Around 1990, when conservatives and other like-minded squares started shrieking about the crude, sassy new animated series The Simpsons,they of course jumped the proverbial gun. (“I don’t think anybody should be proud to be an underachiever” is how my own grade 6 teacher explained her ban of Simpsons shirts, which then mostly featured Bart spouting anti-establishment slogans.) The Simpsons, like many productions made by classic cartoon houses Disney, Hanna-Barbera or Pixar, follows the classic cartoon structure: there may be sight gags, questionable displays of violence, pop-culture asides and pithy one-liners, but each show’s heart aches with morality, the constant choice between right and wrong.
As syndicated episodes take on a distinctly holiday feel until month’s end, it’ll be hard to miss the squirm-inducing “Marge Be Not Proud” in which Bart steals a video game from the Try N Save. When Marge finds out, Bart steadies himself for a grounding, but she doesn’t even yell. “What’s the point?” she asks. It’s one of the worst reactions a parent can have—disappointment. Later, Marge accosts Bart when she sees he’s hiding something in his coat. It’s a picture of himself, a gift for her, since he screwed up the family’s holiday portrait. She softens, realizing her son made a mistake and isn’t a bad person.
From morality, it’s a short step to religion. (Look up “morality” in a thesaurus and you’ll find churchy words like “purity,” “righteousness” and “chastity” next to it.) A scan through 16 seasons of the longest-running animated series in the history of television finds at least one episode in each devoted to the discussion, deconstruction and dilemmas of organized religion.
Though these episodes specifically focus on the ideologies of religions including Christianity (the Simpson family’s faith, save Lisa, who is a Buddhist), Judaism (Krusty the Clown is the son of a rabbi) and Hinduism (Apu), the show is full of God references and piss-taking one-liners about religion. Homer mentions, while parasailing, that he wants to punch God in the face; prays to “Jebus” to save him from becoming a missionary; and calls God “Killy McGee.” Bart, like Homer, is a convenient Christian, only using his faith when he’s in trouble (“Dear Lord, please strike these mountain folk dead,” he prays when he and Lisa are discovered by rural citizens while lost on a field trip). Marge, the most devout Simpson, nonetheless threatens to fuck up the church bake sale when Lisa’s kittens keep dying.
Christianity is in the fabric of the Simpsons as much as Patty and Selma’s unshaved legs, or Duff beer. Outside the show, there are whole volumes dedicated to the discussion of it, including Mark Pinsky’s The Gospel According to The Simpsons and William Irwin’s The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! Of Homer, plus a sizable passage in Calgary author Chris Turner’s new tome Planet Simpson. The arguments and examinations in those books go very deep if you need some bedtime reading. But underachievers can grasp the show’s take on faith by looking at just two primary, contrasting examples: Ned Flanders and Lisa Simpson.
Ned Flanders is the theoretical theological centre of Springfield—more so than even the often uninterested Reverend Lovejoy—but he’s the kind of do-gooding, preachy church-goer not many of us could stand to be around.
He’s made bearable by his tireless cheer, as a foil for Homer and especially the diddlies (“I’m a murderer!” he shrieks when he accidentally kills his wife’s house plant. “A mur-diddly-urderer!”). And his faith, which has wavered only in the worst of situations—like the time a hurricane totalled his house—has saved many an ass, usually Homer’s, more than once.
In 1992’s “Homer the Heretic,” Homer skips church and sits around in his robe watching football while his family endures a winter service without heat. His day goes so well he swears off church forever. The next Sunday, he falls asleep smoking a cigar, which drops onto the porno mag he’d been reading and sets his house on fire. Ned saves him twice—once by pushing him out a window onto a mattress below, and again when Homer hits the mattress and bounces back into the burning house through the living room window.
When Homer is awarded the deed to the First Church of Springfield in a lawsuit (“Pray Anything,” 2003), he moves the family in and kicks out all parishioners, Alcoholics Anonymous members and Reverend Lovejoy, turning the place into a non-stop party. One day it starts raining and doesn’t stop, leaving most of Springfield stranded on top of the church, waiting for the flood to take them. It is Ned’s prayer that stops the rain.
Ned himself must be saved in “In Marge We Trust” when Marge, who’s been doling out advice to a disillusioned Reverend Lovejoy’s congregation as the Listen Lady, tells him to get rid of a trio of loitering teenagers by asking them to leave. They take offense and chase him through town on their mopeds. He ends up at the zoo, terrorized by baboons, and his peril finally forces Reverend Lovejoy to give a shit about people again. Lovejoy handily defeats the baboons and wins back his audience with the story of his triumph.
Lisa Simpson is Springfield’s literal moral centre. While she, like Ned, can be self-righteous and preachy, unlike Ned she has her age—eight—to fall back on. Any lapses into childlike behaviour (“Where’d you get five bucks?” she asks Bart. “I don’t have five bucks.”) are forgivable, but they’re often quickly balanced by a remarkably adult reaction anyway. (In that same episode, “Bart Sells His Soul,” Lisa is dismayed to learn Milhouse bought Bart’s soul for the five dollars. In a restaurant scene she tortures him by saying grace, giving thanks for every single Simpson’s soul except Bart’s, but ultimately buys it back for him.)
Lisa’s faith in the world is lost early in the series, when she wins a trip to Washington as the regional winner of an essay contest on why America is great and witnesses a US senator taking a bribe. That skepticism would develop in “The Springfield Files”—a terrific send-up of what was then Fox’s other big show, The X-Files—when a drunk Homer has a run-in with what he thinks is an alien.
Lisa quotes Young Skeptic magazine and scoffs that alien encounters only happen to losers with unfulfilling lives, refusing to believe that there is not a reasonable explanation for Homer’s “alien.” She turns out to be right, but through two religion-specific episodes, this attitude helps to define Lisa’s personal philosophy.
In 1997’s “Lisa the Skeptic,” she discovers a full skeleton on an archaeological dig. There’s something odd about its shape, however—it appears to have wings. Springfield’s citizens instantly deduce Lisa has discovered an angel and the town whips itself into an evangelical fury, especially when the angel appears upright on a hill with the words The End Will Come At Sundown carved into its base.
While the rest of the town prays and prepares for the end, Lisa, who can’t bring herself to believe in the angel, doggedly pursues an alternative theory, submitting a bone chip for tests, which prove inconclusive. (“I never did the tests,” guest voice Stephen Jay Gould admits.) She gathers with the rest of the town for Armageddon, warning them about how stupid they’ll feel when nothing happens, and witnesses the angel taking flight upon hearing the voice of God. But again, Lisa is right—the “angel” was planted by developers to promote a new shopping mall.
In 2001’s “She of Little Faith,” Homer accidentally sets fire to the church with an errant rocket. To pay for the repairs, the church turns control over to Mr. Burns, who sells ad space on the walls and Reverend Lovejoy’s robe, replaces the pews with movie-theatre-style seats, adds a jumbotron and a change-making kiosk for the collection plate. Everybody loves the new changes except Lisa, who blasts Reverend Lovejoy for dressing the church up “like the Whore of Babylon” and then announces that she’s leaving the church forever.
Lisa spends the episode searching for a new religion, finally settling on Buddhism, the principles of which are explained to her by Richard Gere, who tells her Buddhists respect all religions so she can celebrate Christmas with her family.
“So you’re just going to pay lip service to our church?” Marge gasps.
“Yep,” Lisa replies.“That’s all I ever wanted,” says Homer.