Religion in The Simpsons
Religion is one of the major themes on the American animated television series The Simpsons. Much of the series' religious humor satirizes aspects of Christianity and religion in general. However, some episodes, such as "Bart Sells His Soul" and "Alone Again, Natura-Diddily", can be interpreted as having a spiritual theme. The show has been both praised and criticized by atheists, agnostics, liberals, conservatives and religious people in general for its portrayal of faith and religion in society.
Although The Simpsons often mocks religion, it has received support from some religious people and groups. In a 2001 article for The Christian Century, John Dart argued that "the enormous popularity of The Simpsons, now in its 12th television season, suggests that religious people have a sense of humor — contrary to the usual wisdom in Hollywood. The program takes more satirical jabs at spiritual matters than any other TV show, yet the erratic cartoon family has an appreciative audience among many people of faith and among many analysts of religion. The reason? Perhaps it’s because The Simpsons is an equal-opportunity satire: it shrewdly targets all sorts of foibles and hypocrisies, not just religious ones. Perhaps it’s also because the show is exceptionally aware of the significant place religion has in the American landscape."
On December 2009, an article published in L'Osservatore Romano, the Holy See's official newspaper, praised The Simpsons for its "realistic" way of dealing with religion. "Homer finds in God his last refuge, even though he sometimes gets His name sensationally wrong. But these are just minor mistakes, after all; the two know each other well", the article said. The Simpson family is often seen attending church, a practice described by Dart as "rarely seen or mentioned in other TV shows." Simpsons creator Matt Groening has also stated that the Simpsons is one of the few shows on television where the family attends church regularly. The characters in the family are often seen praying. William Romanowski, author of the book Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life, noted that "The Simpsons is not dismissive of faith, but treats religion as an integral part of American life. Episodes that I’ve seen are not so much irreverent toward religion, but poke fun at American attitudes and practices."
One episode that heavily features religion is "Bart Sells His Soul" (1995). While discussing The Simpsons treatment of religion in his Drawn to Television book, M. Keith Booker cites a scene from the episode where Milhouse asks Bart what religions have to gain by lying about concepts such as the existence of a soul – and then the scene cuts to Reverend Lovejoy counting his money. Booker believes that this implies that religions create mythologies so that they can gain money from followers. He juxtaposes this with Bart's realization later in the episode that "life suddenly feels empty and incomplete" without a soul, which suggests "either that the soul is real or it is at least a useful fiction". The episode has been used in church courses about the nature of a soul in Connecticut and in the United Kingdom, and was shown by a minister in Scotland in one of his sermons. A 2005 report on religious education in secondary schools by the UK education watchdog group Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) noted that the episode was being used as a teaching tool.
Most of the town, including the Simpsons, attend church on Sundays, indicating that religion is an important part of everyday life. The most religious characters on the show are Ned Flanders and Reverend Timothy Lovejoy. Flanders, a graduate of Oral Roberts University, is an ultra-conservative Christian and appears to express little tolerance for other faiths and sexualities, claiming they are all hedonistic and will go to Hell. Flanders is still perhaps the most genuinely compassionate character on the show and is an exemplar of charity and the golden rule. He usually has a positive outlook on life and does not go out of his way to express his intolerance. Lovejoy seems to resent the fact that Dr Julius Hibbert's family joined the first African Methodist Episcopal Church of Springfield, while Ned tells Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who is a Hindu, that he might as well be praying to Hawkman though, in a Season 9, Lovejoy performs a Hindu wedding ceremony. In another episode, Lovejoy says to Ned Flanders, during an annoying phone call, "Ned, have you considered any of the other major religions? They're all pretty much the same."
Although Homer attends church, has been baptized and has even met God, he has indicated that he is not religious. In The Simpsons Movie, before entering the church, he says, "Relax, those pious morons are too busy talking to their phony-baloney God." Lisa Simpson was portrayed as Christian in the episode "Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment" and an atheist in "Lisa the Skeptic", however, since "She of Little Faith", she has been a Buddhist. She still accepts her family's beliefs, goes to church with them and celebrates Christian holidays. She briefly dabbled in Wicca in "Rednecks and Broomsticks".
God has appeared several times, with a five-fingered hand (compared to other characters' four fingers), watching over and sometimes interacting with the show's characters (usually Flanders or Homer). In many episodes, Jesus is portrayed as a man with a long brown beard and white clothing, particularly when Homer is sent to heaven. The Hindu deity Vishnu sits in the center of the earth, controlling the world with numerous levers. There are also numerous references to the Hindu deity Ganesh, mostly by Homer when interacting with Apu. The Devil appeared in the episode Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment, while other episodes have shown both Ned Flanders and Mr. Burns as The Devil. There has also been references to Krishna and even Spongebob Squarepants in Deity form.
The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism
The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism (the name is a cross between Reformed Church, Presbyterianism and Lutheranism) is the fictional Protestant Christian denomination that Rev. Lovejoy preaches at the First Church of Springfield. The church is the town's main place of worship, which most Springfielders attend, though it is not the only church in Springfield (AME, Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Greek Orthodox churches also exist). The name is a parody of Protestant reformed churches branching off into other denominations and movements.
Lovejoy is a member of the clergy of Presbylutheranism, founded by Martin Presbyluther when he left his Three Suggestions under the Pope's windshield wiper. The denomination, headquartered in Michigan City, Indiana, is led by "His Holiness, the Parson", who is also the elected head of the National Congress of Deacons.
The Schism of Lourdes in 1573 was over the Presbylutherans' right to attend church with wet hair. That right has since been abolished. The church is at odds with Catholicism (even though they stopped feuding with each other). Rev. Lovejoy has a rivalry with a local Episcopal church, and he engages in a brawl with a Catholic priest after an exchange of hostilities. Lovejoy dislikes Unitarians. When he offers the Simpson children a bowl of Unitarian ice cream at a church social function and Lisa points out that it is empty, Lovejoy indicates that is the point.
Smaller, regional religions, such as those of the south Pacific, are seen as inferior, and missionary activity is employed to change the beliefs of aboriginal peoples. The church also has enemies on a social level, including monogamous homosexuals and stem cell research. However, the Presbylutherans have members of varying levels of religiosity and devotion, and are generally not at odds with modernism. It could be seen as a centrist Mainline Protestant church.
The Movementarians are a brainwashing cult, which for a brief time ensnared many of Springfield's citizens in the episode "The Joy of Sect", making them sign over their savings and houses and then work picking lima beans. The Movementarians are led by a mysterious figure known as "The Leader", who promises to fly them to a planet called Blisstonia by a space ship. It is later shown that the spaceship is a pedal-powered aircraft with The Leader flying it. He tries to depart with everyone's money, but The Leader crashes on Cletus Spuckler's front porch. Cletus then relieves the Leader of the town's money at gunpoint.
Springfield is home to a small but active Jewish community. The most prominent members include Krusty the Clown, his father Rabbi Krustofsky, and an old Jewish retiree who is known as Old Jewish Man. Krusty has his Bar Mitzvah in one episode. Krusty, however, is not very observant. A montage of pictures at the end of a Simpsons Christmas episode shows Krusty lying intoxicated in the gutter, while Rabbi Krustofsky and the old Jewish retiree run into each other at a local Chinese restaurant on Christmas morning. In the episode "Today I am a Clown", Krusty learns he is not quite Jewish because he never had a Bar Mitzvah. In that episode, his Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, "A Briss Before Dying" parodies Jewish circumcision. Itchy is about to be circumcised by Scratchy, but instead cuts him into pieces, melts and turns him into a goblet and stamps on him, shouting "Mazel Tov!" Krusty back-announces "And that's what I believe in now."
Excluding the odd reference by Rev. Lovejoy to "churches, synagogues and mosques," condemning Krusty the Clown (who is Jewish) for corrupting the young in one episode, the religion of Islam or Muslim characters had not featured heavily in the show's history until the 2008 episode "Mypods and Boomsticks". In the episode "Marge Simpson in: 'Screaming Yellow Honkers'", Homer proclaims, "I'm gonna die! Jesus, Allah, Buddha, I love you all!" In "The Seven-Beer Snitch", the Simpsons go to see "Song of Shelbyville." There is a lyric in the main song that says that Shelbyville is home to Christians, Muslims, and Jews "although not many of the last two." This makes a Rabbi and an Imam in attendance feel uncomfortable. In "Mayored to the Mob", Homer's bodyguard instructor says, "As a bodyguard your only loyalty is to your protectee; not to your family, not to your country, not to Muhammad." To which Homer asks, "Even during Ramadan?". In "Grift of the Magi" Krusty touched upon many religions by saying, "So, have a merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, kwazy Kwanzaa, a tip-top Tết, and a solemn, dignified Ramadan." In the episode Holidays of Future Passed, Sharia law is mentioned and Millhouse is seen wearing a Niqab at University of Michigan–Dearborn (Dearborn, Michigan being the city with the largest Muslim community in the US).
Episodes with focus on religious topics
- "Bart Gets an F" (season two, 1990) – Christianity
- "Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment" (season two, 1991) – Christianity
- "Like Father, Like Clown" (season three, 1991) – Judaism
- "Homer the Heretic" (season four, 1992) – Christianity and faith
- "Bart Sells His Soul" (season seven, 1995) – Christianity and existence of the soul
- "In Marge We Trust" (season eight, 1997) -Christianity
- "Lisa the Skeptic" (season nine, 1997) – faith, the belief of angels, and Judgement Day
- "The Joy of Sect" (season nine, 1998) – sects and cults
- "Simpsons Bible Stories" (season ten, 1999) – Judaism and Christianity
- "Faith Off" (season eleven, 2000) – faith healing
- "I'm Goin' to Praiseland" (season twelve, 2001) – Christianity
- "She of Little Faith" (season thirteen, 2001) – Buddhism
- "Pray Anything" (season fourteen, 2003) – Christianity
- "Today I am A Klown" (season fifteen, 2003) – Judaism
- "Homer and Ned's Hail Mary Pass" (season sixteen, 2005) – Christianity
- "Thank God It's Doomsday" (season sixteen, 2005) – Christianity and Judgement Day
- "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star" (season sixteen, 2005) – Catholicism
- "Simpsons Christmas Stories" (season seventeen, 2005) – Christianity
- "The Monkey Suit" (season seventeen, 2006) – Creationism vs. Evolution
- "Mypods and Boomsticks" (season twenty, 2008) – Islam
- "Gone Maggie Gone" (season twenty, 2009) – Catholicism
- "Rednecks and Broomsticks" (season twenty-one, 2009) – Wicca
- "The Greatest Story Ever D'ohed" (season twenty-one, 2010) – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
- "A Tree Grows in Springfield" (season twenty-four, 2012) – Faith
- Bowler, Gerry (2001). "God and the Simpsons". Talkback. Archived from the original on 2008-06-15. Retrieved 2008-11-08.
- Dart, John (2001-01-31). "Simpsons Have Soul". The Christian Century. Retrieved 2011-11-26.
- "Vatican praises 'The Simpsons'". Business Standard. December 26, 2009.
- Booker, M. Keith (2006). Drawn to television: prime-time animation from the Flintstones to Family guy. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 65. ISBN 0-275-99019-2.
- The Hartford Courant staff (February 21, 2004). "Religion Notes". The Hartford Courant (The Hartford Courant Co.). p. D4.
- Radnedge, Aidan (February 10, 2004). "Sunday school turns to Homer Simpson". East Sussex County Publications.
- Aberdeen Press & Journal staff (October 9, 2004). "Kirk minister puts Simpsons in pulpit". Aberdeen Press & Journal. Retrieved 2009-04-02.[dead link] (archived at AccessMyLibrary.com)
- Harris, Sarah (January 1, 2006). "On 7th day, God created...". Sunday Territorian. p. 047.
- Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein (writers) & Wes Archer (director) (February 19, 1995). "Bart vs. Australia". The Simpsons. Season 6. Episode 16. Fox Broadcasting Company.
- Bill Odenkirk (writer) & Chris Clements (director) (April 28, 2013). "Pulpit Friction". The Simpsons. Season 24. Episode 18. Fox Broadcasting Company.
- Joel H. Cohen (writer) & Chuck Sheetz (director) (March 29, 2009). "Wedding for Disaster". The Simpsons. Season 20. Episode 15. Fox Broadcasting Company.
- Matt Warburton (writer) & Michael Polcino (director) (May 15, 2005). "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star". The Simpsons. Season 16. Episode 21. Fox Broadcasting Company.
- Dana Gould (writers) & Michael Marcantel (director) (March 19, 2006). "Bart Has Two Mommies". The Simpsons. Season 17. Episode 14. Fox Broadcasting Company.
- John Swartzwelder (writer) & Michael Polcino (director) (May 19, 2002). "The Frying Game". The Simpsons. Season 13. Episode 21. Fox Broadcasting Company.
- Ron Hauge (writer) & Steven Dean Moore (director) (February 20, 2000). "Missionary: Impossible". The Simpsons. Season 11. Episode 15. Fox Broadcasting Company.
- Fuchs, John Andreas (2010). "Showing Faith: Catholicism in American TV Series". Moravian Journal of Literature and Film 2 (1): 79–98.
- Pinsky, Mark I. (August 2001). The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 164. ISBN 0-664-22419-9.