Sign up for our free newsletter
Does Springfield Have a Prayer?
The Gospel According to
The Simpsons: The Spiritual
Life of the World’s Most
They may be a beloved national institution now, but when the Simpsons first moved into the prime-time neighborhood, not everybody was ready to send out the welcome wagon. A kinder, gentler America wasn’t sure that young minds needed a role model like that wiseacre Bart, not to mention a father figure like that dunderhead Homer. The bratty, cynical mind-set of Matt Groening’s alternative comic strip Life in Hell had infected the airwaves, and cultural conservatives dug in for a fight. Brickbats were hurled, prudently hurled, by George and Barbara Bush. An Orange County, Calif., elementary school banished Bart shirts from its halls. Bill Bennett warned a few lucky Pittsburgh residents that a devotion to The Simpsons wouldn’t help them make it through rehab. Souls were at stake.
It’s now more than a decade later, and we’re on a new regimen of Bushes (like colonics, they help to purge the system; can’t wait ’til the girls are ready for the Grand Old Par-tay), but Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie are still with us, and Springfield is comfortably enshrined as Anytown, U.S.A. George the First may still be muttering in his rocker up in his corner of Kennebunkport, but a new generation of serious religious types has made strange bedfellows of reverence and irreverence and negotiated a tenuous peace with the fat, bald, yellow man who recently told Esquire, “There are many different religions in this world, but if you look at them carefully, you’ll see that they all have one thing in common: They were invented by a giant, superintelligent slug named Dennis.”
According to Orlando Sentinel religion reporter Mark I. Pinsky, the author of The Gospel According to The Simpsons, a book that purports to essay the spiritual underpinnings of Fox’s Sunday-night institution, Homer and his brood, however quirky their theology, represent a safe haven for family values in the crazy world of the cathode ray. And he’s not alone. The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Wales, goes so far as to write, “The Simpsons is one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility, and virtue.”
So what gives?
It appears to be a classic case of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” (remember when cartoon characters actually used to voice that sentiment aloud?), an attitude that in recent years has given us no less a paragon of interfaith detente than Pat Boone in a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, on which God’s own slice of milquetoast performs Metallica and Judas Priest covers. Just as Captain Whitebucks could sensibly board the shredwagon once metal had passed from drug-addled social threat to treasured musical landmark, so religious conservatives can embrace the Simpsons now that their nuclear family has outlasted many real-world ones.
Pinsky is aided in his apologia by the fact that The Simpsons is chockablock with religious references. But he accomplishes little more than amassing and categorizing their many instances. There are chapters on Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, Hindus, the Bible, “Moral Dilemmas,” the role of the church, and the destiny of the soul. Characters are tagged with the brands of belief they exemplify. “If the Simpsons’ next-door neighbor Ned Flanders is an exemplar of evangelical Christianity,” Pinsky writes, “Lisa represents the essence of mainline denominations, with their commitment to a socially conscious gospel and rational, religious humanism.”
Analysis, however, is Pinsky’s weak suit. Time and again, he draws maddeningly close to actual insight, only to veer back into the stream of his book-length notebook dump. He observes, for instance, that “[i]n contrast to some other series characters, Lisa retains her essential nature even in fantasy episodes,” but he never broaches the larger question of what importance essential nature plays in the normal, “non-fantasy” Simpsons universe. Consequently, he misunderstands the writers’-room balancing act that has earned the show such longevity.
Snpp.com (the initials stand for Springfield Nuclear Power Plant) reports that writers are given carte blanche to rearrange the floor plan of the Simpsons’ house as dramatic needs dictate. Likewise, features of the town itself, geographic and architectural, are not set in stone. Similar license extends to the characters. Though slotted into position as a lovable dolt, Homer is more or less smart as situations dictate, and an impoverished intellect never gets in the way of a good gag; his knowledge base simply swells to fit the joke (“Oh, Bartholomew. I feel like Saint Augustine of Hippo after his conversion by Ambrose of Milan”). Homer’s attitude is also up for grabs; online fanboys regularly bitch about lamer episodes that lazily resort to “Jerkass Homer” for a few laughs. And Lisa, usually wise beyond her years, acts girlish and immature if the need arises. Bart is either untrammeled id personified or a fully rounded, occasionally conscience-stricken 10-year-old boy—it all depends on what week it is.
If this slipperiness bothers you, it shouldn’t. It’s all part of the divine plan—of The Simpsons’ creators. There are basically two kinds of episodes: those in which the dramatic developments take (i.e., persist into other episodes) and those in which they don’t (everything returning to normal by next Sunday night, as if the closing credits trip some kind of reset switch). The former category mainly involves the misfortunes of minor characters, such as the divorce of Bart’s friend Milhouse’s parents or the death of Maude Flanders; the latter comprises the outlandish exploits of the major players, the “situations” from which the sitcom genre derives its name.
Because Pinsky craves the reassurance that such tales offer, he emphasizes those episodes in the lives of the main characters that essentially play it straight with the family unit, those whose dramatic arc involves threatening and then affirming, often in a sentimental and straightforward manner, the sanctity of familial bonds. And he downplays the significance of those more sophisticated episodes in which the family bedrock is made into a stage on which to play out elaborate jokes about the nature of narrative formula. Pinsky dwells on the moral seriousness of “Homer vs. Lisa and the Eighth Commandment,” in which Homer struggles mightily with his decision to steal cable TV service, but he overlooks “The Boy Who Knew Too Much.” In that half-hour, Bart’s moral quandary (‘fess up to playing hooky or keep mum at a trial of a falsely accused wastrel) takes center stage, even though it is rendered moot by the Quimby clan’s purchase of testimony that will set its scion free. The only effect Bart’s testimony will have is to secure for himself Draconian punishment for a minor misdeed. As if the moral scales weren’t sufficiently upset, Homer behaves very badly (deliberately deadlocking the jury so he can be sequestered in the plush Springfield Palace Hotel, then stealing from his room everything that isn’t nailed down) and suffers no consequence. It would take a lot of stolen Animal Planet to equal the value of the table lamps, sconces, monogrammed linens, barware, and paintings that Homer carts home.
Pinsky also applauds Marge’s and Homer’s fidelity when they are tempted, respectively, by Jacques, the lubricious bowling Lothario, and Lurleen Lumpkin, the compassionate country chanteuse. But when Homer takes Ned to Vegas to loosen him up and they end up getting soused and marrying cocktail waitresses, Pinsky takes comfort in “matches apparently not consummated.” He is either innocent of the order of business in drunken Vegas nuptials or privy to inside information about the quantity of liquor consumed. So willing is Pinsky to turn a blind eye to any “anti-family” data that he sidesteps the issue of homosexuality altogether, regardless of the guest appearances of Harvey Fierstein and John Waters, a censorious Bible reference posted in Ned’s kitchen, and the long-running joke of the cruelly unrequited longing of Smithers for his boss.
At the heart of Pinsky’s enterprise is a canard about the purpose of religion (or perhaps just a carefully cloaked admission of the nature of its current utility). He notes that the regodding of America is rooted in baby-boomer concern over child-rearing, having already made an example of Marge, who “has an obligation to raise the children with moral values, and church is a part of that obligation.” He likens the household of the real-life Dan and Lorraine Hardaway, a Campus Crusade for Christ-er and homemaker who “[e]ach experienced some degree of dysfunction earlier in life before turning to Jesus,” to the fictional family of Ned Flanders, a recovering alcoholic (well, sometimes) and former hellion raised by permissive beatnik parents.
But you should believe in something because it’s true, not because it’s useful. The validity of a belief system shouldn’t hinge on whether you’ve got unruly urchins to indoctrinate or pesky chemical dependencies to wriggle free of. Of course, in today’s America, millions worship not because it is good but because it’s good for you. Not for nothing does Ned recommend “a daily dose of vitamin Church.”
It isn’t church that makes Ned good, though. It’s the dramatic requirement for a goody-two-shoes. Pinsky may consider The Simpsons a case of “cloaking the sacred with the profane,” but it’s really a matter of satire overlaying smarm. What makes The Simpsons unique, or did so when it was new—now every Fox sitcom, from Titus to Grounded for Life, avails itself of attitudes that were taboo before Bart came along—is not its affirmation of the family, long a TV staple, but the keenness of its satire, pulled straight out of the secular-humanist handbook (which also happens to contain a chapter on raising kids).
When Pinsky is actually thinking about God (a religious construct), instead of goodness (a secular concern—you really think Lisa will still go to church when she grows up?), he makes much of the fact that in The Simpsons God is drawn with five fingers, the local standard being four, thumb included. Pinsky claims this is because, “unlike the other characters in the series, He is real.” As Leo Steinberg has shown, for centuries the aim of naturalistic visual depiction of Christ was to emphasize the reality of the incarnation by making him appear as we do (right down to the weenie). But that logic assumes that the dominant representational mode is realist; the theory is turned on its head where caricature reigns, when the cartoon’s four-fingered world is the one we recognize as a mirror of our own. A five-fingered God the Father in a semi-surreal four-fingered world is an anti-incarnational device, one emphasizing His distance from the everyday, an interpretation entirely consistent with what Pinsky admits is the show’s rather Old Testament perspective of the Almighty. Emmanuel be damned—God is not with us. And He probably isn’t watching The Simpsons, either. So if He is not mocked, it’s only because, as we’ve long suspected, He’s not paying attention.
And He’s not the only one. Pinsky and his ilk have adjusted their rose-colored glasses until The Simpsons’ persistent irreverence toward God is relatively untroubling to them. What bothers them is that so many people in the five-fingered world (both televised and not) are getting along just fine without Him. “Hipper” religious conservatives are thankful that The Simpsons at least gets God out of the pop-culture deep freeze. Gerry Bowler, a philosophy prof at Canadian Nazarene College (couldn’t Pinsky dig up a source from an institution that at least sounds accredited?) claims, “The satiric Simpsons program takes religion’s place in society seriously enough to do it the honor of making fun of it.” Blithe inattention to God can’t be explained away, but ridicule of Him can always be spun.
Which means that Pinsky and his battery of supporters, whose testimonials are sprinkled throughout the text, have a vested cultural interest in getting the joke without admitting that the joke has gotten them. The Gospel According to The Simpsons evokes an image of a curiously pixilated paschal lamb, not heedless to its impending slaughter but happily halfway to being shish kebab, numb to the heat and proud to have been accorded a place on the skewer. CP