Once again religion, faith and spirituality are front and center in The Simpsons, the world’s longest running animated sitcom. And it couldn’t come at a better, if troubled time.
In the February 19 episode, “The Cad and the Hat,” bad boy Bart – an unabashed Satanist – needed a miracle to get out of a devilishly complicated, madcap plot conundrum of his own making. He had to lift a crushed car off the ground and into a swimming pool of acidic soda in order to retrieve his sister Lisa’s beloved summer straw hat. In an act of pure meanness, Bart had thrown the hat out the window of the family car, whereupon it ended up in a crashed vehicle on the way to the scrap yard.
It was a hopeless task, but Bart – egged on by an outsized, ethereal guilty conscience – did not hesitate to push his disbelief aside and call on a higher power for help. In this case he appealed to the pious young sons of Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ evangelical next door neighbor. The two boys dropped to their knees and, with their father’s permission, asked Jesus – twice – to raise the 2,000-pound steel cube and lower it into the toxic soft drink just long enough to free Lisa’s hat. Which he did.
As I argue in my new ebook, The Gospel According to The Simpsons: A Newer Testament, since 2007 when the last edition was published, religion has become more prevalent, if not pervasive in the show, deeply woven into its narrative fabric. Despite its initial reputation for irreverence, characters in the show – like many North Americans – do not hesitate to appeal to the divine, although only when absolutely necessary.
When The Simpsons came on the scene in the late 1980s, in what now seems a simpler, more civil time, the show seemed to push the limits of discourse. In the coarser Trump era, old episodes are almost quaint. As the deep, polarizing divide in the American zeitgeist has sharpened, and the bitter culture wars have reignited, The Simpsons have moved in the opposite direction. And in so doing they may offer a model of healing and reconciliation. The most impressive gift of The Simpsons is the show's ability to change over time and still be loved for the consistency of its characters' charm and flaws.
There has in fact been a significant, if subtle evolution in the portrayal of the show’s most stalwart believers: Mother Marge Simpson; evangelical next door neighbor Ned Flanders; and, to a lesser extent, Springfield Community Church’s Reverend Timothy Lovejoy. They are subjected to less broadly-based ridicule for their Christian devotion and piety.
At the same time, these characters seem to have mellowed. They have become more tolerant of those of ‘lesser’ or different faiths, and of others’ liberal political and cultural views. As in their portrayal of other changes in the religious world, Simpsons writers have tracked moderating shifts within much of the American evangelical movement. In this sense at least, the 2016 election results may have been an anomaly.
Last Sunday night’s Simpsons episode was Fox's highest rated show of the night, seen by 2.5 million people. Admittedly that is a far cry from the show’s early years, when it was consistently in the top ten, especially with young adult viewers. While ratings for the Sunday night prime time series have declined over the past decade, The Simpsons remains a potent cultural force, earning an astonishing 32 Emmys and reaching a worldwide audience of more than 100 million in 100 countries.
As recently as 2015, congregations like the First Presbyterian Church of Farmington, Michigan, have been offering adult education series based on The Simpsons, with good reason. Notwithstanding my book’s title, The Simpsons isn’t a show about religion. Rather it is a show about families – like most in this country – in which faith and religion play a role, often in the form of moral and ethical instruction. In the case of The Simpsons, this message is conveyed in a wacky, light-handed fashion. And we should pay attention. As Homer likes to say, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.”
(A version of this essay appeared in the Albany, N.Y., Times-Union)