God and man, and The Simpsons

The King James Version of the Bible is a masterpiece of the English language and one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization, as we know it.

So sociologist John Heeren perked up when he was watching The Simpsons and heard a reference to a "St. James Version." Was this a nod to an obscure translation? An inside-baseball joke about fundamentalists who confuse the King James of 1611 with the ancient St. James?

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 series, taping re-runs 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 percent of the episodes contained at least one religious reference and, in 11 percent, 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?"

Several religious themes appear over and over, said Heeren. One is that God has a plan -- even for Homer and Bart. This concept appears so often that it cannot simply be dismissed as a joke. It also is clear that God is omnipresent and, to one degree or another, omnipotent.

In the "Homer the Heretic" episode, do-gooder daughter Lisa proclaims that a fire in the family's house is evidence that God wants Homer to return to church, instead of practicing a do-it-yourself faith called "Homerism." Heeren notes: "Homer wonders why a fire that began at his house spread to the house of his devout neighbor, Ned Flanders, or 'Charley Church.' ... Homer asks why God didn't save Flanders' house. At that moment a cloud appears above the Flanders house, puts out the fire, and is punctuated by a rainbow."

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. "What remains is that strange kind of respect that is so hard to pin down. ... God is real. God hears prayers and prayers are answered. People go to church. Faith matters. Let's face it: this is not what you normally see in prime-time television."