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Posted October 4, 2009

Book: The Springfield Reformation: The Simpson’s Christianity and American Culture
Author: Jamey Heit
Continuum. New York. 2009. Pp. 198

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Jamey Heit’s The Springfield Reformation investigates how The Simpsons blends important elements of contemporary American religious culture with a clear critique of the institutions and individuals that participate in and uphold that culture. Though The Simpsons is clearly a product of American popular culture, its writers offer up a well-planned, theologically informed religious climate in the cartoon world of Springfield. This world mirrors America in a way that allows the show’s viewers to recognize that Christianity can hold together a family and a town that is rife with “sin,” while at the same time exposing these very shortcomings.

An Excerpt from the Book:

The Bible can provide guidance to Christians, but a lack of awareness or an unwillingness to adapt one’s lifestyle based on what the Bible says, constitutes the heart of the problem that The Simpsons addresses. How a particular person interprets the Bible often obscures the most important theological point. Throughout The Simpsons, different characters manipulate the Bible’s authority in order to justify their own concerns. In “Co-Dependent Day,” Homer carries a copy of the Bible around, but not for any purpose related to his Christian faith. Instead, Home hides a flask in the hollow-out Bible. The image of the text as an authority is, quite literally hollow. In its place rests something that pulls Homer away from a Christian lifestyle. The abuse is so overt that Homer refers to his alcohol-hiding Bible as “the Gospel according to Puke.” Homer plays on this notion that the Bible justifies actions, but as this particular example illustrates, Homer’s strategy merely alludes to the Bible in order to excuse his drinking problem. In justifying his individual actions or needs, Homer understands the Bible in a way that runs counter to what the Bible actually says. This diluted authority and active manipulation of what the Bible represents parallels the general state of Christianity in America’s secular culture.

A final example of how The Simpsons portrays the Bible’s role in contemporary culture summarizes the way in which American culture tends to respond to the notion of biblical authority. In “Homer and Ned’s Hail Mary Pass,” Ned Flanders partners with Homer to present a biblical narrative during the Superbowl halftime show. Homer and Ned tell the story of the flood in hopes of conveying to a worldwide audience the importance of God. Society is at a point of moral decay that is so pervasive God may bring about serious punishment. The response to the halftime show is predictable, Homer and Ned are roundly booed. Subsequent fallout rejects the notion that a biblical message has relevance in American society. A follow-up television interviews asks a mother what she thought of the halftime show. She responds angrily that what she saw on television runs against the way she wants to raise her kids. She and her husband do not want Christian influences on their children. Such biblical messages interfere with the plan to raise her kids as “secular humanists.”

A common thread runs through the different ways in which the Bible appears on The Simpsons. Christianity functions in a particular social context, which, in contemporary American culture, dismisses the notion that the Bible provides an objective moral presence in that culture. In place of a strong Christian ethic, one now finds the only thing that is truly “pure and good” is candy. This notion of Christian love, which is the bedrock of the New Testament’s moral structure, no longer has currency in American culture. Rather, the desire to replace Christian love with candy reflects a desire for “information that is sweet and goes down easy, not something that is troubling and ethically difficult.” the Bible does not present guidelines that are always palatable. In the Garden of Eden story, humans must accept responsibility for their mistake. The general response to such dilemmas, however, plays out in the way that Marge imagines. Humans either make excuses for their moral failings, or they try to negotiate easy forgiveness. The irony, of course, is that the Bible is still present through this transition; it has just lost its traditional authority. Homer appeals to the notion of God as love in his efforts to get himself off the hook, but he fails to realize that his answer actually has theological currency. The Bible continues to be relevant in contemporary American culture, but in a form adapted to fit particular social needs rather than a sacred text to be interpreted with due diligence.

Table of Contents:

1. A televised Sunday evening service: postmodernism and The Simpsons

2. Saints, sinners, and salvation: a spiritual survey of Springfield

3. A true class act: God in The Simpsons

4. Re-reading the good book: Biblical representation and authority in The Simpsons

5. A bunch of black sheep: reverend lovejoy and Springfield’s congregation

6. Who is my neighbor? Ned Flanders and evangelical Christianity

7. The only gate out of town: Springfield’s spiritual wanderers

8. Decreasing return: economics and faith in The Simpsons