Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Gospel of the Simpsons

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 16, 2003

In 1987, when the producers of Fox Television’s Tracey Ullman Show asked cartoonist Matt Groening to contribute some animated segments to their program, they had no idea what they were getting into. They were, indeed, ushering in a new age in American television, and laying the groundwork for a television series which Time magazine would call “the greatest American television program of the 20th Century”; a program whose humor would be compared to Mark Twain and Will Rogers in the impact it would have on American civilization.
Groening agreed, and originally was going simply to contribute animated segments of his moderately successful comic strip, Life in Hell, to Ullman’s show. But then, for a number of creative and economic reasons, he changed his mind, and decided to create a whole new series of characters—the Simpson family-- instead. In dozens of short interludes over the next two seasons, the Simpsons took on a life of their own, and indeed, grew to be more popular than Ullman herself. In 1989, some programming geniuses at Fox decided that the Simpsons were ready for prime time, and should have their own program, so that on December 17, 1989—with the Berlin Wall falling and Czechoslovakia in the midst of the Velvet Revolution and Communism in Eastern Europe about to come crashing to the ground—the network broadcast a Christmas special,Simpsons Roasting Over an Open Fire, introducing the hapless family from Springfield to a wider audience.
In the fourteen seasons, and just over 300 episodes, that have followed since, the Simpsons have proven themselves an almost unrivaled television phenomenon. They have turned the Fox Network into a corporate giant, have generated over $1 billion in revenue; they have garnered 18 Emmys, a Peabody, and numerous other accolades. Approximately 80 million viewers the world over tune in each week, and The Simpsons is the highest-rated television program on Sunday evenings, and consistently ranks among the highest-rated overall tv shows. (As an aside: a query to the Google search engine for “The Simpsons” brings back 1,410,000 entries. By comparison, a search for British prime minister Tony Blair brings back only 1,030,000. That’s a phenomenon!)
But even though it has won countless viewers over the years, the program has also made countless enemies. It has been preached against in pulpits, castigated by educators, worried over by parents, and explicitly denounced by a President of the United States. In his 1992 State of the Union address, President George Bush (the First) called for a society which was “more like the Waltons than the Simpsons”. (To which Bart Simpson replied, the next week, “Hey, we’re just like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the Depression, too.” And no doubt, as the Waltons did, voting Democratic!)
For a while it became almost de rigeur for more traditional “authorities” to denounce the Simpsons: Bart was a bad role model for American children, they said; they undermined morality and respect for authority, others said; they represented an assault on civility, according to some; they were crass and rude and a leading example of the growing barbarism of American culture, others implored.
But in more recent years, there’s been something of a counter trend. Like an old pair of shoes with which we have become comfortable, the Simpsons have taken their places as American cultural icons. Their humor seems pretty tame when compared to so much else that’s on television these days, in this age of cable. We sense that perhaps Presidents have more important things to think about (and talk about) than the subversive influence of this or that television family. Interestingly, there seems to have been something of a counter-trend toward The Simpsons even as far as religion in concerned. Way back, probably twelve or thirteen years ago, when I was still lived in Maine, I considered doing a sermon on the religious aspects of The Simpsons. But then, I dropped the idea because I thought it was too obscure, too weird (even for me), and that most people wouldn’t have any idea what the heck I was talking about. Well, not for the first time, several other people beat me to the punch, and over the past few years, there have appeared numerous magazine articles and even several full-length books dealing with just that—the religion of “The Simpsons”. As Homer would say, “D’oh!” Once again, like the hapless Homer, I’m not the fastest horse out of the starting gate.
Now, for those of you not as conversant with The Simpsons as some of us might be (and who still don’t know what the heck I’m talking about), let me give you a little introduction to some of the main characters involved—before we take on the more explicit matter of their religion.
Homer Simpson, a slovenly American Everyman, works at a nuclear power plant; he likes donuts and Duff beer, watching television, and hanging around in his underwear (not a pretty sight). Many episodes seem to conclude with his deep-seated revelation to his wife: “Sometimes, Marge, I’m just not very bright,” and his patented exclamation—“D’oh”—has become a verbal shorthand in our culture for those times when we mess things up.
Homer’s wife, Marge, is a stay-at-home Mom (though she has had part time jobs from time to time) with incredibly tall blue hair. She is sometimes a little scatterbrained, but is often the one who saves the day through her common sense and just plain stick-to-it-iveness.
Their youngest child is Maggie, an eternal toddler, who has uttered only one word in fourteen years (“Homer.”), who constantly has a pacifier in her mouth, but who is, in many ways wise beyond her years, and often, the unseen mover of events.
The next oldest child, Lisa, is a child prodigy—extremely bright, always asking questions, fond of jazz and Impressionist painting and Eastern philosophy—every parent’s ideal of a child.
Then there’s Bart. His family loves Bart. In spite of his rudeness and laziness. In spite of his being an “Underachiever—and Proud of It!” (as his t-shirt proclaims). In spite of his driving his teacher, Mrs. Krabapples, and Principal Skinner, and almost everyone else with whom he comes in contact, almost to madness with his antics. Bart is the heart and soul of The Simpsons, its atomic bomb of irony and cynicism and carefree abandon.
But why is any of this, amusing as it may be, religious? What spiritual significance does any of this have? More than might, at first, meet the eye…
There is a lot of religious programming on television, but not on prime time, and certainly not on the major networks. In fact, in the words of one commentator: “It would be fair to say that religion is virtually absent from prime time TV.” The exception might be the one or two explicitly “religious” shows of recent years, like Touched by An Angel on CBS, or Seventh Heaven, which purports to tell of the life of a Protestant pastor and his family. But consider the most popular shows of the last decade—shows like ER, Ally McBeal, Frasier, Law and Order, Home Improvement, or Friends. How many episodes of these program shows their characters going to church—or discussing God with one another—or talking about the importance of religion in bringing up children?
As Gerry Bowler writes: “It would appear that the lawyers, psychiatrists, doctors, policemen, lovers, and parents who populate these programs never think that the life-and-death encounters or the daily little struggles they endure can be illuminated or better understood in the light of religious faith.” They contribute to what theologian Richard John Neuhaus calls the “naked public square”—the complete absence of religious or spiritual perspectives in our consideration of important public issues.
Not so with The Simpsons. In Springfield—as in our own communities—there is a place for good sincere religion, and pompous religiosity, and a variety of religious institutions, and even for spirituality in everyday life. According to people who study such things, there are religious references in over half of The Simpsons’ 300 episodes, and religious themes dominate a full 15% of the programs. That’s a lot of television. Indeed, we may not know what Fraser’s religious background is—or Ally McBeal’s—but the same can’t be said of the Simpsons, or, indeed, of most of the people in Springfield.
Most of the characters attend the First Church of Springfield, a middle-of-the-road, white bread Protestant church, presided over by the perennially bland (and long-winded) Rev. Timothy Lovejoy. Other characters are identified as Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Hare Krishnas, “Movementarians” (or snake-handlers)—there is even an occasional reference to the Unitarians in town (at the town’s Fourth of July celebration, Lisa buys a cone of “Unitarian flavored” ice cream. “But it doesn’t taste like anything,” she complains. “Exactly,” replies Pastor Lovejoy, righteously.)
Many of the children of Springfield go to Sunday School, where Bart alone has to be frisked for weapons before entering, and where he torments his teachers with questions like: “If you have a gangrene leg and it gets amputated, will it be waiting for you in heaven?” and “If a ventriloquist dies, will his dummy go to heaven too?” or “What about a baboon with a human brain?” When the teacher announces that that day’s topic is hell, Bart responds: “All right! I sat through Mercy and I sat through Forgiveness ; finally we get to the good stuff!”
The Bible is referred to frequently, and the show (probably the best written on television, in my never-to-be-humble opinion) is rich with biblical allusions—as well as allusions from a host of literary figures and historical events and well-known movies and other television programs. Ned Flanders, the sanctimonious evangelical next-door neighbor of the Simpsons, has a large collection of Bibles in his house, one in every room, including the Aramaic Septuagint, the Vulgate of St. Jerome, the Living Bible, and the Thump-Proof Bible. But Homer has little use for bibleolotry, and he finds the book just too long and preachy: “Everybody in it’s a sinner,” he complains—“except this guy!” he says, referring to, of all people, Jesus.
When the Simpsons argue—which they do a lot, though usually pretty good-naturedly, they often turn to the Bible for guidance. For example, when they’re trying to decide whether to take the hippie bus driver Otto into their home or not, Marge says: “Doesn’t the Bible say, ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me?’” Stuck for a suitable biblical reply, Homer makes one up: “Yes, but doesn’t the Bible also say, ‘Thou shalt not take moochers into thy hut?’”
In fact, Homer’s biblical ignorance is matched only by his ignorance in every other aspect of life. When Rev. Lovejoy tells him, “Homer, I’d like you to remember Matthew 7:26, ‘A foolish man who has built his home on sand.’” Homer replies, “And you remember… um… umm.. Matthew… 21:17!” And Lovejoy, instantaneously, but confused, answers, “And he left them and went out of the city into Bethany and lodged there”? “Yeah,” Homer answers, “think about it!”
When placed in a situation where his life depends on his reciting a single Bible verse, all Homer can come up with is “Thou shalt not…Um… “Thou shalt not… something!”
Prayer, too, figures prominently in The Simpsons. The Simpsons may be the last American family—certainly the last on television—that says grace before every meal. Of course, sometimes, these graces aren’t exactly out of the Book of Common Prayer. “Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub!” Bart exclaims, rivaled only by Homer’s own: “Good gravy, good meat, good God, let’s eat!”
Sometimes, though, there are more heartfelt messages to the Almighty, as when Homer prays:
“Dear Lord, thank you for this microwave bounty, even though we don’t deserve it. I mean… our kids are uncontrollable hellions. Pardon my French, but they act like savages! Did You see them at the picnic? Of course You did: You’re everywhere; You’re omnivorous. O Lord! Why did you spite me with this family?”
And the ever honest Bart prays, in the words of a true cynic:
“Dear God, thanks a lot for nothing. We bought this stuff with our own money!”
On The Simpsons, God, the Devil, Heaven and Hell, and angels are all treated as objective realities, which have a role to play in people’s lives. Homer, in fact, meets God—on several occasions. When they discuss Homer’s decision to stay away from church one Sunday morning, God himself admits that He’s not a big fan of sermons either, and that He Himself doesn’t much care for the Rev. Lovejoy either. “I think I’ll smote him with a canker sore,” the Almighty says—a real affliction for one as fond of the sound of his own voice as Lovejoy is. Later, when Homer goes back to church and, once again, falls asleep during the sermon, the Diety shows that he has a wicked sense of humor. In a dream, Homer asks God the meaning of life, and God replies, “Homer, I can’t tell you that. You’ll find out when you die.” “I can’t wait that long,” Homer complains. To which God answers, mischievously, “You can’t wait six months? Only kidding!”
Homer and Bart both have encounters with the Devil as well. After a traffic accident, as he hovers near death, Bart starts on the road to Heaven, but because he doesn’t hold onto the handrail of the escalator taking him to the Pearly Gates, and because he spits over the edge once he gets up there, he is booted straight down to Hell. But Satan has to tell him that a mistake has been made, and that he’s going to live after all.
The Devil says: “Boy, is my face red… According to this, you’re not due to arrive until the Red Sox win the World Series—that’s nearly a century from now.”
“Say,” Bart replies, “is there anything I can do to avoid coming back here?”
“Yeah,” the Devil answers, “but you wouldn’t like it.”
“Oh, OK. See you later then.”
“Remember,” Satan finally tells Bart as he leaves, “lie, cheat, steal, and listen to heavy metal music!”
“Yessir!” Bart exclaims as he catapults back to Earth.
It is as incisive critique and satire of contemporary society that The Simpsons provides its most important service—by poking fun at our foibles and follies, our self righteousness and hyprocrisy, our petty prejudices and stereotypes. The failings of the church are no exception—though churches come off somewhat better in The Simpsons than (say) politicians or lawyers or the nuclear power industry.
The judgmentalism of many Christians is pointedly skewered. Maude Flanders, Ned’s late wife, used to go away to a camp every summer to learn to be more judgmental. When Pastor Lovejoy and his wife meet Marge at Springfield’s annual chili cookoff, the following nasty conversation ensues:
“Oh, howdy, howdy, Marge and Home—oh, my mistake, Homer’s not even with you. Probably just knocking back a few ‘refreshments’,” she adds, as she and her minister husband chuckle to themselves.
“Now Helen,” Pastor Lovejoy interjects, “let us not glory in Homer’s binge drinking. There but for the grace of God goes Marge herself!”
Certainly, the religious fellow travelers we encounter on The Simpsons are by no means perfect exemplars of the spiritual life. Often, Pastor Lovejoy comes across as vain and pompous, a burnt-out idealist now just going through the motions. Even the devout Marge attempts one time to bribe God. When a hurricane threatens Springfield, she promises God that she will recommend Him to all her friends if the town is spared. Ned Flanders, the consummate evangelical Christian, is too concerned with petty legalisms and obsessive self-scrutiny for the joy of his religion ever to shine through.
In so many other ways, those members of the First Church of Springfield are really not so different than we are, here at First Parish in Stoughton. (I hope I’m not as boring as Rev. Lovejoy is, though some days…) We are an imperfect lot, born into an imperfect world. But with the love of God, who embraces us in spite of our imperfections—and with the love of one another, whom we embrace in all of our imperfection as well—we grow, step by step, one day at a time, toward the better men and women we would be.
“Humor is a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginnings of prayer,” the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed.
And Conrad Hyers wrote, “If humor without faith is in danger of dissolving into cynicism and despair, then faith without humor is in danger of turning in to arrogance and intolerance.”
The Waltons or the Simpsons? Why does it have to be one or the other. Indeed, life is seldom such an either/or proposition:
On days when things are going well, and the bills are being paid, and the kids come home from school with As, and the lawn mower or the snow blower works like it’s supposed to, then it’s as though we’re there on Walton’s Mountain. And even though we know that life is never easy, and sometimes, it’s a struggle to make ends meet, we’ll stick together, and work at it, and love one another, and know that it will be all right in the end.
And on other days, when one frustration follows another, and the sky seems gray, and it won’t stop snowing, and the clothes dryer dies, and you drop the coffee pot in the sink and it breaks, and the cat throws up on the living room rug, and the kids come home and the silence is shattered, then they all begin to look a little like the rascalion Bart, and you begin to feel more than a little like the hapless Homer. But you know that this, too, will pass, and you’ll stick together, and work at it, and love one another, and that everything will be all right in the end.
There’s a lot of crowing among some people in our society about “family values”. These are the “family values” that truly matter:
  • Commitment
  • Appreciation
  • Communication
  • Time
  • Loyalty
  • Love.
And these are values which, all things considered, The Simpsons teach far better than most examples of our popular culture.
And The Simpsons also remind us of perhaps the most important fact of life of all: that God has a sense of humor. For God created us, didn’t he? What more proof do we need than that?
So, if God can look out upon this mad, complicated, confusing, tormented, often tragic, often joyful, always amazing world and laugh—then so should we. Our laughter is a precious sacrament. And the Simpsons are among the high priests of this delightful ritual.
So, to those who want to self-righteously criticize our dear friends Homer and Marge and Lisa and Bart and Maggie, I, with Bart, reply: “Ay caramba! Get a life!” 

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