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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

The Gospel according to the Simpsons

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 10, 2010


           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 didn’t know that they were ushering in a new age in American television, and laying the groundwork for a television series which Time magazine would one day call “the greatest American television program of the 20th Century”.

 

           Groening originally was going simply to contribute animated segments of his comic strip, Life in Hell, to Ullman’s show. But then, for a number of reasons, he changed his mind, and decided instead to create a whole new series of characters—the Simpson family. Then, a bit later, in 1989, some programming geniuses at Fox decided that the Simpsons 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 on an Open Fire, introducing the hapless family from Springfield to a wider audience.

 

           In the twenty seasons and 450 episodes that have followed since, the Simpsons have proven themselves an almost unrivaled television phenomenon.  They have garnered 25 Emmys, a Peabody Award, and numerous other accolades. The Simpsons now ranks as the longest-running sitcom in American television history, the longest-running animated program, and in 2009 it surpassed Gunsmoke as the longest running primetime entertainment series of all time.

 

           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, no less, President George Bush (the First) called for a society which was “more like the Waltons and less like 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.”)

 

           For a while, it seemed almost required 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 then came the reaction to the reaction, and as the years have passed, the Simpsons became almost revered icons of American pop culture. Their humor seems pretty tame when compared to so much else that’s on television these days.

 

           Now, in case you’ve been culturally asleep for the past 20 years (which would not necessarily be a bid thing) and still have no idea who in the heck I’m talking about this morning, let me give you a little introduction to some of the main characters involved—before we start to explore what it all means.

 

           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 twenty years (“Homer”), who constantly has a pacifier in her mouth, but who is, in many ways wise beyond her years, and is often the behind-the-scenes 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, deeply ethical—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.

 

           So, there are the members of the Simpson family. But why is any of this, amusing as it may be, of any deeper interest? What spiritual significance might any of this have? More than might, at first, meet the eye…

 

           For one thing, The Simpsons is significant from a religious viewpoint just because it deals with its characters’ religions, at all. Consider the most popular shows currently on television, and try to remember the last episode of one of these program which showed its characters going to church (or temple)—or discussing God (or any other religious matter) with one another. Those episodes would be few and far between.

 

           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 marginalization of religion in the public mind.

 

           Not so with The Simpsons. In Springfield—as in our own communities—there are plenty of good, sincere people practicing their religions, and there’s plenty of pompous, self-righteous  religiosity as well. There are a variety of religious institutions, and there’s even a place for spirituality in everyday life. According to people who study such things, there have been religious references in over half of The Simpsons’ episodes, and religious themes dominate a full 15% of the programs. That’s significantly more religious content than in almost any other primetime television program.

 

           Most of the characters on The Simpsons 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 in the show 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, a bit smugly.)

 

           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 a ventriloquist dies, will his dummy go to heaven too?”

 

           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 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 a brand new “Thump-Proof” Bible. But Homer has little use for bibleolotry, and finds the Good Book too long and preachy: “Everybody in it’s a sinner,” he complains.

 

           When the Simpsons argue, they often turn to the Bible for guidance. For example, when they’re trying to decide whether or not to take the hippie bus driver Otto into their home, 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 just 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 confusedly, 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 one 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!” is Bart’s favorite, 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, all of whom have roles to play in people’s lives. Homer, in fact, actually 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 Deity 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 “UP” 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:

 

            “Boy, is my face red,” the Devil says. “According to this, you’re not due to arrive until the Red Sox win the World Series—that’s nearly a century from now.” (This episode aired before 2004.)

 

            “Remember,” Satan finally tells Bart as he leaves, “lie, cheat, steal--  and listen to heavy metal music!”

 

           I think that The Simpsons provides its most important service by poking fun at our foibles and follies, our self righteousness and hypocrisy, 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, certainly, 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 cook-off, 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 too much like Rev. Lovejoy, though).  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 A’s, 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.

 

           On other days, when one frustration follows another, and the sky is battleship 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 rascal 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”. But too often, I think, talk of “family values” is just verbal code for “Let’s bring back all the old ways we used to use to keep people not like us in their place”.

 

           There are the “family values” that really matter—values that our society needs now, more than ever. Value like:

 

           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. What more proof do we need than that of the Divine’s sense of the absurd and the ironic?

 

           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—God bless them every one—are our society’s high priests of this most delightful and life-giving ritual—the sharing of laughter with one another.

 

 


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