Homer The Heretic?

"What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we're just making God madder and madder!" - Homer Simpson.

"The Simpsons" movie which opened on July 27, 2007 was reviewed by CNN which stated:

After 18 years and 400 episodes of a show that refuses to grow old, "The Simpsons" finally graduates to a movie theater near you. It doesn't take Homer long (about two minutes) to ask the obvious question: What kind of sucker pays for something he can watch at home for free?

Things start off with Grampa Abraham Simpson getting a divine revelation, a message from God right in the midst of Holy Communion ("Terrible things are going to happen ...") This warning seems to refer to an impending environmental catastrophe and/or Homer pigging out with his new pet porker. Either way, it goes unheeded by the nominal head of the family, whose concern for the earth's resources rarely extends beyond his next doughnut. When it comes time to dispose of his pig's waste, Homer takes it over to Lake Springfield.

The Gospel According To The Simpsons by Mark Pinsky is a very successful book that has been used by some Protestant churches in youth classes to explore the ways that religious themes are handled in the TV series. Publishers Weekly in its review of this book stated:

"Religion journalist Pinsky offers a thoughtful and genuinely entertaining review of faith and morality as reflected through the irreverently sweet comedy of The Simpsons. No less remarkable is the show's attention to religious themes especially considering the prevalent invisibility or irrelevance of religion on TV. As the program and its characters have matured, many viewers have seen a fundamental affirmation of spirituality, family and community life that emerges in spite of the sarcasm and exaggerated situations. Chapters are devoted to important characters Homer, Lisa, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Krusty and Apu and the faiths they represent, as well as to issues such as images of God, the Bible, prayer and ethics. The abiding charm of the show is how often its caricatures are devastatingly on-target and point to a deeper truth, as Tony Campolo points out in an excellent foreword: "Do not go too hard on Homer Simpson because more people in our churches are where he is than any of us in the mainline denominations want to acknowledge."

Booklist in its review wrote: "The Simpsons, after all, spend more time in church than any other TV family, though Homer can still only describe his religion as, "you know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life. Uh, Christianity." Pinsky makes a compelling argument that the show's writers' view of religious expression is complicated and sympathetic, despite the lampooning of fundamentalist Ned Flanders and Springfield's apathy toward Lisa's Jesus-like social activism."

Homer Simpson - Saint or Sinner?

Posted July 28, 2007

8 comments:

Philip Kurian said...

I saw the movie yesterday and it was a disappointment – a few good jokes but otherwise a story line that was quite forgettable. There were some ‘Simpsons’ devotees in the audience that clearly enjoyed it but for the majority it was a bit of a yawn.

I had hoped that one major theme would have been taken as the plot of the movie to be dealt with in the usual Homer Simpson irreverent fashion. But no, that was not the case – there was no consistent political, religious etc point to it.

Given that the wide screen offers one a greater opportunity to explore one’s characters (in this case the Simpsons characters) I think the writers did not rise above the average program offered on TV. Indeed I would venture to add that many of the TV episodes were superior to this movie.

Phil

Helen Wright said...

We have used several of the Simpsons TV episodes in youth class discussions and they were very successful. I think the kids were surprised that what they thought was just a big joke actually had some serious and thoughtful themes behind them.

We used the book (Gospel According to the Simpsons) and basically followed in chapter by chapter first playing the episode and then getting into a discussion on the issues raised.

I agree that the movie is nothing special.

Helen Wright

Avid Reader said...

PBS had an interesting interview on June 27, 2007 with Mark Pinsky (author of The Gospel According to the Simpsons) entitled Religion and the Simpsons

Some of the interesting comments were ….

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: This weekend The Simpsons Movie opened in theaters across the country. It's based on Fox's popular and provocative TV series. Over the years, The Simpsons has become known for its sharp-edged satire. But, as Kim Lawton reports, there's also a surprising focus on spirituality.

KIM LAWTON: They're silly, often irreverent, and sometimes downright wicked. But The Simpsons also may be one of the most interesting examinations of religion in pop culture today.

MARK PINSKY (Author, "The Gospel According to The Simpsons"): The Simpsons say grace at meals. They attend church on Sundays. They read and refer to the Bible, and they pray out loud, although sometimes only under desperate circumstances. The Simpsons is not a show about religion, but it's about a family in which religion plays a part, and in that sense it's really reflective of what most Americans do and feel about religion.

LAWTON: Mark Pinsky is the religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel and author of the bestselling book, The Gospel According to The Simpsons. The new Simpsons Movie builds on the franchise that he says broke ground in dealing with issues of faith on a primetime TV show.

Mr. PINSKY: Except for those, of course, that are built around a religious premise, like Seventh Heaven or Touched by an Angel or Highway to Heaven, for The Simpsons it's just a part of their lives. But in that way it's in marked contrast to most commercial television where religion is almost wholly absent.

LAWTON: In the 18 years it's been on the air, The Simpsons has become a true cultural phenomenon. It's the longest running television sitcom in history, and it is broadcast in more than 70 nations, reaching an estimated audience of 60 million people every week. Pinsky is one of many adult viewers who got drawn into The Simpsons through his children.

Mr. PINSKY: When it comes to popular culture, I'm kind of tough on commercial TV, and I said, "Well, here's the deal. We'll sit together, I'll have the remote, and we'll watch. If it's okay, we'll keep watching." The first thing that I noticed was that it was okay for my kids. The second thing I noticed was there was all this religion in it.

LAWTON: The Simpsons patriarch, Homer, is an often clueless Christian who, Pinsky says, is really a borderline pagan.

HOMER SIMPSON (from The Simpsons): Oh Lord, be honest. Are we the most pathetic family in the universe or what?

SIMPSON FAMILY: Amen.

Mr. PINSKY: His Christianity is sort of fear-based. He often confuses God with Superman. His wife Marge is a really true believer, a sincere believer, willing to make that leap of faith.

LAWTON: Their mouthy, misbehaving son Bart also has a spiritual side.

Mr. PINSKY: Bart, many believe, is the devil incarnate. But when Bart gets in trouble, in deep trouble, he prays, and he prays sincerely. It's not fake, although once Lisa goes by his doorway when he's praying desperately, and she says, "Prayer, the last refuge of a scoundrel."

LISA SIMPSON (from The Simpsons): I don't know who or what God is exactly. All I know is he's a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together, and you owe him big.

LAWTON: Bart's sister Lisa has been through her own spiritual explorations.

Mr. PINSKY: For most of the show's run, she was the voice of mainline Protestantism, the Social Gospel, a skeptical believer but a believer. And finally, when her church became sort of too seeker sensitive, too commercial, she went on a faith journey, and she ended up being a Buddhist, with the help, of course, of the actor Richard Gere.

LAWTON: The Simpson family and most of their neighbors attend the First Church of Springfield.

Mr. PINSKY: It's kind of a mainline Protestant church. They don't define what it is, but they call it the "Presbylutheran" church. The theology is kind of lowest common denominator. The pastor is Reverend Lovejoy, who incidentally does not love joy. He's kind of a venal character. He suffers from preacher burnout. His wife is a shrew. He has money problems. His daughter is a typical preacher's kid, sort of a demon seed. It puts him through an awful lot. So he's an object of satire and ridicule, but underneath there's a lot of profound material about the ministry today.

LAWTON: In fact, The Simpsons has tackled a host of complex theological issues, including salvation, divine omnipotence, the end times, miracles, heaven and hell, cults, religious exclusivity, and the nature of the soul.

Mr. PINSKY: It's hard to remind yourself that a discussion at this level is happening in a cartoon comedy.

LAWTON: One of the favorite themes is religious diversity.

Mr. PINSKY: Ned Flanders, who's the evangelical next door and on the surface is kind of a dufus guy -- he's overzealous, but underneath his heart is really good. And as much scorn and disrespect that Homer heaps on him, Ned always returns it with love. Younger evangelicals around the country, I'm told, have adopted Ned as kind of an unofficial mascot.

LAWTON: There's Krusty the clown, a non-religious Jew who clashes with more traditional Jews. And Apu, the Hindu immigrant who works at Springfield's fictional Kwik-E-Mart convenience store.

Mr. PINSKY: And through him much about Hinduism is explained to people who might not know Hindus. On the surface it's funny, like everything in The Simpsons. But underneath it's very respectful.

LAWTON: Indeed, most of the religious discussion is through humor, but Pinsky says at a closer look it can also be surprisingly sophisticated.

Mr. PINSKY: The critics say that The Simpsons is a show that rewards intelligence, and it's written on many levels, and the more you pay attention and, frankly, the more intelligent you are, the more jokes you'll get. They know the stuff that they are making light of in some ways, and it's a very knowing, insiders' satire.

BART SIMPSON (from The Simpsons): Church, cult? Cult, church? So we get bored someplace else every Sunday. Does this really change our day-to-day life?

LAWTON: The humor is sharp-edged, and over the years there have been complaints from offended religious people.

Mr. PINSKY: Organized religion, the church, the preacher -- they take their whacks like every other institution that The Simpsons deals with -- not as severe as in some shows, I would have to say. At the same time, sincere religious faith and belief [are] never satirized.

LAWTON: But many religious leaders, including some conservative evangelicals, have come to appreciate the Simpsons' treatment of faith.

UNIDENTIFIED RADIO SHOW CALLER (from The Simpsons): "Yes, hi. With all the suffering and injustice in the world, do you ever wonder if God really exists?"

LOVEJOY: Nope.

PRIEST: Not for a second.

RABBI: Not at all.

Mr. PINSKY: The existence of God is never questioned, and there's an inside joke, actually, in The Simpsons that when God appears, unlike most cartoon characters since Walt Disney, God has five fingers. But everybody else in The Simpsons has four fingers: three fingers and a thumb. So it's a sly joke that the writers are making that God is real, but The Simpsons characters are not real.

LAWTON: Religion has a role in the new Simpsons Movie as well, although the film doesn't focus on issues of faith. A pivotal early scene takes place at First Church, and Homer is his usual irreverent self. Bart wishes the evangelical Ned was his father instead of Homer, and indigenous Eskimo spirituality helps save the day. There are themes of family and right-versus-wrong, but this is no fluffy devotional flick. There's profanity, lots of sarcasm, underage drinking and even some cartoon nudity.

HOMER (from The Simpsons Movie, looking at the Bible): This book doesn't have any answers!

LAWTON: The Simpsons' brand of humor isn't for all people of faith, but Pinsky believes the franchise has contributed to the conversation about religion in America, particularly among young people who might otherwise have been turned off by the subject.

Mr. PINSKY: When they're in the commons room or on the sofa on a Sunday night watching an animated comedy, their minds are much more open to things, and even humorous accounts of religion, of faith -- I think their minds are more open to it.

LAWTON: And, Pinsky adds, for good or for ill The Simpsons success is paving the way for other comedies to include religion as well.

Ever
DM

Janet Witherspoon said...

Helen

Can you give me some details of how you used the Simpsons in teaching your youth?

Thanks, Janet

Helen Wright said...

Janet

One of the episodes discussed in the book is entitled “Lisa and the Eight Commandment”. The story involves Homer stealing cable service with Lisa believing this to be wrong.

After viewing the episode we discussed the following questions

1) What were the two reasons Homer used to justify stealing cable?
2) What commandment got Lisa so upset?
3) Was Marge really ‘stealing’ in the grocery store?
4) What two reasons did Homer give to his daughter Lisa to justify stealing cable when Lisa started to question him about it?
5) What commandment might Homer have been breaking when he started to kiss the cable wire behind the TV?
6) What was the question that Lisa asked the minister as she was trying to find out were there any circumstances in which it was OK to steal?
7) What commandment did the minister tell Lisa she might be violating if she turned her father Homer in to the police?
8) What suggestion did the minister make about what Lisa could do to “Honor her father” and yet not approve of his stealing cable?
9) In the bible Jesus is tempted many times. In the program there are two examples of someone trying to tempt another person. What were the two examples? (Clue – one time it was an adult tempting a child and the second time it was a child tempting an adult).
10) Corruption is where one bad act allows another person to do another bad act. There are 3 examples of corruption. What were they?
11) The Ninth commandment was broken twice. Can you name the persons who broke it?
12) What three commandments were mentioned at the very beginning of the episode by the character ‘Moses’.
These questions formed the basis around which the class discussion took place.

Hope this helps

Helen

Phillip Kurian said...

This reviewer agrees with my earlier comment!

During the first fifteen minutes of "The Simpsons Movie," not only did I laugh so hard that my stomach was starting to hurt, but I thought to myself gleefully, "Hmmmm, this movie is going to be a religion bloggers dream!” The story starts off with Marge, Homer and company arriving to church late--to hilarious, standard issue Homer-commentary. And chaos immediately ensues when Gramps has a "religious experience" during the service and starts spouting prophetic statements in between what could only be understood as a spoof on speaking in tongues. As Homer quickly flips through the Bible in search of help, quipping with dismay "What are we gonna do? There aren’t any answers in here!" (he, he), Marge is the only person to take Gramps' rather incomprehensible babbling seriously.

Here is about where the hilarity ends. "The Simpsons Movie" does have funny moments throughout, but clocking in at 105 minutes, audiences may be wishing that the writers had stuck to the 30 minute sitcom format. After the initial laughs, the movie drags on (and on) and never picks up its initial giddiness again. It would be better titled "The Simpsons Family Adventure," since that is what the movie really is. Here are the basics: Lisa has a cause; the town takes it up. Homer screws everything up; the family is in trouble as a result. And then Homer has to figure out how to fix his mess. Oh, if only they’d stopped at minute 15. And alas, there was only about one additional minute to make a religion blogger perk up again: Homer goes on a vision quest. By that point though, my only thought was, "Hmmm. Note to self: Vision Quest. Whatever."

Phil

Neil said...

Helen: What other episodes can be used in this way - which ones did you find of most use in having youth discussions?

Thanks, Neil

Helen Wright said...

Neil

In addition to Lisa & The Eight Commandment the other episodes that are excellent for this purpose are:

Bart Sells His Soul
Lisa The Skeptic
Bart Gets an F
One Fish, Two Fish
When Flanders Failed
Like Father, Like Clown
Life on the Fast Lane
Three Men and a d Comic Book
Lisa's Substitute

A great source of summary material can be obtained at:

http://www.snpp.com/guides/religion.html

Hope this helps
Helen