A recent article featured in the Houston Chronicle examined some of the show’s religious messages, particularly those that serve as commentary on modern Christianity. A book by Mark Pinsky, The Gospel According to the Simpsons, has become a popular resource not just for hard-core fans of the show, but also ministry leaders who use clips and references from episodes to underscore sermons and teachings. A special leaders’ workbook has even been developed specifically for ministers. According to the Chronicle article, even a Jewish Rabbi, Daniel Wolpe, has found the show (and book) helpful in his teachings. "The Simpsons occasionally makes fun of hypocrisy in religion, but not the ideals of religion," Wolpe said. "Some of the episodes that I like best might be called, ‘Homer Learns a Lesson.’ Usually in those episodes, Homer winds up with new respect for religious values."
Characters like Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ evangelical Christian neighbor, have managed to serve as more than just a caricature of American churchgoing Christians, and often offer poignant commentary about religion. But The Simpsons isn’t the only show to use humor and satire to speak out on modern religion, particularly Christianity. Episodes of King of the Hill have featured the Hill family visiting a local megachurch; cult favorite Arrested Development spoofed the legal circus around the church-and-state debate; and faux news show The Colbert Report has built its entire shtick on an ultraconservative, Bible-quoting, cable-news talking head. And though the show pulls its share of punches on religion and Christianity (particularly when it is used for political gain), the show’s creator and host, Stephen Colbert, is himself a Sunday school-teaching believer. (This blog post has several links to interesting interviews with Colbert where he discusses his faith and ideas behind the show.)
And though The Simpsons has drawn its share of scorn from conservative viewers through the years, it has also managed to disregard political correctness and offer up sharp commentary about the way we practice faith. And for better or for worse, it has also broken down doors for other shows to do the same. (In the Houston Chronicle article, Pinsky comments on when other shows cross the line in their shots about religion.) The Simpsons movie may just be a week away, but the significance of its long-running primetime show will have a lasting impact on the way America sees Christians.