I just finished teaching a 10-week Sunday School session on The Simpsons.
Yes, those Simpsons.
You may think I’ve lost my sanity or my grip on reality or my foundation of faith for teaching a class (gasp!) in church on the world’s most enduring and dysfunctional prime-time family — now starring in their 23rd season on the Fox Network.
Well, I don’t blame you. I thought I might be headed over a (non-fiscal) cliff by undertaking such an endeavor. Especially since I don’t watch The Simpsons all that often.
Like many of you, I thought the show was essentially a goofy, irreverent, cartoon equivalent of The Three Stooges, basically devoid of any redeeming social values, let alone spiritual value.
But that was before I got to know The Simpsons and spend time gleaning spiritual lessons from the antics of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie and the colorful cast of supporting characters in their hometown of Springfield (Oregon, we now know).
There’s more to this quasi-dysfunctional nuclear family than the casual channel-surfing critic can surmise.
In our 10-week class, we reviewed episodes that provided more spiritual food for thought than just about anything else I've seen on television, including such overtly religious shows as Touched by an Angel and Seventh Heaven. Seriously, you could write a doctoral thesis on the issues debated on The Simpsons – and in fact, many have.
I’ll admit it can be jarring to one’s sense of balance (and propriety) when deep theological issues are raised by a pudgy, yellow, middle-aged guy dancing around the house (a la Tom Cruise in Risky Business) in his tidy whities. I can understand that a scholar or a conservative churchgoer might frown on such a presentation.
But in that particular episode, “Homer the Heretic” (first broadcast Oct. 8, 1992), the family patriarch has decided not to go to church on a bitterly cold Sunday morning.
Marge chastises Homer and takes the kids to church by herself on the 11-degrees-below-zero morning. Homer, meanwhile, stays behind and has the time of his life dancing, eating, watching football, winning a radio station trivia contest, and to top it off, even finding a penny.
Marge and kids, meanwhile, are forced to shiver through a boring sermon because the church's furnace is broken, then her car won’t start when she finally gets to head home.
Homer defends his decision to skip church by saying, “What’s the big deal about going to some building every Sunday? Isn’t God everywhere?”
And also: “Don’t you think the Almighty has better things to worry about than where one little guy spends one measly hour of his week?”
Those questions posed by such a ridiculous cartoon oaf actually led to some great discussions in the Sunday School class about the purpose of religion, the nature of God, how we read and interpret the Bible and the reasons for going (or not going) to church.
Other Simpsons episodes that provoked deep dialogues on God, spirituality, tradition and faith included “When Flanders Failed,” “Like Father, Like Clown,” “Homer vs. Lisa and the Eighth Commandment,” and “Lisa and the Skeptic.”
The idea of teaching a Sunday School class based on The Simpsons was inspired by an excellent book written by a friend and fellow religion journalist, Mark I. Pinsky, titled “The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family” (WJK Books, 2001). There have been updated editions published since then, but I prefer the original.
We also used a companion “Leader’s Guide for Group Study” (WJK, 2002) for the curriculum, offering plenty of material for the class including relevant Bible verses, discussion guides, and prayers.
The Simpsons served to stir things up, and although there were occasional scenes that I probably should have skipped over (I’ve never liked the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons-within-a-cartoon that pop up in many episodes, for example), the overall impact of the class was very positive and surprisingly provocative.
Like a lot of things that lead to personal growth, it helps when you get outside of your comfort zone once in a while and at the same time keep your sense of humor.
And don’t be too afraid to laugh at yourself, because The Simpsons are, in essence, a reflection of American culture in the late 20th and early 21st century.