The Simpsons

How did The Simpsons, one of the most popular television shows in history, go from being attacked by many religious leaders for its lack of family values to being called on of the most theologically relevant programs in prime time? Religion journalist Mark Pinsky tackles that question in this accessible, witty, and enlightening book. Pinksy explores the individual characters, interviews several of the show’s writers and producers, and concludes with a discussion of whether the show, once cited as further evidence of the decline of civility and morality in the world, is subversive or supportive of faith. The answer may surprise many.

The Simpsons is one of the subtlest pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility, and virtue. This book manages to decipher the code without deadening the humour. Many consider the show to be abrasive, abusive, and even abominable.[1] You can find God in the funniest places. In the beginning stages of The Simpsons there were definitely some controversial mindsets, especially among Christians, such as the show being juvenile and portraying dysfunction “Humour is a prelude to faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer. If humour without faith is in danger of dissolving into cynicism and despair, faith without humour is in danger of turning into arrogance and intolerance.” However, many scholars have managed to prove that there is a “Spiritual Life” behind the world’s most famous animated family. This book discusses concepts like prayer, the Bible, sin and grace, and examines the ways in which Catholics, Jews, and Hindus are portrayed in The Simpsons. The Simpsons is a situation comedy about modern life that included a significant spiritual dimension; because of that, it more accurately reflects the faith lives of Americans that any other show in the medium.[2] In chapter three the question is asked: Does Lisa Speak for Jesus? Lisa supports the poor, the powerless, and the downtrodden and is critical of the rich. Her goal is to do well in the world, to alleviate suffering and, when necessary, through guilt to persuade others into doing the same. Lisa questions the controversial wisdom, regardless of how unpopular such questioning may be. Like the ancient Prophets, she is a compulsive truth teller, seeming to take perverse joy in whom and how she offends.[3] Characters on The Simpsons have their own expectations and opinions when it comes to the hereafter. Although comic on the surface, they often mask serious theological concerns and controversies. The television series portrays many different shows concerning heaven and hell. The nature of heaven and hell is a topic that comes up often at Sunday school at Springfield Community Church. Unlike many mainline Protestants, and the pope, characters in The Simpsons believe unquestionably in a very literal interpretation of both concepts.[4] There is some speculation about whether Part himself is a demonic character. There have been episodes where Bart was enthusiastic about selling his soul for a Formula One racing car, which the devil tells him can be arranged. Bart continually gets himself into dilemmas that eventually drive him to his knees, however, asking God to help him.

Of all the controversies the series has ignited over religion and values, the most serious was with its portrayal of Catholics and the Church of Rome. It was also one of the few cases where Fox Television made the otherwise free-spirited show back down and censor itself. The way Catholicism is complicated and subtle, like much of the show’s humour, but it as an undeniably hostile, sometimes gratuitous edge to it.[5]

The Simpsons has a rubber-band reality. We stretch it way out into the far reaches of human folly, and it snaps back to relative sanity. So in essence, while not all dangerous or threatening to the status quo, it is a sweet, funny show about a family as “real” as the faith like of many Americans. It is a show that does in fact gives hope and joy and, yes, it’s funny. And as Homer says, “It’s funny, cause it’s true.”[6]

[1] Mark I. Pinsky, The Gospel According to the Simpsons. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster, 2001), 1.

[2] Ibid, 11

[3] Ibid, 7

[4] Ibid, 79

[5] Ibid, 102

[6] Ibid, 154