One of the longest-running comedies in history, The Simpsons is currently airing in a massive marathon on the FXX network. It’s an enormous Simpsons event: not only will it take nearly two weeks to air all of The Simpsons’ 500+ episodes and full-length movie back-to-back, but the network will begin regularly airing episodes from the entire Simpsons catalog daily (including the rarely-aired classic episodes), will feature semi-annual mini-marathons (including a “Treehouse of Horror” themed marathon this October), and will soon launch a Simpsons App that will give users unprecedented, in-depth access to the catalog of Simpsons episodes, quotes, clips, and insider information. For a normal person, this no doubt seems excessive and pointless; to a Simpsons fans this is a boon to our obsession (and a bane to our productivity). And for the generation of twenty-and-thirty-somethings who grew up watching the antics of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, who came to know Springfield almost as well as their own hometowns, who saw each Thursday night (and, later, Sunday evenings) a reflection, if caricatured, of their own families’ struggles, triumphs, flaws, and virtues, this revival of the 90’s most beloved family stirs a nostalgia we might not have known we possessed. But, for this Simpsons fanatic who is also a theologian, this revival also rekindles my ongoing interest in the religious and theological dimensions of this cultural touchstone.
Yet there might seem to be little theological substance in the series: The Simpsons was harshly criticized in its earliest years as obscene and immoral and for providing a terrible example to its young audience members. Even then-First Lady Barbara Bush spoke out against it, calling it “the dumbest thing” she had “ever seen.” But hidden inside this deeply flawed family and this caricature of American culture is a honest and rich depiction of family life in 1990’s America. The show explores moral dilemmas, spiritual crises, the love of spouse, parent, child, and sibling, as well as the testing of that love. Moreover, with their weekly church attendance and regular prayer at meals and before bed, the Simpson family is immersed in middle class American Christian culture. The Simpsons has never shied away from treating religious topics or exploring the moral dimensions of everyday life; indeed, its stars might just be the most moral family on television. For theologians such as myself, then, The Simpsons seems perfect subject for theological study. And so, here are my top five theological episodes of The Simpsons.
1. Bart Gets an F (Season 2, Episode 1)
Synopsis: Bart has to pass a test on colonial American history or he’ll have to repeat the 4th grade. But it takes an act of God (a miraculous snowstorm) to get him to study.
Bart: [praying] Well, old timer, I guess this is the end of the road. I know I haven’t always been a good kid, but, if I have to go to school tomorrow, I’ll fail the test and be held back. I just need one more day to study, Lord. I need Your help!
Lisa: [watching] Prayer… the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Bart: A teachers strike, a power failure, a blizzard… Anything that’ll cancel school tomorrow. I know it’s asking a lot, but if anyone can do it, You can! Thanking You in advance, Your pal, Bart Simpson.
Lisa: I heard you last night, Bart. You prayed for this. Now your prayers have been answered. I’m no theologian; I don’t know who or what God is exactly, all I know is He’s a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together, and you owe Him big.
Bart: You’re right. I asked for a miracle, and I got it. I gotta study, man! [goes upstairs to his room]
The Theologian’s Take: The Christian tradition and Lives of the Saints are filled with examples of vows made to God (often hastily) and fulfilled after a plea for help was answered. Even Bart Simpson, mini-hellion, knows that he has an obligation to respond in faith to an act of God. But how often do we renege on our own similar obligations? How often do we turn to God only in times of need, only to conveniently forget our part of the “deal” when the anxiety passes, or even reject God when things don’t turn out as we’d wished? Of course, God does not need our hastily contrived bargains; God does not seek “an arrangement” with us. These are all contracts of our own design, and we are the ones who seek them out, perhaps in part because we cannot bear to undertake more than a superficial relationship with God. God does not present us with an offer we can’t refuse, but total and utter communion with the divine; God offers us not mere fringe benefits in this life, but life everlasting. And yet we, as humans (and even the holy saints), continue to offer God one transaction or another in our faulty attempts to enter into some sort of relationship, even a shallow one, with the divine. But, as we saw in Bart’s miraculous snow day example, our benefits from these imperfect promises are not limited to just the perks that we seek. Even in bargaining with God, we still turn to God, still trust in God, still seek God’s love and favor. And, in fulfilling our part of the bargain, we might even begin habits that foster virtue, leading to deeper relationship with God than we’d originally bargained for.
2. One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish (Season 2, Episode 11)
Synopsis: After eating sushi made from a highly poisonous blowfish, Homer is told that he has one day to live. Faced with his impending mortality, Homer makes a list of everything he wants to do on his last day on earth. But mishap after mishap keeps Homer from his goals and, especially, from his family on his last day. Finally, after a tender moment with his wife and after tucking in each of his sleeping children with words of love, Homer turns to “the Good Book…on tape.” The next morning Marge finds Homer draped over an armchair in their living room, unexpectedly alive, and wakes him up. Homer then vows to live life to it’s fullest from that day forward [cut to Homer eating pork rinds and watching bowling]
Homer: Marge! Why did you let me sleep so late?
Marge: You looked so peaceful lying there.
Homer: There’ll be plenty of time for that!
Homer: [Tucking in his sleeping children]
Goodbye, Maggie. Stay as sweet as you are.
Goodbye, Lisa. I know you’ll make me proud.
Goodbye, Bart. … I like your sheets.
The Theologian’s Take: Where popular culture — the song “Live Like You Were Dying,” the movie “Bucket List,” the ubiquitous phrase YOLO — emphasizes a hedonistic, thrill-seeking approach to a “last day on earth” scenario, Homer finds that, when pressed, it is relationship with others that is most precious to him in his final hours. While his supposed-poisoning served as a catalyst, Homer’s conversion moment is spread throughout his final day. Homer regrets the brokenness of his relationships and works to repair them, though many of his solutions are mere band aids which fall short of genuine conversion. Homer tells his father that he loves him, but grows weary of the obligations of that love. Homer wants the peace of reconciliation and the contentment of a renewed relationship with his father without the demands of such a relationship; a typical Homer (and human) desire. Likewise, Homer tries to make a videotape for his infant daughter, Maggie, to watch when she grows up, but his facade of being a “kind, gentle” father is broken when he is interrupted by an unwelcome phone call. Although he wants to be remembered as a good, kind, simple man, Homer cannot help but reveal his true, imperfect nature. But it is only when Homer is prevented from his final goals of spending time with his family that he comes to realize that they are what gives his dwindling life meaning. And when he has come to find that he didn’t die, Homer swears to amend his ways and live according to his change of heart. Of course, Homer returns to his old habits instead of living as a changed man, as is human nature.
3. Homer vs. Lisa and the Eighth Commandment (Season 2, Episode 13)
Synopsis: Tired of missing out on the wonders of cable television, Homer takes up a corrupt cable technician’s offer to steal cable. But although the stolen cable makes the family popular among neighbors and friends, Lisa worries that it might cost them their souls.
Lisa: Dad, why is the world such a cesspool of corruption?
Homer: Oh, great… All right, what makes you say that?
Lisa: Well, in Sunday School, we learned that stealing is a sin.
Homer: Well, DUH.
Lisa: But everybody does it. I mean, we’re stealing cable as we speak.
Homer: Oh. Look at this way, when you had breakfast this morning, did you pay for it?
Homer: And did you pay for those clothes you’re wearing?
Lisa: No, I didn’t.
Homer: Well, run for the hills, Ma Barker! Before I call the Feds!
Lisa: Hi, Dad. I think stealing cable is wrong, so I am choosing not to watch it in the hopes that others will follow my example. That’s the last you’ll hear from me on the matter. Thank you for your time.
Homer: Hey, Lisa… `Racing From Belmont’? Horsies!
Lisa: Sorry, I’d rather go to heaven.
The Theologian’s Take: “Something for nothing” is one of the greatest lies we tell ourselves. Homer thinks he can steal cable (and a variety of office supplies from his office, as we see in this episode) without consequences, but he soon lives in constant fear of getting caught. At the same time, Homer struggles with how the cable is harming his family: he has a difficult time disciplining Bart for watching a racy television show when his own status as the moral authority is compromised by stealing the cable in the first place. And he comes to see his daughter Lisa, who boycotts watching tv out of concern for her family’s souls, more as his adversary than as his concerned daughter. But, at the critical moment, Homer realizes that the love of his family is worth more than transient popularity and the wonders that cable television can offer. Stealing cable today may not have the appeal it once had, but somehow the rampant online piracy of television shows and movies doesn’t present itself as such a weighty moral matter. It’s amazing how easy it is to brush off the moral magnitude of many of our technological and entertainment choices today. Watching this episode (legally, of course!) might just make us think twice about our own casual infractions.
4. Homer the Heretic (Season 4, Episode 3)
Synopsis: After a Sunday morning wardrobe malfunction, Homer skips church for the week. While the family’s trip to church devolves into the worst Sunday imaginable, Homer has the time of his life at home and refuses to ever go back to church. But Homer’s rejection of church is just the beginning of his spiritual journey.
Homer: And what if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we’re just making God madder and madder!
Lisa: Why are you dedicating your life to blasphemy?
Homer: Don’t worry, sweetheart. If I’m wrong, I’ll recant on my deathbed.
Homer: [Defending himself to his kids] Kids, let me tell you about another so-called “wicked” guy. He had long hair and some wild ideas. He didn’t always do what other people thought was right. And that man’s name was… I forget. But the point is… I forget that, too. Marge, you know what I’m talking about. He used to drive that blue car?
The Theologian’s Take: This is might be my favorite episode of The Simpsons’ over 500 episodes. Homer isn’t fed up with religion per se and he doesn’t reject Christianity outright; his frustration is with his own narrow understanding of what constitutes worship, church, and belief. Homer argues that he should be able to worship God as he sees fit, but freed from the constraints of Reverend Lovejoy’s church, Homer’s version of religion quickly devolves into reading dirty magazines and smoking cigars on the couch on Sunday mornings. Even with his “best” intentions to “worship God in his own way,” Homer’s religion lacks scripture, a form of worship, an ethical code, and other hallmarks of religion that might have given it structure. Of course, like many of the “spiritual but not religious,” it is precisely structure that Homer is rejecting. But when his friends come together to help him in a time of need, Homer comes to see that church is more than a Sunday service and a set of rules: it’s loving community in service to God and one another.
5. Bart Sells His Soul (Season 7, Episode 4)
Synopsis: When Milhouse turns Bart in for switching out the Sunday hymn with his own version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (“In the Garden of Eden”), the two friends argue over the existence of souls. Certain that souls aren’t real, Bart sells his to Milhouse for five dollars. But he soon regrets his decision.
Milhouse: But every religion says there’s a soul, Bart. Why would they lie? What would they have to gain?
Bart: Well, if your soul is real, where is it?
Milhouse: [motions to his chest] It’s kind of in here. And when you sneeze, that’s your soul trying to escape. Saying “God bless you” crams it back in! And when you die, it squirms out and flies away.
Bart: Uh huh. What if you die in a submarine at the bottom of the ocean?
Milhouse: Oh, it can swim. It’s even got wheels in case you die in the desert and it has to drive to the cemetery.
Bart: [plaintive] 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? [starts to cry] I hope you can hear this. [his soul floats down from above] [he grabs it and hugs it, and sees Lisa standing there] Lisa? You bought this? Oh, Lis, thank you. [kisses her]
Lisa: Happy to do it. But you know, Bart, some philosophers believe that nobody is born with a soul — that you have to earn one [Bart eats the piece of paper] through suffering and thought and prayer, like you did last night.
Bart: Uh huh. [swallows]
The Theologian’s Take: Bart refuses to believe in the existence of the invisible human soul, but after the initial thrill of earning five dollars, he begins to feel as if a part of him is missing. He can’t laugh, automatic doors fail to sense him, and his breath doesn’t fog up the glass on the ice cream chest at the convenience store. The writers use two traditional symbols of the soul here — as the breath of life and capacity for delight — and one modern rendition — the marvel of automatic doors — to convey the soul as ineffable but somehow sensible. Despite the soul’s utterly intangible nature, the common human belief in a spiritual part of us that lives on after death persists. Even in a world where what is true is that which is verifiable, visible, measurable, many of us, religious or not (and, eventually, Bart too), still sense a supernatural presence within ourselves. And Bart, coming to believe that he has lost this integral aspect of himself, will do anything to get it back. But, in his most desperate hour he turns (again!) to God in prayer, and his “soul” returns to him, though it is unclear whether this reunion is due to his suffering, his prayer, his reflection on the loss of his soul, or his consumption of the symbol of the soul.
Bonus! The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star (Season 16, Episode 21)
Synopsis: Liam Neeson: He hunts down kidnappers, he trains Obi Wan Kenobi, he…catechizes Bart and Homer?
Marge: Bart I’m glad you had fun, but I wouldn’t get too into that Catholic church. With all the sitting and standing and kneeling. It’s like Simon Says without a winner.
Bart: Mom! That’s blasphemy! I’ll say the Rosary for you.
Marge: Don’t you touch bead one!
Homer: Man, you guys got more crazy rules than Blockbuster Video.
Father Sean: Well, that’s true. But if you do break a rule you can always find absolution in the sacrament of confession.
Homer: Wait wait wait. No matter what I did, no matter how many people lost their pensions, it’s forgiven like that?
Father Sean: If you truly repent, then yes.
Homer: Okay, let’s make some magic here!
Marge: Homer, you’ve been out all night and you look like you’ve accepted someone as your personal something. Were you at that Catholic Church?!
Homer: Look Marge, I know I was supposed to yell at that priest, but he’s so cool! He plays drums in a band with a bunch of other priests!
Marge: I knew they’d try to convert you! That’s what they do! Well, I’m not having another twelve kids.
Homer: Marge, no one is saying twelve. Nine, ten, tops!
The Theologian’s Take: Sure, I could discuss flaws and highlights of The Simpson’s interpretations of Roman Catholicism, but instead let’s all just enjoy Marge Simpson’s vision of Catholic Heaven, a land of good food, good wine, and impeccable Irish dancing. Watch the clip here.