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The Simpsons Movie

Written by Jon M. Sweeney

Directed by David Silverman
20th Century Fox, PG-13 rating

At the beginning of this hilarious new movie, the Simpson family is walking briskly to church, running late. Just as they approach the front door, Homer says in a loud voice, not realizing that the windows are all open and that everyone inside will overhear, “These pious morons are too busy talking to their phony-baloney God!”

During the service, Grandpa Simpson has a “genuine religious experience,” according to Marge, who is the only one to take it seriously. Grandpa throws himself on the floor and begins to prophesy in gibberish. There’s everything but snake-handling to make everyday Protestant religion look odd in The Simpsons Movie—but that’s exactly why spiritual people find it so funny!

Later in the film, at a particular moment of crisis, a bird’s eye view of the church shows that it sits right next door to Moe’s Bar. As the people in both buildings simultaneously discover what the crisis is all about (the Environmental Protection Agency is about to enclose the entire town in a large glass dome), they scream, and switch buildings.

Time magazine has called The Simpsons, “the best television show of the twentieth century.” The show has won a whopping 23 Emmy Awards. Simply put, in their first movie Bart and Homer and the rest of the gang are as funny as ever.

I was actually one of the many Christians who were turned-off by The Simpsons on television in the early years, simply because of Bart’s rebelliousness. I’ve never thought that adolescent rebellion is the stuff of great comedy. I didn’t laugh at The Simpsons for the same reason I’ve never found those “Funniest Home Video” television shows to be real entertainment; they seem simply to show people hurting themselves or enjoying the pain and misfortune of others as humor.

In The Simpsons Movie, Bart has moments when he drinks whisky in a motel room, streaks naked across town on his skateboard, and deliberately threatens his father’s life in a variety of ways. These things weren’t what made the film most entertaining for me, but still, maybe I’ve changed a bit, and certainly, The Simpsons has evolved over time.

The Simpson family spends a lot of time in church, and they certainly poke fun at religious excess more than any other show on television. The characters of Ned Flanders (the Christian fundamentalist) and Lisa Simpson (the progressive/activist Christian) offer frequent opportunities for faith discussion. In The Simpsons Movie, Flanders is portrayed in a mostly good light, as the father that Bart has never really had in Homer. Ned cares for his children, loves them, hugs them, all of which is observed by Bart from the house next door.

But at the same time, the excesses of Flanders’s fundamentalism come shining through. He carries extra boys’ pants with him at all times because, as he says, his boys are always “praying through the knees.” At a moment that feels like the end of the world, Flanders quietly instructs his children, “Now when you see Jesus, be sure to call him, ‘Mr. Christ.’” And the billboard outside the church reads, “We Told You So.”

Lisa Simpson, meanwhile, canvasses the neighborhood, when she leaves church, in support of legislation to clean up the pollution in the local lake. She admires Bono, and falls in love with a new kid in town with a similar, Irish, accent. And then later, she lectures on lake pollution before a crowd of her neighbors at the local town hall. “Pushy Kid Nags Town,” reads the headline in the newspaper the next day.

Topics of religious hypocrisy, cults, and belief in hell make frequent appearances in the writing of this hugely popular show. Homer Simpson once described his faith as “the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life.” His long-suffering wife, Marge, on the other hand, is a Christian that makes good sense to me. She is usually the voice of moderation and reason.

And then there are the religious characters from other traditions. In The Simpsons Movie we meet a medicine woman in Alaska (the family flees there after being run out of Springfield). The woman saves Homer’s life just as he is about to be eaten by a polar bear. She then encourages him to chant until he has an “epiphany…a sudden realization of great truth.”

Anyone who has watched the television show more than once knows that Homer is probably incapable of any epiphany whatsoever—that’s what makes him so funny. Nevertheless, Homer indeed comes to one, which translates roughly as, “Without other people, I’m nothing.” And he is suddenly convinced that he must return to Springfield where he is needed to help save the town.

The lesson of The Simpsons seems to be that we usually create our own problems, our own crises, and then, with a little help from each other and—yes, from God—we can find the way out of our messes. At a crisis moment in the film, Homer is riffling through a copy of the Bible while in a church pew, his family all around him, and he exclaims, “This book doesn’t have any answers!”

Homer is, of course, all of us. That’s why his bumbling, his outbursts, his desire for simple answers, and his selfishness are so amusing—because we can imagine ourselves doing the same. At the film’s end, Homer indeed saves the day; Grandpa yells to him, “What are you doing?” And Homer replies, “Risking my life to save people whom I hate for reasons I don’t understand!” Sounds like the honest reflection of someone in church on Sunday morning, don’t you think?

Copyright @ 2007 Jon M. Sweeney