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Volume 14, Issue 5: Ex Libris

Some Books

Woelke Leithart

The Gospel According to The Simpsons
Mark I. Pinsky
Westminster, John Knox Press, August 2001

If you were to ask the average evangelical on the street where the best portrayal of Christianity exists on television today, his first response would probably not be The Simpsons. But it should be. That, at least, is the claim of Mark I. Pinsky in his recent book, The Gospel According to The Simpsons. The Simpsons, an animated sitcom focusing on the misadventures of a family living in Springfield, USA, has been on the air since 1990. Homer and Marge Simpson have raised their children, Bart, Lisa, and baby Maggie, through all sorts of difficulties and dangers, all the while managing to remain, much like the Hardy Boys, exactly the same age.

Pinsky, a Jew who covers religion for the Orlando Sentinel, began watching The Simpsons with his children. But after seeing "the surprisingly favorable way religion, in its broadest sense, was presented in the series, and the central role faith played in the lives of the characters," he became very interested in other aspects of the show. After sustained watching, he discovered that The Simpsons "includes a significant spiritual dimension."
The book is very straightforward, spending a chapter on each of the spiritual aspects of the show, including the church the Simpsons attend, Lisa's constant skepticism, their evangelical next-door neighbor, and the town clown, who is Jewish. Pinsky has a chapter on the way God is portrayed in the show, and another recounting what happens when cartoon characters pray. One of the best aspects of the book is how he comments on the show with the humor still intact.
If Pinsky's examples are accurate, and from my own limited research they appear to be, The Simpsons does contain a wealth of religious imagery. It's one of the only sitcoms today (if not the only) to regularly portray its main characters in church. It's probably the only show on TV where, according to Pinsky, three different episodes have been devoted to a story in which the lead characters successfully resist the temptation to commit adultery. Most TV shows don't even see fornication of any sort as a bad thing; far from it.
The series' most obvious Christian character is the Simpsons' neighbor, Ned Flanders. Over the years, Ned has been the bastion of virtue and morality on the show. He is, Pinsky admits, the nicest person on the show, and his family are the most faithful church attendees in town. He is selfless and loves his family. He would be the perfect modern evangelical, except for his pipe and reputed basement tap of imported beer.
All this and more is offered in defense of The Simpsons being the most spiritual show on TV. Though not being acquainted enough with the medium (thank goodness) to know if there are more spiritual shows out there, Pinsky certainly seems correct. The problem is, it's not just Christian spirituality that's portrayed as normal and happy. The owner of the local convenience store is a devout Hindu and the clown is a Jew, both of whom are portrayed to be just as correct, if not as common as the Christians. If the Simpsons are really a Christian family, as Pinsky claims, Homer would probably have had more of a problem when his elementary daughter converts to Buddhism. The spirituality that is celebrated in The Simpsons is not one of a Christian America, but simply of the same multiculturalism we have come to expect from the National Cathedral.
The other problem with The Simpsons as a portrayal of Christianity is that it is a sitcom. Like every sitcom on TV, its purpose is to make its audience laugh. True Christianity isn't funny in a one-liner sort of way, so it's no wonder salvation and grace are never mentioned on the show while Catholics are only mentioned when birth control jokes appear. Jokes are made about the pastor's sermons being boring and his setting fire to the church to collect insurance money. As Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death put it: "Christianity is a serious and demanding form of religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is a different kind of religion altogether." The Christianity of The Simpsons is in many ways a different kind of religion from the Bible, but the reason the jokes work is because it is the Christianity of America today. In a rather sad way, a McDonald's in a church is funny, but that doesn't mean things should be that way.
Pinsky is right, in a sense. The Simpsons is (probably) the most spiritual show on television. But that term "most" is relative—this is TV we're talking about. In assuming that the show is accurately portraying biblical Christianity, the book goes awry. Though an entertaining read, if only to learn of the satire the show is laying on modern evangelicalism, The Gospel According to The Simpsons seems to be merely this: if you're funny, anything goes.

The Christian Traveler's Guide to Great Britain
Irving Hexham (editor)
Zondervan, April 2001

The Christian heritage of the United States is really quite impressive. Unlike many other countries around the world, our country was founded on principles that were consciously taken from the Bible. Though our nation rejects this heritage, it is still an important thing to remember and consider.

Just across the water is the United Kingdom. They, too, have a wonderful Christian heritage, and they have squandered it even more than we have. It is one of the great tragedies of the modern world that they had so much and that it is gone. Not only have they squandered their heritage in many ways, but they often do very little to acknowledge it. Thus, many visitors to the island, even Christian visitors, often do not have a good idea of the Christian heritage of Britain.
The Christian Traveler's Guide to Great Britain is designed to fix this problem. One of a series of Christian Traveler's Guides, this book is, like the others, edited by Dr. Irving Hexham, of the University of Calgary.
The book is laid out very simply. Part one covers the history of Britain, placing emphasis on important Christian events such as the Reformation. This section is very well presented and clear. Its only fault is its brevity, which really is necessary considering that the book is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of British history.
The second part covers British literature, music, art, and architecture. Christian manifestations of the arts are highlighted, with names like Bunyan and Handel featured prominently. The architecture section is particularly excellent; it teaches the reader how to identify the various styles evident in medieval British churches and offers a number of possible floor plans for churches. The reader will be able to determine whether Exeter Cathedral is Gothic or leans to the Romanesque side of things without reading the brochure.
The final part of the book is by far the longest. It lists the most important cities in Britain in alphabetical order, beginning with Aberdeen and finishing up with York. After the background is given, the interesting and important sites are then listed. Again, emphasis is placed on Christian sites.
The Christian Traveler's Guides fill a hole in the travel guide market. There are very few (if any) books of this sort on the market today—and there are lots of Christians out there who are wondering what to look for. Aside from word of mouth or a decent amount of research in other places, a Christian who travels to Britain can have a good deal of trouble knowing what places are important to Christian history. The Christian Traveler's Guide to Great Britain explains where to go, and does a very good job of it.
The other benefit to the Guide is that it offers an excellent summary of what Christian sites are important and why. Interspersed throughout theGuide are small biographies of the great saints of the region. These are also helpful, if for no other reason than to show the visitor in whose steps he is walking.
But the Guide is not the be-all and end-all of travel guides. It lacks information on a number of crucial items, items which the traveler will have to go elsewhere to find. There is no information on lodging at all, no information on when things like Westminster are open, and no information about admission prices. There's no way to find out from the Guide where things are; phrases like "is located on a hill about five miles south of town" or "is a ten minute walk from town" are often the only directions given. It's true that in many cases directions to a specific attraction can be obtained upon arrival in the region, but don't expect to find them included in the Guide.
Overall, I think that Hexham and his crew have done an excellent job of putting together a summary of the sites in Britain that are most important to our Christian heritage. I can recommend this book to anyone planning to visit our island friends—any book that says Cambridge is better than Oxford has got to have a redeeming quality. As long as they get another guide book too, one that is a little more practical, they'll be fine and enjoy themselves.

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