In a recent print “interview” with USA Today, Homer Simpson explains his theology this way: “Every time I see my sweet girl Lisa, I believe in God. Every time I see Bart, I believe in the devil.”
Now, those of us who have seen the movie – contributing to a worldwide opening weekend box office of $168 million – know what he meant.
Well, sort of… The Simpsons Movie is not about religion. Like the TV show, it is about a family and a community in which religion plays a part. But many of the spiritual elements present in the show’s past eighteen seasons are present in the movie, driving the plot and complicating the lives of the Simpsons family and the residents of Springfield.
Plan B for Personal Salvation
The Simpsons Movie treats genuine faith with respect, while keeping a sharp eye out for religious pretension and hypocrisy of all kinds—including Homer’s odd brand of wised-up cynicism. Late to a memorial service at the First Church of Springfield for the rock group “Green Day,” Homer tells his family their entrance is unlikely to be noticed, since “Those pious morons are too busy praying to their phony-baloney God.” He explains that his practical Plan B for personal salvation, a version of Pascal’s wager, is to “pray like hell when I’m on my deathbed.”
At the memorial service, which is packed, the unctuous Reverend Lovejoy (who does not love joy) prays to “Let the Lord’s light shine upon you.” The minister asks the congregation to “feel the spirit” and calls on the Lord to “hear our prayers.” In fact, they are heard – and answered – in a turn toward the supernatural and the ecstatic for the normally staid, mainline Protestant church. A beam of heavenly sunlight, shining through one of sanctuary’s windows, sends Grandpa Simpson into a prophetic trance. His extended bout of glossalalia, speaking in tongues, sends him thrashing around on the floor as if he were a charismatic, “slain in the spirit.” (Homer’s first impulse is to flip through his Bible for guidance, only to conclude, “This book doesn’t have any answers.”)
We Told You So
Marge, the family’s true-believing wife and mother, tries her best to interpret Grandpa’s ravings, and is disappointed on the ride home from church when other family members do not share her faith. “What is the point of going to church every Sunday, when someone we love has a genuine religious experience, and we just ignore it?” she asks. Later, she reminds them, “What happened in church was a warning.”
Indeed, she turns out to be right—offering The Simpsons Movie yet another chance to unmask everyone’s human fallibility. As disaster looms, church worshipers leave the sanctuary and run to the bar next door; patrons of the bar stampede to the church. The smug sign outside the church reads, “We Told You So.”
Ned Flanders, Homer’s evangelical neighbor, naturally comes in for his share of ribbing. When he sees a pollution-mutated raccoon with a thousand eyes, he marvels, “Who am I to question the work of the Almighty?” It is, he concludes, a manifestation of the “genius of Intelligent Design.” Flanders’ faith is unshaken as Springfield faces annihilation. He takes his children to the church, where they are alone in the sanctuary, and prepares them for the end. “When you meet Jesus, be sure to call him ‘Mr. Christ,'” he tells them. “Will Buddha be there?” one of the boys asks. No, he snaps, with characteristic intolerance.
And yet there is a sympathetic three-dimensionality to Flanders’ depiction that is characteristic of both the movie and the series, and which raises the emotional stakes for the viewer—part of what has made The Simpsons so addictive for so many years. Flanders may be literal-minded and narrow, but he risks his own life to save the Simpsons from an angry lynch mob. He also provides a father figure for Bart when Homer ignores him, but urges the boy to return to his real father when Homer tries to make amends.
It is The Simpsons Movie’s willingness to depict all the different sides of us—the good, the bad, the cynical and the reverent—that makes it so rich and funny on our complicated, all-too-human relationship with religion.
Or as that reluctant theologian Homer Simpson likes to say: “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.”