25 years, man! And a whole lot of religious shenanigans.
For a quarter century now The Simpsons has been one of the most religious shows on TV. Some years ago, I was on a panel with The Gospel According to the Simpsons author Mark Pinsky to talk about religion in pop culture, and Mark noted how consistently smart and even wise The Simpsons was. It showcases America’s religious diversity while also demonstrating its historic Protestant core – as represented by Ned Flanders and his family. (God bless you, Ned.)
But if you, like me, don’t have time to review all 552 (!) episodes and 278 hours of Matt Groening’s comic genius, here are 5 classic episodes that show America’s love affair with religion in all its hilarity and diversity.
- #62. In an episode that was probably 20 years before its time, “Homer the Heretic” explores the perfectly valid question of why people should give up half their Sunday to go to church just to hear boring sermons and be told they’re going to hell. Homer comes up with a better idea for his Sabbath, staying home to make waffles and watch football. He loves every minute of it, but God may have other ideas. With today’s “Nones” on the rise like we never saw back in 1992, when the episode first aired, it’s worth another look.
- #275. Lisa becomes a Buddhist in an episode in which Richard Gere makes a cameo appearance. (This cameo actually made me begin to suspect Gere might have a sense of humor about himself. The jury is still out, however.) Lisa has always been the moral conscience of the show, despite her skepticism about organized religion, but in this episode she takes a bit of a plunge and joins a Buddhist temple. For all the laughs, the episode points to a zeitgeist of Americans who are fed up with traditional options (a catalyst for Lisa’s switch is the crass commercialism of her family’s home church) and seeking something different.
- #319. In my all-time favorite Simpsons episode, Krusty the Clown discovers that because he never completed his bar mitzvah he’s not actually considered a Jew. (This is not actually true in Judaism, but hey, it’s television. Work with it.) He is devastated. “I thought I was a self-hating Jew,” he says, “but it turns out I was just a plain old anti-Semite!” Lisa concocts a plan for Krusty to have a bar mitzvah as an adult. The touchstone of the episode is Krusty’s relationship with his rabbi father, which shines through all the show’s usual fast-paced silliness. “Today I am a man,” Krusty announces at the end.
- #377. Ned Flanders, everyone’s favorite evangelical Christian neighbor, starts a town crusade to ban the teaching of evolution in the 2006 episode “The Monkey Suit.” I love the way this episode effectively lampoons both sides of America’s creation wars. It’s not out to lambaste evangelicals (in fact, Ned is shown from the beginning of the episode to be basically a saint). In the end, the way that Lisa creates reasonable doubt about creationism is by pointing to Homer as a plausible “missing link” between human beings and apes. There’s that.
- #405. I had to get a Halloween episode in here, right? In “Heck House,” one segment of 2007’s Treehouse of Horror fare, Ned decides to scare the neighborhood kids into good behavior after one too many Halloween pranks. Granted, it’s not as purely funny as some of the other episodes on this list, but it’s clever to see how the characters in the town embody each of the seven deadly sins. (Homer gets both gluttony and sloth, naturally.)
Have fun with the Simpsons marathon. And remember the wise words of Mel Brooks, who appeared as himself in a Simpsons episode: “Humor is just another defense against the universe.”