it is better to go to church, given that it is through Godís (God meaning any deity) instruction that man can work with him in his heart and do good to his fellow man. However, this conclusion of Homerís can be seen as, to a degree, illogical.
Looking at Homer and his thought process we understand that to him, his good day at home is vindicated by his families bad day at church; his decision to practice faith with his own method (note that he never disowns God) is approved in his dream/vision of God; his new ways are then deemed unsatisfactory by the fire in his house. These are the mental and logical steps of Homer Simpson. We can see this is so, for example, if we were to change a factor, say Homerís day at home was terrible, he stubbed his toe getting out of bed, his waffles gave him acute indigestion and there was a power failure whilst his family had a great day at church, then we can safely say Homer would have seen his actions as inappropriate and turned up the church the next week. In many ways Homer is a man of the moment, dictated not by the logics of reasoned argument but by the forces of the universe, in the end the decision is not an immense lifestyle or personality change. He is the same person as we see the next week, he sleeps in church rather than at home. Whilst this is true and it works for Homer, it cannot be said that it can work for everyone. What about the viewer who sees the lack of reason in Homerís decision making? Having discussed the issues raised we can see that Homerís house catching on fire is no proof of Godís existence, vengefulness or comment on Homerís ways. It was just an event that happened, an action of the absurd universe, so then Homerís decision to return to church lacks a strong reason - he could easily sit at home and have immense fun instead.
In order to highlight the logic of Homerís decision to return to church, and in turn show another possible reaction to this event I will discuss Homer the Heretic in relation to Albert Camusí 1947 novel, La Peste (The Plague), as both texts discuss religion and God in relation to community. However, whereas The Simpsons shows religion as giving the community a moral fabric, or if you will a common moral and ethical code, The Plague offers a different line of thought to a similar instance.
The Plague is set in the Algerian village of Oran in the year 194-. It is the story of the re-emergence of the bubonic plague. Early in the narrative dead rats appear in the streets, this is followed by an outbreak of illness and then deaths. The epidemic is soon diagnosed as the plague and the town is cut off in order to protect not only neighbouring towns but also the world from the fatal epidemic.
"La Peste recounts a struggle between the epidemic and the community." (King, 1968, pp. 65-66). This is an important point to note as in The Plague the struggle is communal, not essentially personal, whilst there are personal struggles at work the overall power of the piece is aimed at the communal, just as it is the communal that saves Homer from his burning house.
The struggle of the people of Oran against the plague comes to the fore when Tarrou and Rieux set up sanitation parties to help treat the ill and combat the evil work of the plague. In the end the people of Oran grow from having learned from their created bonds to their fellow man. The plague throws man and woman against the wall and together they work to fight back against the forces that act against their well-being.
At this point a few differences appear between "Homer the Heretic" and The Plague. In Camusí work he depicts a force of unscrupulous evil, a plague that inflicts pain and death upon innocent children and guilty man alike; in "Homer the Heretic" the force in question is fire which is by no means a powerless energy but one which is dramatically weaker than the plague which has the ability to destroy human existence. However, despite this disparity in the strength of the force the communal struggle is against, the two forces still symbolise more or less the same principle. "The plague represents the power of death and destruction in the universe." (King, 1968, p. 74) and, whilst the plague is a stronger example of this, it is by no means untrue of fire which is capable of death and destruction as well as being linked with the Devil and Hell in Christian belief.
At this point we understand that The Simpsons portrays the idea that all religion is a natural system of behaviour to slip into as well as suggesting that through religion humans come into contact with their morality and through loving a greater being learn to love their fellow man. But now we must now look to see what Camus propagates:
it is especially the rather insignificant figure of Joseph Grand, the named hero of the book, who embodies the central theme of the novel and can supply the reader with his sought after patter (Rhein, 1972, p. 54).
Noting that Camus suggests that "if it is absolutely necessary that this narrative include a Ďheroí" (in Rhein, 1972, p 140) then it is Grand, Rhein carries on to suggest that we can see in Grandís behaviour an example of the way we should react in such a circumstance. King takes the next step and explains Grandís essence:
Grand is a small, insignificant man who works as an underpaid clerk in a government office. His wife left him many years before, and he suffers from loneliness and unrequited love. Grand is a hero because he acts on good feeling: he works with Rieux during the plague, not from any intellectual convictions, but simply because he feels that people must help each other (King, 1968, p. 73).
Grandís natural urge to help his fellow man is borne out of the altruism that Camus sees as innate within our species. The Plague plays strongly on the notion that humans have a natural tendency towards preserving human life in the face of danger. This idea is taken to an extreme when Father Paneloux, after preaching the righteousness of God in casting the plague upon human kind as punishment, sees a child suffer a painful death at the hands of the plague. In this instant his ideas shift and he begins to work with Tarrou and Rieux in fighting against the evil of the plague, undermining his earlier, firebrand sermon. This tendency towards preserving fellow humans is what saves Homer from his burning house. The people of Springfield (which is not unlike Oran in that it functions as an enclosed town) band together and save this human life, irrespective of everyoneís religious inclinations.
Andre Maurois looks at The Plague and discusses where Camus was coming from when he wrote it:
The Plague is a book of a humanist who will not allow himself to accept the unjustness of the universe. In the eternal silence of the infinite spaces, a silence broken only by the shrieks of the suffering, man should stand by man, perhaps through heroism, perhaps through saintliness, but above all through taking into account certain basic feelings: love, friendship, brotherhood (1970, p. 357).
To some this idea may seem a contradiction in that Camus is often referred to as an existentialist. However, Camus himself denied this labeling: "No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. Sartre is an existentialist, and the only book of ideas that I have published, The Myth of Sisyphus, was directed against the so-called existentialist philosophers" (Delpech, 1945). In reality all that Camus had in common with the existentialists was that he did not believe in God.
Returning to the discussion at hand, in both the texts in question, Ďmaní stands by his fellow Ďmaní but with different reasons and results. In "Homer the Heretic" it is through religion that the people within society gain their "love, friendship, brotherhood", but in Camusí narrative these characteristics are borne into ones self as they exist outside of religion and not because of it. This becomes evident during a discussion between Rieux and Tarrou:
...since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightnít it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him, and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes towards the heaven where He sits in silence? (Camus, pp. 107-108)
In rebellion against the apparent indifference of God, the two set up sanitation parties whose purpose is to aid the treatment of the plague victims, an activity they openly recognise as futile. As Tarrou explains to Rieux, "your victories will never be lasting", to which Rieux answers, "Yes, I know that. But itís no reason for giving up the struggle" (p. 108). To Camus the struggle is something inherent in the human design; to The Simpsons - as evident in Lovejoyís words to Homer - it comes through belief in a higher being, but which is right? is one more right than the other?
I suggest that these two different reactions are a result of two different philosophical outlooks. Camus is coming from the perspective of the absurd whereas "Homer the Heretic" is coming from a world in which Godís existence is taken as highly probable, to the extent that no-one in the show actively denies His existence.
The absurd perspective assumes there is no God, no afterlife and therefore life has no transcendent meaning. This seems to follow: if there is no life after death and no God then there is no meaning that is beyond our human realm. This is the essence of an absurd universe. More specifically for Camus, absurdity is born from "the failure of the world to satisfy the human demand that it provide a basis for human values - for our personal ideals and for our judgements of right and wrong" (Olafson in Edwards, 1972, p. 16). Or to put it another way, absurdity exists from the conflict between "our demands for rationality and justice - and an indifferent universe" (Solomon in Audi, 1995, p. 102).
Turning to Homer, his new religious ways have resulted in his house burning down, an act as absurd as the church doors being frozen together or the televised debate being taken off air and replaced with an exciting football match. From this we might well say that Homer is a slave to the absurdity in this life. When fate deals him a good hand he feels justified and victorious, when fate deals him a setback he has failed and was wrong in his ways. This is true not only for this episode but for the entire 10 year history of The Simpsons.
In opposition to Homer, Camusí reaction to the absurd events of the universe is a form of mutiny. Many of his works entice his reader to live in rebellion against the absurd, much like Rieux did, in battling against an irresistible force. It is noted that "Camusí humanism is an attempt to give a positive meaning to the rebelís no" (Onimus, 1970, p. 89). Whilst Homer takes the brunt of the absurd and returns to church, Camus preaches the struggle against the absurd.
Camus saw evil (be it a plague or a life threatening fire) not as a meaningful act of God (as Homer does), but as an act of the absurd universe. He also believed that should humanity be faced with a powerful evil, be it the plague or the Nazis (which the plague is commonly seen to represent), man would fight alongside man until it was either defeated or becomes dormant.
Meanwhile, Homer has a tendency to blame things on God. In "Mom and Pop Art" (episode number AABF15, first broadcast on 11/04/1999) his trailer carrying a block of cement and bricks (a failed barbecue) detaches from his bumper bar and smashes into another passing car. Homer shouts, "Not my fault. Act of God. Act of God". Perhaps this best encapsulates Homerís way of thought and whilst Ned assures him that God did not set fire to his house as far as Homer knows, God is responsible for the actions of the people who saved him, therefore according to Homer God saved him.
Homer and the rest of the Springfield population do not see the acts in this world as absurd. The fire that starts, the penny Homer finds, the church doors freezing shut are not so much absurd as they are part of a greater meaning because the people believe in God and a transcendent meaning. The episode ends with Homer dreaming that he is talking to God as they walk though heaven, discussing the meaning of life.
In short, we can see there exists two different positions here on religion and community. One point of view, namely Camusí, is endowed with the notion of the absurd and sees the communal humanity as an intrinsic characteristic of the human spirit. The differing view expressed in The Simpsons, suggests that it is through religion that the individuals within Springfield come to realise this humane condition. That this type of altruism does not come from us but from a God figure, in whatever form he may take.
Having looked at how The Simpsons relates religion to the community of Springfield and in turn how the show regards the ideals of religion, I would now like to examine specific characters within the show and see how their individual belief systems and behaviour are represented. Religion may have an impact or effect on a society but it is through the individualisation process that religion has its greatest meaning. After all, the way an individual acts or reacts in relation to a belief system, is a strong statement of who that person is and what they represent.
To begin with I would like to look at Springfieldís established religious figure, Reverend Timothy Lovejoy. The portrayal of Lovejoy is, in essence, the showís strongest representation of the institution of religion. Reverend Lovejoy is the only person in the town who holds an "official" religious position. But how does the show portray him? Well, from minimal viewing the audience can realise that his joy for the church is barely non-existent, furthermore when he does get fired up in the pulpit it is usually more to inconvenience other people rather than express the ideas of God. For example, in "Simpson Bible Stories" (episode number AABF14, first broadcast 04/04/1999) he decides that, after pulling a chocolate rabbit from the mountainous collection plate, that the assembled need a dose of the Bible, much to the entire serviceís displeasure.
Another recurring idea, concerning the Reverend, centers around the institution of the church and its financial interests. In "Bart Sells His Soul" (episode number 3F02, first broadcast 08/10/1995), Milhouse and Bart discuss the nature of the soul. Milhouse figures that since all religions expound the notion of a soul then it must have some truth, after all "what would they have to gain?" This quickly cuts to a shot of Reverend Lovejoy with a money counter pouring out the notes and coins from the collection plate. In "Viva Ned Flanders" (episode number AABF06, first broadcast 10/01/1999) the Reverend informs the assembled church that the tithe they should be offering is 8% of gross and not net income "please donít make me audit people". In "Simpson Bible Stories" Lovejoy remarks, "as we pass the collection plate around please give as if the person next to you were watching". These are by no means the only references to the church as a social institution with capitalist interests. They run through the show as frequently as insinuations of police incompetence or warnings about mob rule.
Lovejoyís faith is also portrayed as being less than consistent. In "Bartís Comet" (episode number 2F11, first broadcast 05/02/1995) when a comet heads for Springfield Homer claims Ďat times like this I wish I was a religious maní. This is followed by Lovejoy running down the street screaming "Itís all over people, we donít have a prayer!". In "The Joy of Sect" (episode number 5F23, first broadcast 08/02/1998) he is also seen tearing off his collar and squashing it into the dirt at the thought of a cult leaderís divinity. This idea of inconsistent faith - holy one minute apathetic the next - is focused directly in the only real episode of the programme that focuses in on the Reverend, "In Marge We Trust" (episode number 4F18, first broadcast on 27/04/1997). The plot is straight forward: Marge feels as if Reverend Lovejoy is beginning to ignore his parishioners, not taking an active role in their lives. As a result Marge volunteers to help and becomes the churchís "listen lady". Meanwhile, Lovejoy begins to immerse himself in the Bible again, helping him to discover seven new sins, (note here that yet again Lovejoyís holy work is nothing but pain and annoyance to his followers).
In essence Reverend Lovejoy is as fickle in his belief as anyone else in Springfield. He sways from sermon to religious denouncement within every series. His faith in God is shown as less than unshakable and his motives are seen as financial rather than spiritual. Given that he is the showís embodiment of the institution of the church or at least the institutional face of the church, this holds some significance. The Simpsons represents this institution as money hungry, superficial and often unconcerned with the matters that are the essence of their being.
Given that the institution of Christianity is ridiculed within the show, I feel that now it may be useful to examine closely characters and their specific beliefs, in an attempt to see how the show regards individual interactions with this institution. As a starting point I would like to consider two characters in particular: Ned Flanders, the strict Christian, and Homer Simpson, the man with an immensely lazy belief in God. These two characters are crucial in the identification of The Simpsons stance on organised religion as they represent two extremes within belief: one is devout, the other is impious; one listens in church, the other one sleeps; one blasphemes, the other never raises his voice.
The two live next door to each other. On one side of the fence there lies the Simpsons who from father Homer through to baby Maggie possess a multitude of personalities. On the other side there are the Flanders, Ned, his wife Maude and their two sons Tod (age 10) and Rod (age 8). Together the Flanders go to church, play games such as Name That Bible Passage and generally be nice to each other. In general, the families are shown to be like polar opposites, when moved closer together they will ultimately repel. This is perhaps best highlighted in "Homer Loves Flanders" (episode number 1F14, first broadcast 24/02/1994), where Homer discovers a new found respect for Ned (mostly through Ned being very generous towards him), and the two families are shown to be fundamentally different. Marge makes punch for the kids but Rod and Tod arenít allowed sugar and when the Simpson family begin to indulge in a food fight, the Flanders sit by passively and do nothing.
Let us now come back to Homer and Ned and their respective designs for life. Through the fictional world in which we view Ned and Homer it is actions and words that give us a sense of who they are. Occasionally we gain knowledge of what Homer is thinking in the silence of his interior monologue but that is it. We must assume that all we know is all that is true in this fictional domain.
To begin with I would like to look directly at Homer in an attempt to understand who he is and what he represents. When we watch him from week to week we see that Homer lies, steals and cheats. He swears in front of his children, threatens them, teases fat children, stalks his friends Lenny and Carl, constantly dodges work and responsibility and it is only his lack of intelligence that stops him from being successfully deceptive.
As we watch Ned Flanders what stands out the most is his dogmatic approach to life. Every question, every temptation, every conversation, every day to day decision is made in accordance with his Christian dogma. This invites examination through the theories of Michel de Certeau, in particular his book, The Practice of Everyday Life. De Certeau discusses the concept of a "strategy" towards life:
I call a Ďstrategyí the calculua of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an Ďenvironmentí....Political, economic and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model (1988, p. xix).
The concept of a strategy is essentially that of a dogma. It is a collection of practices, ideas, modes of behaviour that exist outside of the instant, that is they are always there to be referred to when necessarily. They do not come out of nowhere at any given time, strategies always exist, waiting to be applied to the everyday.
Ned subscribes to the Christian dogma and as such takes on this strategy towards life. But what of Homer? We know that he does not live by the Christian dogma or any dogma for that matter. His actions are random and sparked by whim and not strategy. In de Certeauís words, Homer lives life through the means of a tactic:
it [a tactic] has at its disposal no base where it can capitalise on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances...a tactic depends on time - it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized Ďon the wing (1988, p. xix).
Unlike a strategy, a tactic has no reference point, no set of ideals or guidelines which outline the way to behave. It takes what comes and handles it in its own way. Homerís lifestyle suits this notion perfectly: Homerís actions are reactions to the events which occur around him, whereas Ned applies a moral theory, Homer reacts with his instincts (or heart). Nedís complete obedience to his dogma is in many respects the polar opposite to Homer and his tactic of encouraging his instincts.
This idea of strategy as opposed to tactic leads into notions of the concept of authenticity. Considering the apparently superficial and often egotistical nature of Homerís character it seems contradictory to suggest that he is in anyway an authentic man, but he can be described as one.
The philosophical concept of authenticity differs from the meaning the word has in everyday language. Perhaps one of the better known writers on authenticity is twentieth century philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Randall Havas discusses Heidegger and sees his writing on the subject of authenticity as a matter of relating to authorities:
He [Heidegger] wants to show us how our ways of encountering the world in the present age are fateful for us, to show us what it means to be obedient to their authority. And he maintains that obedience to such authority cannot be a matter of adopting an interpretation of modern life (Havas in Dreyfus and Hall, 1992, p. 232).
We can see that authenticity is concerned primarily with the individual and how they live their life, in that authority has the power to weaken the self and the will. This starting point can be taken a step further to encompass the individualís decision making process:
to be authentic means to invent oneís own way and pattern of life. Here the concept of originality does not refer so much to the idea of origin as to undogmatic openness - or, to use Nietzscheís terminology, a Ďhorizon of infinite perspectivesí (Golomb, 1995, p. 19).
Authenticity is a matter of living life free of the authorities often imposed upon us and in doing so realising the galaxy of possibilities that exist in this life. In essence it is a matter of having the spiritual freedom to exercise the full extent of oneís free will. We now understand what the concept of authenticity concerns itself with but we must now try and gain some kind of idea of what it means to live an authentic life. As mentioned before the central theme in philosophical authenticity is the self: to be true to oneself is to be authentic.
In philosophical circles the concept has a tendency to be associated with existentialism and other theories involving issues of atheism. This connection is made through the religious/atheist dichotomy; the idea being that the religious individual lives by (or at least strongly influenced by) the laws of their religion whereas the atheist has no such dogma to adhere to. This situation was best summed up by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his 1880 book The Brothers Karamazov, "As God and immortality do not exist, the new man is permitted to become God" (in Camus, 1957, p. 58). If we are in a Godless universe then all notions of a divine code of behaviour become redundant. There are no transcendent, universal rules to live by because there is no-one to enforce an eternal punishment or reward. The key becomes living in accordance with the self, making oneself happy through their own actions. However, despite this strong connection between atheism and authenticity, it was a Christian, Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote what a life of authenticity really meant:
the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die (1996, p. 32).
Kierkegaardís maxim, which highlights the existential underpinning in his own theistic philosophy, is a cry for authenticity. Kierkegaard, whilst being a Christian, spoke out strongly against repressive religious dogmas. To live oneís life without a meaning which is true for the self, to live without a belief for which one could live or die is to be inauthentic. To live trapped within the repressions of slavery, beneath the weight of authority, inside the boundaries of social convention is to be inauthentic.
Staying with Kierkegaardís thought for a moment, one must not leap to the conclusion that to die for a cause is an inherently pure act, only the purest of martyrs are authentic. The idea of sincere belief and fearful belief will be discussed a little later but for now all we need to keep in mind is that the key is the self. To live by oneís own pattern, in accordance with the heart is the blueprint for an authentic existence.
It is also the burning force within Homer - it is the essence of his tactic. He is perfectly prepared to waste uncountable hours of his life watching b-grade television programmes such as Donít Go There, Do Shut Up and The School of Hard Knockers; to lay on his hammock sipping beer from a coconut shell when important house maintenance goes undone; and any number of petty thefts, white lies and selfish and self-less gestures he makes. At the same time Ned is bound to perform the duties of his Christian strategy.
The idea of an tactic-driven, authentic Homer is enforced by the realisation of self that exists in his actions. "In The War of The Simpsons", (episode number 7F20, first broadcast 02/05/1991), Homer throws the biggest fish in the world back into the sea when he and Marge are on a marriage retreat (after much planning). His reason for tossing away the fish and the guaranteed glory that came with catching it was because he came to realise he valued his marriage to Marge more. In "Lard of the Dance" (episode number 5F20, first broadcast 23/08/1998) he attempts to steal a booty of grease from the school kitchen without any conflict of conscience. Throughout the 11 year history of the show Homer is prepared to take what is not his if he really wants it, lies if he wants to and generally replaces the conventions society has laid down with his own ideas of what are tasteful, acceptable or appropriate modes of behaviour. In short: Homer lets his heart rule his actions, and religion is something that just exists for Homer.
Meanwhile, Nedís authenticity is dubious because of his strategy. His heart, his true nature, does not dictate his behaviour. It is his strategy that controls the decisions of his life. He calls Reverend Lovejoy to ask for a Bible passage to help him make a decision on any number of occasions. This situation is taken to its extreme in "In Marge We Trust" (4718, 27/04/1997). One sequence shows us how the constant nagging of Reverend Lovejoy by Ned Flanders leads to the reverendís eventual apathy. Ned rings Lovejoy for all manner of insignificant matters for which he wants to know what God would want him to do. When Nedís wife Maude dies in "Alone Again Natura-Didily" (episode number BABF10, first broadcast 13/02/2000) he questions the workings of God. For a moment his true feelings come to the surface and he declares, in opposition to the fate he has been handed, that he may never go to church again. The next scene shows Ned speeding to church looking up into the sky repeatedly saying "Iím sorry, Iím sorry, Iím sorry".
We can see the difference in the authenticity of Homer and Ned the respective repressions they place on their day to day living. In an attempt to highlight this inequality of authenticity, The Simpsons uses one particular comic device, irony. Golomb explains the use of this specific type of irony:
as regards to authenticity, the effect of a particular type of irony is especially important. I refer to the irony that indirectly casts doubt on the validity of prevailing values and thereby arrests or lessens the readerís motivation to continue upholding them. This effect is achieved by the simulated adoption of anotherís point of view for the purpose of ridicule (Golomb, 1995, p. 27).
Here the Homer/Ned opposition is explained clearly. The Simpsons consciously juxtaposes the undogmatic, irrational and hedonistic ways of Homer Simpson against the nervous, sheltered and the far too clean-cut characteristics of Ned Flanders with the aim of showing Homer as having a better design for life. Whilst Homer is idiotic and boorish his ways still come off as more desirable when compared to Flanders for the sole reason that they are Homerís ways. The fact that Homer has chosen his ways - despite them often lacking in logic - makes him more likable than Flanders who is often coerced by his dogma into doing things. Homerís belief in God is just a matter of convenience to him, it doesnít really affect his decision making, it just means that he has to go to church on Sunday to go to heaven, during the week he can be selfish, rude and totally unreasonable without arousing the displeasure of God. On the other side of the fence Flanderís religion dominates his decision-making. The Flandersí church is but a small fragment of the ways of God. His behaviour all week long is devoted to the word of the bible and the sermon. His is easily forgiving, easily trusting and naive beyond belief - all to a ridiculous extent. In essence Homer is erratic, acting how his heart dictates whereas Ned is dogmatic, acting how God dictates.
This difference can be explained, or perhaps developed, a step further. If we turn to Pascalís The Wager we can see the possible reasons or motives behind these degrees of authenticity. However, before we begin we must realise that The Wager concerns itself with two variables, belief and stake. The first is whether or not one believes in God. The second, the stake, is what the individual is prepared to sacrifice for the sake of the belief. As Pascal discusses it, the decision to believe or not to believe in God is a wager in that the individual must sacrifice a part of themself in order to reap the eventual gain, thus completing the wager. However, as the individual becomes more endowed within the realm of the faithful their wager becomes less and less of a loss. It is not an alcoholic giving up drinking for the afterlife or a gambler quitting to gamble for the sake of heaven. It is an individual who slowly grows to believe in a dogma for the sake of the reward. As Pascal sees it the individual, once they have immersed themselves in the dogma for long enough, will come to believe it.
More specifically he states:
let us then examine this point, and let us say: ĎEither God is or he is not.í But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make your choice either, reason cannot prove either wrong (1966, p. 150).
We understand that since Godís existence is not a matter of fact, that is, we cannot simply recount a handful of proven reasons that lead us to the undeniable fact of his existence - or non-existence for that matter Ė the wager involves risk and sacrifice no matter which option you choose. Sticking with the idea of the authentic, either you risk the way you want to live your life (your authenticity) or you risk the chance of heaven after death by not obeying Godís proposed design. The exception to this rule is that the will of the individual comes into complete union with Godís laws.
However, Pascalís theory seems to imply that authenticity comes through self deception; that authenticity is a matter of training the self to believe what you would prefer to believe in. For Pascal the idea of loving the dogma which gives you the chance of "winning" the afterlife or heaven is paramount rather than living your life in accordance with your self. Pascal encourages the individual to try and accept the dogma with the hope of gaining the final prize, a kind of fraudulent faith if you like.
In many ways the wager is like a spiritual safety net. Pascal basically suggests that belief in God can be seen as like a lotto jackpot. For example, if I choose not to believe in God then I get the reward of being able to do what I want, but if I choose to believe in God then I forgo acting as my whims tell me to in order to have a chance of winning the ultimate prize (this being heaven). Flanders has accepted the wager, holding out for the jackpot. At times Homer is between the two but ultimately allows his desires to rule the day. Flanders stakes all for his belief but Homer stakes nothing for his own, whilst they both believe their risks are polar opposites: all and nothing.
Of course, this theory only works without evidence of Godís existence. For example, if there was some form of evidence that God existed, say through a miracle, then the uncertainty that the wager entertains would be made redundant. However, this is not relevant for The Simpsons as a serious, bonafide miracle is never witnessed or experienced by any of the characters and it seems as if Ned has no proof for his belief in God with the degree to which he often questions his faith.
The two sides of this wager come into direct interaction in the episode titled "Viva Ned Flanders" (episode number AABF06, first broadcast 1/10/1999). The story is rather simple: it is revealed that Ned is 60 and it becomes apparent that he has been holding back his entire life. He reveals he manages to remain so youthful by resisting "all the major urges". The following dialogue takes place in the Springfield church:
Marge: Youíve never splurged and, say, eaten an entire birthday cake and blamed it on the dog?
Ms Krapabble: Youíve never licked maple syrup of your loverís stomach?
Bart: [holding a crowbar, sticking his head out of the church window] Youíve never snuck out of church to break into cars?
Ned: No, no and double no! You name it, I havenít done it."
Homer: Geeze Ned. Youíre 60 years old and you havenít lived a day in your life.
Carl: Yea even the boy in the bubble had a deck of cards.
It becomes clearly apparent that Ned has been surpressing himself due to his Christian dogma. He resisted "all the major urges" not from a desire to resist them but because doing so was in accordance with his adopted belief system. This point is proved further when he asks Homer to teach him his "intoxicating lust for life."
As mentioned earlier, Homer, whilst believing in the existence of God, declines to place his stake, he risks nothing. For Homer God just exists; he is there to ask when he needs a favour, he is there to yell at when things arenít going his way. God is not so much an influence in Homerís life but rather a reference point for all the good and the bad things in his life, someone to make responsible for the incidents that happen but not one who is consciously allotted fate. As a result, Homerís actions lie outside of the cause and effect of Godís ways. In Las Vegas Homer teaches Ned to drink excessively, gamble, trash a hotel room as well as giving him his first taste of blood-lust. Waking up the morning after a huge bender, Ned exclaims:
Ned: I have a pounding headache, my mouth tastes like vomit and I
donít remember a thing.
Homer: Welcome to my world
Ned: I did it! I conquered my fears and made up for a lot of lost living.
Ned is overjoyed with his experience until the two of them realise they have married a couple of cocktail waitresses in a seedy marriage registry. Eventually they escape their situation unharmed and Ned is truly in the world of Homer where following oneís heartsí desires leads into unpredictable fates. Like tossing a coin, sometimes you loose, sometimes you win. However next week, just like every previous week, Ned has no desire to act rashly or impulsively, he returns to the strict, clean living, God-fearing man he always will be. Again he wagers all.
No one could argue that Nedís taste of Homerís lifestyle leaves him with a sour taste in his mouth, making him reluctant to try it again. However, this is never stated and no reason is given for it. It cannot be argued that Nedís desires are Godís desires for Ned - thus providing the authentic exception to Pascalís Wager. For example, if a person chooses to perform an action ĎXí not because they feel bound by their own religion but because they truly believe that ĎXí is the ethical, moral and correct path of behaviour, then they are as every bit authentic as the next man. However, I suggest that Ned Flanders fails to consistently uphold this notion. When Nedís wife dies he makes a vow never to go to church again, the next scene shows Ned speeding to church, looking up to the sky and repenting quickly, "Iím sorry, Iím sorry, Iím sorry". Not a sign of noble faith, but a sign of fear.
The difference between the authentic believer and the inauthentic believer lies in their view of the object of belief, for example, the difference between believing in God and fearing him and believing in God and respecting him. For a person who fears God will not live by the will of their heart as they are feared into action not thrust into it by their own free will. Meanwhile, the believer who is freed from fear will be open to question Godís laws whilst not defaming them. In many respects Nedís faith is quite similar to the faith displayed by Abraham in the Bible. When God commands Abraham to kill his only and much beloved son Isaac he agrees, only to be spared performing the deed at the last second. Abrahamís faith was based on fear, as God later says himself to Abraham, "for now I know that you fear God, for you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." (Genesis, 22:12). Both Ned and Abraham hold belief in God grounded in fear, they fear Godís vengeance and as such follow his perceived dogma. The holder of such faith has no choice in the matter because of their faith, whereas the person who believes but is not fearfully obedient to God can question this demand.
The strategy of Ned and the tactics of Homer can be analysed a step further. This correlation between the designs of faith supported by Ned and Abraham is worth examining further. Søren Kierkegaardís Fear and Trembling is an essay concerning itself with the nature of Abraham, in particular the nature of the religious man in contrast to the ethical man. This work is one of several written by Kierkegaard concerned with three major character types and the evolution from one to the next.
For Kierkegaard the first general character type is the aesthete:
the aesthete is a person who lives for the interesting; he wants entertainment and variety in his life, and he seeks to avoid boredom as the worst evil that can overtake him (Magill, 1990, p. 376).
The aesthetic individual is essentially a hedonist, looking for stimulation and satisfaction without boredom. They are not interested in long term plans, they live for the moment, almost on whim. Homerís tactic of listening to his impulses is a prime example of what Kierkegaard regarded as the aesthete.
On the opposite end of the chain, Kierkegaard described the man of religion. He described the religicist as a person whose role is to obey God, the example he uses is Abraham. For this man, behaviour is dictated not by desires but by the word of God, just like Abraham, "He left behind his worldly understanding and took with him his faith." (1985, p. 50). For this character Godís will is what should be done, their entire purpose is to follow the path of religion. It is quite obvious that this is a perfect description of Ned Flanders, existing for religion.
If Homer is the authentic, pleonexic, half-hearted believer (aesthete) and Ned Flanders is the God loving man devoted to the Bible (religicist), then where do the other citizens of Springfield lie? In many way it is the Simpson women mother Marge and daughter Lisa who represent a halfway state between the extremes of Ned and Homer. In particular, Lisa is a devout theist like Ned, although not nearly as extremist, and she lives by her own codes of ethics and morality. She is the authentic believer, respecting the authority of God but never living in fear of it.
This leads us into the idea of the ethicist, the third character type Kierkegaard discusses and the one he sees as lying somewhere in-between the aesthete and the religicist. Essentially, "the ethicist lives for the sake of doing his [or her] duty; he replaces the interesting versus the boring with the good versus the bad" (Magill, 1990, p. 376). The ethicist lives in accordance with the ethical boundaries of the society in which they exist and their own person. For example, the ethicist would not necessarily perform the acts of the religicist. If Abraham were a ethicist like Lisa then he would never have taken Isaac Moriíah. He would have dismissed Godís claim as unethical and therefore wrong. As Kierkegaard explains, "but Abraham had faith and did not doubt. He believed the ridiculous" (1985, p. 54), Lisa, being an ethicist refuses to believe the ridiculous, she believes the ethically correct and morally righteous.
It is true that Lisa believes in God but she is by no means a religicist. For example, she doesnít believe in angels (unlike her mother), yet she makes a point of abiding by the ethics of the Ten Commandments. In particular in "Homer Versus Lisa and the 8th Commandment" (episode number 7F13, first broadcast 07/02/1991) she takes a stand against the prevailing opinion of her family in refusing to reap the benefits of free (that is, stolen) cable television. Lisa makes distinctions between right and wrong rather than what is condoned by God and not condoned by God. Her ethical mind set is apparent in many of her social stances. She is anti-firearms, actively fights against political and social corruption, she is involved in recycling and is a devout vegetarian.
The difference in these characters exists in what they hold dear, and it is this that The Simpsons chooses to criticise. It is undeniable that the entire Flanders family is held up for mockery, primarily because of their faith. Gouwens discusses the concept of faith:
ĎFaithí is obedience in a life of discipleship following Christ as Pattern...Therefore, faith is not only holding beliefs concerning him (true as that is), nor is it a timeless communion between the believer and Christ, but is rather a matter of following or imitating Christís life (1996, p. 140).
It is not faith per se that is ridiculed here; it is a type of faith. It is the virtually blind, totally accepting, never seriously questioned faith of people who fear God and act accordingly.
Lisa Simpson, on the other hand, holds a more favourable manifestation of faith. She believes but also questions each social issue not on Godís terms but in the terms of the ethical or the "universalí as Kierkegaard refers to it (1985, p. 83). Lisa does not fear ethics, she is informed by them. They do not coerce her into action. They advise and she willingly accepts out of a desire, not to please God, but to fulfill the ideal of the good.
This is again different to the psyche of the aesthete who, whilst having the capacity to be selfish, irresponsible and hedonistic, is admired because of their freedom. Homer is a slave to nothing. He embraces his desires, and occasionally willingly sacrifices his pleasures for what he deems to be a greater good. Whilst he possesses several characteristics that are viewed as deplorable in the real world, he is to be admired more than the religicist, for Homer is free and Ned is caged.
In short, The Simpsons does not say that theism is undesirable; it merely puts forward the idea that blind obedience to dogma and lack of awareness towards the self are undesirable qualities in modern western society. Within The Simpsons God is portrayed as existing and religious exercises such as going to church are pictured as the social norm.
In terms of the community the shows suggests that belief in a higher being aids in the general moral fibre of society inasmuch as it promotes love and respect towards fellow humans. This is an interesting notion which conflicts with the Camusian notion of humanism being an inherent quality of mankind (of course with the exception of evil doers).
However, despite this clearly positive opinion on religion and the community, it is through the portrayal of individual characters that The Simpsons makes a much more specific comment on the ways of dogma. Unlike Kierkegaard who saw human growth as a three step process from aesthetics to ethics and finally to religion, The Simpsons sees the religicist as a repressed, God-fearing man, obedient to Godís laws out of fear of vengeance rather than desire. It holds the aesthete (Homer) up in comparison to the religicist (Ned) and paints him in more favourable light, not because of what he does but because he wants to it. The aesthete is shown as a more authentic person, living life with a tactic relative to the situation he find himself within, whereas the religicist has adopted a strategy which allows no leeway, no randomness and more often than not no autonomy. The aesthete is the author of his own tactic where as the religicist accepts the strategy written by God: Ned does not dictate his strategy, for that would make it a tactic.
Of all the characters the show contains perhaps Lisa is the most exemplary. She has a strong notion of ethics and dispenses educated and intelligent advice with Confucius-like aura. She believes in God and respects him but is not obedient to anotherís strategy. Whilst it is true that she does live life with a strategic mind set, there is an important difference: she is the author of her strategy and is capable of changing it upon the revelation of new information or experience, meanwhile Ned has accepted Godís strategy, which will never change, which has no capacity to develop with time as it is etched in stone.
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I would like to thank Rita Rizzeri for her support throughout the last year. Matthew Harris for lending me his indispensable Simpsons episode guide. John Pardo whose jamming sessions were a blessed relief from the world of text books and theories. My fellow honors students, especially Gorana Mlinarevic and Craig Murrihy, who were also a source of regular support. Rod Giblett, who without his help, this thesis would be riddled with grammatical errors. And anyone else who did the slightest thing to guide me one word closer to completing this document. Finally I would like to thank Carlton and United Breweries, Jamesons Irish Whiskey, Nick Drake, the Manic Street Preachers, Noel Gallagher, the Carlton Football Club and the creators of The Simpsons for offering me the little pleasures they gave me during the last few years of my life.
Use of Thesis
A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Award of Bachelor of Communications (Honors) Media Studies. At the Faculty of Communications, Health and Science, Edith Cowan University, Mt Lawley, Australia.
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© James L. Hall, 24 November 2000
Last updated on April 1, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (email@example.com)