Not until his children took an interest in “The Simpsons” did Mark Pinsky begin to give this dysfunctional cartoon family a closer look. He was surprised at what he found.
He was surprised at what he found.
“All I knew about the series was that it was well-written, but smart-alecky,” Pinsky, religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, told EthicsDaily.com. “Not wanting to be an authoritarian parent, I proposed we watch it together.”
Pinsky said he found that it “dealt with God, faith and spirituality frequently and favorably.” That is when he decided to write about this aspect of the series. His piece in the Sentinel about “The Simpsons” led to his recent book, The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family.
Pinsky said the Simpsons speak to a certain sensibility, that they really do exhibit sincere religious belief.
“The Simpsons don’t mock sincere faith,” he said. “It mocks fraudulent or hollow religious beliefs.”
Pinsky pointed to characters like Marge, the “long-suffering, stay-at-home mom with a towering beehive of blue hair,” who prays sincerely to save her family. Or, Ned Flanders, the widowed evangelical living next door, who epitomizes conservative Christian values.
Even Homer, the bald, overweight dad “with a weakness for beer, pork chops, television and donuts,” prays. Pinsky said Homer’s character is “misled in sincere belief” and that his experiences with religion are mingled with fear and magic. “But a little bit of blind faith is not a bad thing,” Pinsky said.
Bart, the “ten-year-old with a world-class attitude,” prays when he is in trouble. “But even Bart knows the difference between venal and sincere prayer,” Pinsky said. Bart prays when he needs to and expects God to hear him.
Not everyone sees “The Simpsons” the way Pinsky does.
He points out in his book that since the show first aired in 1990 on Fox, it has taken hits from parents, politicians and pastors. It even drew attention from former President George H.W. Bush, when he told the National Religious Broadcasters in 1992, “We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons.”
Despite hard hits from moral leaders, Pinsky said “The Simpsons” has done what all aspects of popular culture should do—it has provided a way to start the discussion.
“Shows like ‘The Simpsons’ provide a reference point because, whether people like it or not, pop culture is pervasive,” Pinsky said. “In modern culture there are more people who know the TV than know the Bible.”
Pinsky believes there should be more religion represented in popular culture.
“In the 50s, 60s and 70s, religion was avoided studiously in television and movies,” Pinsky said. “No one wanted to offend by being too specific or too generic. There was this fear of polarizing or alienating an audience.”
But the growth of Christian conservatism has provided a fair target, he said.
“Nobody wants to pick on the weak,” Pinsky said. “We can only pick on the strong.”
As conservative Christianity became stronger, it became a better target. It was big enough to take the jabs, he said.
There are other shows that depict a realistic view of the American religious landscape, Pinsky said. “West Wing” with a praying president, “Judging Amy” with a devout bailiff and “King of the Hill” with a family that attends church are some less obvious examples of this. Pinsky also said there are more obvious representations in shows like “7th Heaven” and “Touched by an Angel.”
The goal in looking at “The Simpsons” is “to examine how it is like, and unlike, the religious beliefs and practices of real viewers,” Pinsky said.
Pinsky said that comedy is a good way to look at these practices because we let our guard down when they are presented in a comical way. People tend to relax their skepticism when they look at these issues through the lens of comedy, he said.
Next on Pinsky’s list is a new Sunday school guide on “The Simpsons.”
The study, due out this summer, is based on his book. Pinsky, who is Jewish, has joined with the Rev. Skip Parvin, an Orlando-area United Methodist pastor experienced in youth work and popular culture, to produce the 10-week study that will include viewing episodes of “The Simpsons” followed by discussion.
Pinsky said the study does not focus on one faith tradition, but is for “anybody of good will.” There are heavy references to Christianity because “that’s what’s interesting to people,” he said. The goal is moral reflection, not indoctrination. There are references to both the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible, he said.
Next year, Pinsky hopes to churn out a sequel to “The Simpons” book entitled, The Gospel According to Disney: Cartoon Faith & Values. The Disney book is also based on his writings for the Sentinel.
The upcoming book will focus on Disney’s full-length, animated feature films from 1937 to the present, Pinsky said, “focusing on the way values are transmitted to children, especially in light of repeat viewings on videos and DVDs.”
The difference between Disney and “The Simpsons,” Pinsky said, is that the Disney films are almost completely absent of Judeo-Christian beliefs, and portray more humanistic beliefs.
“The question in looking at these Disney films is: Can you be moral if you aren’t religious?” Pinsky said. He noted that, over time, Disney’s moral messages have become more ambiguous.
In the end, Pinsky said, if a show is done “with intelligence and good heart, it can reach a broad audience without serious theological compromise.”
“Still, no one would mistake Homer Simpson and his family for saints,” Pinsky wrote in his book. “In many ways, in fact, they are quintessentially weak, well-meaning sinners who rely on their faith—although only when absolutely necessary.”
Perhaps that is why so many people tune it to watch this family—they can relate.
Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.