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.