Unless you have been living under a rock for the last twenty years, you are familiar with television’s favourite animated family, “The Simpsons.” The satirical parody of middle class America family life follows the lives of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson — and lampoons pretty much everything you may hold dear in the process.
The show had its start as a regular feature on Fox’s “The Tracey Ullman Show” in 1987. When the show was cancelled, “The Simpsons” was developed into its own series, airing its first episode on December 17, 1989. Since then the series has completed eighteen seasons and will commence its nineteenth (and last) season in the fall.
But the big news about the world’s favourite yellow family is that they are hitting the big screen in a couple weeks. That’s right, The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman; IMDb) opens in Canada on 27 July 2007 — and I’ll be there with my Homer slippers on.
While in its first few seasons the show raised the ire of a number of conservative Christians who saw the Simpsons’s family as bad role models (among other things), many (including myself) recognize that “The Simpsons” is actually one of the most religious shows on television. Religion and spirituality are frequently satirized in the show, whether it’s Reverend Lovejoy’s deathly boring sermons (many episodes), Homer’s personally created do-it-yourself religion of Homerism (“Homer the Heretic,” 9F01), Lisa’s rejection of commodified Christianity and turn to Buddhism (“She of Little Faith,” DABF02), or the hilarious retelling of favourite OT stories in “Simpsons Bible Stories” (AABF14) and the Simpson-style nativity story in “Simpsons Christmas Stories” (HABF01). While other religions are spoofed, cultural Christianity — whether Catholic, Mainline, or Evangelical — receive the most attention. On the one hand Ned Flanders and family are an over-the-top caricature of conservative evangelical Christianity, but on the other hand they are the most moral characters in the show. Ned is a nerd, yes; but he is a nerd with moral integrity.
“The Simpsons” has received a fare amount of attention from cultural critics and other academics. In terms of its long-standing portrayal and parody of institutional religion and popular culture, I can’t think of any television show that comes close to its incisive critique (although some come close). Besides the many “official” publications related to the series, there are also a number of analyses of “The Simpsons” available. Here are some of my favourites:
John Alberti, editor, Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture (Contemporary Film and Television Series; Wayne State University Press, 2003; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is an interesting examination of how “The Simpsons” is both a corporate-manufactured show as well as a parody of very consumer capitalism that makes it wildly successful.
Alan Brown with Chris Logan, editors, The Psychology of The Simpsons: D’oh! (Psychology of Popular Culture series; Benbella Books, 2006; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I have not had a chance to examine this book in depth, though many of the chapters appear to deal with topics that touch on religion.
Jonathan Gray, Watching With The Simpsons: Television, Parody, And Intertextuality (Routledge, 2006; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I haven’t had a chance to peruse this volume yet, though the focus on intertextuality piques my interest.
Matt Groening, Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life: A Wee Handbook for the Perplexed (Harper, 1993; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is a fun little book that epitomizes Bart’s twisted worldview.
William Irwin, Mark T. Conard, and Aeon J. Skoble, editors, The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer (Popular Culture and Philosophy 2; Open Court, 2001; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). While this work does not examine the religious life of the Simpsons, many of its chapters deal with religious and ethical matters. The chapter on allusion is a great discussion of the intertextual nature of the show.
Steven Keslowitz, The Simpsons And Society: An Analysis Of Our Favorite Family And Its Influence In Contemporary Society (Hats Off Books, 2003; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com) and Steven Keslowitz, The World According to The Simpsons (Sourcebooks, 2006; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). I was a bit disappointed with Keslowitz’s first book (The Simpsons and Society) — far too superficial — though from all indications his second work appears to be more promising (although it appears it may just be an expanded edition of his first work… I don’t have access to my copy of The Simpsons and Society right now, so I can’t confirm).
Mark I. Pinsky, The Gospel According to the Simpsons, Bigger and Possibly Even Better! Edition (Westminster John Knox, 2007; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is an entertaining look at faith in The Simpsons by religion journalist Mark Pinsky. While his theological reflection and cultural analysis are at times superficial, this is still a valuable examination of faith and spirituality in the series.
Chris Turner, Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation (Random House, 2004; Da Capo Press, New edition, 2005; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is perhaps my favourite book about The Simpsons. It is comprehensive in its cultural analysis, including a section on religion and faith.
Well, I have written enough… time to go to Kwik-E-Mart for a squishee and play a game of chess with my The Simpsons chess set. (I only wish I lived in Coquitlam, BC so I could go to a real Kwik-E-Mart! D’oh!)
I should confess a couple limitations with this list. First, and quite naturally, it only contains films that I have personally viewed. My list of â€œFilms I should have viewed before making my list” include, critically acclaimed films like The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com), Lâ€™enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2006; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com), among others. Second, before anyone comments that I clearly have no sense of what makes a good film, note that these are top films â€œfor theologians,â€? i.e., they are films that raise theological questions or issues. They are not necessarily great films or the best films of the year; they have weaknesses and shortcomings. That being said, I do think that most if not all of them are among the best of the year and are certainly worthy of thoughtful viewing.
So, drum-roll please, here is my list of “Essential Films of 2006 for Theologians” in all its glory:
10. Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). A disturbing and somewhat biased documentary about fundamentalist Christianity in the United States (my Canadian sensibilities cringe when the documentary describes the Christianity in the film as “evangelical”). Not necessarily the best documentary, it raises a whole host of questions about how Christians are perceived by others as well as how to (and how not to) pass on your faith to your children. Another documentary that deserves some sort of notice is Blood of My Brother: A Story of Death in Iraq (Andrew Berends, 2005 [I watched it in 2006]; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is a low-budget film about an Iraqi family dealing with the accidental death of a son and brother by the hands of American troops. It provides a captivating glimpse into everyday life in war torn Iraq and folk Islam.
9. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). There is not much theology in this film, although it does raise some interesting ethical questions (!). Nonetheless, as a long time Bond fan, I thought it was superb and had to include it on my list. (Following the lead of an article by Umberto Eco, I do use the Bond series as an example of structural analysis of artifacts from popular culture in my religion and popular culture course)
8. An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Science aside, I thought this was a well done and provocative documentary. It is too bad the issue of global warming has become so politicized — is it really such a bad thing to reduce the amount we pollute and consume non-renewable resources? I really don’t understand Christians who object to the basic message of the film, especially since we are called to tend the earth. In the end, this film generates a lot of theological discussion surrounding our stewardship of God’s creation.
7. Babel (Alejandro GonzÃ¡lez IÃ±Ã¡rritu, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). While the concept behind this film is brilliant, the Japan story-line is weak. In the same way that last year’s Crash explored racism, this film explores the question of language, culture, and diversity in a way that will provoke meaningful discussion. Is it possible for humanity to reverse the consequences of Babel? Or is it only as part of God’s redemptive plan that the consequences of Babel will ultimately be reversed?
6. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). While all parts of this movie is offensive, what is most offensive are the attitudes and behaviours of the non-actors in the film. Racism, sexism, and bigotry is alive and well on planet earth. (I also haven’t laughed so hard in the theatre in a long time, at times uncomfortably, mind you).
5. The Last King of Scotland (Kevin MacDonald, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). Forest Whitaker deserved all of the awards he won for his brilliant and disturbing portrayal of the brutal Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. While Amin’s character raises a number of questions, the struggles of Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (a fictional character played by James McAvoy) will likely raise more questions for thoughtful viewers. Another film based on more recent events closer to home is United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). Considering viewers know the outcome of the flight, the director deserves credit for making a suspenseful and very well done film. Good discussion points about self-sacrifice and courage.
4. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). This is a great gangster film and all of the actors had great performances, especially Jack Nicholson. The movie raises issues of moral compromise and integrity — but in the end it raises the question of who really are the “faithfully departed.” (I had previously listed this as my number one movie of 2006)
3. Pan’s Labyrinth [El Laberinto del fauno] (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). This dark adult fairy tale is amazing in many ways. It interweaves story-lines about a girl growing up amid personal tragedies, including the horrors of the Spanish civil war, and the fantasy world which she created to cope with her life. Visually stunning and skillfully put together — especially how the line between reality and fantasy are blurred. How much is the alternate fantasy world just a creation of the girl’s imagination?
2. Little Children(Todd Field, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). This is an amazing film; I was so moved by it that I almost think it should be number one. The questions it raises about maturity, sexuality, fidelity, and brokenness are meaningful to contemporary society. This film is an “Eyes Wide Shut” for middle class suburbanites. Another film which I feel compelled to mention, but am not quite sure where to place it is Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). This quirky film is about acceptance and family — no matter how much you may act like “little children” (in some ways sends the opposite message as Little Children).
1. Children of Men (Alfonso CuarÃ³n, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). A miraculous birth with all worldly powers pursuing the woman and her child — sound familiar? Beyond the clear allusions to Jesus’ birth, the film also raises questions surrounding God’s work in the world. The film is also visually appealing and contains some amazing camera work.
I wish I could have included one of the few Bible films released last year on my list, whether The Nativity Story (Catherine Hardwicke, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com), The Color of the Cross (Jean-Claude La Marre, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com), or One Night with the King (Michael O. Sajbel, 2006; IMDB; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com). Unfortunately, all of these films were a disappointment. The Nativity Story was too sentimental (and as a biblical scholar I still can’t believe that in a film trying to present a certain historical verisimilitude, they had the wise men appear at the birth instead of at the house a few years later), The Color of the Cross had great potential but failed to explore racial issues in any meaningful way, and One Night With the King failed to generate any meaningful sympathy for the main characters.
All in all, I am not sure that 2006 was as good as last year for movies.
Tonight the series finale of the award-winning HBO series, The Sopranos, is airing. I have been a fan of the series from the very beginning and am looking forward to watching episode 86, “Made in America.” I can’t help but think that the finale will be somewhat of a letdown, but that is perhaps to be expected for a long-running successful television series. I don’t think Tony will get whacked and I can’t see him cooperating with the FBI, so I’m not sure what will happen. (If you haven’t been following the series, check out the amusing video “7 Seven Minute Sopranos – A ‘Whacked Out’ Refresher” on YouTube).
As with many artifacts from popular culture, there has been some interesting philosophical and theological reflection on the series. One of my favourite series of “light” philosophy books has a volume entitled The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am, edited by Richard Greene and Peter Vernezze (Popular Culture and Philosophy; Open Court, 2004; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). I also liked the book on The Sopranos by Chris Seay, The Gospel According to Tony Soprano: An Unauthorized Look Into the Soul of TV’s Top Mob Boss and His Family (Relevant Books, 2002; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). While I don’t think this volume is as strong as other “The Gospel According to…” books (not that all of the others are that strong either), it is an engaging examination of the first three seasons of The Sopranos from a Christian perspective. Seay treats the mob show as a modern parable that “provokes us, excites us, and pries back the exterior to peek into the darkest parts of our souls.” While Seay’s analyses of the show and popular culture are at times superficial, the book is fun and informative.
Will Tony Soprano be sleeping with the fishes after tonight’s episode? We’ll all have to wait and see.
I just returned from watching Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007; IMDb). It wasn’t just so-so; it was awful. I couldn’t believe it. The first two Spider-Man movies were great. This one was cheesy. I’m not sure what was the worst scene. Probably either the scene where Peter Parker (with his black suit Spider-Man undies on) is playing the stud walking the streets of NY or where Spider-Man swings in to fight the Sandman and Venom with the huge American flag in the background (apologies to any American readers, but it was over the top).
Perhaps I am being too hard on it. Perhaps my expectations were too high post Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2006; IMDb). I sure hope Sam Raimi doesn’t end up directing The Hobbit (IMDb).
Batman Begins; Spider-Man Ends. Spider-Man has now become the old Batman, and the new Batman has become the old Spider-Man. Hebel, all is hebel.
While this isn’t really new news, the Kansas City Star has recently published an excerpt from Stephen Protheroâ€™s new book on religious literacy, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know â€” and Doesnâ€™t (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com).
The book rightly laments the lack of religious literacy of most Americans. I don’t think that Canadians would fare much better.
Here’s the test; take it and see how you do!
Name the four Gospels. List as many as you can.
Name a sacred text of Hinduism.
What is the name of the holy book of Islam?
Where according to the Bible was Jesus born?
President George W. Bush spoke in his first inaugural address of the Jericho road. What Bible story was he invoking?
What are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament?
What is the Golden Rule?
â€œGod helps those who help themselves.â€? Is this in the Bible? If so, where?
â€œBlessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.â€? Does this appear in the Bible? If so, where?
Name the Ten Commandments. List as many as you can.
Name the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
What are the Seven Sacraments of Catholicism? List as many as you can.
The First Amendment says two things about religion, each in its own â€œclause.â€? What are the two religion clauses of the First Amendment?
What is Ramadan? In what religion is it celebrated?
Match the Bible characters with the stories in which they appear. Hint: Some characters may be matched with more than one story or vice versa:
Adam and Eve
Binding of Isaac
Garden of Eden
Parting of the Red Sea
Road to Damascus
Garden of Gethsemane
Here are answers in amazing selecto-vision (select the text with your cursor and you will be able to see the answers)
1. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (1 point each)
2. They include the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Puranas, Mahabharata, Bhagavad-Gita, Ramayana, Yoga Sutras, Laws of Manu and the Kama Sutra. (1 point)
3. Qurâ€™an (1 point)
4. Bethlehem (1 point)
5. The Good Samaritan (1 point)
6. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (1 point each)
7. â€œDo unto others as you would have them do unto youâ€œ (Matthew 7:12), or a similar sentiment from Rabbi Hillel or Confucius. â€œLove your neighbor as yourselfâ€? is not the Golden Rule. (1 point)
8. No, this is not in the Bible. In fact, it is contradicted in Proverbs 28:26: â€œHe who trusts in himself is a fool.â€? The words are Ben Franklinâ€™s. (2 points)
9. Yes, in the Beatitudes of Jesusâ€™ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3). (2 points)
10. The Protestant, Catholic and Jewish versions of the Ten Commandments differ. Give yourself credit for any 10 of the following 12 â€” each of which appears in at least one of those three versions. (10 points)I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make yourself a graven image.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not kill/murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighborâ€™s wife.
You shall not covet your neighborâ€™s goods.
11. Life is suffering. Suffering has an origin. Suffering can be overcome (nirvana). The path to overcoming suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. (4 points)
12. Baptism; Eucharist/Mass/Holy Communion; Reconciliation/Confessionenance; Confirmation; Marriage; Holy Orders; Anointing of the Sick/Last Rites (7 points)
13. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.â€? The words before the comma are referred to as the establishment clause; the words that follow constitute the free exercise clause. (1 point each)
14. Ramadan is a Muslim holiday characterized by a month of fasting. (2 points)
15. Adam and Eve (Garden of Eden); Paul (Road to Damascus); Moses (Exodus and Parting of the Red Sea); Noah (Olive Branch); Jesus (Road to Damascus and Garden of Gethsemane); Abraham (Binding of Isaac); Serpent (Garden of Eden) (7 points)
So, how did you do? To figure out your score, add your total points, then multiply by 2 to get your score on a standard 100-point scale.
90 points or higher – Hallelujah. You know your 4 Râ€™s!
80-89 – Brush up on your 4 Râ€™s, youâ€™re ready for cocktail conversation.
70-79 -Youâ€™re in intellectual purgatory.
60-70 – Make flashcards of the dictionary at the back of Protheroâ€™s book.
Below 60 points – Donâ€™t do anything before reading this book.
While I wouldn’t be surprised about people’s lack of knowledge of some of the eastern religions, the sad reality is that many/most people who identify themselves as Christians don’t actually know much about the Bible or the differences between denominations, among other things.
OK, methinks Canadian politics are a bit different than those in the United States! According to the Salt Lake Tribune, District 65 Chairman Don Larsen (any relation to Bob Larson? … probably not since their names are spelled differently!) has brought forward a formal resolution to oppose the devilâ€™s plan to destroy the United States. He claims that illegal immigration is the Satan’s plan to destroy the nation by “stealth invasion.” Here is a choice excerpt:
“In order for Satan to establish his ‘New World Order’ and destroy the freedom of all people as predicted in the Scriptures, he must first destroy the U.S.,” his resolution states. “The mostly quiet and unspectacular invasion of illegal immigrants does not focus the attention of the nations the way open warfare does, but is all the more insidious for its stealth and innocuousness.”
Right… I recall C.S. Lewis’s sage words about Satan:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight. The sort of script which is used in this book can be very easily obtained by anyone who has once learned the knack; but disposed or excitable people who might make a bad use of it shall not learn it from me.
Paramount Pictures has announced that the eleventh Star Trek film will be released on Christmas Day 2008. The film, will be directed by Lost creator JJ Abrams and will focus on the early lives of Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock. It will begin shooting this autumn.
I would like to thank all of my readers who identified the 1970s television show in my previous post. As it turns out, the show was H.R. Pufnstuf by Sid and Marty Krofft. I remember watching the show Saturday mornings as a kid (Now I know why I am so screwed up! ).
Our public library actually had a DVD with some episodes on it, so I watched some of them with my kids. Ah, talk about memories! Good o’l Pufnstuf, Jimmy, Freddie, Cling and Clang, Dr. Blinky, and of course, Witchiepoo! Unfortunately, my kids thought the shows were quite cheesy! (And I have to admit that they are right… nothing like a few decades to dull one’s memory! You also have to watch for a bit of racism, e.g., the redwood trees)
For those who want to walk down memory lane to the psychedelic seventies, check out the wikipedia article or see if your local library have any of the DVDs — or you can buy the complete series on DVD from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com!
One thing I thought I should clarify: The proper spelling is Pufnstuf, not Puffenstuff or Puffenstuf.
Who’s your friend when things get ruff? H.R. Pufnstuff!
OK, this may seem a bit strange, but I want some help to identify a 1970s pop culture reference. I was watching the music video for Everclear’s song “AM Radio” and for the life of me I can’t recall the name of a TV show/movie that is referenced in the video. Here are some image captures:
If anyone can help me here, it would be much appreciated as it is kind of bugging me!
The video, by the way, is quite clever. It has references to Kojak, Brady Bunch, American Bandstand, Pong, The land Before Time, among others.
As you could probably gather from my Third Annual Ralphies Post, I don’t watch much TV. When I do get into a show, I am rather religious about it. So far this year I have been watching Battlestar Galactica faithfully and catching the occasion episode of House. But tonight, Jack is Back! The two hour, two day, season premier of 24 begins tonight on Fox and I already gave notice to my wife that she will be tucking in the kids tonight (and tomorrow night as well).
Jack is back. Sweet.
UPDATE: I just noticed that Mark Goodacre has linked to a news article that sees Jack Bauer as a Christ figure: