By: Jack Weingart
Airing in seventy countries around the world, The Simpsons is undoubtedly a pop culture phenomenon. The animated characters of Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa have more clout than some people in real life, and the show itself has become a “textbook example of modern cultural marketing and synergy” (Pinsky 2007).
Set in the fictional city of Springfield, USA, The Simpsons is a parody of American culture, society, television, and countless aspects of the human condition. Created by Matt Groening for the Fox Broadcasting Company, the show has won dozens of awards in its twenty-one seasons, including 24 Primetime Emmy Awards, 26 Annie Awards and a Peabody Award (Pinsky 2007).
The Simpsons depicts issues and themes faced by many people in modern society. Interestingly enough, one of the show’s most influential yet subtle portrayals is religion. While the average viewer may not realize how often the show critiques or features religious themes, it definitely is there.
According to a study conducted by John Heeren of California State University at San Bernardino, religious content appears in nearly 70 percent of the shows. After watching the first eleven years of the series, Heeren went on to count at least one religious reference in 58 percent of the shows and “religion as the context” in 11 percent (Dart 2001).
As a family, the Simpson’s represent the religious practices and beliefs of most Americans. “Individually, family members represent a spectrum of belief, from Homer’s fear-based neo-paganism, to Marge’s true belief, to Lisa’s disenchantment with mainline, socially conscious Protestantism, in favour of Buddhism” (Pinsky 2007).
Whereas most other primetime TV shows rarely portray religious practices, churchgoing is a regular Sunday morning routine for the Simpson family. Additionally, prayer, reading the bible, and even talking to God are all common activities.
Two other characters in the series also help to keep the religious themes rolling. Ned Flanders is the overly cheerful evangelical next door neighbour, and Reverend Lovejoy is the Protestant pastor of the First Church of Springfield, where nearly everyone in town goes.
While The Simpsons lampoon mostly Lutheran and Presbyterian traditions, Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism all have their fair share of satirical jabs in episodes.
Al Jeans, one of the show’s writers, claims that the show’s staff did not set out on the show with any sort of agenda. “But very early on we showed characters going to church, and we began exploring that venue, which was obviously very rich...As writers, we are always looking for aspects of life that are under-covered or under-represented on TV, and religion is definitely one of them” (Pinsky 2001).
As an unexpected trailblazer in terms of bringing religion into the living rooms of millions of people across the world, the religious community has taken notice and even a liking to the show. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is among the show’s best known fans. Williams has described The Simpsons as “one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility, and virtue” (Pinksy 2007). Furthermore, during the same two-week period in early 2001, The Simpsons appeared on the covers of both Christianity Today and The Christian Century (Pinsky 2007).
The Simpsons may mock religious institutions, but the show has always respected sincere faith and has never questioned the existence of God. As a result, those in the religious world are able to laugh, understand, and even relate to the satire. The magazine of Evangelicals for Social Actions has gone on to say that “we need to appreciate The Simpsons because we need a sense of humour. Without it, we lose the alibility to criticize ourselves” (Beiler 2001).
Tony Campolo, professor emeritus at Eastern University and the founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, is another big fan of the show. Campolo argues that while the series “can easily be mistaken for an assault that ridicules middle-class Christianity. It is not! What the show is really depicting through the antics of The Simpsons is the character of some of the people who are in our churches” (Pinsky 2007).
Because such weighty matters like the continuing theological tension between Protestants and Catholics are coming from cartoon characters, religious viewers and those with no particular interest in faith are able to appreciate and laugh at the show’s interpretations.
By treating all religions humorously, depicting faith as an integral part of American life, and using comedy to shed light on some weighty issues, The Simpsons has been able to explore faith and one’s relationship with God more so than the majority of programs in the mainstream media.
By naturalizing religious practices, reflecting the views of millions of faithful Americans, and informing people across the world about religion, the show has undoubtedly helped people construct their religious identity. These facts alone highlight how influential popular culture can be. Without it, who knows what viewers would know about religious practices and principles and where the mainstream media would be in depicting, framing and mocking religion.
Beiler, Ryan. "Don't Have a Sacred Cow, Man!" Sojourners Magazine 1 Sep. 2001: ProQuest Religion, ProQuest. Web. 14 Aug. 2009.
Dart, John. "Simpsons Have Soul." The Christian Century 31 Jan. 2001: ProQuest Religion, ProQuest. Web. 14 Aug. 2009.
Pinsky, Mark I. "The Gospel According to the Simpsons." Sojourners Magazine 1 Sep. 2001: ProQuest Religion, ProQuest. Web. 14 Aug. 2009.
Pinksy, Mark I. "The Simpsons: It's Funny 'Cause it's True." Tikkun 1 July 2007: ProQuest Religion, ProQuest. Web. 14 Aug. 2009.