In an episode of the wildly popular TV show, The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson asks her church’s pastor, "Doesn’t the Bible teach us, ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ Reverend?" to which the good Reverend replies, "I think it may be somewhere toward the back."
I confess to being one of those who enjoyed The Simpsons faithfully, particularly in its early years. That makes sense for me because it is clear that The Simpsons is aimed at—and created for—the Baby Boomers, the post-World War II generation that we have suffered with for over five decades and of which I am a charter member. The jokes on The Simpsons and so many of its cultural, historical and media references are drawn from the baggage of that generation.
The Simpsons is part of a natural progression of popular culture, following the Baby Boomers from one decade to the next. The roots of The Simpsons are in Mad Magazine of the 1950s, the brief but influential shelf-life of National Lampoon magazine in the late 60s and early 70s, through the movies spawned from it such as Animal House, and the early Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman.
The birth of The Simpsons is the endpoint of this Boomer cultural pilgrimage. Even the supposed decline of The Simpsons in recent years may simply be that the cultural disconnect has finally begun. It could reflect the Baby Boomers graying out of television’s most-desired demographics of the 18-to-49 age bracket.
Still, the FOX Network show remains extraordinarily popular. With 400 episodes under its belt, it now ranks first in longevity for both a situation comedy and a full-length cartoon show. Already under contract for its nineteenth consecutive season, it will almost assuredly reach and surpass the 20-season network record of the legendary Gunsmoke. The secret to the enormous success of The Simpsons is the fact that it is very funny. Though in recent years ardent fans claim that it has lost some of its creative energy, the show has produced any number of outrageous moments and consistently offers great comedy, though that can depend on your sense of humor.
The Simpsons has led to reams of commentary exploring the wider cultural meaning of its success. Serious people have spent serious time parsing the levels of meaning in The Simpsons, not the least of which have dealt with the cartoon’s treatment of religion—and what it tells us about the Baby Boomers’ spiritual heritage.
I’ve Done Everything the Bible Says
The Simpsons has been both pilloried and praised for its treatment of religion, which often encompasses the same cynicism that pervades every.aspect of culture that the show touches on.
The family’s particular denomination is identified as "Presbo-Lutheran," which can most properly be defined as a secular Baby Boomer perspective on Christianity abandoned sometime after freshman year in college back in the 1960s.
Any number of books and articles have commented on the show’s sense of spirituality. They point out, accurately, that The Simpsons is one of the few shows in the history of television where the family regularly attends church services and prays. Church services are also filled with nearly every character on the show and the world of faith is mainstreamed within the life of the community.
It’s this that most appeals to those who see a religious dimension to The Simpsons. But the writers and those involved in the show are caught up in an artificial distinction between religious faith and some kind of vague spirituality that is less offensive to a secular mindset. So Homer describes his religion thus: "You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don’t work out in real life, uh, Christianity."
That alleged tension between "religion" and an ill-defined "spirituality" is an incessant and simplistic contemporary palaver among Baby Boomers that has trickled down the generations. The essential point seems to be that spirituality not mired in real belief is preferable, no doubt because a squishy and vague spirituality demands no conversion, no radical change in life.
The "Presbo-Lutheranism" of The Simpsons becomes Christian religious practice as defined from a secular Baby Boomer perspective. The Simpsons’ neighbor, Ned Flanders, is the paragon of this brand of Christianity, making him a decent but fundamentally loony Christian. (In a typical slight, Bart explains that Branson, Missouri, is how Las Vegas would have been had Ned Flanders founded it.)
Ned prays: "Why me, Lord? Where have I gone wrong? I’ve always been nice to people! I don’t drink or dance or swear! I’ve even kept kosher just to be on the safe side! I’ve done everything the Bible says; even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!"
In a similar vein, Reverend Lovejoy, the preacher at the Presbo-Lutheran church, sums up one Baby Boomer view of religious practice: "The Church receiveth and the Church taketh away." When Lisa asks him if it is a sin for a man to steal bread to feed a starving family, the Reverend responds: "No. Well, it is if he puts anything on it. Jelly, for example."
In another instance he explains to Ned his newfound dedication to the faith: "Don’t thank me—thank Marge Simpson. She taught me that there’s more to being a minister than not caring about people." Reverend Lovejoy does, however, co-host a radio show with Rabbi Krustofski called Gabbin’ about God.
Save Me, Jebus!
Despite the cynicism, and much like Baby Boomers as a whole, The Simpsons can’t help but maintain a warm spot for faith. When Bart is warned that he is about to flunk history and be kept back in class, he prays for divine intervention. His prayers seem to be answered when a snowstorm leaves him one more day to study.
Instead of studying, Bart wants to head outdoors to play in the snow, but Lisa reminds him: "I heard you last night, Bart. You prayed for this. Now your prayers have been answered. I don’t know who or what God is exactly. I know is he’s a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together and you owe him big."
Bart reluctantly heads upstairs to study, and when he barely manages to scrape by on the test, he says gratefully, "Part of this D-minus belongs to God."
Homer, meanwhile, engages in almost routine prayer, though his g.asp of the essentials of Christianity is minimal at best. He prays most often in the dire circumstances he finds himself in on a routine basis, but even these petitions can get a little confused. Caught in a runaway cherry-picker he folds his hands, looks skyward, and confesses that he doesn’t talk to him enough, but he really needs Superman’s help now.
Or consider this Thanksgiving prayer: "We’d like to thank you for the occasional moments of peace and love our family’s experienced . . . well, not today. You saw what happened. Oh, Lord, be honest. Are we the most pathetic family in the universe, or what?"
No One is Going Catholic
The Catholic Church is not treated particularly well on The Simpsons, though the Catholic references are relatively minimal through four hundred episodes.
Surprisingly enough, Marge seems to carry the most distinctly anti-Catholic perspective. When the Catholic Church is mentioned at all, Marge almost instantly loses all composure. Bart asks his mother if they can go to a Catholic Church to receive communion and "booze." Marge replies: "No one is going Catholic. Three children is enough, thank you!"
Gratuitous anti-Catholic remarks slip into The Simpsons; at one point the FOX Network supposedly sent down orders to "lay off Catholics" after an episode featured scantily-dressed Catholic nuns in a satire of a Super Bowl ad with the tagline, "The Catholic Church: We’ve made a few changes."
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has protested segments of the show on a number of occasions.
In one episode dealing very specifically with the Church, Bart is sent to Catholic school as a last resort. Bart is impressed and soon begins to show an interest in Catholicism. Homer, sent by Marge to intervene, finds Bingo so attractive that he threatens to convert as well.
Marge goes berserk when told that this could mean that Homer and Bart would be in Catholic heaven, while she will be in Protestant heaven. In a very funny bit, Protestant heaven is pictured as a dull croquet game among snotty WASPs; Catholic heaven is dancing with the booze flowing. The vignette is reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc’s poem "The Catholic Sun":
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Marge’s response is to send Reverend Lovejoy, Ned Flanders and Groundskeeper Willie to kidnap Bart and Homer so they can be deprogrammed from Catholic brainwashing.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Bart Simpson.
" Why can’t I worship the Lord in my own way and pray like hell on my deathbed? " —Homer, complaining about going to church in The Simpsons Movie
In four hundred episodes, The Simpsons does have its moments. That is certainly what keeps some of its fans convinced that the show has a fundamentally religious message—a fact that would no doubt set The Simpsons creators’ collective head spinning.
In one of my favorite episodes, Bart sells his soul to his friend Milhouse for five dollars to prove there is no such thing as a soul. He tells Milhouse that the soul is something made up to scare kids, "like the Boogie Man or Michael Jackson."
Lisa warns Bart that, "Whether or not the soul is real, Bart, it’s the symbol of everything that is fine inside us" (an essentially meaningless statement, but at least one that shows a little heart).
Bart soon finds that without his soul, what defines him has gone out of his life. Nothing seems funny any longer, and he can sense a deep absence within himself. He dreams of his friends accompanied by the souls who fill out their lives. They are not complete without their souls.
Bart finally prays:
Are you there, God? It’s me, Bart Simpson. I know I never paid too much attention in church, but I could really use some of that good stuff now. I’m afraid. I’m afraid some weirdo’s got my soul and I don’t know what they’re doing to it! I just want it back. Please?
After teasing him, Lisa realizes that Bart is truly frightened by his "lost soul" and buys it back for him.
The good moments not withstanding, The Simpsons’ portrayal of faith represents a small slice of the Baby Boom demographic’s take on faith. It’s filled with its own prejudice against anything that would touch on doctrinal belief and, in particular, any religious expression that would call for personal conversion and amending one’s life. It presents the sad perspective of the Baby Boomer born Catholic, but converted to the mediocre secularism of contemporary culture.
Still, there are encouraging signs. A number of Catholic Baby Boomers are returning to the faith of their youth. Their return comes from a growing adult understanding of faith that puts childhood memories in their proper perspective and sees faith through mature eyes and hearts. It is that understanding of grace, of sacraments, of the depth and richness of the Catholic faith rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that has made all the difference in their lives.
Which means there may even be hope for those involved with The Simpsons.
Why Baby Boomers Left the Church . . .
In an early episode of The Simpsons, Homer decides not to join the family for church on Sunday. He revels in the "freedom" of a Sunday without church by running around the house in his underwear, winning a radio contest, watching football on television, finding a penny and making his favorite waffles, which include "caramels, waffle batter and liquid smoke." It’s such a good day that he decides not to go to church again.
In some ways, it is not a bad metaphor to explain why many Baby Boomers abandoned the faith. Many Baby Boomers left when they were young without any real reason. They left because they saw the faith as part of their childhood and never developed an adult understanding of their Catholicism.
As they grew older, marital problems or lifestyle decisions would exacerbate the split between faith and life. But in many ways, what keeps them from returning is not doctrinal divisions or a real failure of belief. Rather, it is waffles and football—the desire to do something else with their time and the fear that the faith takes work.
I wrote in A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press):
For many of us, we never really left the faith so much as we signed up for the mediocrity of the general culture, fell away from the practice of faith, then somewhere along the line fell away altogether. There was no great apostasy, no great moment of fission to take away faith. It was simply an apostasy of apathy, built on nothing more or less. (295)
To many Baby Boomers, it is simply too hard to be a Catholic. Apathy and a life of benign moral indifference are more attractive than the challenges of living the faith in the modern world. They haven’t so much rejected faith as they simply prefer to occupy their time in other ways.
Homer comes back to church after nearly killing himself in a house fire, and the old joke is that a Baby Boomer’s departure will last until the first chest pains. But the difficulty is that apathy and a lifestyle become entrenched. Bombarded daily with the reinforcing propaganda from the secular culture, too many Baby Boomers hold on to the penny they have found rather than the riches of the faith they have abandoned.
. . . and What Brings Them Back
Sometimes it is the first chest pain that brings them back.
The reasons Baby Boomers come back to the faith are varied. It can be a health scare, a personal tragedy, or waking up to discover that a life of quiet desperation is no way to live. But the bottom line in all the reversion stories is that people discover at some point and in some way that there is infinitely more to the faith once they approach it, see it, and touch it through an adult perspective rather than a childhood memory.
A fellow Baby Boomer introduced himself and told me the story of his return. He had been in the high school seminary and even had a bishop for an uncle when the Age of Aquarius smacked him between the eyes. Dropping out of the seminary, he went a couple of decades and more not practicing the faith, though he let his wife raise the family Catholic. His epiphany was simple in its own way. He was at his daughter’s wedding rehearsal. Looking around the church, seeing his daughter preparing for the sacrament, he suddenly realized: "I’m home."
What brings many Baby Boomers back is that when we finally begin to look at the faith with adult eyes, we realize that there was so much more truth and trust there than all the little truths we had toyed with for too long and never really trusted. We find nothing that could bring us to Christ better than the Church of our childhood when seen and experienced through adult lives.
We begin to understand that we don’t have to settle for the ordinary, for the good enough. We begin to understand that waffles, football, and television don’t provide a lot of answers at the shank of the evening. We began to understand that with God, through the grace of the sacraments, anything is possible and nothing, particularly life, is meaningless.
What we began to discover, finally, as we revisited our faith through the eyes of an adult, was that it has been there all along. The spirituality we seek, the prayer life we hope to have, that way of living our lives daily as if we are touching the infinite, has been there waiting for us. We found that there is a way to get back home. (A Faith for Grown-Ups, 300)
Poster Boys for Perpetual Adolescence
The creators behind The Simpsons are all Baby Boomers. Matt Groening, the creator, was born in 1954; "patron saint" James L. Brooks is the senior partner, born in 1940—a tad older, but certainly one of the club.
While Groening and Brooks are the credited public geniuses of The Simpsons, the behind-the-scenes guy has been producer and writer George Meyer. Born in 1956, he joined the show in 1989 and has been with it ever since.
Conventional wisdom says that most comedy writers today are either atheists or ex-Catholics. The Simpsons certainly reflects its fill of former Catholics on the writing staff. Meyer (said to have been the main creative force behind The Simpsons Movie) fits the description perfectly. Born and raised Catholic, Meyer claims to have moved from agnostic to atheist, as staying agnostic seemed "too wimpy."
In a 2000 profile in The New Yorker, Meyer described his Catholic upbringing:
I did feel that I was made to shoulder a lot of burdens that shouldn’t have been mine—such as the frustrations of older women wearing nun costumes. People talk about how horrible it is to be brought up Catholic, and it’s all true. The main thing was that there was no sense of proportion. I would chew a piece of gum at school, and the nun would say, "Jesus is very angry with you about that," and on the wall behind her would be a dying, bleeding guy on a cross. That’s a horrifying image to throw at a little kid. You really could almost think that talking in line, say, was on a par with killing Jesus. (David Owen, "Taking Humor Seriously," March 13, 2000)
The Catholic stuff on The Simpsons reflects an understanding of faith that never graduated from grammar school and a view of Catholicism blamed on a nun trying to exercise crowd-control in a Baby Boomer classroom.