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“I’m gonna die! Jesus, Allah, Buddha, I love you all!” Religious Pluralism in The Simpsons: Part 2

September 22, 2010

Shawn Bawulski is a PhD student in theology at the University of St Andrews. The Simpsons provides a diversion from his thesis on the doctrine of Hell.  He lives in St Andrews with Sara (wife), Kate (daughter), and Piper (a dog of superior intellect). This post provides complementary theological engagement with Shawn’s earlier post on The Simpsons.

The assumption at work in the world of The Simpsons is that truth in religious matters is so unattainable that the best one can hope for is pragmatism.  Interestingly, concepts invoked in the program like pluralism and exclusivism entail the existence of God and in most cases a need for reconciliation: the issue, or course, is how that reconciliation is accomplished.  The show accurately reflects the incurable religiosity of mankind and the pluralism that often springs from it, both of which stem from a striving and yearning of creatures whose needs cannot be filled by anything less than relationship with their Creator.  Against The Simpsons, I argue that the only solution to this predicament is the gospel, and the gospel is exclusive.

In John 14:6 Jesus says that he is the way, and the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through him.  In Acts 4:12 Peter says that there is salvation in no one else other than Jesus, and “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  Contra the emphasis in The Simpsons on virtuous deeds over against the content of religious doctrine, the apostles preached the gospel to virtuous, moral, even God fearing Jews and gentiles, calling them for repentance and conversion.  Why would Peter need to preach the gospel to a virtuous man like Cornelius, and why would he convert and become baptized (Acts 10:34-43)?  If “right living” is the essence of religion, as The Simpsons assert, why not leave Cornelius be?

The Christian worldview is that religious truth—and indeed God himself—is accessible and knowable through divine revelation, the pinnacle of which is the person of Jesus Christ.  The Christian theologian, following the testimony of Scripture, must insist that the content of religious doctrine be primary; biblically, once one believes what is right and true, the right actions naturally follow.  The Simpsons is correct to put an emphasis on the fruit of religious belief but makes the invalid move of replacing belief with the fruit altogether.

A more general consideration: what does satire communicate?  What does it say about the worldview one should adopt, about truth and value?  The show does seem to have some genuine sentiments, especially regarding the importance of family, religion, and morality, but it is mostly satire.  A steady diet of satire can make the viewer cynical and prone to mockery.  Constant satire can lead to a depreciation of concern for truth and glibness about the significant matters in life.  If everything is a joke, nothing (except perhaps comedy itself) is to be taken seriously.  When a glimpse of seriousness pops through in the show, it is amplified by contrast to its surroundings but inevitably it is ultimately undercut (if not immediately, then in a later episode).

In the end, is The Simpsons take on religious pluralism redemptive?  Perhaps, but only somewhat.  What the show asserts on the topic of pluralism is ultimately false, and the Christian theologian must insist on this point.  Yet the pluralism of The Simpsons is different that of the broader culture: it causes in the viewer reflection on the issue and, to a degree, does not fall in line with the unqualified pluralism that prevails in much of the rest of entertainment.  From an American network television show with a large fan base and with mass appeal, such is quite possibly the best we could hope for.

Image Credit: beliefnet.com

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam Adams permalink
    September 22, 2010 1:19 pm

    Shawn, thanks for these thoughtful reflections on my favorite TV family. I do think the brilliance of “The Simpsons” is precisely its satire and would hope that because of this a coherent worldview doesn’t emerge–and we shouldn’t go looking for one. Satire helps us find the absurdity in what we have come to accept as normal; it gives us the experience of seeing something old with new eyes. Of course, this sort of thing can be unsettling, but it can also be invigorating to a settled and comfortable religiosity. “The Simpsons” may indeed be for us like Jesus’ actions in relationship to the sabbath practice of his day: pointing out the absurdity of the established legalism of the religious elite. Perhaps theologians especially would benefit from a healthy diet of satire, even satire in the form of “The Simpsons.”

    Also, do you really think that right actions naturally follow from right beliefs so that all we need is to get our doctrine straight and we will start behaving well? This sort of thing seems to me to force the faith into a narrow propositional paradigm that ignores the way humans actually function–and the way in which the faith is actually passed on.

  2. September 22, 2010 2:44 pm

    Sam beat me to my question, but maybe I can put a little twist on it. Is it not also true that beliefs follow actions, in the sense the theology is reflection on action? In this way, the faith and the fruit are in dynamic interplay so that it is impossible to separate belief and behavior.

    • September 22, 2010 3:48 pm

      Thanks Wes, the impossibility of separating belief and behaviour is essentially what I’m getting at in #2 of my lengthy reply to Sam.

  3. September 22, 2010 3:47 pm

    Hi Sam,
    Thanks for your comments. Let me address the two main issue you raise:

    1. Satire- with satire like The Simpsons, I agree that we shouldn’t seek an entirely coherent worldview from the show (although that does not mean it does not try to speak in significant ways to what worldview we should form). However, that does not exclude the possibility of a relatively consistent perspective on a particular issue, and I would argue (as someone who has seen each and every episode more times than I’d like to admit!) that The Simpson’s treatment of religious pluralism is more-or-less coherent: on this, they really do not contradict themselves much, if at all.

    When talking about the perspective on an issue of a show that has over 450 episodes, interesting questions emerge: who are the voices behind the show? How can it have a consistent perspective? The creative agency that brings us The Simpsons involves many writers and producers and is varied and diverse. Let me unpack this a bit. Many of the writers on The Simpsons are Harvard graduates who were members of the Harvard Lampoon. Some have written for Saturday Night Live and for David Letterman, and at one time Conan O’Brien was on the writing staff. It is important to appreciate the landscape of religious beliefs in the writer’s room because The Simpsons is very much a writer’s medium. There seems to be an atheistic presence, a strong Jewish influence that is typical of Hollywood productions, and various Christian traditions that are represented. The show seems to have a revolving door of writers, over 100 in the history of the show, but a core group keeps it stable. At any rate, the show is a collaborative effort and it is hard to know exactly who shaped the script and in what ways. Nonetheless, a core group of producers, headed my Matt Groening himself, and the deference to precedent set by previous episodes, keeps things consistent and coherent on many issues.

    As you say, satire can help us to see things differently, to reconsider what we’ve accepted with perhaps too much comfort and too little reflection. Some satire is quite good at this (The Simpsons); some is not (Mad TV?). Nonetheless, I still think too much satire, or at least the way satire is pervasively done nowadays in our culture, carries with it the serious liability of engendering cynicism, insincerity, mockery, an unhealthy skepticism, and apathy. Even The Simpsons takes a jab at this: in “Homerpalooza”, where Homer joins a rock festival tour because he can take cannon shots to the stomach and not be injured:

    Teen1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.
    Teen2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
    Teen1: I don’t even know anymore.

    2. Actions and beliefs- I wish I had more space to expand on this in the original post, but alas I opted for the statement “once one believes what is right and true, the right actions naturally follow.” “Naturally” is the operative word here, for of course we all can produce examples of people where this is not the case. Indeed, the frequent exhortations in Scripture for believers to change their behavior (1 Corinthians comes to mind…) implies that what is “natural” is, sadly, less common than we might hope. Of course, we need to do more than just get our doctrine straight… but I suggest that the distinction between right doctrine and right action is ultimately a synthetic one. (For just a few example texts amongst many, see Matt. 7:15-20, Luke 6:39-45, 1 Tim. 1:3-7, 6:3-5) The NT seems to assume that false teaching will lead to immorality, and belief in the true gospel will lead to godliness (of course, through God’s work of salvation, redemption and sanctification). Altogether substituting right action for right belief, as religious pluralism often does, does just as much violence to true faith as does dead orthodoxy or narrow propositionalism.

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