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'The Simpsons': D'oh and the Deity Series skewers religious foibles but still appreciated by many believers

Posted: Friday, August 31, 2001

How God appeared in a dream: ''Perfect teeth. Nice smell. A class act all the way.''

The family religion: ''You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life. Uh, Christianity.''

Church signboard slogan: ''God Welcomes His Victims.''

This is just a very small sample of one-liners about religion from ''The Simpsons.''

For 12 seasons and counting, the animated series has mined religious subjects for laughs like no other show on television.

The staple of the Fox network has sometimes been called sacrilegious -- rather than satirical -- for its jabs at clergy and the faithful alike. But religious commentators, especially this year, have looked at the animated series and found plenty to like.

In a rare coincidence, two leading Protestant magazines, the liberal Christian Century and conservative Christianity Today, simultaneously ran friendly cover stories on the show. Christian Century said it's appreciated in religious circles, while Christianity Today hailed the good-guy characterization of the Simpsons' evangelical neighbor, Ned Flanders.

An anthology, ''The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh! of Homer'' (Open Court), reported religion was an element in 70 percent of randomly selected episodes and the major theme in 10 percent.

The latest analysis, which will be published Saturday, claims that -- strange as it might seem -- the cartoon ''more accurately reflects the faith lives of Americans than any other show in the medium.''

In ''The Gospel According to The Simpsons'' (Westminster John Knox), Mark I. Pinsky notes that the characters regularly pray, attend worship and discuss humanity's inescapable religious questions. God's existence is unquestioned and He sometimes intervenes directly in the preposterous plots.

Pinsky, religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, also notes that, despite ridiculing everything in sight, the show is basically pro-family and usually lets a rough morality triumph.

''The Simpsons'' may be irreverent toward churches and clergy, he says, but other institutions suffer more, particularly big business. (Montgomery Burns, owner of the nuclear power plant, is so money-hungry he once hatched a scheme to block out the sun, forcing everyone to buy more electricity).

Pinsky, an active Reform Jew, is not a big TV fan. But he was goaded into sampling ''The Simpsons'' by his children and got hooked. He can only hope now that the book replicates his publisher's 1965 title ''The Gospel According to Peanuts'' by divinity student Robert Short, which sold 10 million copies.

In that more innocent era ''a lot of people were offended by putting something as holy as the Gospel together with a comic strip,'' says Short, now a Presbyterian minister in Monticello, Ark. The New York Times considered it ''a perilous experiment.''

Now preachers make frequent use of pop culture. But less often does pop culture, especially TV, treat religion.

With ''The Simpsons,'' Pinsky says, early episodes featured bratty son Bart. But as the focus shifted more toward bumbling father Homer, the show began tackling deeper issues, Pinsky says. Besides, a series that marks episode 270 when the fall season begins Nov. 4 always needs new material, and religion is rich territory.

The Simpsons crew was sharp enough to realize this even though, according to Pinsky's estimate, 80 percent of the show's writers over the past dozen years have been either skeptics or atheists. Several, however, have called themselves believing Christians.

The characters they and creator Matt Groening have created for fictional Springfield are a microcosm of American religious -- and particularly Protestant -- types.

Homer is the sort who regularly displays his religious ignorance (he calls God ''omnivorous'' instead of ''omnipresent''), snoozes in church and prays largely in desperation. ''God, if you really are God, you'll get me tickets to that game. Why do you mock me O Lord?'' he moans in one show.

Long-suffering wife Marge is the solid saint who delivers the rare serious lines, for example: ''There has to be more to life than just what we see, Lisa. Everyone needs something to believe in.''

Precocious daughter Lisa is the mainline Protestant rationalist and preacher of social justice.

Next-door neighbor Flanders has his boys play Bible Bombardment board games and vacations at ''America's Most Judgmental Religious Theme Park.'' His piety irritates people, but he's also one of the kindest characters in the series.

Then there's the Reverend Lovejoy, burned-out pastor of Springfield's community church, who veers from non-denominational blandness to fundamentalist rigidity. God is among those who find his unctuous sermons boring.

Non-Protestants don't come off perfectly, either. Krusty the Clown, the show's Jewish character, is a gruff, chain-smoking show-biz veteran, although he reunited with his Orthodox father, who wanted him to be a rabbi.

The depiction of workaholic Kwik-E-Mart manager Apu, a Hindu, has offended some Indian-Americans, partly because he's at once obsequious and overcharges customers.

Catholics are less visible, but the Catholic League has still found reason to protest. It objected, for instance, to a satirical commercial in which a scantily clad woman wearing a cross suggestively filled a car with gas as a voice-over said ''The Catholic Church: We've made a few ... changes.''

Among all denominations, liberal Unitarianism -- with its lack of doctrine -- may fare the worst. ''If that's the one true faith, I'll eat my hat,'' Homer exclaims.

For all its barbs, however, ''The Simpsons'' rarely mentions Jesus and steers clear of explicit Christian teachings, Pinsky says. He says that, in the end, the show may actually cloak a ''sacred essence in the guise of profane storytelling.''

He concludes that ''whether the series, once considered so anti-authoritarian, is subversive or supportive of faith is largely in the eye of the beholder.''

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On the Net:

''The Simpsons'' official site: http://www.thesimpsons.com

End Adv



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