The Simpsons Folder
Maybe they’re not all just Bible-thumping killjoys
Digital Chicago. Jan 28, 2001 © 2001 BY NEIL STEINBERG SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
Christianity Today is not on my usual stack of godless secular magazines scoured to pass the empty hours of my life until the inevitable plunge into the roaring furnace of eternal damnation.
But I snatched up the new issue–actually stole someone’s copy, fittingly enough–from a big bin of mail at work, justifying this to myself with the thought that the person to whom it was addressed hasn’t worked at the paper for years. There, on the cover, in the pose of a medieval saint, holding a bejeweled book in one hand, the other bent in benediction, was Ned Flanders, the goofy born-again Christian TV cartoon character. Above him, a little winged Homer and a little winged Marge.
The headline announced: “Saint Flanders: The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders is the most visible evangelical to many Americans–and that’s just okily dokily.” The cover was done in the style of a Russian icon. Inside, the article was a deconstruction of Homer Simpson’s pious neighbor, analyzing what he means to the show and what he says about how Christians are viewed by the world.
Wow, I thought. This isn’t the work of the grim, humorless, self-important, easily offended Bible thumpers who populate the cliche bigotries of my secret heart. This is new, at least to me. “We are certainly aware that the younger segment of our readership is interested in pop culture issues,” said David Neff, editor of the magazine, published out of Carol Stream. “We are trying to do what we can to deal with those issues when appropriate.”
Neff said that the cover story–an excerpt from Mark Pinsky’s upcoming book, The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of America’s Most Animated Family–marks the most dramatic example of the magazine taking a lighter approach. “There is a Christian doctrine called `total depravity’ [There is? I thought. Yowza!] that means we’re all sinners and everything we do is touched by sin,” he said. “Actually, it is a very freeing thing. When you understand how fallible you are, then you don’t have to get uptight about it. You’re free to laugh.”
“Laugh? But what about Jesus-like serenity and purity?” I asked. “Grace, and all that? How do `The Simpsons’ fit in?”
“I don’t think serenity is part of it,” he said. “If you look at Jesus’ life, it was turbulent. If you study it closely, this is not a humorless person. There is a lot of humor in Jesus. Here was a man who told stories that had a funny point to them. We miss that because we put the Bible between leather covers and read it in a stained glass surrounding.”
The magazine was founded in 1956, spearheaded by Billy Graham, has a circulation of 150,000, and makes pains to identify itself as evangelical, not fundamentalist. Since I sometimes confuse those two terms, I asked Neff to explain. “Evangelism wants to engage the culture,” he said. “Talking and dialoguing instead of being in retreat and isolation.” Author Pinsky said evangelicals want to understand their image.
“There has always been interest in seeing themselves as others see them,” he said. “To see how they are viewed by the culture at large, particularly that they are viewed favorably or neutrally. The idea is: `Here’s a view from Hollywood–the Belly of the Beast–and they think we’re decent people. How surprising.’ ” Neff said that some of the more traditional readers have had objections, centering on Elizabeth Lada’s cover painting. “We did get complaints about the cover, from people who felt it was not sufficiently respectful of the Orthodox iconic tradition. I’m still thinking about how to respond to that,” he said.
He noted that religion doesn’t have a lock on self-importance.
“There are people–religious and nonreligious–who take themselves too seriously,” he said. “And people–nonreligious and religious–who play along and have fun. We hope as much as possible to be in the second category.” I wondered why this was happening now, this new, lighter, less-fearful, liberalized take on religion, and Pinsky said something very surprising about an apparently unrelated subject: sex. “There is a new train of thought regarding sex, a kind of celebration and rediscovery that sex is OK inside marriage. It’s OK to like it,” he said. “They felt like they had painted themselves into a corner as being anti-sex, and they figured out that it was wrong, that you could celebrate and enjoy.”
This completes the demolition of my entire world view when it comes to evangelical Christianity. As if contemplating “The Simpsons” weren’t enough. How can you scorn and ridicule whole swaths of people as narrow, self-righteous, fun-loathing ideologues when they refuse to stay in the mental cubbyhole you have shoved them into? When they begin appreciating not only “The Simpsons,” but sex as well. What’s this world coming to?