AUGUST 23, 2001
The Simpson's through the Lens of Faith
-- Mark I. Pinsky
George Bush the Elder once denounced it; his wife Barbara called it dumb. Former Education Secretary William Bennett questioned its values. For more than a decade The Simpsons has generated its share of criticism. Many consider the show to be abrasive, abusive - even abominable. On Sunday nights, when millions of American's faithfully turn on television's best-known cartoon family, millions more watch the widely praised Touched by an Angel.
Parents of a generation of American children have faced a decision similar to the we faced when our children took an interest in The Simpsons. We were concerned that, if allowed to watch, our children might grow up too quickly, somehow negatively affected by what they saw on the screen. However, based on the many episodes that I have watched with my son and daughter, I believe The Simpsons to be both family-friendly and full of faith. I have company. Barbara Bush and Bill Bennett have also changed their tunes.
Longtime Simpsons writer George Meyer painted the popular picture of the show in a recent article in My Generation magazine. "It's like a Trojan horse that gets past people's radar because it's superficially conservative," he said. "The show's subtext, however, is completely subversive and wild." He has a case. Mayor Quimby, Springfield's mayor is completely corrupt; the pastor of Springfield Community Church, Reverend Lovejoy, can be venal and hypocritical; Springfield Elementary School's Principal Skinner is a complete bumbler. The Simpsons seems to undermine many institutions.
Yet, like most comedy aimed at a mass audience, The Simpsons fits Leon Trotsky's famous characterization of a rival, non-Bolshevik movement: "left in form, right in essence." It depicts repeated failures and frustrations, and punctuates them with an occasional, wacky, life-affirming reprieve that returns everyone to their place, and everything to the status quo. While Montgomery Burns, the owner of the town's nuclear power plant, is the epitome of capitalist evil, it is always the frailty of human nature that holds down working people like Homer Simpson. In one episode, a strike for better employee benefits at Mr. Burns' plant is fatally undermined when workers allow themselves to be divided and bought off by baubles and beer. It is their fault when they are defeated, not the fault of Burns and his hired goons.
Whether the series, once considered so anti-authoritarian, is ultimately subversive or supportive of faith is largely in the eye of the beholder. Some Christians remain resolutely unconvinced of its value. Reverend Francis Chan of the evangelical Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California, told the Ventura County Star in 1999 that he once found the show funny, but gave it up. "It portrays Christians as being out of touch with reality. It makes anyone who follows God look like a fool." The Rev. Clark Whitten, pastor of Calvary Assembly of God in Winter Park, Florida -- one of the largest Pentecostal churches in the area -- disagrees. He tries not to miss a single Sunday night episode. "It's life, it's hilarious, and it's so insightful into the culture," he said. The Anglican Archbishop of Wales, Dr. Rowan Williams, called The Simpsons "a positive example to children" and a show with "a strong sense of family values."
This appraisal has not escaped the attention of a growing number of commentators who argue that the show is conservative and supportive of traditional faith and family values. "What I do appreciate about The Simpsons is that evil often - if not always - is punished with consequences," said Robert Knight, director of cultural studies for the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council and author of The Age of Consent: The Rise of Relativism and The Corruption of Popular Culture. "The Simpsons function in a moral universe and, while the show seems to make fun of moral standards, it often upholds those same standards in a back handed way."
It is the gift of The Simpsons that, coming in the form of an animated sitcom, it is able to reach millions of unsuspecting viewers when their guard is down. Moral dilemmas, sincere faith and even thorny theological issues come into the living rooms -- and consciousness -- of the faithful and skeptical alike. Those who might cynically dismiss its messages if they came from the pulpit or a Bill Moyers PBS special, tune in every week and let Bart, Homer, and company deliver strangely similar fare.
-- Mark I. Pinsky covers religion for the Orlando Sentinel. The preceding article was derived from his book, The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family published this year by Westminster John Knox Press.