Don’t simply wonder why The Simpsons remains a popular TV show.
Read The Gospel according to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family and find out.
Mark Pinsky, religion reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, has sifted through hundreds of episodes and written an engaging, eye-opening and thought-provoking book about how one of the most far-reaching shows in the history of television regularly incorporates religion.
“Tuning in nearly a decade after the series premiered, I found God, faith, and spirituality in abundance on The Simpsons,” wrote Pinsky.
“The more I saw in the show, the more I wanted to understand its spiritual dimension,” he wrote. “Since very little of what appears on television and in the movies is there by accident, I wanted to know why religion was treated the way it was.”
Pinsky’s interrogation has resulted in a fascinating analysis of 275 episodes of The Simpsons.
Pinsky has relied on an admirable variety of sources, in addition to the show itself. Newsweeklies and papers, theses, unpublished academic papers and even sermons figure into his examination.
Pinsky also interviewed a variety of religious leaders and popular culture scholars, including communications scholars Quentin Schultze and William Romanowski of Calvin College.
But perhaps the book’s greatest asset lies in Pinsky’s interviews with the show’s writers and producers-a candid, articulate and reflective group.
There’s even a chapter on the backgrounds of these individuals, many of whom grew up in religious environments.
Writer George Meyer grew up Catholic. Writer Jeff Martin attended both the Church of Christ and a moderate Southern Baptist church in Houston. Writer Steve Tompkins grew up Episcopalian and still calls himself a Christian, as does writer Al Jean. The writing staff has also included “Jewish atheist” Mike Reiss and “nonbeliever” Ian Maxtone-Graham.
Pinsky claims the show isn’t “about” religion, but rather about “modern life that includes a significant spiritual dimension.” The writers, individually and collectively, support that assertion, arguing that religion and faith figure into the show because they figure into most people’s lives.
So The Simpsons has given viewers a steady diet of Catholic, Jewish and Hindu characters. Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ neighbor, is an evangelical Christian. Lisa Simpson, the older daughter, “represents the essence of mainline denominations.” And “a major supporting player” on the show is Reverend Timothy Lovejoy of Springfield Community Church, where the Simpsons regularly attend.
Lovejoy personifies “many of the failings of organized religion and Christian conservatism,” Pinsky concluded. Interestingly though, Lovejoy’s congregants generally support him and don’t leave in protest which, as Pinsky pointed out, is quite odd for a church!
The Simpsons and their church friends discuss the nature of the soul, good deeds, eternal salvation and damnation. Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa Simpson face moral dilemmas regularly.
Not surprisingly, these characters “bring their own widely divergent views of faith and religion to their readings of the Bible, and do not hesitate to use it for their own purposes.”
Though the show has alternately received praise and condemnation from the religious community, there’s no doubt it serves as a lightning rod for religious reflection.
And perhaps that’s a reason for its ongoing popularity.
Pinsky’s book does what any worthwhile book about popular culture must do: It makes us understand what a disservice we do ourselves when we ignore what appeals to the masses.
For as Pinksy makes abundantly clear, The Gospel according to The Simpsons is funny. And it’s true. And it’s important because it’s popular.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.