Well, I’m moving on from sociopolitical commentary to socioreligious commentary. I know many of you are probably thinking to yourselves, ‘What about Brave New World, 1984, Haze, Star Wars, Insert Whichever Title Here, you can’t leave those out.” I agree, there are a great many titles which should not be left out of a complete discussion of sociopolitical commentary in fiction.
Unfortunately I am bored with writing about sociopolitical commentary (those of you who know me personally may connect this to some of my recent attitudes on politics in general, you would be right). I would much rather write about socioreligious commentary both because it is more interesting (to me) but also because I think it is of more practical value. So, this is my brief explanation for my apparently sudden switch of topics…now on to the Simpsons.
Like most of you, I’m going to assume, I grew up being told that the Simpsons was a naughty, vile, bad, evil program that no good Christian, or even person who considered him/herself vaguely moral, would ever watch (I hear the same things now about South Park and Family Guy*, both of which I intend to discuss at some point). Being a mischevious boy I therefore watched it as often as possible and enjoyed it immensely because it is a very well done program. However it was not until one of my college professors pointed out the deeper social commentary in the program that I thought to actually look beyond the humor. I enjoyed the Simpsons for the entertainment it provided; I love the Simpsons for the great value of the satire contained within.
Though Matt Groening, Simpsons‘ creator, now professes to be an agnostic he grew up in a Mennonite family and the show** seems to have been a forum for Groening to air his difficulties with Christianity. I spent part of the afternoon discussing with a friend whether or not it was appropriate for Christians to view satire of their religion created by non-Christians. Though I will say that not all Christians should watch all satire my answer to this question was a definite yes. In fact I think it is utterly necessary, just as Americans should understand how citizens of foreign countries see them, so should Christians understand how followers of different belief systems see them.
The greatest benefit for the Simpsons in this matter is that the vast majority of the satire directed at Christianity is completely deserved. Let us examine four important characters around whom the majority of the religious satire in the program takes place, Homer Simpson, Marge Simpson, Ned Flanders, and Reverand Lovejoy.
Homer is one of the early icons of the worthless father figure in television media. He is fat, lazy, stupid, careless, and unconcerned about anything but beer, his next meal, and whether his favorite tv show is on. His religious nature is all but non-existent, despite multiple personal conversations with both God and Satan. The great difference between Homer Simpson and many, more modern, examples of this stereotype is that in the case of Homer these attributes are often set in comparison to more worthy men.
While in many recent sitcoms the worthless father, or worthless husband, is presented as normal, acceptable, and good in the Simpsons it is presented in a very negative light. In our context Homer represents the irreverant husband with little morality or interest in God, married to a deeply devoted woman. I have known some ‘Homers’ in my life, though I am normally more familiar with the women who suffer them. Homer’s actions concerning the church ring a telling note on how often modern Christianity fails to connect with the male of the species.
Marge, on the other hand, is a competant, caring, devoted, and religiously devout woman who is often hardpressed to deal with her family. Again a character familiar from real life, Marge plays the roll of the ‘goodguy’ in the Simpsons, though she often also plays the roll of ‘police officer’ and ‘moral conscience’ for her family which sometimes makes her come across as over-moralizing a situation. Marge often stands in comparison to her husband in the area of religious devotion, as well as in the area of intellectual ability.
Ned Flanders***, or just Flanders, is the Simpson’s annoyingly over religious neighbor. He, and his family, are set up as the pathetic perfect people who are ruled by fear of somehow winning God’s disapproval. Ned is often harping on Homer for his immoral or ammoral actions**** and inviting the Simpsons to some overly Christian game or event*****. Ned is also extremely needy, several episodes feature the realtionship between Flanders and Reverand Lovejoy.
This relationship is one of Flanders’ emotional and spiritual reliance on Lovejoy, to the point of running to him at least once a day with some ‘spiritual crisis’ that he really should be able to deal with himself. Having to deal with this in my current employment****** I can completely understand the callousness of Reverand Lovejoy’s character. He spends so much of his time dealing with Flanders’ nonsense that he cannot even recognize an actual spiritual need when it is presented to him.
Reverand Lovejoy is the head minister of the Simpson’s church. He is a perfect picture of a burnt out pastor, a man who once cared about his flock deeply but is now so overworked, underappreciated, and just plain tired that he simply doesn’t have the energy to care any longer. Often times Lovejoy is painted in a very negative light, however, having both worked and volunteered in ministry settings and known other who have done the same for much longer, I can completely understand this character…even commiserate with him. This is not to say that it is ok to stop caring, more that sometimes a person needs a break. I think that if Lovejoy took a break from Flanders for a year or two he would come back a very different man.
Lovejoy wants to care about his people, he wants to be a good minister and do right by them, the problem is that he can’t…mostly because of Flanders and others like him. One of my favorite episodes of the Simpsons deals with Reverand Lovejoy. In this episode we are given his story, how he came to Springfield with a deep love of ministry and of people, how he was full of passion and an overwhelming desire to bless his people. Then came Flanders and all the happiness, hope, love, and joy were sucked out of Lovejoy’s life and what we now see is all that is left. I have to admit that of these four Reverand Lovejoy is the one with whom I can most closely associate myself.
All of these characters, among others, are powerful pictures of deep problems within the Christian faith that need to be addressed. The show deals with other religions, though less extensively, almost as well as it deals with the Christian faith, with which the writers are obviously the most familiar. All being said, or in the case of the Simpsons seen, it is an excellent example of religous satire, one with which I wish more Christians were familiar.
*About a year ago I actually had a new acquaintance inform me that I could not possibly be a Christian because I did not consider watching either of these programs sin of the worst nature.
**I am speaking here of the early seasons of the show, lately it has sadly lapsed into a model more centered on garnering laughs than speaking to the important issues of the day.
***I told my friend, truthfully, that I know more ‘Flanders’ in real life, both personally and through my job, than any other character in the show. Christians need to watch the Simpsons even if only to understand the full effect their Flanderesque lifestyles have on the people around them.
****This allows any Christian viewers a wonderful opportunity to understand just how effective this common tactic is not.
*****I think my favorite instance is when Ned forces Bart to play a ‘Christian’ version of some candylandesque game which features, if I am remembering correctly, getting Moses to the promised land. I love this because I have actually seen games of striking similarity for sale by Christian distributors, often of poorer quality than the original game. I have some vehemence against the idea of Christians creating games/music/movies/etc intended only for other Christians (another issue entirely), however if you plan to do this at least put out a quality product with some originality in it. Taking Monopoly, naming it Bibleopoly, and replacing all of the section names with places from the bible does not make it a Christian game, it makes it a secular game with a Christian name.
******For instance yesterday I dealt with a man who told me to ‘F’ off and threatened to kill me. A woman who wanted the ‘Skeletors’ removed from her closet. A woman who told me ‘I want prayer restore’…still trying to figure out what that one means. A woman who was suspended from her job because ‘demonic spirits lied to my bosses and told them I cussed out a customer and stole money’. A woman who wanted prayer for a friend who is going to court tomorrow and his wife who is having knee surgery…this last is remarkable because apparently this couple have been in court and knee surgery respectively every day for the past eight months. As well as the ‘Pray for James’ (name has been changed) lady who refuses to tell me who James is, what he needs prayer for, or anything else about him…she calls multiple times every day. This is just to name a few of the more interesting examples.