The Gospel of Homer

Sarcastic cartoon show is not without its spiritual moments

By Tom Kisken

© Ventura Country Star, September 4, 1999.

Homer Simpson has debated God on the merits of church vs. football. He's been banished to hell where his head was used as a demon's bowling ball. He's frolicked nude in the Garden of Eden, tried to feed a peanut to a statue of a Hindu deity and committed the sin of gluttony over and over and over again.

Within his prime-time television universe, the pot-bellied, Duff-drinking, four-fingered cartoon patriarch is a trendsetter. A pioneer. Even a prophet.

Which means somewhere, up there, God is in front of a television set thinking "Doh!"

From 8 to 11, seven nights a week, religion is a frontier. Television shows that don't hesitate to bask in violence and sex avoid faith as if it were a mortal sin. The best the divine can hope for on most shows is a cameo.

Entering its 11th season this fall, "The Simpsons" is changing that, said Robert Thompson, professor of film and television at Syracuse University.

"This is a family where God has a place at the table now and again," he said, running through a surprisingly long list of episodes that deal with faith.

There was the episode on Easter where the Simpsons remake the Old Testament. Or the classic where Bart prays to God to save him from a failing grade (and then has the graciousness to thank him for the subsequent D-minus.) Or the time Bart and Lisa try to persuade a rabbi to reconcile with his son, Krusty the Clown.

One of Thompson's favorites came when Bart was grounded and, while sulking in his room, was confronted by a heavenly visitor.

"I like to think that Bart Simpson is in line with Abraham and Moses in that he talks to God directly himself," said the professor, who watches the show enough to know he graduated high school the same year as Homer -- 1976.

The cartoon's thorny wit has stuck organized religion more times than can be remembered. The show has been criticized throughout its run by various watchdogs, with the most recent jabs coming from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Thompson thinks the prospect of such criticism, and the subsequent flood of negative publicity, scares other prime-time shows away from faith.

But "The Simpsons" plug away.

"They really take some digs," Thompson said. But "they acknowledge that religion is part of life, that it is good for people to think about and that there is a God they have to deal with."

Pointed portrayal

The Rev. Francis Chan, of the evangelical Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, used to watch the show, even laugh at it. But he gave it up four years ago, about the time his daughter was born.

"I thought 'I shouldn't be watching this stuff,' " he said.

What galls him is the portrayal of Ned Flanders, "The Simpsons' " goody-two-shoes of a neighbor, as a Bible-thumping geek. The Rev. Lovejoy, the pious Protestant pastor, isn't much better. In one episode, he's beguiled into thinking the rock anthem, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," is a church hymn.

"It portrays Christians as being out of touch with reality. It makes anyone who follows God look like a fool," Chan said, contemplating the athletes and business professionals in his congregation who manage to practice their faith without being complete -- well, Neds. "You can be a normal person and still love God."

Chan finds the arsenic-tinged depictions offensive. Robert Darden, the Southern Baptist senior editor of The Door magazine, thinks the characterizations hit a bull's-eye. His publication, billed as the nation's only satirical religious magazine, put "The Simpsons" on their cover earlier this summer.

The show always is kind to people of true faith, such as Lisa who is her family's resident theologian though she's only in the second grade, Darden said. People who build their religion on words and not feelings are treated less kindly.

"Hollow religiosity -- something that is built on words and not faith -- is very threatened," said Darden, who teaches creative writing at Baylor University in Texas. "What 'The Simpsons' do and what we do is yell that the emperor doesn't have any clothes on."

Ironically, The Door's treatment of the cartoon, specifically its use of the show's copyrighted photographs, has prompted legal threats against the magazine, Darden said.

He predicted number-crunchers will give up when they learn the publication is sponsored by Trinity Foundation, a ministry for the homeless.

"We get threatened all the time," Darden, said noting the magazine legally is owned by homeless people. "I'm the only paid employee. So yeah, come on."

Beth Keller hasn't faced any legal intimidation but she has written about "The Simpsons," in a 96-page master's thesis titled "The Gospel According To Bart."

Now an account executive for a Chicago video production company, Keller studied the cartoon as a graduate student at Regent University, the Virginia Beach school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. She said the character with the strongest and most realistic faith is Marge, though other observers argue Lisa is the family's true believer.

Homer strikes Keller as a bottom-line Christian, meaning as long as he thinks God is providing him with, say, jelly doughnuts, he'll pay attention.

"He just wants a take-my-order kind of God," she said.

Turning her attention to Montgomery Burns, the show's corrupt, often evil king of capitalism who once tried to steal candy from little Maggie Simpson and was promptly shot for it, she said, "Burns has the faith of today's American consumer: 'I want more and I want it for me and I want it now.' "

Homer and sin

To hear Mark Fischer of Camarillo tell it, he's bound and gagged in a chair each Sunday night and forced by two of his sons, ages 8 and 16, to watch the yellow-skinned clan. Saying the instructor at St. John's Seminary is embarrassed to be identified as a viewer is akin to calling Homer hungry.

But while it annoys him when his kids spew Bart-isms, Fischer acknowledged the show voyages regularly into theology.

It portrays, for example, a God who cares about ecology. Homer's carelessness in handling nuclear materials at work is a message that such irresponsibility is immoral. His sins, though numerous, are fueled by ignorance, not evil.

"Catholics would say his sins are venial, rather than mortal," Fischer said. "He willingly does wrong, but never rejects God or the idea of divine justice. He's simply weak."

Though his focus is usually on Duff beer and potato chips with ruffles, Homer does at times work to better his relationship with his wife and kids.

Marge and Lisa consistently aspire to cure the world of its various ills.

"All of them hear a call to imagine a deeper, richer, more moral world," he said.

The show takes more than its share of swipes at everything it discusses. And it does slap and slash at the church-going community.

But "religion has had better people than 'The Simpsons' make fun of it," said Rick Marrs, religious studies chairman of Pepperdine University, adopting sarcasm befitting the show he watched until his children grew up. "I think it probably can survive."

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Last updated on February 9, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (