Why The Simpsons went to church (and what they found there)

Donna Bowman

Donna Bowman
August 27, 2014

The everyday face of American civil religion has rarely been as thoroughly portrayed on television as it has been on The Simpsons.

August 27, 2014

Interesting, but what is it that Marge and L:isa Simpson do that supposedly furthers the work of the kingdom of God? Giving us that information would be helpful. After all, merely wanting to be "moral well-meaning citizens" (Marge) or "eternally questioning" (Lisa) is nothing more than what a lot of people have done since the Fall.

Donna Bowman
August 27, 2014

It's a good point, and the answer I think is what the writers or creators mean by having them be this kind of citizen-Christians or community-Christians. I think they mean to say, contrary to your implication, that a lot of Americans try to further the work of the kingdom of God by being generally good people, and by interrogating themselves and others to ask what that kind of goodness requires. Sure, from some theological perspectives that's not enough, but I believe the creative team would find those perspectives just the kind of thing they want to lampoon.

John Thompson
August 27, 2014

One word: <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUnH9NECSUU">"Sacrelicious"</a>

August 27, 2014

Nice piece. Is there anything different about Family Guy's depiction of church-going suburbanites? I've watched a ton of Simpsons but not so much of FG and I wonder if there's something that is different.

August 27, 2014

This is an insightful commentary. Thanks for sharing, Donna.

I think there's something similar to say about depictions of mainline Protestantism in the similar-era show King of the Hill...except it actually presses some of the "controversy" buttons associated with it: female Methodist pastor, for instance, who actually espouses a kind of liberal religious pluralism (such as when Bobby is suspected to be the reincarnated spirit of a Buddhist lama). I always thought it interesting how the Hills "go to church" but are self-consciously hypocrites and seem quite comfortable being that way. It makes me think about what life was like for much of my childhood, when "going to church" was, as you say, the cultural norm--it was just what families did, because "you're supposed to."

I think you're right: today the culture is different. Today there's much more of a "go if you want, but no one cares if you don't" attitude about religion. It used to be that people talked about the ones who never went to church. Now people talk about the ones who do.

August 28, 2014

Big fan of the Simpsons here, and I do love the fact that church-going is a big part of their lives. I've read a lot of stuff about the "theology of the Simpsons" over the years, but I've come to the conclusion that we don't need to read too much into what the Simpsons family can teach us about God or living morally or theological topics.

To me, the Simpsons' genius is how it is a reflection of our society, family and our culture. Nothing more, nothing less. It's a great snapshot of how "we" look. A beer-drinking schlubby dad, 2.5 kids, an often-unfulfilled stay-at-home mom, a bully hiding deeper pain, an immigrant party store owner, a highly frustrated principal, a philandering politician, corporate domination, glorification of violence on TV...and mainline Protestantism. These are the things of average America. The fact that Christian faith is included in this snapshot is fantastic, but not really theologically deep.

The Simpsons are the average family living (more or less) average lives in an average community with more average people around them. They're not especially moral or a-moral people, good or evil, right or wrong. And while they're not especially great role models, they're also not the hell-raising heathens the pearl-clutchers would've had us believe in the early 90s.

The characters wrestle with faith, pray, sin, hurt each other, love each other, sometimes they learn from their mistakes, sometimes they don't. Basically, they seem to be the perfect reflection of our own struggling, broken selves. They're just a lot more funny than the rest of us. Instead of looking for messages of hope and faith, I'd rather just appreciate the genius of how the Simpsons' writers have nailed average American relationships and brokenness week after week (more or less) for the past 25 years.

Nathaniel Van Denend
August 30, 2014

My favorite Simpson's episode was when Ned Flander's boy was playing a new video game called "Bible Blast." His character shot Bibles at pagans to make them Christians. (There is some social commentary there...) He invites Bart to play. Bart blasts away and his bible shot glazes a nearby pagan. Ned's son doesn't miss a beat..."You only nicked him and made him a Unitarian."

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