The Gospel According to Homer

By Mark I. Pinsky

© The Orlando Sentinel, August 15, 1999.

"Whether or not the soul is real, Bart, it's the symbol of everything that is fine inside us."
-- Lisa Simpson, age 8

When the animated television series The Simpsons appeared more than a decade ago, it was denounced by many throughout the nation -- and nowhere more vigorously than from America's pulpits. The nation's moral leaders thundered that this nuclear but dysfunctional family was the latest evidence of the fall of Western civilization.

"We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons," President George Bush told the National Religious Broadcasters in 1992.

As cartoonist Matt Groening's show approaches a new season, it continues to be a source of controversy, this time drawing criticism from a Roman Catholic watchdog organization. The group, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, cited several jokes about the church. In one case, pressure from network officials this past season forced the show's producers to alter a line about the Catholic church from the original show when the program aired in rerun this summer.

But both the initial denunciations and the recent controversy obscure the fact that God, Christianity and Christians are more a part of the Simpsons' daily lives than any other prime-time network series, at least shows not specifically devoted to religion, such as Touched By An Angel and Seventh Heaven.

"Right-wingers complain there's no God on TV," Groening said in a recent interview in Mother Jones magazine. "Not only do the Simpsons go to church every Sunday and pray, they actually speak to God from time to time. We show Him, and God has five fingers -- unlike the Simpsons, who only have four."

Mike Scully, the series' executive producer, said the show tries to reflect through its characters the fact that faith plays a substantial part in many families' lives, although it is seldom portrayed on television.

"We try to represent people's honest attitudes about religion," he said.

The Simpsons is consistently irreverent toward organized religion's failings and excesses -- as it is with most other aspects of modern life. However, God is not mocked. When The Simpsons characters are faced with crises, they turn to God. He answers their prayers and intervenes in their world. The family says prayers before meals, believes in a literal heaven and hell, and ridicules cults. Their next-door neighbors are committed evangelical Christians.

Some in the religious world have recognized this phenomenon. Three years into the series, in 1992, the show was the subject of a favorable master's thesis at Pat Robertson's Regent University. "While it may not completely resonate with the evangelical Judeo-Christian belief system," wrote Beth Keller, "The Simpsons does portray a family searching for moral and theological ideals."

The Door, a religious humor magazine, put the series on a recent cover, with an article titled "The Springfield Blessing: The Theology of Homer Simpson." And in the Christian monthly PRISM, published by Evangelicals for Social Action, teacher Bill Dark wrote that the series is "the most pro-family, God-preoccupied, home-based program on television. Statistically speaking, there is more prayer on The Simpsons than on any sitcom in broadcast history."

William Romanowski is looking for a video of "Homer the Heretic," an episode of the Simpsons, to use in the class he teaches at Calvin College, a Christian school in Grand Rapids, Mich.

The author of Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life, Romanowski said the episode is instructive because "it tries to get at the role God and religion play in people's everyday lives."

This is not to say that when the Old Testament prophet Isaiah said "a little child shall lead them," he had young Bart Simpson in mind. Sometimes, it's more a case of "suffer the little children." Bart's grace at mealtime is likely to be, "Rub a dub, dub, thanks for the grub."

Homer, who works at a nuclear-power plant, often expresses gratitude at the dinner table, even extending well beyond sustenance, thanking God "most of all for nuclear power, which is yet to cause a single, proven fatality, at least in this country."

The Simpson's blessings are decidedly mixed. After a particularly disastrous Thanksgiving Day, Homer loses it as he offers thanks "for the occasional moments of peace and love our family's experienced . . . well, not today. You saw what happened. Oh Lord, be honest. Are we the most pathetic family in the world, or what?"

As in many households, prayer at the Simpsons is most fervent in the face of disaster, like a hurricane or a comet bearing down on their cartoon town of Springfield, and often comes in the form of a bargain:

"Dear God, this is Marge Simpson. If you stop this hurricane and save our family, we will be forever grateful and recommend you to all of our friends."

Or a nuclear meltdown, begun at Homer's workplace.

"Dear Lord," Marge prays, "if you spare this town from becoming a smoking hole in the ground, I'll try to be a better Christian. I don't know what I can do. Ummm . . . oh, the next time there's a canned-food drive, I'll give the poor something they actually like, instead of old lima beans and pumpkin mix."

Not all the crises that call for prayer are cosmic events. In "Bart Gets an F," the boy is threatened with repeating a grade if he fails a test for which he is not prepared. Desperate, Bart asks God for one more day to study.

"Prayer, the last refuge of the scoundrel," Lisa scoffs as she overhears her older brother. Nonetheless, a freak snow storm closes school the next day, saving him.

"I heard you last night, Bart," Lisa tells him. "You prayed for this. Now your prayers have been answered. I'm no theologian. I don't know who or what God is exactly. All I know is: He's a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together, and you owe him big."

Bart acknowledges, "Part of this D-minus belongs to God."

The Simpsons attend Springfield Community Church, with the unctuous Rev. Timothy Lovejoy in the pulpit, and a marquee featuring a variety of challenging messages, such as "God, the Original Love Connection," and "Sunday, the Miracle of Shame." The denomination is not specified, and Homer's understanding of theology is undeniably hazy.

Asked by Bart what his religious beliefs are, Homer answers, "You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life. Uh, Christianity."

But Homer does not doubt the existence of God, even when he decides not to go to church. Instead, he wants to start his own sybaritic religion, which occasions a divine visitation.

"I'm not a bad guy," he tells God, who wears a robe and sandals, but whose visage is unseen. "I work hard and I love my kids. So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I'm going to hell?"

God replies: "Hmm, you've got a point there. You know, sometimes even I'd rather be watching football."

"So I figure I should try to live right and worship you in my own way," Homer concludes. But he changes his mind about church and religion a few minutes later when he is dragged from his burning house by Ned Flanders, an evangelical Christian who lives next door.

Ned is a doofus -- there is no other word for him. He is such a goody-goody that he doesn't let his equally devout children use dice when playing board games because the playing pieces are "wicked." Still, Ned takes his faith seriously, is righteous but not self-righteous, and is not a hypocrite. He is fired from Springfield Elementary School, where he is filling in as principal, for saying "Let's thank the Lord" over the intercom.

Abused constantly by his oafish next-door neighbor, the relentlessly upbeat Ned returns only love and good works. When Flanders suffers a breakdown and is condemned by the church, Homer tells members of the congregation, "This man has turned every cheek on his body. If everyone here were like Ned Flanders, there'd be no need for heaven: We'd already be there."

The Flanders family is portrayed "fallibly but sympathetically," said Michael Glodo, professor of Old Testament and Preaching at Reformed Theological Seminary in Oviedo. "They are simple, sincere, earnest -- a good package of virtue, especially in a post-modern culture where cynicism and irony and satire are the prevailing sentiments."

Sometimes, Flanders' zeal goes too far. Given temporary custody of the Simpson children because of their parents apparent neglect, Ned attempts to baptize the children in the Springfield River, only to be interrupted in the midst of the rite by Homer.

"Wow, Dad, you took a baptism for me," says a startled Bart. "How do you feel?"

Homer -- temporarily aglow -- replies, "Oh, Bartholomew. I feel like St. Augustine of Hippo after his conversion by Ambrose of Milan."

Ned is flabbergasted by this. "Homer, what did you say?"

As the glow subsides, Homer returns to his natural state: "I said, shut your ugly face, Flanders!"

Yet even Flanders questions his faith when his home and his business are singled out for destruction by a hurricane, comparing himself to Job:

"Why me, Lord? Where have I gone wrong? I've always been nice to people! I don't drink or dance or swear! I've even kept kosher just to be on the safe side! I've done everything the Bible says; even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff! What more could I do?"

Moral dilemmas frequently confront characters, everything from stealing -- cookies from a jar or an illegal cable TV hookup -- to adultery, or selling your soul to the devil, which Homer does for a donut and Bart does for a Formula One race car and for $5 in cash.

"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 conservative, Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council.

"The Simpsons do 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," said Knight, author of The Age of Consent: The Rise of Relativism and The Corruption of Popular Culture.

When Otto, the stoned school-bus driver, becomes homeless he is invited by Bart to move into the Simpsons' garage.

"I know we didn't ask for this, Homer," says Marge, "but doesn't the Bible say, 'Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me . . . ?' "

Yes, Homer replies, "but doesn't the Bible also say, 'Thou shalt not take moochers into thy hut?' "

The Simpsons, with its numerous catch phrases ("D'oh!" "Don't have a cow, man" "Eat my shorts" "Underachiever and proud of it" "Ay, caramba!") has had an undeniable impact on American culture. It has been a healthy and sustained ratings performer for the Fox Network. And, if anything, time has enhanced the show's quality -- at least among critics.

"Weirdly, remarkably, the show just kept getting better," Jeff MacGregor wrote recently in the New York Times.

"Since the passing of Seinfeld last year, The Simpsons is left alone as the only laugh-out-loud show on television," he said. "It is the antidote to what ails most of the medium, at once smart and anarchic, subtle and raucous. After more than a decade, it remains colorful proof that 'excellence' and 'television' needn't be concepts of mutual exclusion."

Conservative cultural critic Michael Medved agrees.

"It's generally been acknowledged that The Simpsons is one of the most serious and seriously ambitious shows on television," he said.

No one would mistake Homer Simpson and his family for saints. In many ways, in fact, they are quintessentially weak, good-hearted sinners who rely on their faith -- but only when absolutely necessary.

"They have captured a very common understanding of who God is," said Glodo, of Reformed Theological Seminary. "It's a very functional view of religion."

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