THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SIMPSONS
What next? The largest media audiences in the 21st century are Seinfeld and Rush Limbaugh. The most powerful lobbies in Washington, D.C. are the National Association of Education, Labor Unions, the Lesbian/Homosexual Agenda, and the Media
The cultural indicators expressed by the “popular success” of Seinfeld, Limbaugh, the movies of “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of The Rings” reveal enormous cultural divergency. Since the Simpsons are the most famous animated family in media, perhaps a brief trek down the yellow brick road of the spiritual life of this dysfunctional family will get positive evaluation and Christian direction of our attention to media.
Is this famous T.V. family supportive or subversive to the Christian faith? The late Charles Schulz, the author of The Gospel According to Peanuts, said that “I’ve never been much of a T.V. watcher, it’s against my religion,” but Mark Pinsky (cf. The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spirited Life of the World’s Most Animated Family (Westminster, 2001), has made me at least a partial convert. I was blind, but now I see that in the Simpsons there is goodness galore, intelligence, hilarious writing, insight, telling social criticism and commentary and plenty of helpful hints for spiritually challenged people like me.”
There has been radical change in the presentation of the American family from Father Knows Best, Father of The Bride, It’s A Wonderful Life, Married with Children, Seinfeld, Archie Bunker, Sitcoms and Significant others. The Simpsons, unlike most media, modifies a deep hostility to values of mid-American Christians. In our postmodern culture’s diverse ways of behavior, there are signs that the Simpsons often overcome the “lifeboat ethics”/situational ethics of our post Christian culture. They often go to Church. Homer even overcomes temptations like adultery and taking advantage of illegal cable T.V. hook-ups. For primetime media, this is at least marvellous. The often outrageous dysfunctional family (cf. Seinfeld) too often mirrors the families of many Church members.
There cannot be revival in the Churches until there is revival in the families of the Churches. Often times ludicrous and obnoxious behavior cannot transcend the lampooning format in order to avoid criticism. The “social gospel” emphasis often removes the possibility of “mystical” or a pietistic element while often strongly emphasizing humanistic moralism.
On the surface, the Simpsons portray an outrageously dysfunctional “red-necked” family in the Bible Belt, but often their beliefs and behaviours are like many Church members. Both virtues and hypocrisies are often fused. Homer Simpson’s next door neighbor, Ned Flanders, is perhaps an evangelical Christian who is on a mission and perhaps just returned from “Promise Keepers.” He is aggressive, ludicrous and obnoxious, but always seeking to bring his neighbors to Christ. The writers of The Simpsons are politically correct by not offending people of other faith systems. Ned Flanders preaches the gospel of good works and constantly supports “God openness.” Everyone in every belief can do good works and God will count the good deed and weight them against evil. Of course, media critics vehemently affirm that The Simpsons are entertainment and not a religious show written by the Billy Graham Association.
But whether it is Harry Potter’s pantheistic, magic New Ageism or The Simpsons, mere entertainment is impossible and very subject to Freudianism subliminal communication. Some of us cannot accept the claim that all sitcoms are merely lampoons where everyone looks silly. But Neil Postman is surely more on target than post modern excusers of the “mere entertainment” syndrome. We are “Amusing Ourselves To Death” in our visibility culture. When a culture loses the power of words all that remains are ambiguous images where each member of the reading or listening audience is his or her own interpreter. Nietzsche redividius claims that “all interpretation is misinterpretation.” Meaning is no longer decoded from the author’s text but encoded from the psyche of the observer. Ned always comes out of life’s experiences (his wife dying, etc.,) as a believer. While Lisa Simpson exemplifies the “social justice requirement” and “humanistic moralism,” she is cynical about most T.V. evangelists, faith healers and their ministries of miracles. Lisa strongly emphasizes Micah 6.8, “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Lisa is for the “underdog.”
For Homer, Church has nothing to do with “worship.” Its value is to teach moral lessons to children of all ages. Clearly the gospel according to The Simpsons is an effort to live out the Christian faith in our post modern diversity and tolerance culture.
Pinsky’s work (the Gospel According to The Simpsons) exposes some of the best and worst in post modern America religious life. Perhaps this fair examination of Pinsky’s work lies somewhere between “dumb” and “valueless.” The Simpsons have been evaluated as abrasive and abominable. What has made The Simpsons so popular and durable ?? Only Touched By An Angel vies for larger audience portions than The Simpsons. Too often, too many people go to Church in front of the holiest of holies, the T.V., tuned into the Fox network.
TIME magazine called The Simpsons the twentieth century’s best television show and the entertainment industry placed a star on Hollywood Boulevard for them. In 2001, The Simpsons appear as the cover story of both Christianity Today and The Christian Century. LIFE magazine in a story entitled, “The Shows That Changed America: Sixty Years of Network Television,” called The Simpsons the “Millennium family unit: struggle, sceptical, disrespectful, ironic, hopeful. . . The Simpsons verify our country’s strength.” What? The Simpsons occupy the same stratosphere of respect in the annals of American humor, along with Will Rogers and Mark Twain (Robert Thompson, “The Orlando Sentinel” December 2, 2002)
All of this ballyhoo started in 1987 with thirty, two-minute vignettes that ran between segments of The Tracy Ullman Show on Fox Television Network. The family was created by cartoonist Matt Groening. The Simpsons are a lower, middle class family living in the town of Springfield in an unidentified state (Matt Groening, The Simpson Guide to Springfield (NY: Harper/Collins, 1998).
Groening’s guide provides a character analysis. (1) Father, Homer, bald and overweight, with a weakness for beer, pork chops, television and donuts. Employed as a safety inspector at the local nuclear power plant. Named for character of the same name in Nathaniel West’s Hollywood classic, Day of The Locust. (2) Mother, Marge, (same first name of Groening’s mother, a long-suffering, stay-at-home mom with a towering beehive of blue hair. () Son, Bart (an anagram for “brat”), a ten year-old with a world class attitude and a stand-in for Matt. (4) Daughter, Lisa, (name of a Groening sister) a good-hearted and gifted eight-year old, usually dressed in a strapless red frock and a string of Barbara Bush pearls around her neck. (5) Baby Maggie, (name of another sister) who does not speak and is rarely seen without her pacifier. The Simpsons were originally placed in the suicide slot on Thursday night, opposite the highly acclaimed Cosby Show and then number one in the ratings. The contrast between the two families could hardly be more radical! Imagine Beaver Cleaver or the Waltons in a Bart Simpson world in mortal conflict between child rearing concepts.
But The Simpsons won out. Cosby, Cleavers and The Waltons are at least marginalized or totally absent from public access. The animated but not caricatured characters of The Simpsons affirm God’s existence, which is not questioned in Springfield. William Romanowski, in his book, Pop Culture Works: Religion and The Role of Entertainment in American Life (InterVarsity Press, 1996) found that “The Simpsons is not dismissive of faith, but treats religion as an integral part of American life. Episodes generally leave the matter of God and religion open to multiple interpretation, perhaps so as not to potentially alienate audience members, but also as a reflection of American attitudes.” David Bruce, a web master of Hollywood ?? .com, claims that The Simpsons are “the best Christian family on television.” This may be true, but it clearly consistently represents most modern dysfunctionalism (ala Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond). As normative, The Simpsons are still widely interpreted as expressing American family life as exuberant and absurd.
Yet, the accolades continue to pour in--Christian humor magazine, The Door, said, “There is more spiritual wisdom in one episode of The Simpsons than there is in an entire season of Touched by An Angel (The Door), Nov/Dec, 1999).
As Neil Postman wrote in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public discourse in the age of Show Business, religion on television, “like everything else presented, quite simply and without apology, as . . .entertainment.” (See my schematic chart of Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death) In the book, God In Detail: American Religion in Popular Culture by Mazar and McCarty, eds.,(NY: Routledge, 2000), Homer fulfils the role of the American spiritual wanderer. Though linked culturally to biblical tradition, he regularly engages a mosaic of other traditions, theologies and moral codes. . . . His comic antics remind us that the making of meaning is even an unfinished business, and that humor and irony go a long way toward securing and sustaining the endeavor.
In a 1992 episode, it is cold Sunday morning and “Homer the Heretic splits his pants, so he decides not to go to Church. Homer proposes that “God is everywhere” and is always asking “How does God want to be worshipped?” How often have we heard that God can be worshipped while we play golf, go fishing, or watch religious programs on Sunday? Yes or No! This does not represent God’s revelation in scriptures.
At Springfield Community Church, where the furnace has broken, the other members of The Simpson family are warmed only by Reverend Lovejoy’s sermons on Hell and Judgment, while Homer is home in a warm shower. Homer’s decision to abandon Church intensifies a theological debate in the Simpson household. At Church the next Sunday the episode was entitled, “When Homer Met Satan.” The devil’s seductive incarnation appears and cries out, “Jesus,” “Allah,” “Buddha,” -- I love you all.”
Each episode of The Simpsons begins with a fleeting sequence featuring Bart in the classroom after school, writing and rewriting an admonition on the blackboard, surely punishing him for misbehavior that day. In an episode in 2000 Bart writes, “I was not touched by an angel,” a dig at Simpsons’ competition on another channel. In the case of the Easter Sunday show (1999) Bart writes “I cannot absolve sins.” In the episode following Easter Sunday, there is no mention of the crucifixion or resurrection. Jesus is often used to take pot shots at commercialism and Christmas. A storefront sign proclaims, “In honor of the birth of our Savior, Try-N-Save is open all day Christmas.” Outside the Church on the same 1999 Easter show, the sign reads, “Christ Dyed Eggs For Our Sins.” Homer is always hazier on the nature of Jesus and Christianity than he is about God. Too often The Simpson concur with John Lennon’s celebrated boast--“I am bigger than Jesus.” It is important in our entertainment culture that the emphasis on humor is important. As long ago as Eldon Trueblood’s book, The Humor of Christ (NY: Harper, 1964) the emphasis on Christian humor has been a consideration in our Christian culture. But trying to portray Jesus as a humorous character in an animated comedy is a long way from The Divine Comedy. Classical comedy meant that the good will prevail against evil, not what the post modern entertainment syndrome proposes.
THE PRAYER LIFE OF THE SIMPSONS
The prayer life of The Simpsons takes the form of blessings at mealtimes, including grace over take-out fast food. Often the prayers are perfunctory, as in Bart’s “Rub-a-dub-dub, Thanks for the grub” and Homer’s “Good drink, good meat, good God, let’s eat.”
Let’s take a trip to Willow Creek Community Church, the mega Church in South Burlington, Illinois. Lee Strobel, a former journalist at the Chicago Tribune, who became a teaching pastor at Willow Creek, used the expressed prayer of the Simpson clan to introduce a sermon entitled, “What Jesus Would Say to Bart Simpson” (Lee Strobel, What Jesus Would Say (Zondervan, 1994). Strobel explained Bart’s grace as “an exaggerated look at life from a kid’s perspective, with a kernel of truth at its core.” Strobel uncovers Bart’s lack of inhibition in that Bart says things that other people only think. When he prays, “why should we thank you God--we bought this ourselves,” people recoil in horror. . . . they never say it, but don’t many people live their lives with this attitude, that they’ve earned what they’ve received and that God really had nothing to do with it?” So, in ways, Bart is merely more honest than most.” Marge Simpson expresses a prayer in the form of a bargain--“Dear God, this is Marge Simpson. If you stop this hurricane and save our family, we will be forever grateful and recommend you to all of our friends.” The Springfield church is a praying congregation, especially for the nuclear power plant. They even pray for Homer’s pet monkey, Majo. Intercessory prayer is rare in the series, but the warning is set apart--“toxic prayer.” We often engage Lisa, the sister, saying a scoffing prayer, the last refuge of the scoundrel, which echoes the sentiments of many post modern auditors of The Simpsons.
Bart continues listing God’s alternatives: “A teacher’s strike, a power failure, a blizzard. . .anything that will cancel school tomorrow. He continues to express his concept of prayer by praying to Santa on Christmas Eve. “If you bring me lots of good stuff I promise not to do anything bad between now and when I wake up.”
The mutual hostility between post modern secular culture and Christianity is the context of the national conflict over moral values pops up frequently in the series (a suicide of an Enron vice president exposer) or some such situation--do evil people corrupt institutions or do institutions corrupt individuals, e.g. the emphasis on Genetic/Environmental determinism in our legal and social theories. If there was ever an example of compartmentalizing their belief and behavior systems, The Simpsons are a supreme expression--extra-terrestrials are humans too (Wendy Kaminen, Sleeping With Extra Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and The Perils of Piety (NY: Vintage Books, 2000).
CAN WE BE TOO MORAL?
Lisa is exactly what Bart is not. She is a conscientious student while her brother is a slacker. She is so reliable the Reverend Lovejoy advertises her baby-sitting availability from the pulpit. When the family is caught up in a cult, it is Lisa who resists the group’s mind control, noting that while they toil in the groups’ fields, the cult leader tools around in a Rolls Royce. Unlike much that goes on around him, this does not escape Homer’s attention--“There’s something wrong with that kid,” he says. “She’s so moral.” Pressed for income tax deductions, he lists Lisa’s occupation as “clergy.”
The Simpsons’ next door neighbor, Ned Flanders, is an exemplar of evangelical Christianity. Lisa represents the essence of mainline denominations, with their commitment to a socially conscious gospel and rational religious humanism (for thematic content see Wm. Irwin, ed., The Simpsons and Philosophy: The Daoh of Homer (Open Court Press, 2001). “Lisa’s acute sense of moral duty is compared to the self-assured, institutionally based morality of Flanders, confident in the authority of his Bible and Church. Lisa’s morality arises out of precocious personal reflection on the great themes of moral life: truthfulness, helping others in need, a commitment to human equality and justice. . . . Lisa focuses attention on inescapable moral principles and makes people uneasy with the conventional compromises. Hence, she is typically isolated and suffers intensely from her isolation.” (Ibid., Simpsons and Philosophy)
Lawler argues that Lisa is motivated not by religion but by the moral theory of the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and his “Categorical Imperative.” Some believe that he was often influenced by Karl Marx. This represents post modern revolution from Science and The Enlightenment, Kant, constructivism (origin of contextualism in social sciences and cultural, epistemological relativism).
This analysis smacks like post modern deconstructionism but for the biblical foundation of Lisa’s faith. Her words often parallel those of Jesus (note Kant, Marx, Lyotard, DeMann, Fish, Rorty, et.al.). (1) Lisa’s words support the poor, the powerless and the down trodden and is critical of the rich (not Marxian criticism of capitalistic Democracy). In Springfield, Lisa encounters street people/slums, needy children and families. (2) Lisa questions the “received wisdom” regardless of how unpopular such questioning might be. Little Miss Springfield denounces the tobacco industry and college football as a drain on the badly needed funds for education and the arts. Her confrontations cost her the tiara.
In Washington, D.C., Lisa participates in a patriotic essay competition. Her oratory was against a political plot to cut down a national forest in Springfield for timber. Ultimately, her oratorical attacks cost her the competition award, which went to a Vietnamese immigrant whose essay celebrated his family’s triumph over adversity in the United States. (3) Lisa believes in the concept of stewardship of the earth and its resources and defends the rights of God’s lesser beings. She is a committed environmentalist and vegetarian (e.g. Springfield’s “Whacking Day”). (4) Lisa takes pity on scorned individuals offering solace and affection for the unloved.
Lisa is “the avatar of logic and wisdom” (see John Heerin's The Simpsons and Philosophy). Her character expresses both good and bad that can often grate on you. She is often not convincing as an eight-year-old--adult! Lisa’s relationship to “God” is less direct than those of the other characters, e.g. Margie, Flanders and Homer. Marge declares to her that. “If you can’t make a leap of faith now and then, well, I feel sorry for you. You can either accept science and face reality, or you can be an angel and live in a childish dream world.” Lisa is always carrying the banner of Christian activism, agitating for civil rights, peace, gender equality, economic justice, gun control, environmental protection and nuclear arms control. In our post modern maze, Lisa is not an anomaly.
IDENTITY CRISIS ON AMERICAN CAMPUSES--BOTH HIGH SCHOOL/COLLEGE
How to express a living faith in Christ on our campuses is a vital question. In our superficial trek we will take notice of two models: (1) Ned Flanders and (2) a family named Scheibner. In our post modern culture, where Promise Keepers are for backsliders, what public image can we express to a sceptical, cynical audience who live in Springfield? Perhaps the most popular name associated with Christianity in the 21st century is not Mother Teresa or Billy Graham; instead it is a goofy looking guy named Ned Flanders.
Perhaps the most infamous post modern lexicon stereotype of fundamentalist Christians is that of Michael Wersskopts’ designation in The Washington Post as a group of people that is “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” (Ventura County Star, “The Gospel According to Homer” by Tom Kissler, September of 1999). How many times have we heard this from left wing politicians on media?
DEMOGRAPHIC IMAGES OF EVANGELICALS
“If everyone were like Ned Flanders, there’d be no need for heaven.” Homer Simpson’s next door neighbor is the evangelical known most intimately to non evangelicals. His moustache, thick glasses, sweater, and irrepressibly cheerful demeanor have made him an indelible figure. The image of fundamental evangelicals is heterogeneous in their beliefs, politics, and lifestyles; they are easily recognized in Ned and his family as their own. Gerry Bowler, (Canadian Nazarene College in Calgary, Chairman of The Center for Study of Christianity and Contemporary Values) says that perhaps too many Christians have made Ned the character as character as “mainstream evangelical.” (quoted in Les Sillars, “The Last Christian T.V. Family in America,” Alberta Report, Oct. 21, 1996).
Ned believes that a good life is a “daily dose of Vitamin Church.” Harry Shearer, the actor who provides the voice for Flanders, said in a Texas magazine interview, “His spirituality is slightly deeper than the plaques that are on sale in the Dallas/Fort World airport that have various spiritual slogans printed on them (Harry Shearer’s interview in The Door, Feb/May/June, 1999). Ned’s parents were “freaky beatniks” who ruled their son with no rules at all. Ned’s character expresses reaction to their chaotic and unstructured environment (e.g. the Counter Culture of the 1960s/1990s; see my paper, “The Counter Culture: Youth Culture to Generation X; the gurus of the Counter Culture were Marcuse, Reich, Roszak, Toffler, Ferguson).
Ned’s Christianity is the basis for his raising his sons. Remembering the structureless world of his hippie parents, he often goes to extremes in disciplining them. He typically reads bedtime stories to them and declares that all who read Harry Potter “went straight to hell for practicing witchcraft.” In this context other children are often building pipe bombs to blow up a Planned Parenthood Center. He is happy when the children have games to play, i.e., Billy Graham’s “Bible Blasters.” He believes that the network slogan is true! “Watch Fox and be damned for all eternity.”
When Bart becomes a faith healer who draws away most of the congregation, only the Flanders family remains faithful to Springfield Community Church. Flanders regularly represents the dark side of evangelical Christianity where evangelism means never take “no” for an answer. There is also a sustained conflict over baptism. The Simpson scenario illustrates the seriousness of the conflict. In Springfield, the involuntary rite is interrupted just at the moment of immersion by Homer, who saves Bart from being saved by being baptized himself.
Ned is amazed at the turn around of his neighbor Homer, who replies, “Oh, Bartholomew, I feel like Saint Augustine of Hippo after his conversion by Ambrose of Milan.” The controversy continues. True evangelism does not happen when people are tricked.” Sure enough, Homer’s glow subsides and he returns to his natural state, snapping “I said, shut your ugly face, Flanders.” For his part, Ned makes no apology or explanation for this breach as he has in the past for lesser faux pas.
Ned Flanders has undergone several major crises of faith, each has shaken the belief that is central to his life. (1) Love--being a good neighbor. Homer often defends Ned, describing him correctly as a kind, wonderful, caring man who has “turned every cheek on his body” in the face of Homer’s insults. “If everyone here were like Ned Flanders, there’d be no need for heaven. We’d already be there.”
(2) Loss--a hurricane occurs in Springfield. Miraculously, the storm spares everyone except the Flanders’ house, which is reduced to rubble. Ned doesn’t believe in insurance (a case of gambling) but his friends rebuild his house. But, despite their good intentions, the new structure collapses immediately. In the face of all his trials, Ned is unsatisfied with the preacher’s and Church’s response. When Ned finds no satisfaction in his faith, he blows his top, denouncing his friends and finally ends up in the Calmwood hospital, a mental institution, seeking a secular explanation and relief.
(3) Love and Loss--In early 2000, following a dispute over money with Maggie Roswell, the actress who provides the voice of Maude, the series killed Ned’s wife in a freak accident which knocked her from the top of an auto racing stadium. Although Homer is accidentally responsible, Ned blames himself, and is crushed and bereft at the death of his beloved. After the funeral, no one can comfort him. While Ned runs through a gamut of grieving emotions, Homer states the obvious, that he will have to work through his own grief.
The Simpson journey has taken us through the fundamentalist evangelism controversies and conflicts over Beanie Babies, Pokeman and Harry Potter books. There is still no consensus about the similarities and differences between the Flanders and the Scheibners.
THE DEMISE OF THE HOLLYWOOD FILM PRODUCTION CODE OF THE 1930S
In the past seven decades there have been enormous cultural challenges in America’s social structure. It will never be the same after 9.11.2001. Let’s hear again for the first time--no film or episode in film should be allowed to throw ridicule on any religious faith honestly maintained. Ministers of religion or their characters as ministers should not be used in comedy as villains or as unpleasant persons. The reason for this is not that there are no such ministers of religion but because the attitude toward them would be a loss of respect toward religion in general.
It seems that the portrayal of the Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, minister of the Springfield Community Church, stands the 1930 Hollywood code on its head. Lovejoy presides over weddings and funerals, and performs an exorcism when Lisa is possessed by the spirit of Madonna. The preacher’s name is a foil, personifying many of the failings of organized religion and Christian conservatism. He is portrayed as a shallow, intolerant windbag. The impact of this “character” is clear in the popular Norwegian rock group called “Reverend Lovejoy.”
Sam Simon, Matt Groening and James Brooks, who shaped the show, were adamant that they were not trying to make Lovejoy a hypocritical preacher. But Lovejoy’s family life is “troubled.” For the most part, the preacher provides an example of what a minister should not be, even the context of post modern revisionist models of church leadership (a C.E.O.). There is one positive characteristic of the Springfield Community congregation and that is the absence of significant internal strife. This is amazing in our post modern era of “Church shopping” in our theological cafeteria. Springfield has a “generic pastor.” The critiques of the minister can be even sharper in The Simpson’s merchandise than it is in the series. A CD Rom called “Virtual Springfield” shows a book of Ukrainian erotics and a metal box labelled “hush money” hidden in the preacher’s lectern. The Church is warned away from local cults, secret societies and most of all “from a small group of people who split off from the Presbyterians to worship an “inanimate Carbon Rod.” The members are a diverse group of co-workers from the nuclear power plant, Dr. Mick Rivera, an immigrant and Mae Szyslak, the bartender, who identifies herself as a lifelong snake handler and adherent of Santeria.
The worshippers often sleep and are rarely moved or even involved in the worship services. Though the sign outside the Church building says that every Sunday is a “Super” Sunday, the service is almost deserted on “Super Bowl” Sunday. The outdoor sign features a variety of messages expressing the minister’s “new view of theology,” e.g. “God and The Original Love Connection” - “Sunday the Miracle of Shame” - “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Salvation” - “Private Wedding: Please Worship Elsewhere.” One of the academics in the Christian School has developed the motto of “We Put the Fun in Fundamentalist Dogma.” These are clearly signs expressing the Post Modern Theology of “doing” church! (e.g. Worship Wars, Cultural Wars, Homiletic Wars, Music Wars). Where there is no “True Truth” there is only concern for relevancy to the 21st century audience.
Once the government and The Supreme Court have approved something, it is no longer immoral. What?? Church signs appear and reappear in plain sight. It has promoted the congregation’s Monte Carlo Night and a retreat to Reno, Nevada!
There have been at least three serious challenges to the “pastor” and the Springfield Church: (1) The Cults; (2) New Age beliefs; and (3) Pentecostalism. Passing through the Springfield airport one day, Homer falls into the clutches of a cult called The Movementarias,” who invite him to a free weekend at a local resort. The group believes that a great space ship will transport them to a cosmic paradise called “Blisstonia,” which is reminiscent of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult, whose Southern California members committed mass suicide as they waited to be transported to outer space. For some of these new cults, there is a new canon of sacred literature, such as “Arithmetic the Leaders’ Way” and “Science for Leader Lovers.” Their deadliest weapons against critics are their lawyers.
The entire Simpson family is caught up in a cult that teaches that all religious groups believe the “same things.” Some events create panic in Lovejoy; he comes to believe that a cult is “the real thing.” He rips off his clerical collar, throws it on the ground and stamps on it. Soon Lovejoy realizes that he has abandoned his religion too soon, muttering that he should have stuck with Promise Keepers, the evangelical men’s movement famous for stadium and coliseum rallies. Lovejoy recovers his minister’s collar and returns to his “True Faith.”
A second influence is New Ageism. Brad Goodman, a self-help guru and infomercial star, whose psychobabble video tape has helped ease communications in the Simpson household, comes to Springfield to host one of his “Inner Child” seminars. Most of the community turns out, including the Simpsons. Bart’s wisecracks get him called to the stage. He hails Bart’s dictum, “I do what I feel like,” as a perfect expression of the permissive “situational ethics.” Even Christians like the Flanders family and Reverend Lovejoy are caught up in Goodman’s “feel good” hysteria. A “Do what you feel like” festival dissolves into anarchy. In time, Lovejoy decides, “We’ve made a false idol of this Brad Goodman.”
Thirdly, “Pentecostalism and Charismatic Worship”--A college reunion prank gets Homer and Bart to the “Brother Faith Revival.” Here they found an old-fashioned tent revival complete with folding chairs. They sing and dance and exalt the Holy Spirit, urging worshippers to check out John 2.11 where Jesus turned water into wine. Here we encounter the logic of many other “pragmatic nonbelievers.” “I think I’ll go far--the life of sin followed by a presto-change-o deathbed repentance.”
Back at Springfield Community Church, the preacher and worship services return to their syndrome of boredom. A real preacher knows how to bring the Bible alive through music and dancing. Here we encounter a trenchant criticism of mainline Protestantism. Is worship about substance or simply style, like the “seeker friendly” congregation of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.
Thinking over Brother Faith’s advice, Bart decides to give religious revival a try in a big way by becoming a backyard evangelist, complete with a cape, a plan to work miracles, and a distinctive exhortation--“Satan, eat my shorts.” As a result of Bart’s new influence, only the faithful Flanders family are in the pew. Rev. Lovejoy soon wonders whether it might be time to “fight razzle with dazzle.” But, alas, it is hopeless. As we might expect, Lovejoy’s crisis comes from within his home. The couple’s fifth-grade daughter, Jessica, is a classic PK (preacher’s kid). Her story is likely to strike familiar chords among other “clergy.”
Beyond Springfield’s congregation and its minister, organized religion in general is a target of many of The Simpsons’ heartiest satiric wallops. “The Simpsons implicitly affirms an America in which institutional religion has lost its possibility of authority . . . and where personal expressions have come to dominate popular religious culture.” (Eric M. Mazurs and Kate McCarthy, eds., God in Details: American Religion in Popular Culture (NY: Routledge, 2000).
The Simpsons’ targeted audiences go beyond Springfield. Norman Vincent Peale’s birthplace is destroyed in one of the throwaway sequences. In another, while Homer is dangling naked from a hot air balloon, he drags his rear end along the soaring glass steeple of a Church in plain view of the congregation. The building is very reminiscent of Robert Schuler’s glass menagerie in Orange County, California. “Now, let us thank the Lord for this magnificent crystal cathedral, which allows us to look upon His wondrous creation.” The minister encourages the congregation to “gaze down at God’s fabulous parquet floor. “Eyes on the floor. . .still on the floor. . .always on God’s floor.”
Western missionary experience is the subject of an episode in which Homer, trying to avoid paying a prank pledge to public television, flees aboard a Christian relief flight to a small island in the South Pacific. The ill-prepared missionaries arrive on the island to teach English and preach the “gift of shame.” The Simpson caricature of Western missionaries is surely the eighth century Franciscans in California and American Protestants in Hawaii in the nineteenth century.
THE FATE OF HEAVEN AND HELL IN THE SIMPSONS
From the biblical data on heaven and hell to Doctor Faustus (Dante’s Inferno and Thomas Mann’s vision in Stephen Vincent Benet’s, The Devil and Daniel Webster) heaven and hell have been placed in the category of myth and superstition by modern and post modern theologians alike for well over two centuries. Since the 1980s there has been a vigorous debate emerging among even evangelicals on the nature of hell. Philip E. Hughes resigned as president of Westminster Seminary to write a book supporting his view of “annihilationism (this continues in the “Openness of God” debate of Grenz and Clark Pinnock, et.al., and Origen’s “apocatastase”).
The Simpsons embrace the classical view of heaven and hell. Though they mask their concern in pop culture comedy, there are several efforts to capitalize on an end-of-the-world scare in Springfield. The nature of heaven and hell is a regular topic at Sunday School at Springfield Community Church. This Church is unlike most mainline Protestants in that grace does not enter the discussion--there is clearly a day of judgment and after life in the Simpson theology. (There are only three alternatives regarding this matter: (1) annihilationism, (2) Heaven or Hell, and (3) Universalism (there is a resurgence in the “openness of God” theology).
Perhaps Homer’s possible experience of facing an eternity of bad times is expressed in the room called “Hell’s Labs: Ironic Punishment Division (a cut from Dante’s Inferno) in which Homer is strapped to a chair and force-fed donuts. Homer’s trial that night in the Simpson family home is an adaptation of Stephen Bent’s, The Devil and Daniel Webster. Locked in a flaming cell, Homer has little to say in the proceedings. As in the famous story, the devil here stacks the jury with infamous malefactors, including Benedict Arnold and the pirate Blackbeard. Among the Simpsons’ addition to the panel is Richard Nixon, who addresses Satan as “Master.” Here is an open and shut case and the Grim Reaper is about to flip the switch on Homer. He is saved only when Marge offers as evidence their wedding picture. It contains the unambiguous message--traditional family values: time, love and marriage will save your soul. Here the good works of Simpson theology comes to the fore. Characters in The Simpsons face moral dilemmas, large and small, on a regular basis. Bart lies and steals, almost reflexively (compare Bart with “Dennis the Menace” and the Beaver in “Leave It To Beaver”); Lisa sometimes does not honor her father; Homer covets Ned Flander’s wife and those of his neighbor’s possessions he has not already borrowed; he steals illegal cable television; even saintly Marge becomes addicted to gambling. These are just some of the moral issues (on the Bible and The Simpsons see especially “Public Perceptions About The Bible in The Twenty-first Century” and the recent release of Zondervan on Nov. 15, 2000, Matt Groening, Simpsons’ Guide to Springfield).
To Bart, Homer cites equally spurious biblical authority for afflicting former President George Bush (who had moved to Springfield) with a plague of locusts.
The most detailed representation of the Bible in The Simpsons came in the spring of 1999 in an episode entitled, “Simpson Bible Stories.” Groening joked before its airing that the reason it was written was that executive producer Mike Scully told him the show hadn’t been getting enough angry letters over the evangelical “wedge issue,” i.e., inerrancy of scripture.
It is widely held that the debate over biblical truth of the Good Book is largely beside the point to most believing Christians and Jews who tend to agree that it is divinely inspired and, at the least, a source of practical wisdom and moral instruction. There are scenes in The Simpsons covering Genesis, Exodus, Kings, Samuel, and Revelation concerning the so-called rapture, but always the scripture is searcher-friendly, i.e., used from relevance to the audience, not as a true word from God for all people for all time. They are perhaps more concerned with what is in The Book than the manner in which it was transmitted to the world. Like the characters on the Simpsons, they return to the Bible for support and sustenance, justification and inspiration. For as Homer, says, it is “as true today as when it was written.”
In the midst of the public flap with the Simpsons, surely the original evaluation by William Bennett still stands--there was nothing wrong with Bart “that a Catholic school, a paper route and a couple of soap sandwiches wouldn’t straighten out.” (William Bennett was quoted in the Seattle Times (19,1990); compare with another Catholic, Mark Fischer, as he was quoted in the Ventura County Star, “The Gospel of Homer” by Tom Kissler, September 4, 1999; for the running debate see The Catholic League’s statement of purpose from the Catholic League’s Web Sit. Howard Rosenberg, T.V. critic of the Los Angeles Times--“Fox Does Have Standards--and Double Standards at that.” (Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1999).
Pop Culture Bibliography:
Wm. Domanovski, Pop Culture: Religion and The Role of Entertainment in American Life
InterVarsity Press, 1996, pb.)
John Fleeren, “Religion in The Simpsons.” The Simpsons and Philosophy: The Da’oh of Homer (ed. Wm Irwin, et al) Chicago: Open Court Press, 2001.
Eric Michael Mazur and Kate McCarty, eds. God in The Details: American Religion in Popular
Culture (NY: Routledge, 2001).
Lincoln Christian Seminary
Lincoln, IL 62656