The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
Television, today's default substitute for relationships and community, is
also a marketplace for offerings of the sacred in the commercial, the profound
in the profane. Sermons, even prayers and blessings, have moved beyond
point-of-purchase houses of worship. Televised versions of spiritual
enlightenment for every demographic and degree of religious piety abound, from
"commitment-light" to fundamentalist, feel-good, New Age
psychological, to an entire station of that old-time religion (WORD Network).
From televangelist Benny Hinn's healing the afflicted through their
television sets to astrology or Feng Shui home decorating, it's enough to make
an otherwise rational person wear a protective tin-foil helmet when holding the
But television religion isn't confined to programs with "Angel" in
the title, "Touched" or otherwise, or commercials for toilet tissue
and calling collect.
Children, the youngest entertainment product consumers, begin their religious
education with cartoons. Some are deliberate and overt, like the Bible story
cartoon series, soldthrough a television informercial offer, for parents:
- Concerned about their children's biblical knowledge;
- Disgusted with all that multicultural crap the kids are fed on Sesame
- Willing to shell out major bucks for all the episodes, instead of dragging
the kids to Vacation Bible School or church;
- Able to force their kids to watch them.
Note: these cartoons are not to be confused with the live-action Bible
stories sold by Charlton ("pry-my-gun-from-my-cold-dead-hands") Heston
for older children.
Other cartoons are deliberate, but not so overt. The computer-generated,
proactive Veggie Tales franchise (a tossed salad for God) is for tots
whose parents were scandalized by the sinful homosexual orientation of Tinky
Winky the Teletubby. They act out biblical stories and morality plays with
asparagus, cucumbers, tomatoes (a fruit?), and other assorted veggies. They're
even starring in their own major motion picture.
But the best way to reach the majority of our nation's youth, who avoid
overtly religious programming like the plague (unless they really like the
claymation technique on Davy and Goliath) is covertly through the
cartoons they already watch.
Religious references abound in almost every past and current cartoon series:
from the prehistoric Flintstones, whose characters "lived"
before monotheism, all the way to the futuristic Jetsons. From the very
beginning of the art form, cartoon plots were taken from the Bible. It meant
parents would allow their children to watch cartoons. The Bible is also a great
free source of popular material, having spent centuries in the public domain.
Early cartoon characters prayed, deliberated between good and evil with a
tiny angel on one shoulder and a tiny devil on the other, wore halos, died, and
had souls rise to heaven or down to hell—or got resurrected holding a lily.
The cartoon world boasts a vast population of spirits, ghosts, and other
supernatural manifestations, from friendly ones like Casper to malevolent
demons, with only the skeptical Scooby Doo team to expose the hoax.
The use of cartoons for propaganda during World War II indicates that cartoon
makers know exactly what they're doing—in spite of All Dogs Go to Heaven.
When other cultures relate religious observance to animals, inanimate
objects, or natural phenomena, they're considered primitive, pagan, or even
worse. Their adherents are targeted for conversion to monotheism—peacefully by
missionaries, or forcefully by the army. In cartoons, however, Christianity is
inherent in everything: the sun, the ocean, dolls, toys, animals, trees, stars,
foodstuffs, etc. Christmas ornament effigies of almost every imaginable cartoon
character, cultural icon, and product abound: Pepe Le Pew, Elvis, Marilyn
Monroe, Speedy Alka-Seltzer, Chinese Barbie (a Confucian convert), the Three
Stooges (who were Jewish), even Darth Vader, who was born long, long ago, in a
galaxy far, far away, well before Christ. It's no wonder some Brits listed their
religion as Jedi on the last census.
Religious themes are also secularized for cartoons, like the cute, cuddly,
cloud-based Care Bears, who came to Earth whenever the "Care-o-Meter"
dropped below a certain level, similar to the Jewish belief that the world will
end when the number of the righteous falls below seven.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles changed the mix. Although the four
pizza-eating Turtles were named after Renaissance painters, they were granted
sentience by chemical mutation (science, not God, was their creator) and
followed the teachings of a Sensei rat. They helped establish an Asian influence
in American cartoons, paving the way for Pokemons and other Japanese animé.
Nickelodeon broke another barrier, the Rugrats celebration of Jewish
holidays a clear multicultural wake-up call.
But, since even the minds of the blasphemous come from God, a new form of
scholarship was born. It looks not to the study of the Scriptures to find the
Word of God, but to popular cartoons.
Charles Schultz deliberately built in his religious messages, so the concept
behind The Gospel According to Peanuts by Robert Short (1965) wasn't much
of a stretch. He may have made his case for Lucy as a stand-in for Original Sin,
but Snoopy as Jesus is probably a bit over the top for most theologians.
Matt Groening's The Simpsons began as a satire from the
cartoonist who wrote Life in Hell. The Simpsons has been accused of
skewering every value that decent, God-fearing people hold dear; it has been
shunned, reviled, and protested by religious leaders and parents alike. Groening
himself admitted that he wouldn't let his own kids watch it. But many former
critics are getting on the show's religious bandwagon, including the magazines Christian
Century and Christianity Today.
According to sociologist John Heeren, apparently a man with much free time on
his hands, an analysis of seventy-one episodes of The Simpsons for Christianity
Today revealed that 69 percent contained at least one religious reference,
and 10 percent of the plots directly concerned religion. He presented his
findings to "The Scientific Study of Religion in the USA (sic)."
In The Gospel According to the Simpsons, author Mark I. Pinsky, the Orlando
Sentinel's religion reporter, uncovers (allegedly) religious lessons and
socially redeemable value in the cartoon. There's also The Gospel According
to the Simpsons: Leaders Guide for Group Study, which Pinsky wrote with
Samuel F. Parvin, who also wrote Weekend at the Movies: the Best Retreats
from Reel to Reel, which tells how to create movie-inspired religious
retreats for young people and explains the religious lessons to be found in
blockbusters like Big, Dave, and Pleasantville.
Relying on the aforementioned The Gospel According to Peanuts and the
groundbreaking work of The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, perhaps The
Gospel According to the Simpsons is an attempt to wrest control from the
more scholarly and inclusive The Simpsons and Philosopy: The D'oh! of Homer,
edited by William Irwin, Mark T. Conard, and Aeon J. Skoble.
The D'oh of Homer is comprised of eighteen essays by contemporary
philosophers, mostly college professors, interpreting aspects of the show
according to Aristotle, Marx, Kant, epistemology, heuristic values, politics,
sexual politics (three-quarters of the characters are male), ethics, etc.
All this attention to a cartoon says a lot about our contemporary
intellectual climate: if you don't reference pop culture, even the intellectuals
won't read your book.
In one essay, David Vessey explains that Simpsons character Ned
Flanders is "only that which Matt Groening and his staff make him to be . .
. because quite obviously, Ned has no beliefs and does not actually act."
He explains his methodology of treating Ned and the other characters as if they
are real, while acknowledging the role of dozens of writers.
In contrast, Pinsky, who is Jewish, admittedly takes the cartoon family at face
value, placing them firmly into the Judeo-Christian camp, though touching upon
other influences in the diverse Springfield community. Interviewing the real,
live, unanimated writers, he's forced to admit that the two believing
Protestants on the staff are a rarity. The vast number of Simpsons
writers are former Catholic and Jewish avowed atheists, or at least agnostics,
mostly Harvard- or Ivy League-educated.
Pinsky feels the show upholds moral family values because Marge hasn't
divorced Homer in spite of his knocking her up before their marriage, child
abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, bigamy, public sex, bootlegging, conning old
people, murderous Halloween stunts, selling his soul to the Devil, breaking most
of the Ten Commandments, world-class gluttony, and myriad assorted other venal
and mortal sins.
In the episode where Homer accidentally becomes a missionary, Pinsky, who
academically (almost biblically), cites chapter and verse of these episodes (as
did the philosophers in D'oh), sees reaffirmation of faith as Homer
repeatedly hollers, "Help me, Jeebus." Not knowing his Lord and
Savior's name is spite of his regular attendance at a church headed by the burnt
out Reverend Lovejoy doesn't exactly indicate religious zeal on Homer's part,
especially since he corrupts an innocent tribe as the story unfolds.
Prior to the fairly recent episode in which she became a Richard Gere
Buddhist, shown after Pinsky's book was published, Lisa Simpson came across an
atheist, or at least an agnostic. An intellectual most of the time (see
"Lisa and the American Anti-intellectualism" by Aeon J. Skoble in The
Simpsons and Philosophy), possessing a strong progressive, pro-reason,
antisuperstition, antipollution, pro-animal rights, profeminist, and prohumanist
agenda, Lisa remains a (somewhat) innocent child. Therefore, Pinsky describes
Lisa, who once pitied her mother for having faith, as a stand-in for Jesus
Christ. She's probably a better match than Snoopy.
The Simpsons are basically equal opportunity satirists, skewering any
and all religions except Islam, which they never found funny. They've driven the
Catholic Church apoplectic. The show has sometimes been called upon to apologize
to their targets, notably the entire city of Rio de Janeiro.
Krusty the Clown, Springfield's sole Jewish (you should pardon the
expression) role model, reconciled with his father, an Orthodox rabbi, in an
episode Pinsky deems significant. Convenience store manager Apu, his wife,
Manjula, their octuplets, and the Kwik-i-Mart guru who dwells high atop the
Himalayas in a twenty-four-hour market, have caused great mental anguish to
But not everyone takes offense. The main religious character The Simpsons
offers is Ned Flanders—Homer's next-door neighbor, nemesis, and sometimes
friend, the ultimate Christian nerd, a guy so obsessed with godliness that even
his minister runs from him. Ned and his dearly departed wife, Maude, and their
two sons have become heroes to Christians, at least to some Christians who have
trouble separating fantasy from reality. In the United Kingdom last year, a Ned
Flanders look-alike contest had so many participants that many had to be turned
This identification is deliberate, at least on the part of Christianity
Today, which notes that, according to a poll, more people identify Ned with
Christianity than "the Pope, Mother Teresa, or even Billy Graham."
(Apologies to John Lennon, who once precipitated outrage when he compared the
Beatles' popularity to that of Jesus, are long overdue.)
Pinsky's The Gospel According to Disney will be published shortly,
although The Gospel According to Disney: Christian Values in the Early
Animated Classics by Philip Longfellow Anderson was published in 1999,
mostly sticking with the early, Walt Disney himself, pre-Michael Eisner (the man
who brought us Mickey Mouse menorahs) classics. It explores, among other
parables, the role of the apple in both the Garden of Eden and in precipitating
Snow White's coma.
It may be a book series and major motion picture series and not a cartoon,
but there's also The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Spirituality in the
Stories of the World's Most Famous Seeker by Connie Neal, which
painstakingly compares Potter to the Bible, looking for spiritual enlightenment
in the series Christians love to ban and burn. She's developed a career
explaining Potter, having also published What's a Christian to Do with Harry
Potter? Neal has also collaborated with Pinsky's partner Parvin in writing
the soon-to-be-released The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Leader's Guide
for Group Study.
As Thomas Aquinas rolls in his grave, somewhere someone sits, in front of his
or her television, feverishly typing away on a laptop, to bring forth The
Gospel According to South Park. I've got dibs on the study guide.
Beth Birnbaum is a freelance writer.