Eventually he decided it was merely a mistake, a clue that the writers of that particular script didn't excel in Sunday school. But with "The Simpsons," you never know. "You only have to watch a few episodes to learn that there's far more religious content in 'The Simpsons' than other shows, especially other comedies," said Heeren, who teaches at California State University, San Bernardino. And the masterminds behind Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie are not doing "a slash-and-burn job, while working in as much blasphemy as possible. ... They show a surprising respect for the role that religion plays in American life."
Eventually, Heeren became so intrigued that he analyzed 71 episodes of the animated Fox series, taping reruns at random. Now in its 12th season, "The Simpsons" just aired its 250th episode. This milestone came shortly after Heeren presented his findings before the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. He found that 69% of the episodes contained at least one religious reference, and, in 11 % the plot centered on a religious issue.
But the hot question is whether the show's take on religion is "good" or "bad." Of course, the whole point of "The Simpsons" is to satirize American life--from TV to public education, from politics to fast food, from rock 'n' roll to religion. Faith is just part of the mix. But this is where things get complicated, said Heeren. The show specializes in mocking the generic pseudo-religion found in American popular culture. "It's really about the religion that we see through the filter of the movies and television," he said. "So we are dealing with a copy of a copy. ... This only raises a bigger question. When you have a satire of a satire, does that mean that you are actually being positive?"
The show's writers also consistently contrast two symbolic characters, said the sociologist. On one side is Pastor Timothy Lovejoy, an often cynical, world-weary mainline shepherd who uses the public library's Bible and says that the world's religions are "all pretty much the same." On the other side is Flanders, a born-again nerd who, nevertheless, is one of the only inspiring characters in the series. Lovejoy, Homer, and many other characters appear to be making up their religious beliefs as they go along, said Heeren. But Flanders is a true believer. What is fascinating is that the other characters often "see the light" and eventually try to act a little more like Flanders. As a result, the Simpsons almost always ends up affirming some element of a generic Judeo-Christian American creed--honesty, family, community, selflessness, and love.
"I'm not sure what that says, but it says something," said Heeren. "Let's face it: this is not what you normally see in prime-time television."