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Blog Entries on Religion in The Simpsons

It pushes a few agendas and takes a few digs at religion (or at least at its flawed practitioners) but I find it hard to take offence at The Simpsons. Two of the "religious" episodes turned up last week on the innumerable reruns on RTE 2 and Channel 4. In "I'm Going to Praiseland" (Channel 4, Wednesday of last week) the indefatigable Ned Flanders decides to set up a Christian Theme Park (a dig I'd say at those Evangelicals who try to Christianise popular culture). A gospel singer laments that her band had changed from gospel to pop - they just changed "Jesus" to "baby" in their songs. But, not surprisingly, the venture fails. At one stage people praying at the statue of the late Maude Flanders get visions of Heaven - we could relate to that I suppose we all have our own visualisations. The comic store sci-fi man imagines Heaven as an episode of Star Trek, Disco Stu meets Frank Sinatra at a heavenly disco (after St Peter helps him skip the queue), but for Sinatra that's hell! Entertaining though the visions are it turns out they are only hallucinations brought about by a gas leak. Oh well.
In "Bart Sells His Soul" (RTE 2 last Thursday), cynical Bart is hard up for cash and sells his soul to friend Millhouse for five dollars. Later he offers to sell his conscience and even his sense of decency. But gradually the loss of soul has a detrimental effect - automatic doors won't open for him, his breath leaves no fog on the shop's ice cream freezer, he looses his sense of humour. A dream sequence (always worth a try if you want to try something wacky) sees all his friends playing happily with their souls, leaving him miserable while his soul rows a boat for Millhouse. Eventually Bart is desperate to get his soul back and when he does, thanks to the love of his sister he gobbles down the soul-selling contract. A religious believer could have no complaint about such a ringing endorsement of the existence of the soul, though people looking for orthodoxy might quail at Lisa's suggestion that perhaps people are not born with a soul but have to earn it. But then, she is only 8!

With constant repeats on RTE and Channel 4 one can get overdosed on the Simpsons, but to be fair it takes a lot of repeating to drain the humour out of it. Last weekend both channels showed The Simpsons Movie, and like a lot of comedy shows transferring to the big screen it was a questionable exercise - yes, the movie was funny, but it didn't offer much more than a typical bunch of episodes shown back to back. As always there was an amount of religious content - and while you might welcome films that show religion as a common part of life (airbrushed out of most American shows) you'd smart at the sharp barbs thrown at believers. The story began on a Sunday morning with Homer once again grumbling about going to church - why, he says, can't he be allowed worship God in his own way - "like praying like hell on my death bed". He grouches about Rev Lovejoy's congregation, "pious morons" with their "phoney baloney God". Grandpa Simpson starts speaking in tongues about some apocalyptic event, and wouldn't you know, it was to be an environmental disaster. The show often pokes fun at those believers who are big into "the end times". There was one hilarious scene when the end of the world was nigh (yet again) - the believers abandoned the church and headed for the bar, while the drinkers rushed out of the bar and made for the church. The sign on the church said "We Told You So"!
While Ned Flanders was presented, as usual, as a Holy Joe, he is also portrayed as the most human and caring of the Springfield folks - providing such a stable father figure that Bart wants him as father instead, but only for a while of course. Yes, its mildly crude and borderline irreverent, but its definitely funny, and even thought provoking. And suitably for the time that's in it, it gave an outing to the idea of "epiphany" - Homer must get a deep insight into his selfishness or he won't be able to save Springfield and win his family back. And was there every any doubt about the outcome?

A recent episode of The Simpsons on RTE 2 was of particular interest to Catholics. In this episode Bart was expelled and had to find an alternative school, which turned out to be a Catholic school. There was a sort of a compliment to Catholic education ("the most affordable private schools") followed by a huge dose of Catholic (and Irish) stereotypes. For starters the teacher was a ruler-wielding tyrant nun with an Irish accent - at one stage Bart moved back his desk to avoid getting a thump of her yardstick, but due to his poor grasp of measurement moved back only 33 inches and got a whack anyway! However, inspired by a friendly priest (voiced by Liam Neeson) and comic book lives of the saints Bart eventually decided to become a Catholic, and later, inspired by the pancakes at a church event, Homer joined him. Protestant Marge was not pleased ("Catholics are a peculiar bunch"), nor was neighbour Flanders and Rev Lovejoy - ecumenism isn't strong in Springfield. There were sly references to clerical child abuse and mutterings about "no birth control" (Marge said she didn't want another 12 kids).
Protestants were sent up as well - efforts to reconvert Bart included a tacky Christian youth festival (with aging rockers Pious Riot who had turned to God), until he was finally turned by a Christian paintball event! His final message of Christian tolerance ("The little stupid differences are nothing next to the big stupid similarities!") got everybody all friendly again, though Flanders planned to get his hand re-blessed after shaking hands with the priest. A flash-forward of 1,000 years shows the later devotees of Bart's message falling out violently over some sliver of difference.
I thought some of it was mean spirited, and some of it crude, but it certainly was hilarious, mostly sending up the foibles of believers rather than their faith per se, though some distinctively Catholic teachings got a lash, and yet Homer spoke of the Catholic Church's "time-tested values". It was hard to know whether anti-Catholic prejudice was being practised or satirised - probably both, in the show's typically scattershot style.
In religion class I'd use clips from this with caution - e.g. there's a very funny depiction of Heaven - Protestant Heaven is very sedate and refined, while in Catholic Heaven there's great fun, including Riverdance (!) and Jesus having fun on a trampoline.

Just before the holidays I did a class on religious themes in animated TV drama, bringing the drama module to an end. I had previously given as homework an assignment to write about religious themes in a drama of the students' choice, and some wrote about The Simpsons, South Park or Family Guy.
After discussing some of these we concentrated on The Simpsons, and the students were very quick to come up with examples from a wide variety of episodes - chiefly the one where Homer invents his own religion, the time when Bart sells his soul, the episode where Flanders is portrayed as the Devil (one of the Halloween specials). The general consensus seemed to be that The Simpsons wasn't disrespectful to religion as such, but was just a laugh, not to be taken too seriously. Of course some critics do take it seriously, some finding fault, some finding it disrespectful, but then some say it's one of the main shows on TV that feature religion regularly, and while fun may be made of the foibles of some believers and clergy, there is never an attack on religion as such, and the show can be quite positive at times - e.g. the negative consequences of Bart selling his soul, Marge getting her children and husband to church every Sunday. Click here for an article that discusses these issues. Personally I enjoy the show, and would be inclined towards the positive interpretation, but I can also see that children may just see it as knocking religion, and may miss the subtleties. There are obvious problems with Flanders or Rev Lovejoy being seeing as the typical "religious" people. In class I used clips from the episode where Homer invents his own religion that makes no demands on him (could be seen as a send up of a la carte Christians). God appears in this one so it's also useful for classes on images of God. I also used a clip from the Halloween episode where Homer sells his soul for a doughnut. The students weren't familiar with it but I also used a clip from God The Devil and Bob, an animated series from a few years ago. A rather genial God challenges a fault ridden Bob to put things right in the world, while a suave devil tries to derail his efforts. It caused lots of controversy in the USA where it was eventually pulled off the airways, while BBC and RTE showed the full series. It had a Catholic religious adviser, (the late Fr Ellwood Keiser, who produced the imaginative Insight videos that are still used in some schools), and is very positive towards God and humanity. I really like it and used a clip from an episode where Bob's wife nearly looses her soul to materialism and gambling. It is quite raunchy in spots, so care has to be taken in school use.
I'm conscious that using programmes like The Simpsons in RE class could be seen as dumbing down the religion class, as being overly trendy, but in small doses, especially in the context of a course on religion in the arts, I think it's useful to tease out certain religious themes in a fun way, hopefully encouraging the students to be more critically aware of the media culture they are immersed in. It's an opportunity to highlight the good will in so many programmes, and on the other hand to draw attention to negative religious stereotypes.