The Spiritual Simpsons

So here they are, on the eve of The Simpsons Movie‘s release, my top three “Spiritual Simpsons” episodes. I’m off to catch the midnight show with all the other fanboys(girls), but if you are waiting until later in the weekend to see it, let these memories of the good old days tide you over.

180px-homer_the_heretic.gif3. Number 3 on my list of spiritual Simpsons episodes is perhaps the most famous religious episode of the show’s 16 year run, “Homer the Heretic” (10/08/92). In this episoe, Homer refuses to attend church on a freezing cold Sunday morning. Marge and the kids go anyway only to attend a service with no heat and a sermon from “The Lamentaitons of Jeremiah…the long version.” The family actually warms themselves with thoughts of hell. Meanwhile at home, Homer has one of the greatest days of his life: he uses the bathroom with the door open, makes his favorite waffle, wins a radio call-in contest, and finds a penny. He also dreams that he meets God, and God O.K.’s his refusal to attend church. From here on out, Homer begins his own religion. He lives at peace despite Marge and the Flanders’ attempts to save his soul. One day, while skipping church, Homer accidentally sets fire to his house. When he realizes that he has been saved by people of different faiths, Ned Flanders (Christian), Krusty the Klown (Jewish), and Apu (Hindu), Homer realizes the value of religious community and vows to return to church.

The memorable quotes from this episode signal its theme and, moreover, that of most spiritual Simpsons episodes, the struggle between institutionalized religion and a more “personal” spirituality. Again, the show pulls no punches in its critique of the former. Marge challenges Homer’s decision not to go to church and he responds, “Hey, what’s the big deal about going to some building every Sunday? I mean, isn’t God everywhere?” Later, he adds, “What if we picked the wrong religion. Every week we’re making God madder and madder.” When Lisa questions his lifestyle choice of heresy, Homer simply reassures her that he can recant on his deathbed.

“Homer the Heretic” also gives a nod to ecumenism with Homer’s rescue at the hands of members of three religions. However, this inter-faith group is not immune to ridicule either. When they tell Homer of the situation, Reverend Lovejoy refers to Apu as a member of “Miscellaneous.” Apu replies, “Hindu, there are 700 million of us.” Lovejoy answers, “Awww, that’s super!” This episode even respects Homer’s religion, at least until he belittles the faith of others. As Homer lays down on his couch to smoke a cigar, he says, “Everyone is stupid but me.” He then falls asleep and the lit cigar falls out of his mouth, setting the house on fire. The episode will respect faiths (even individual ones) if they respect each other. When Homer fears that God has punished him, Flanders quickly reassures him that God did not punish him but rather worked through the hearts of his friends and neighbors despite his or their faith preference.

200px-babf11.jpg2. Number 2 on my list is quite possibly my favorite Simpsons episode of all time, “Missionary Impossible” (2/20/2000). In this episode, Homer and Bart enjoy a British sitcom on PBS entitled “Do Shut Up.” The show is full of the violent humor that they love but is unfortunately a part of a PBS fundraiser. The show cuts to a commercial of Betty White who says that the program will not resume until they reach a specific monetary mark. Homer phones in and pledges $10,000, which of course he does not have. A PBS pledge enforcement team traces the call and threatens Homer when they realize that he cannot pay. Homer flees and runs into Reverend Lovejoy’s church screaming, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” Reverend Lovejoy sends Homer to the South Pacific as a missionary until the coast clears. Homer makes the best of the situation (without beer, he licks poisonous toads for a buzz). Rather than continuing the other missionaries’ efforts, Homer builds a casino on the island and teaches the natives how to gamble. When this all but ruins the peaceful island, Homer decides that they need a church. Unfortunately, the church is destructive as well when the bells of the church cause an avalanche, earthquake, and volcanic eruption.

This episode contains some of my favorite dialogue from the series, not least of which is Homer’s “Sanctuary!” scream as he runs into the church. As the plane lifts off to take Homer to the mission field, he screams, “Wait! I’m no missionary! I don’t even believe in Jebus!” When he meets the departing missionaries, Craig and Amy, they advise him, “First of all, forget everything you learned in missionary school. […] We taught them some English and ridiculed away most of their beliefs.” Later, Homer asks where all the shirtless women are that he’s seen in geographical magazines, and Qtoktok replies, “Craig and Amy gave us the gift of shame.” Finally, after Homer completes the church, he comments, “Well, I may not know much about God, but I have to say, we built a pretty nice cage for him.”

Clearly, the Simpsons’ irreverence is as sharp as ever. Institutionalized religion has never been safe in The Simpsons, and here, they tackle the missionary aspects of it. We see that, far from being in need, the “natives” were perfectly fine before Homer showed up, and moreover, before Craig and Amy did as well. Homer’s casino obviously serves as an example of the destructive outcomes of uninformed missionary presence. Even the church itself is destructive to the island. Homer’s “caged God” analogy is not without precedence in The Simpsons as we saw in “Homer the Heretic.”

simpsons_roasting_on_an_open_fire.jpg1. For the number 1 spiritual Simpsons episode on my list, I have to return to where it all began (shorts excluding), “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (12/17/89). In this episode, the Simpsons go Christmas shopping. While at the mall, Bart gets a tatoo against Marge’s instruction. Marge must spend the rest of the family’s Christmas money on laser removal of the tatoo. She is frustrated but not without hope, because, after all, they can always count on Homer’s Christmas bonus. Unfortunately, in a characteristically Burnsian move, Homer doesn’t get a bonus this year. Instead, he takes a second job as a mall Santa but only makes $13. He reluctantly takes his meager paycheck, with Bart’s encouragement, to Springfield Downs, the local dogtrack. He loses it all on a long shot (99-1), Santa’s Little Helper. Homer and Bart leave dejected but happen across Santa’s Little Helper who has been abandoned by his owner. Bart convinces Homer to let him keep the new pet, and they return home with what the family thinks was Homer’s plan to save Christmas all along.

This episode tops my list not because it is the funniest episode (which it is not) or the one that focuses most directly on religion or spirituality (which it does not). Rather, this episode captured, from the start, the essence of 16 years of programming. Most of the major players are here save Krusty, Apu, and Reverend Lovejoy. The episode succinctly captures the neighborly rivalry between the Simpsons and the Flanders. The creaters lay out each Simpsonian personality from Bart changing Christmas carol lyrics to Lisa dancing as a South Pacific Santa. The fact that the creators have managed to mine these characteristics for 16 years with minimal shifts in focus and additional characters is truly remarkable.

But back to this episode. It is not without the spiritual. We see early on that, despite his many flaws, Homer loves his family and will do anything to give them a merry Christmas. Though Homer is excited about Christmas shopping, we see that he understands the true meaning of both Christmas and family. While working as the mall Santa, a child rattles off his wish list of toys to which Homer responds, “Oh you don’t need all that. I bet you have what’s really important…a nice home and a father who would do anything for you.” Of course, Homer is justifying his situation, but it is still the truth. Homer fails at the dogtrack but succeeds in rescuing Santa’s Little Helper. Again, we see a defining Homeric truth: often, the best-laid plans fail, but sometimes, even the worst-laid plans succeed. Just like real life!