The gospel according to Pop culture
The following article, "Cartoon Religion", was published in this quarter's "Free Inquiry" magazine, a journal of secular cultural and religious commentary. It's interesting food for thought on how shallow our culture has become - not Christian culture specifically, but all American culture.


Humanism at Large:
Cartoon Religion
by Beth Birnbaum

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 1.

Television, today's default substitute for relationships and community, is also a marketplace for offerings of the sacred in the commercial, the profound in the profane. Sermons, even prayers and blessings, have moved beyond point-of-purchase houses of worship. Televised versions of spiritual enlightenment for every demographic and degree of religious piety abound, from "commitment-light" to fundamentalist, feel-good, New Age psychological, to an entire station of that old-time religion (WORD Network).

From televangelist Benny Hinn's healing the afflicted through their television sets to astrology or Feng Shui home decorating, it's enough to make an otherwise rational person wear a protective tin-foil helmet when holding the remote.

But television religion isn't confined to programs with "Angel" in the title, "Touched" or otherwise, or commercials for toilet tissue and calling collect.

Children, the youngest entertainment product consumers, begin their religious education with cartoons. Some are deliberate and overt, like the Bible story cartoon series, soldthrough a television informercial offer, for parents:

1. Concerned about their children's biblical knowledge;
2. Disgusted with all that multicultural crap the kids are fed on Sesame Street;
3. Willing to shell out major bucks for all the episodes, instead of dragging the kids to Vacation Bible School or church;
4. Able to force their kids to watch them.

Note: these cartoons are not to be confused with the live-action Bible stories sold by Charlton ("pry-my-gun-from-my-cold-dead-hands") Heston for older children.

Other cartoons are deliberate, but not so overt. The computer-generated, proactive Veggie Tales franchise (a tossed salad for God) is for tots whose parents were scandalized by the sinful homosexual orientation of Tinky Winky the Teletubby. They act out biblical stories and morality plays with asparagus, cucumbers, tomatoes (a fruit?), and other assorted veggies. They're even starring in their own major motion picture.

But the best way to reach the majority of our nation's youth, who avoid overtly religious programming like the plague (unless they really like the claymation technique on Davy and Goliath) is covertly through the cartoons they already watch.

Religious references abound in almost every past and current cartoon series: from the prehistoric Flintstones, whose characters "lived" before monotheism, all the way to the futuristic Jetsons. From the very beginning of the art form, cartoon plots were taken from the Bible. It meant parents would allow their children to watch cartoons. The Bible is also a great free source of popular material, having spent centuries in the public domain.

Early cartoon characters prayed, deliberated between good and evil with a tiny angel on one shoulder and a tiny devil on the other, wore halos, died, and had souls rise to heaven or down to hell—or got resurrected holding a lily. The cartoon world boasts a vast population of spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural manifestations, from friendly ones like Casper to malevolent demons, with only the skeptical Scooby Doo team to expose the hoax.

The use of cartoons for propaganda during World War II indicates that cartoon makers know exactly what they're doing—in spite of All Dogs Go to Heaven.

When other cultures relate religious observance to animals, inanimate objects, or natural phenomena, they're considered primitive, pagan, or even worse. Their adherents are targeted for conversion to monotheism—peacefully by missionaries, or forcefully by the army. In cartoons, however, Christianity is inherent in everything: the sun, the ocean, dolls, toys, animals, trees, stars, foodstuffs, etc. Christmas ornament effigies of almost every imaginable cartoon character, cultural icon, and product abound: Pepe Le Pew, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Speedy Alka-Seltzer, Chinese Barbie (a Confucian convert), the Three Stooges (who were Jewish), even Darth Vader, who was born long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, well before Christ. It's no wonder some Brits listed their religion as Jedi on the last census.

Religious themes are also secularized for cartoons, like the cute, cuddly, cloud-based Care Bears, who came to Earth whenever the "Care-o-Meter" dropped below a certain level, similar to the Jewish belief that the world will end when the number of the righteous falls below seven.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles changed the mix. Although the four pizza-eating Turtles were named after Renaissance painters, they were granted sentience by chemical mutation (science, not God, was their creator) and followed the teachings of a Sensei rat. They helped establish an Asian influence in American cartoons, paving the way for Pokemons and other Japanese animé. Nickelodeon broke another barrier, the Rugrats celebration of Jewish holidays a clear multicultural wake-up call.

But, since even the minds of the blasphemous come from God, a new form of scholarship was born. It looks not to the study of the Scriptures to find the Word of God, but to popular cartoons.

Charles Schultz deliberately built in his religious messages, so the concept behind The Gospel According to Peanuts by Robert Short (1965) wasn't much of a stretch. He may have made his case for Lucy as a stand-in for Original Sin, but Snoopy as Jesus is probably a bit over the top for most theologians.

Matt Groening's The Simpsons began as a satire from the cartoonist who wrote Life in Hell. The Simpsons has been accused of skewering every value that decent, God-fearing people hold dear; it has been shunned, reviled, and protested by religious leaders and parents alike. Groening himself admitted that he wouldn't let his own kids watch it. But many former critics are getting on the show's religious bandwagon, including the magazines Christian Century and Christianity Today.

According to sociologist John Heeren, apparently a man with much free time on his hands, an analysis of seventy-one episodes of The Simpsons for Christianity Today revealed that 69 percent contained at least one religious reference, and 10 percent of the plots directly concerned religion. He presented his findings to "The Scientific Study of Religion in the USA (sic)."

In The Gospel According to the Simpsons, author Mark I. Pinsky, the Orlando Sentinel's religion reporter, uncovers (allegedly) religious lessons and socially redeemable value in the cartoon. There's also The Gospel According to the Simpsons: Leaders Guide for Group Study, which Pinsky wrote with Samuel F. Parvin, who also wrote Weekend at the Movies: the Best Retreats from Reel to Reel, which tells how to create movie-inspired religious retreats for young people and explains the religious lessons to be found in blockbusters like Big, Dave, and Pleasantville.

Relying on the aforementioned The Gospel According to Peanuts and the groundbreaking work of The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, perhaps The Gospel According to the Simpsons is an attempt to wrest control from the more scholarly and inclusive The Simpsons and Philosopy: The D'oh! of Homer, edited by William Irwin, Mark T. Conard, and Aeon J. Skoble.

The D'oh of Homer is comprised of eighteen essays by contemporary philosophers, mostly college professors, interpreting aspects of the show according to Aristotle, Marx, Kant, epistemology, heuristic values, politics, sexual politics (three-quarters of the characters are male), ethics, etc.

All this attention to a cartoon says a lot about our contemporary intellectual climate: if you don't reference pop culture, even the intellectuals won't read your book.

In one essay, David Vessey explains that Simpsons character Ned Flanders is "only that which Matt Groening and his staff make him to be . . . because quite obviously, Ned has no beliefs and does not actually act." He explains his methodology of treating Ned and the other characters as if they are real, while acknowledging the role of dozens of writers.
In contrast, Pinsky, who is Jewish, admittedly takes the cartoon family at face value, placing them firmly into the Judeo-Christian camp, though touching upon other influences in the diverse Springfield community. Interviewing the real, live, unanimated writers, he's forced to admit that the two believing Protestants on the staff are a rarity. The vast number of Simpsons writers are former Catholic and Jewish avowed atheists, or at least agnostics, mostly Harvard- or Ivy League-educated.

Pinsky feels the show upholds moral family values because Marge hasn't divorced Homer in spite of his knocking her up before their marriage, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, bigamy, public sex, bootlegging, conning old people, murderous Halloween stunts, selling his soul to the Devil, breaking most of the Ten Commandments, world-class gluttony, and myriad assorted other venal and mortal sins.

In the episode where Homer accidentally becomes a missionary, Pinsky, who academically (almost biblically), cites chapter and verse of these episodes (as did the philosophers in D'oh), sees reaffirmation of faith as Homer repeatedly hollers, "Help me, Jeebus." Not knowing his Lord and Savior's name is spite of his regular attendance at a church headed by the burnt out Reverend Lovejoy doesn't exactly indicate religious zeal on Homer's part, especially since he corrupts an innocent tribe as the story unfolds.

Prior to the fairly recent episode in which she became a Richard Gere Buddhist, shown after Pinsky's book was published, Lisa Simpson came across an atheist, or at least an agnostic. An intellectual most of the time (see "Lisa and the American Anti-intellectualism" by Aeon J. Skoble in The Simpsons and Philosophy), possessing a strong progressive, pro-reason, antisuperstition, antipollution, pro-animal rights, profeminist, and prohumanist agenda, Lisa remains a (somewhat) innocent child. Therefore, Pinsky describes Lisa, who once pitied her mother for having faith, as a stand-in for Jesus Christ. She's probably a better match than Snoopy.

The Simpsons are basically equal opportunity satirists, skewering any and all religions except Islam, which they never found funny. They've driven the Catholic Church apoplectic. The show has sometimes been called upon to apologize to their targets, notably the entire city of Rio de Janeiro.

Krusty the Clown, Springfield's sole Jewish (you should pardon the expression) role model, reconciled with his father, an Orthodox rabbi, in an episode Pinsky deems significant. Convenience store manager Apu, his wife, Manjula, their octuplets, and the Kwik-i-Mart guru who dwells high atop the Himalayas in a twenty-four-hour market, have caused great mental anguish to Hindus everywhere.

But not everyone takes offense. The main religious character The Simpsons offers is Ned Flanders—Homer's next-door neighbor, nemesis, and sometimes friend, the ultimate Christian nerd, a guy so obsessed with godliness that even his minister runs from him. Ned and his dearly departed wife, Maude, and their two sons have become heroes to Christians, at least to some Christians who have trouble separating fantasy from reality. In the United Kingdom last year, a Ned Flanders look-alike contest had so many participants that many had to be turned away.

This identification is deliberate, at least on the part of Christianity Today, which notes that, according to a poll, more people identify Ned with Christianity than "the Pope, Mother Teresa, or even Billy Graham." (Apologies to John Lennon, who once precipitated outrage when he compared the Beatles' popularity to that of Jesus, are long overdue.)

Pinsky's The Gospel According to Disney will be published shortly, although The Gospel According to Disney: Christian Values in the Early Animated Classics by Philip Longfellow Anderson was published in 1999, mostly sticking with the early, Walt Disney himself, pre-Michael Eisner (the man who brought us Mickey Mouse menorahs) classics. It explores, among other parables, the role of the apple in both the Garden of Eden and in precipitating Snow White's coma.

It may be a book series and major motion picture series and not a cartoon, but there's also The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Spirituality in the Stories of the World's Most Famous Seeker by Connie Neal, which painstakingly compares Potter to the Bible, looking for spiritual enlightenment in the series Christians love to ban and burn. She's developed a career explaining Potter, having also published What's a Christian to Do with Harry Potter? Neal has also collaborated with Pinsky's partner Parvin in writing the soon-to-be-released The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Leader's Guide for Group Study.

As Thomas Aquinas rolls in his grave, somewhere someone sits, in front of his or her television, feverishly typing away on a laptop, to bring forth The Gospel According to South Park. I've got dibs on the study guide.
Anonymous, Sunday, 12-21-03 9:15 AM
"Christianity Today, which notes that, according to a poll, more people identify Ned with Christianity than "the Pope, Mother Teresa, or even Billy Graham." "

Interesting. What does this say about Christianity? Thoughts?
, Monday, 12-22-03 4:37 PM
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