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The Simpsons Folder

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Religion from The Simpsons
October 6, 200, By John Armistead, djjournal

Religion journalist Mark I. Pinsky, author of “The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family,” was born in Miami and raised in a Conservative Jewish home in New Jersey. Pinsky, 54, was educated at Duke University and Columbia University Journalism School. Currently, he is religion writer and senior reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, specializing in coverage of evangelical Christianity in the Sun Belt. Pinksy and his wife Sallie have two children, Asher, 13, and Lisa, 10.

Q: How did you become interested in “The Simpsons”?

A: I’m a child of the ’60s, a man of the left still without qualification, but I’m also a pretty strict parent. We don’t watch television on school days or nights.

Although I’m a Jew, I think television is of the devil. I agree with my Southern Baptist friends. During the summer, we take things on a case by case basis. It’s also an ironclad rule that, when we do watch television, all commercials have to be muted.

In 1999, my children, then 8 and 11 – and they are very bright, very sophisticated – came to me and said that they wanted to watch “The Simpsons.” I said, “We’ll watch it together. If it’s OK, we’ll keep watching. If not, we’ll quit.”

I was also a little concerned about the sexuality, but, I found most of the sexual reference went over their heads, and most were between the husband and wife. I found nothing objectionable as far as my children were concerned.

As a religion writer, I noticed how favorable and frequent were the references to God, faith, and spirituality. As with any journalist, everything is fodder to me. So, I began taking notes. I was concerned that what I was seeing might be a skewed version of the show, so I got a book that gave a summary of all the episodes. I found these kinds of references ran throughout the whole series.

My best friend at the paper and I walk at lunch. I told him what I was seeing in “The Simpsons.” He does a feature section, and he said that something on this would be a great piece for him. I wrote a 55-inch piece. It moved on the wire and was in papers all over the country. I got e-mails and calls, mentioning this or that publication they thought I would be interested in.

I asked myself: is there a book here? So, I put a book proposal together and began sending it out. I was turned down by eight agents and 17 religion and academic publishers. I sent the Ned chapter to a guy at Christianity Today, and he loved it. He had me do some more reporting, then they accepted it.

Some months before that, I got a call from John Dart about “The Simpsons.” He’d seen my story in the Sentinnel. Then, the same week my piece was on the cover of Christianity Today, John’s piece was on the cover of Christian Century. He included a few nice paragraphs about me.

All of a sudden, it was on the radar. The Wall Street Journal did a piece, and also the Chicago Tribune. Then we were on the secular radar screen.

After that, Westminster John Knox Press, one of the publishers that had turned me down, said they wanted to publish the book after all. We made a deal. So then I had to finish the book.

I am a Jew, but all along the way, doors got opened and they were Christians who opened the doors. My publisher is a Christian house.

I took unpaid leave for two months at the end of 2000 and three months at the beginning of 2001 to finish the book. I got a modest advance that almost covered my lost salary. It was worth it to me. I worked at home, and I got to see my kids a lot more.

My book is very funny. All the funny stuff is from the series, not me. I am only mildly amusing. It doesn’t make any difference if you haven’t watched an episode. You’ll still enjoy the humor.

There are some serious issues that are raised in “The Simpsons.” Evangelical Protestantism in the Sunbelt is woven through the book. I’ve been so immersed in Sunbelt Christianity, I’ve learned the language. I can understand the language and use the language.

Q: Would you describe yourself as a practicing Jew?

A: I am a committed Jew. I take it pretty seriously. My son just had his bar mitzvah. We say grace at the table in Hebrew and in English. We say the Shema as a family each day, and on Friday we light the candles and have the blessing over the wine. We don’t have any pork in the house or shellfish. Sometimes pepperoni pizza slips in.

Q: Is your wife Jewish?

A: We’re a mixed marriage. She’s Presbyterian, but she’s made us a Jewish home. She can say the Shema. In the more than 20 years together, I’ve never raised the question of conversion with her. I’ve got enough on my plate.

Q: What’s next?

A: We’re working on a Sunday school curriculum with Westminster John Knox based on the book. It’s going to be aimed at middle school and high school. I’ve gotten a lot of calls from youth pastors wondering when it will be out.

Right now I’m working on “The Gospel According to Disney: Cartoon Faith & Values.” It’s an analysis of the animated, full-length films from 1936 to the present. Films like “Snow White.” I hope this will be published this time next year.