The Simpsons is the best television series of all time, says Time magazine. Some critics consider it the most religious show on television. David Dark, writing in the Christian left magazine Prism, called it "the most pro-family, God-preoccupied, home-based program on television." David Bruce, webmaster of the online Christian pop-culture site HollywoodJesus.com, calls The Simpsons "the best Christian family on television."
And yet, for many Christians, The Simpsons is at best a guilty pleasure. It is on many families' lists of television shows children are absolutely not allowed to watch. They consider the show a travesty and a mockery, displaying nothing but bad role models and irreverent attitude. Now in its 15th year as a television series and having passed its landmark 350th episode, the show inspires both rabid fans and rabid detractors. And both sides have a point.
The adult cartoon show centers around the family of the sublimely stupid Homer, his long-suffering blue-haired wife Marge, and their three children: the rotten kid Bart, the idealistic Lisa, and the silent pacifier-sucking baby Maggie. They live in the city of Springfield-a name common to many states-populated with other quirky characters: the cynical comedian Krusty the Klown; the sinister owner of the nuclear power plant where Homer works, Mr. Burns; the loser Comic Book Guy; and the kindly-but-annoying evangelical Ned Flanders.
As in successful sitcoms from I Love Lucy to Seinfeld, the humor is character-driven, and other good characters include a sea captain, a Scotsman, various nerds and bullies, teachers and administrators, and a droning preacher in whose church the whole community gathers every Sunday morning.
The show is the brainchild of Matt Groening, a cartoonist from Portland, Ore., whose parents were named Homer and Marge, and who had two sisters named Lisa and Maggie. He was writing a mordant comic strip titled "Life in Hell" when a fan in television, producer James L. Brooks, invited him to put together some short animated sketches for The Tracey Ullman Show. The first crudely drawn Simpsons-in episodes that were only two minutes long-debuted in 1987.
Three years later, The Simpsons had their own show. The early seasons were still crudely drawn. And the characters and story lines tended to be crude as well. Those shows focused on Bart, an anagram for "brat." Bart Simpson was a rebellious, anarchic, obnoxious little kid with attitude. Though funny, he was no role model, and when America's children started to repeat his smart-alecky sayings-"eat my shorts"; "don't have a cow"-parents were right to object. And schools had a right to ban Bart Simpson T-shirts proclaiming "underachiever, and proud of it."
But in time, Bart grew more complicated and the show matured beyond its bad-boy shtick. The focus shifted to Homer, the self-centered, dim-witted, but oddly good-hearted head of the family, as he tried to make a living, tending his wife and kids in a surreal culture. The other family members also took on lives of their own, and the Springfield universe expanded to include moral dilemmas, family values, and church.
Mark Pinsky, in his book The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family (Westminster John Knox Press), points out that religion, which plays an important part in the lives of most Americans, is utterly invisible on most TV shows. But the Simpsons go to church, pray before meals, and talk about religion. At least one out of every three shows features a clear religious reference. Of those, one out of 10 is completely constructed around a religious theme. (For example, in "Homer v. Lisa and the Eighth Commandment," he has to learn that God does not approve of stealing cable TV. In "Homer the Heretic," he tries to start his own religion, until Flanders saves his life.)
Though the depiction of religion is mostly sympathetic, sometimes The Simpsons walks-or trips over-the line between comic insight and sacrilege. The Word of God is holy, but Simpsons characters spout garbled and made-up Bible verses from nonexistent books like "First Thessaleezians." One Halloween episode featured Fractured Fairy Tale-style spoofs of various Bible stories. The show's smart-aleck attitude is sometimes aimed at God, as when Bart says this meal-time prayer: "Dear God, we paid for all of this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing." The sacrilege is never justifiable, but the nature of comedy leads its creators to live dangerously.
According to Aristotle, tragedy presents human beings as better than they really are, while comedy presents them as worse. We might want to imitate the noble heroes and heroines of a tragedy, but never the characters in a comedy. The classical thinkers believed that comedy was among the most moral of art forms because it ridicules vice, making us look down upon bad behavior.
In other words, comedy gives us reverse role models, presenting characters that we want to avoid imitating. Anyone who watches Bart and wants to be a smart-mouthed underachiever is too young to understand the show. No one wants to emulate Homer, who sleeps on the job when he is supposed to be monitoring the safety of the nuclear plant, who spends all the family Christmas money on a silly gadget for himself, who eats himself into oblivion, and who believes that if God wanted us to worship Him for an hour every week, He would have made the week an hour longer. The humorous spectacle of Homer is supposed to make us want to be a better person-more responsible, more sensitive, and a lot smarter.
Satire takes the moral seriousness of comedy one step further, using laughter and ridicule to address the evils of society. If an idea can be shown to be ludicrous, it can no longer be taken seriously.
When the Simpsons sit on their couch watching "The Itchy and Scratchy Show"-a cat-and-mouse cartoon full of blood spurting, mutilations, and entrails-and even the goody-two-shoes vegetarian Lisa is laughing, the show is satirizing media violence. The exaggerated, over-the-top carnage of Itchy and Scratchy-shamelessly commercialized by Krusty the Klown-is a criticism of children's TV.
To its credit, The Simpsons is an equal-opportunity satirist. The show makes fun of Lisa's liberal idealism and Mr. Burns's ruthless capitalism. Political left, right, and middle are all fair game. The show entered the health-care debate when Homer started smuggling prescription drugs from Canada. The town's nuclear power plant-with the mutated three-eyed fish in the lake-is an advertisement for environmentalism.
And yet, the mayor of Springfield is a fat womanizing politician with a Boston accent modeled after Ted Kennedy. When a prison rodeo came to town, the attendees were shocked that one of the prisoners committed the heinous crime of erecting a Nativity scene on public property. And when Springfield legalizes gay marriage-whereupon Homer gets a mail-order ordination so he can make money by marrying homosexuals, including Marge's sister who is upset to find that her bride was really a man-both sides of the debate find vindication.
The show's lack of overt ideology arguably weakens its satiric impact. But though The Simpsons sometimes appears to be ridiculing virtue as well as vice, it does have a moral core.
Despite trials and temptations, by the end of the show, family values-such as fidelity in marriage, love, and forgiveness-usually win out. As Kenji Ono, a character animator on the show from 1999 to 2004, told WORLD, "The good morals come from the characters despite their flaws: Homer wants to be a good dad despite his stupidity; Bart loves practical jokes, but he still has a good conscience."
Mr. Ono contrasts The Simpsons to another notable TV comedy, Seinfeld. "That show is brilliantly written but none of the characters ever learn anything at the end of the show," he said. "The Simpsons usually redeem themselves at the end of each episode."
But what about ridiculing religion? "Some things are too serious, solemn, or sacred to be turned into ridicule," observed the great satirist Jonathan Swift, "yet the abuses of them are certainly not." Sometimes The Simpsons transgresses here, falling into irreverence and bad taste. But sometimes the religious satire hits a deserving target.
Mr. Pinsky points out that the opening of every show begins in heaven, with harp strings and a heavenly choir singing "The Simpsons," whereupon we see planet Earth, then Springfield, and then the family going about their lives, then gathering before the TV set. In addition to this God's-eye view, a cartoon God shows up from time to time, zapping Homer for his sins or answering Bart's prayers for a snow day.
Mr. Pinsky told WORLD, despite the humorous treatments, "God and sincere faith are not mocked. Practice, yes. Unrealistic expectations, yes. Institutional failings, yes."
The Simpsons' neighbors Ned Flanders and his family are presented as evangelical Christians. Unlike most other portrayals of Christians in the media, Mr. Pinsky points out, Ned Flanders is no hypocrite. He is kind, loving, selfless, and full of good works. Though he may be nerdy and too full of sunshine, he is physically fit, pious, and forgiving. Such virtues do not prevent him from being annoying, especially to Homer. But though Ned is teased, he is generally presented with affection.
The Rev. Lovejoy is another matter. The pastor of a megachurch surrounded by a vast parking lot, the pompadoured Rev. Lovejoy speaks in the droning rhythms of the stereotyped Southern preacher. He preaches incomprehensible sermons that put everyone to sleep. Still, he tries (way too hard) to be relevant. In an Easter sermon, he says nothing about Jesus or the Resurrection, preaching instead about chocolate bunnies. In one episode, Ned is experiencing Job-like trials, but when he goes to Rev. Lovejoy for spiritual counseling, all he gets is a book by Art Linkletter.
Mr. Pinsky, who is Jewish, points out that the theology satirized in The Simpsons is usually the good-people-go-to-heaven and bad-people-go-to-hell variety. If evangelicals, Catholics, the Bible, and Christian symbols take their hits, the religion satirized on The Simpsons is often not Christianity at all, but the common cultural counterfeit of generic religion, with its nonspecific deity, salvation by works, and social respectability.
Where Christianity is most present is in the lives of some of the people who work to produce the show, especially the artists and animators. Mr. Groening refuses to talk about his religious beliefs, but the writing of each episode is a collaborative process. Mr. Pinsky describes the script-writing as a free-for-all, with dozens of people-atheists, Jews, Catholics, Protestants-throwing out their ideas.
The goal is always to be funny and entertaining, stressed those WORLD spoke to who work for The Simpsons. Spiritual or moral issues in the show arise naturally from the characters. "I definitely see it as a very, very funny and entertaining show," said artist Chris Bolden. "It ventures into the moral and spiritual because like any show that has gone over 350 episodes, those subjects are just going to come up." Citing the dearth of Christian writers, he said, "I believe the themes just emerge-they emerge out of hearts that are dark." Nevertheless, "overall, it is good work."
Background artist Lance Wilder told Assist News that some 20 Christians work on the show. For several seasons, they had a Bible study. As an artist, Mr. Wilder said, "I try to incorporate Bible verses and the fish symbol into the visuals of the show whenever possible and wherever appropriate." That accounts for the authenticity of the Flanders' décor. Also for the sign at the Springfield science fair that read, "Evolution: Theory Taught as Fact."
It was through the witnessing of one of the Christian artists that Mr. Ono became a Christian. "I accepted Christ on a Friday night in the studio, of all places," he recalled.
So is working on a satirical and frequently irreverent TV show a valuable calling for a Christian? "I just continue to ask myself, 'Why am I here?'" said Mr. Bolden. "To me, it's not about the animation and story lines. It's about the people I work with. Am I sharing the love of Christ? Are they receiving something from me that they don't see or receive from anyone else?"
Mr. Bolden said that some Christians have given him a hard time for working on The Simpsons, asking, "How could you work on a show like that? It's so sacrilegious." But "if all the Christians that work on that show quit, the show would continue on strong, yet there would be no beacons of light to point people towards Christ Jesus." Mr. Ono agreed. "We all should be missionaries in our work place," he said. "If there were no Christians in animation studios, how would they be witnessed to?"
Mr. Bolden sees his work as his God-given calling. "I'm blessed and stoked to be a part of The Simpsons," he said. "I just go to work every day with the prayer 'Lord, bless these hands and the talents You've given me. Help me to bless my directors and to bring glory to Your name.' My other prayer is that God would continue to open doors and give me avenues to share the love of Jesus with people."
Apparently even the zany universe of Springfield, whether its denizens and creators fully realize it or not, is under the sovereignty of God.