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The Simpsons a realistic view of religion in America


Way back in its adolescence — when “The Simpsons” was television’s bad boy, a kid with a smart mouth and a penchant for pulling pranks — journalist Mark Pinsky never anticipated the program would have something meaningful to say about America and religion. Or that one day he’d be part of the telling.

But one evening in 1999, when he sat down with his son and daughter to see if this was suitable stuff for children, there came what Pinsky calls a moment of epiphany.

“In very short order, I began seeing and hearing all these religious references,” Pinsky said. “It really surprised me. I grabbed my reporter’s notebook and was fiercely taking notes.” Thus originated the idea for one of the most unlikely additions to America’s religion bookshelf.

Four years after publication, Pinsky’s “The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family” is still enjoying robust sales.

And Pinsky, religion reporter for the Orlando, Fla., Sentinel, is still lecturing on “The Simpsons” and the way the show ultimately respects faith and spirituality at the same time it pokes fun at it.

On Friday, Pinsky was at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, sharing the podium with Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Lynch, Leif Enger and other literary lights at the annual Festival of Faith.

Today he will be at the Spring Lake District Library, discussing the spiritual beliefs of Bart, Homer and the other inhabitants of the world of “The Simpsons.”

The Bookman, a Grand Haven bookstore, will have copies of Pinsky’s book available for sale, and Pinsky will sign copies during the program.

“You can find God in the funniest places,” Pinsky writes in the introduction of his book, which has earned critical praise for both its “a-ha” moments of insight and its laugh-out-loud humor.

However, Pinsky’s first encounter with “The Simpsons,” like that of many adults, was not positive.

He was living in Orange County, Calif., writing for the Los Angeles Times, when Matt Groening’s subversive little animation developed into the Fox television network’s biggest hit.

Back then the buzz was all about the catch phrases like “Don’t have a cow, man” that writers put into spiky-haired Bart Simpson’s mouth.

“The fights were about the T-shirts like ‘I’m an underachiever and I’m proud of it,”‘ Pinsky recalled in a telephone interview from the Orlando Sentinel newsroom. “I was put off.”

But after a few years, the show’s focus changed from troublemaker Bart to his oafish dad Homer.

“Over the years I’d been reading about it — how it was intelligent, literate and written on many levels,” Pinsky said.

That didn’t change the Pinskys’ TV policy — no watching on school days or nights and strict monitoring on weekends. “I’m with the Southern Baptists on this one — TV is ‘from the devil,”‘ said Pinsky, who is a practicing Jew.

But one summer night, he sat down with 11-year-old son Asher and his 8-year-old daughter Liza for a tryout viewing.

To his surprise, he encountered a TV family steadfastly demonstrating their faith. True, they happened to be two-dimensional, four-fingered, often dysfunctional and deeply flawed.

Pinsky taped, rented and borrowed episodes of the Simpsons. He got his hands on an episode guide. And he satisfied himself that what he had seen was not an anomaly.

“It’s not a show about religion,” Pinsky said. “It’s a show in which a family is portrayed with religion in their lives. They believe in God, they go to church, they pray, they pray aloud. The Simpsons reflect the faith lives of most Americans on the other side of the TV screen.”

In fact, “The Simpsons” is a rarity on network television. It is one of the few shows that someone unfamiliar with American culture could watch and “know in whatever comedic, fractured way they present it that Americans have a religious life,” Pinsky said.

Which is not to say that religion gets away unscathed. “The Simpsons,” after all, is out to satirize the culture, and everything from TV to education to American values to religion feels the heat.

Reverend Lovejoy, the local pastor, is a cynical religious burnout, who observes that the world’s religions are “all pretty much the same.”

And good neighbor Ned Flanders, a born-again evangelical Christian, is so cheerily pious he even draws the ire of Lovejoy, who, walking his dog past Ned’s house, urges his pet to “do your dirty, sinful business” on Ned’s lawn.

But ultimately Flanders is a true believer, who takes his faith seriously, steadfastly meeting the challenge of loving his neighbor — the oafish, insensitive Homer.

In fact, Pinsky said, as a religion writer, he wouldn’t mind interviewing Flanders. But Ned wouldn’t be his first choice.

“I like Lisa,” he said. “She’s the closest to me politically, ideologically and spiritually.”

So what has Pinsky learned in his encounter with “The Simpsons”?

“There may be a distressing lesson in all this,” he said. “This may be more evidence of our evaporating attention span, the dumbing down of our culture — that we require pop culture as a reference point to begin a serious discussion about faith and religion.”

Pinsky noted the experience of David Wolpe, an Orlando rabbi. “When he gives a seminar on the Torah, 15 people show up. But when it’s ‘Judaism and Star Trek,’ it’s 45 people.

“It’s not a bad thing particularly. It’s just a little distressing.”

Does that mean Pinsky is abashed about the prospect he may be remembered for writing about a television show? Not particularly.

“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s not reality TV. I don’t have to cringe when people talk about it. Journalism is here today, gone forever, so there’s always that manuscript in the drawer. But I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’ve been very fortunate.”

In fact, Pinsky’s next book will be another entry in Westminster John Knox Press’ series of “The Gospel According to …” series, called “The Gospel According to Disney.”

Pinsky’s appearance at Spring Lake District Library climaxes a week of events celebrating National Library Week.

“Because he is a big supporter of libraries, he agreed to make a side trip over here,” said Lisa Donner, community services librarian at the Spring Lake District Library. “We feel honored to have him.”