ORLANDO, Fla.(Religion & Ethics Newsweekly) They’re silly, often irreverent, and sometimes downright wicked. But “The Simpsons” may also be one of the most interesting examinations of religion in contemporary pop culture.
The release of “The Simpsons Movie” July 27 is grabbing new attention for the popular animated television series that has an often surprising take on spirituality.
“The Simpsons say grace at meals. They attend church on Sundays. They read and refer to the Bible; and they pray out loud–although sometimes only under desperate circumstances,” said Mark Pinsky, author of The Gospel According to the Simpsons.
“It’s about a family in which religion plays a part,” Pinsky said in an interview. “And in that sense, it’s really reflective of what most Americans do and feel about religion.”
Pinsky, the religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, said the new movie builds on a franchise that he believes broke fresh ground in dealing with issues of faith on a primetime TV show.
While some series over the years such as “7th Heaven” or “Touched By an Angel” were built around a religious premise, faith in “The Simpsons” is simply part of the characters’ normal lives. In that way, Pinsky said, “it’s in marked contrast to most commercial television where religion is almost wholly absent.”
In the 18 years the show has been on the air, it has become a true cultural phenomenon. It’s the longest-running TV sitcom in history, and it is broadcast in more than 70 nations, reaching an estimated audience of 60 million every week.
“The first thing that I noticed was that it was OK for my kids,” Pinsky said. “The second thing I noticed was there was all this religion in it.”
The Simpsons’ patriarch, Homer, is often a clueless Christian, who,
Pinsky said, is really a borderline pagan.
“His Christianity is sort of fear-based,” Pinsky said. “He often confuses God with Superman. His wife Marge is a really true believer, a sincere believer, willing to make the leap of faith.”
The mouthy, misbehaving son Bart also has a spiritual side.
“Bart, many believe, is the devil incarnate, but when Bart gets in trouble, he prays and he prays sincerely,” Pinsky said.
Lisa has been through her own spiritual explorations.
“For most of the show’s run, she was the voice of mainline Protestantism, the social gospel, a skeptical believer, but a believer,” Pinsky said. “And finally … her church became sort of too seeker-sensitive, too commercial; she went on a faith journey and she ended up being a Buddhist, with the help, of course, of the actor Richard Gere.”
The Simpsons–and most of their neighbors–attend the First Church of Springfield.
“It’s kind of a mainline Protestant church,” Pinsky said. “They don’t define what it is, but they call it the ‘Presbylutheran Church.’ The theology is kind of lowest common denominator.”
Pinsky said the church’s pastor, Reverend Lovejoy, suffers from preacher burnout. “His wife is a shrew, he has money problems, his daughter is a typical preacher’s kid, sort of a demon seed,” Pinsky said. “So he’s an object of satire and ridicule, but underneath, there’s a lot of profound material about the ministry today.”
In fact, “The Simpsons” has tackled a host of complex theological issues, including salvation, divine omnipotence, the end times, miracles, heaven and hell, cults, religious exclusivity, and the nature of the soul.
“It’s hard to remind yourself that a discussion at this level is happening in a cartoon comedy,” Pinsky said.
One of the show’s favorite themes is religious diversity; a number of characters come from different religious traditions.
“Ned Flanders, who’s the evangelical next door, on the surface is kind of a doofus guy,” Pinsky said. “He’s overzealous, but underneath, his heart is really good, and as much scorn and disrespect that Homer heaps on him, Ned always returns it with love.”
Added Pinsky, “Younger evangelicals around the country, I’m told, have adopted Ned as kind of an unofficial mascot.”
There is also Krusty the Clown, a nonreligious Jew who clashes with more traditional Jews. And Apu, the Hindu immigrant, who works at Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart convenience store.
“And through him, much about Hinduism is explained to people who might not know Hindus,” Pinsky said. “On the surface it’s funny, like everything in ‘The Simpsons,’ but underneath, it’s very respectful, I think.”
A version of this story first appeared on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”