When The Simpsons creator Matt Groening was a Boy Scout, he stole a Gideon Bible from a hotel room and underlined all the dirty parts. Confronted by a furious scoutmaster, Groening (pronounced graining) recalled in a recent interview with My Generation magazine, "I prayed to God and said, I know you'll forgive me for not believing in you.'"
That irreverent-verging-on-sacrilegious attitude is still very much present in the world's most-watched television show (yes, it nets more viewers than Baywatch). The Simpsons may go to church, pray, and quote scripture, but the preaching, the prayer, or the passage is almost always a setup or a punch line.
"It's like a Trojan horse that gets past people's radar because it's superficially conservative," says head writer George Meyer. "The show's subtext, however, is completely subversive and wild."
It was the image of a rebellious, youth-corrupting Bart Simpson that caused many conservatives-George Bush I, among them-to decry the show as evidence of America's moral decline when it debuted in 1989. But recently The Simpsons has gotten a lot of positive ink for its thoughtful portrayal of faith and family values, including cover stories in Christianity Today and The Christian Century. What changed?
Perhaps Christians began to realize what PRISM, the magazine of Evangelicals for Social Action, said back in 1997: We need to appreciate The Simpsons because "we need a sense of humor. Without it, we lose the ability to criticize ourselves." For even as appreciation for the show has grown in church circles, its edge has gotten sharper and its barbs more pointed as it skewers faith healers, missionaries, Christian theme parks, and Unitarians on its cartoon kabob.
The paradox of The Simpsons' fascination with and suspicion of religion is best expressed in the difference between Ned Flanders and Rev. Lovejoy, the two most obviously religious characters on the show. Flanders is the irritating evangelical who lives next door to the happily dysfunctional Simpson clan. He's a thoroughly repressed ("You name it, I haven't done it"), occasionally overzealous ("I even keep kosher, just to be on the safe side"), but always authentic Christian who puts his faith in action. Homer once described him as "holier than Jesus."
Rev. Lovejoy is the quasi-omni-denominational pastor of the First Church of Springfield, where the Flanders, Simpsons, and just about everybody else in town attend. He has the sanctimonious and sedative drawl of a televangelist on Valium and behaves variously as a fundamentalist book-burner ("Science has faltered once again in the face of overwhelming religious evidence"), or a passionless pulpit-warmer ("I'm doing my best with the material I have"). Homer once referred to him as "that guy who gives those sermons at church: Captain Whatshisname."
When Flanders-for reasons too convoluted to explain here-becomes foster father of the Simpson children and discovers that they haven't been baptized, he phones Rev. Lovejoy in a hyperventilating fit. The reverend, irritated that Ned has interrupted his enjoyment of his model train hobby, responds dismissively: "Ned, have you thought about one of the other major religions? They're all pretty much the same." Immediately his model train crashes and bursts into smoke.
Unfazed, Ned grabs the Simpson kids, hangs a "Gone Baptizin'" sign on the door, and heads for the river. The children are eventually "rescued" by Homer, who dives to intercept the water as Ned pours it from a golden chalice. Though Ned's attempt at forced conversion is hardly admirable, his sincerity is never questioned. He's a real person with strengths and weaknesses-not an impersonal authority.
REV. LOVEJOY, in comparison, lacks the intensity to represent even the worst of organized religion. He is the church at its most nominal and banal; he claims re-carpeting the church vestibule as one of his great deeds of faith.
When a comet threatens to destroy Springfield, Homer laments, "It's times like these I wish I was a religious man." At which point we see Rev. Lovejoy running down the street in hysterics, shouting, "It's all over, people! We don't have a prayer!"
Meanwhile, Ned has constructed a bomb shelter into which he eventually invites the entire town. When it becomes too full to close the door, Homer volunteers Ned for martyrdom. Ned acquiesces, telling his son, "Now I might go mad with fear out there...so I want you to shoot Daddy if he tries to get back in." Eventually, the shamed townspeople rush out after him, and the only thing destroyed by the comet is the shelter. Incarnation trumps institution: Springfield is saved by following the one who was willing to give his life for theirs.
But before you start getting warm fuzzies for St. Flanders, consider the words of Simpsons writer Steve Tompkins: "I believe the quality of humor is in indirect proportion to one's true belief.... The more those beliefs are put in [to the script], the less funny it gets." Interviewed in Christianity Today as the most evangelically informed of the show's writers, Tompkins reinforces the basic fact that though the show may affirm basic values of faith and family, it's at its subversive best when it provokes.
We smile at Marge, by far the most faithful of the Simpson family, when she tells her kids that they need to go to church "to learn morals and decency and how to love your fellow man." But we laugh-and wince-as the scene cuts to Rev. Lovejoy reading from the pulpit: "With flaming swords the Aramites did pierce the eyes of their fellow men, and did feast on what flowed forth...." The scripture is bogus, but you and I and Matt Groening know there's worse stuff that really is in the Bible.
"Your moral authorities don't always have your best interests in mind," said Groening in a Mother Jones interview. "Teachers, principals, clergymen, politicians-for the Simpsons, they're all goofballs, and I think that's a great message for kids."
It's a great message for adults, too, especially those that may find themselves offended in the best possible ways by The Simpsons. For whether we're laughing at nerdy Ned, the lukewarm Gawd-tawk of Rev. Lovejoy, or the comic prayers (which rarely go unanswered) of Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa, we'll eventually be laughing at ourselves. Maybe that's why the original controversy over the show has given way to praise-because Christians began to recognize themselves in the yellow-tinted funhouse mirror. Even though it makes their butts look big and their heads too small, it makes them laugh.
Ryan Beiler is the Web editor for Sojourners. He has every single episode of The Simpsons on video tape, commercial-free. Some people think his dad looks like Ned Flanders.