Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pay Dirt: D'Oh! Top Ten (Plus One) Religious Episodes on 'The Simpsons'


D'Oh! Top Ten (Plus One) Religious Episodes on 'The Simpsons'
By Mark I. Pinsky

Bart Simpson once asked his father about the family's religious identity. Homer classically replied, "You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work in real life. Uh, Christianity." In 18 seasons of "The Simpsons," nearly 20 episodes of the award-winning animated series have focused almost exclusively on faith, religion, and spirituality, while similar subplots, jokes, and images are scattered throughout 150 other episodes.With "The Simpsons Movie" opening on July 27th (and rumored to explore more irreverent faith-focused storylines), the time is ripe for a list of the top ten (plus 1) episodes dealing with religion. It wasn't easy, but as a repeat viewer and a student of the show, here is my list. Whether you're a die-hard Homer fan, a subscriber to the Ned Flanders school of faith, or even an Apu enthusiast, there's something in this gallery for you.

Homer the Heretic (Christianity) - Oct. 8, 1992
Hapless Homer, a borderline pagan whose faith is largely fear-based, decides that attending church every Sunday is a bad idea. Mostly, he is just lazy. But at one point he uses a theological argument with his despairing wife, Marge, that demolishes the notion of "one true faith." Homer has a great time staying at home while his church-going family suffers for their piety. Then God comes to Homer in a dream, and they work things out. Classic "Simpsons" line: "What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we're just making God madder and madder!" --Homer Simpson

Like Father, Like Clown (Judaism) - Oct. 24, 1991
Written with the help of three rabbis, this episode about Jewish identity dramatizes the debate between tradition and modernity--with a little help from the movie "The Jazz Singer." In the episode, Krusty the Clown is revealed to be a conflicted Jew who wants to reconcile with his faith and his estranged father, who, it turns out, is a rabbi. The show also draws on the early life and career of comedian Jackie Mason, who plays Krusty's dad. This episode should be watched with its sequel, "Today I am a Clown," Dec. 7, 2003, which deals with Krusty's adult bar mitzvah. Classic "Simpsons" line: "Mel Brooks is Jewish!?!" --Homer Simpson, after Lisa lists the many Jews in show business

She of Little Faith (Buddhism) - Dec. 16, 2001
Lisa, for many seasons the exemplar of socially-conscious mainline Protestantism, gives up on Christianity when Springfield Community Church goes commercial and seeker-crazy. After some theological wandering, she decides to become a Buddhist, with the help of Richard Gere. At one point the actor tells Lisa that Buddhism is about harmony, so in order to keep her family happy she can still observe Christmas with them. Still, even Gere becomes exasperated at Homer's co-worker Lenny, a Buddhist who doesn't know who Buddha is. Classic "Simpsons" line: "It's a good thing Buddha teaches freedom from desire, because I've got the desire to kick your ass." --Richard Gere

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star (Catholicism) - May 15, 2005
Thrown out of public school (again), bratty son Bart is sent to Catholic school, where he meets a cool priest, played by Liam Neeson. Homer, seduced by bingo, a pancake supper, and the concept of confession and absolution, decides that he and Bart should convert to Catholicism. Marge panics, and with her minister, Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, and her evangelical next-door neighbor, Ned Flanders, the trio proceeds to refight the Reformation. Lovejoy accuses Homer of being "under the spell of a man in a pointy white hat." But Bart reminds everyone, before bloodshed erupts (again) between the Protestants and Catholics, to remember that they share the same faith. Classic "Simpsons" line: "It's all Christianity, people. The little, stupid differences are nothing next to the big, stupid similarities." --Bart Simpson

Missionary: Impossible (Christianity) - Feb. 20, 2000
Failing to make good on his pledged donation to public television, Homer needs to get out of Springfield ahead of a mob led by Betty White and Rupert Murdoch. In desperation, he jumps on a Christian relief plane on its way to supply and replace missionaries on a South Pacific island. Homer prays to "Jebus," who he says he doesn't believe in, to spare him from the mission. Out of ignorance, incompetence, and an abundance of good will, Homer proceeds to repeat every error made by missionaries to indigenous people in the past five centuries. Classic "Simpsons" line: "I may not know that much about God, but I have to say we built an awfully nice cage for him." --Homer Simpson, after motivating islanders to build a church

Simpsons Bible Stories (Christianity) - April 4, 1999
In this Easter episode, the Simpsons are in church as Reverend Lovejoy drones on with a sermon that puts them to sleep. Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa each dream stories from the Old Testament, based on familiar stories from Genesis, Exodus, Kings, and Samuel. (The dreamt-up tales are like the "Fractured Fairy Tales" from the classic "Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.") Homer and Marge--as Adam and Eve--are expelled from the Garden of Eden. But Marge is optimistic, if unclear, on the concept of Original Sin. When the family wakes, they are alone in church, and as they exit the sanctuary, the apocalypse has begun. Classic "Simpsons" line: "I'm sure God will let us return soon. How long can he hold a grudge?" --Marge Simpson, in her dream where she is Eve

Thank God it's Doomsday (Christianity) - May 8, 2005
Homer and the kids stumble into a movie theater at the mall that is showing a film based on the "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic pulp fiction. "The virtuous have gone to heaven," a character intones, "and the rest of us are left below." Fear struck, Homer buys enough Christian books to calculate the exact time and location of the Rapture and convinces townsfolk to gather with him on a mesa at that moment. But he makes an error, and when the event doesn't happen on schedule, he becomes an object of ridicule. On the right date, Homer is raptured by himself. But without his family with him in heaven, he is desolate. So he convinces God to turn back time and postpone the Rapture. Classic "Simpsons" line: "There's no way in God's heaven that I can get into God's heaven. But maybe he'll let me in if I warn others that the apocalypse is coming." --Homer Simpson, wearing a sandwich board and ringing a bell through the streets of Springfield

Bart Sells His Soul (Religious Superstition) - Oct. 8, 1995
Taking a cue from Faust, Bart sells his soul for $5 to his friend Milhouse. Bart argues that he made a good deal, since the soul is not real--just something made up by people to scare kids, "like the boogie man or Michael Jackson." But he soon realizes he has made a terrible mistake. Automatic doors don't open when he approaches, his breath does not produce condensation on the door of a frozen food compartment, he sees no humor in his favorite cartoon show, and he takes no joy from his pranks. In the end, his soul is saved by his sister Lisa, who explains that the soul is "the most valuable part of you... the symbol of everything fine inside us." Classic "Simpsons" line: Bart: "What if you die in a submarine at the bottom of the ocean?" Milhouse: "Oh, [your soul] can swim. It's even got wheels in case you die in the desert and it has to drive to the cemetery."

Pray Anything (General Religion) - Feb. 9, 2003
Homer becomes jealous of Ned when he thinks his neighbor's prayers enable him to win a $50,000 prize for making a half court, halftime shot at a WNBA game. So Homer tries prayer, beginning with a search for a lost TV remote. Lo and behold, it actually works. Success builds on success, until Homer ends up owning Springfield Community Church--turning it into debauchery central. Naturally, this hubris angers God, who rains down retribution on Homer, who in turn is saved from stoning only by the intervention of Reverend Lovejoy. Classic "Simpsons" line: "From now on, I'll pray till my hands are chapped and bleeding." --Homer Simpson, after finding his remote under the sofa

Homer Loves Flanders (Evangelicalism) - Feb. 24, 1994
For once, Homer eases up on the scorn and abuse he normally heaps on his good-hearted but irritating next-door neighbor, Ned Flanders. But first Homer mocks Communion and transubstantiation (the idea that Jesus is present in the wafer) by mistaking a waffle stuck to Ned's ceiling for the Host. Then he prays for tickets to a big football game, only to have his prayer answered by Ned, who offers him a seat. "Why do you mock me, O Lord?" Homer cries. Still, Homer gradually opens his eyes to the evangelical's prayer lifestyle and the way he lives the social gospel. Yet Flanders finds this unexpected friendship stifling and flees Homer, who stands by him when church members are eager to assume the worst about Flanders's erratic behavior. Classic "Simpsons" line: "Bless the grocer for this wonderful meat, the middlemen who jacked up the price, and let's not forget the humane but determined guys over at the slaughterhouse." --Ned Flanders, when he is saying grace

The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons (Hinduism) - Nov. 16, 1997
Apu, the convenience-store operator, is threatened with the end of his role as Springfield's swinging bachelor, when his mother arrives from India, determined to preside over her son's arranged marriage to a woman from the subcontinent. After failing to convince Apu's mother that her son is already married to Marge, Homer tries to sabotage the ceremony by dressing up as the elephant-headed Hindu diety Ganeesha, with predictably disastrous results. Classic "Simpsons" line: "Do not offer my God a peanut!" --Apu to Homer, when his friend tries to feed Ganeesha

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Four Noble Truths

I just finished a short book on Buddhism, appropriately titled Buddhism: A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith and Philip Novak. I hadn't read anything on Buddhism, so even a short introduction was interesting for me.

What struck me on an overall basis was that the original Buddhist philosophy is much more akin to a Dr. Phil-like program as opposed to the stereotypical religious structure I was expecting (and for those of you who are not Dr. Phil fans, this comment was not meant to be disparaging to Buddhism...just that it came across to me more like a life improvement approach than a god-centered religious movement). This may be an incorrrect assessment (given my limited reading on Buddhism) but that is my first impression.

Having said that, I quite liked the basics of Buddhism, so I thought I'd outline some of them here on Prospecting God. In this blog entry, I will outline the "four noble truths" of Buddhism which were supposedly the content for the first teaching conducted by the Buddha. It followed his six-year quest for enlightenment and was a declaration of the key discoveries he had made - they are the "axioms of his system, the postulates from which the rest of his teachings logically derive":

The first noble truth is that life is dukkha, usually translated "suffering". In summary form, the first noble truth is that life (in the condition it has gotten itself into) is dislocated...something has gone is out of joint; and as its pivot is not true, friction (interpersonal conflict) is excessive, movement (creativity) is blocked, and it hurts. The Buddha saw clearly that life as typically lived is unfulfilling and filled with insecurity. It should be noted that this observation was prompted more by realism than by morbidity or a pessimistic outlook on life. He did not doubt that it is possible to have a good time and that this was enjoyable, but he did then ask "how much of life is thus enjoyable?" and "at what level of our being does such enjoyment proceed?". He thought the level was superficial, sufficient enough perhaps for animals, but leaving deep regions of the human psyche empty and wanting. Because of this reality of life, we seek distractions to divert us from what lives beneath the surface...some distract themselves for long periods but the overall darkness is not relieved. He went on to pinpoint six moments when life's dislocation becomes glaringly apparent:

  • The trauma of birth
  • The pathology of sickness
  • The morbidity of decrepitude
  • The phobia of death
  • To be tied to what one dislikes
  • To be separated from what one loves

Two conclusions from the first noble truth: (1) even if one gets what one loves, the delight doesn't last; (2) it is not only the grasped-for world of experience that is impermanent - we, the graspers, are as well.

For the rift (as identified by the first noble truth) to be healed, we need to know the cause, and the second noble truth identifies it. The cause of life's dislocation is tanha - the desire for personal fulfillment. When we are selfless, we are free, but that is precisely the difficulty - to maintain that state. Tanha is the force that ruptures it, pulling us back from the freedom-of-all to seek fulfillment from our private egos. Tanha consists of all those inclinations which tend to continue or increase all forms of selfishness - the essence of which is desire for oneself at the expense, if necessary, of others.

The third noble truth follows from the second. If the causes of life's dislocation is selfish craving, it ceases when such craving is overcome. If we could be released from the narrow limits of self-interest into the vast expanse of universal life, we would be relieved of our torment.

The fourth noble truth prescribes how the cure can be accomplished. The overcoming of tanha, the way out of our captivity, is throught the "Eightfold Path". I'll cover that in my next blog entry.

Note: the above was extracted from Buddhism: A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith and Philip Novak.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Pay Dirt: Interesting Quote

From the introduction to Chapter 4 of Hitchens' god is not Great:

In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.
- Heinrich Heine, Gedanken Und Einfalle