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4.0 out of 5 stars Spirituality without gospel, 10 Nov. 2009
This review is from: The Gospel According to the "Simpsons": The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family (Paperback)
The great volume of American TV and movies that I grew up watching told me of a land where religion was largely irrelevant or ignored. Not so The Simpsons. For them and their fellow residents of Springfield, religious faith and practice is another part of normal life, as in reality it is for most Americans.

Mark Pinsky is a religious correspondent, and practising Jew. Onto the pages of this book he appears to have squeezed every last drop of religious life from the series' first ten years or so. As an occasional Simpsons viewer, I'm surprised there is so much of it; though Pinsky's condensed approach may make religion look more prominent than it actually is in the show.

His analysis throws up a few surprises for believers prejudiced against the show (though less surprising for fans, I think): far from subverting moral values, The Simpsons upholds them; even bad boys Homer and Bart usually come good in the end; evangelical neighbour Ned Flanders is sympathetically portrayed, all a Christian should be, and the best known evangelical to American 20- & 30-somethings to boot; the flawed faith and religiosity of many of the characters represent what many believers really think and do, if only they were honest enough to admit it; sceptical Lisa is trying to bring about the same Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed; Jesus himself is not generally ridiculed. And so on. What really comes out are two of the show's strengths: revealing hypocrisy, particularly among believers; and conveying moral messages in keeping with the tenets of major religions (and humanism) under the guise of wittily subverting them.

But despite all this positive portrayal of religion (largely Protestant Christianity, but also some Judaism; Catholics and Hindus have a rougher ride, for separate reasons), the irony is that (at least in evangelical terms) there is no gospel according to the Simpsons. Robert L. Short's "The gospel according to Peanuts", first in this genre, showed how the good news of the New Testament was told within cartoon strips which barely ever mentioned God or Christ. Religion figures overtly in the Simpsons, but the good news of the New Testament is virtually absent. Pinsky points out that it is entirely a religion of works. Even Ned Flanders believes it's his good works that will get him into heaven, rather than a saving faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

Yet at times it feels as if things said in jest are being taken too seriously. Towards the end, Pinsky brings in more revealing material from interviewing the writers. They make points such as: cartoons afford more characters than live shows, so there is more scope for exploring the whole of life (including religion); religion provides good material for laughs; a religion based on works makes better jokes and animation sequences than one based on faith; they like to take pot shots at everyone and everything, but not to offend too much just for the sake of it.

A compulsive quick skim-read for anyone interested in the how popular culture portrays religion, or who likes the Simpsons and is religious, but not to be taken too seriously perhaps.
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Location: Nottingham, UK

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