The Simpsons Folder
Homer’s Odyssey takes Simpsons into the Theological Textbooks
October 3, 2001, By Stephen Bates, Guardian Newspapers
George Bush senior memorably cast anathema on them. “We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons,” he announced as he was defeated by Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election.
He compared the satirical television cartoon unfavourably to a saccharine series about a family coping sanctimoniously with 1930s’ Depression America.
Under pressure from religious fundamentalists, the department store JC Penney banned their T-shirts. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights objected to a joke about birth control.
Now the tide has turned. The Simpsons, Matt Groening’s series about the dysfunctional family of middle Americans, is being embraced by churches. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie are becoming distinguished figures on theological courses, and in texts for students training to be priests.
A new book claims that far from being subversive of the moral fibre of America, the Simpsons embody its sturdiest values and impart a highly religious tone to viewers.
This may be just as well, as a 1999 survey found that 91% of children and 84% of adults could identify members of the Simpson family. The series is watched by nearly 15m people when it is shown on Sunday nights in the US, and by 60m in 70 countries worldwide each week, except in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, where it is banned as an affront to family values.
The Gospel According to the Simpsons, by the American religious writer Mark Pinsky, claims that despite Homer’s assertion that the family belongs to “you know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don’t work in real life -uh, Christianity”, its stories are deeply moral.
An analysis of plots by California State University found 70% had some religious content and 10% of episodes had religious themes.
The book enlists support for that view from Rowan Williams, archbishop of the Church in Wales, one of Anglicanism’s foremost theologians, who says the series is “one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility and virtue.”
This may come as some surprise to religious groups of all denominations affronted by the depiction of the evangelical neighbour Ned Flanders, their pastor the hypocritical Rev Timothy Lovejoy, the sinister Jewish clown Krusty, and the grasping Hindu shopkeeper Apu Nahaasapeemapetilon.
Groening said in an interview: “Rightwingers complain there’s no God on TV (but) not only do the Simpsons go to church, they actually speak to God from time to time.”
Fat, bald father with a weakness for beer and doughnuts. Named after a character in Day of the Locust (and Matt Groening’s own father). Known to dabble with heresy and not going to church. US academics Eric Masur and Kate McCarthy say: “Homer fulfils the role of American spiritual wanderer.” Homer’s attitude to God: “You’re everywhere. You’re omnivorous.”
The Rev Lovejoy
The Simpsons’ local pastor, minister of the First Church of Springfield, co-host of the Gabbin’ about God radio show. Favourite saying: “Once something’s been approved by the government, it’s no longer immoral.” There is now a Norwegian rock band called Reverend Lovejoy.
Homer’s wife. Sweet natured and loyal, with a towering blue beehive hairstyle. Named after Groening’s mother. Religious writer Kenneth Briggs says: “Marge is my candidate for sainthood … She lives in the real world, she lives with crises, with flawed people. She forgives and she makes her own mistakes. She is a forgiving, loving person … absolutely saintly.”
Store proprietor Apu Nahaasapeemapetilon is a Hindu. Mark Pinsky says: “Next to Marge, Apu is the most good-hearted and saintly character”. Homer says: “No offence Apu, but when they were handing out religions, you musta been out taking a whizz.” The only religion so far unparodied is Islam. Scriptwriter Al Jean says: “It’s a faith where you don’t want to offend – we’re not sure what might be offensive.”