As author of "The Gospel According to The Simpsons," Mark Pinsky is well aware that there are no sacred cows in Springfield.
So sooner or later he expects to see Lisa Simpson walk into the family room reading a book that claims to have found theological gems in some ridiculous animated series. The book will be called "The Gospel According to Itchy and Scratchy" or maybe "Smirk On: The Spiritual Journey of Krusty the Clown."
Homer will, of course, mock her mercilessly.
Pinsky's 15 seconds of cartoon immortality could even come this weekend, when the series hits its 300th episode. "The Simpsons" has been renewed through 2005, making it the longest-running U.S. sitcom ever.
"I expect to get laughed at someday and deservedly so," said Pinsky, the veteran religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel. "Anything that's worth mocking is going to get mocked on 'The Simpsons.' They don't miss much."
If that's the case, the scribes behind Homer, Marge, Bart and the gang are sure to have noticed that Pinsky is not alone. All kinds of scholars, theologians and preachers are suddenly sojourning in the once forbidden world of popular culture -- probing everything from Bob Dylan to the Brady Bunch, from Middle Earth to Mayberry, from Tony Soprano to Harry Potter.
Pinsky's next book will be "The Gospel According to Disney: Cartoon Faith & Values." After all, Orlando is Orlando.
"On one level, all of this is simply more evidence -- as if more was required -- of the evaporating attention span of modern Americans," he said. "Should we be embarrassed that we have to turn to popular culture in order to find ways to talk about serious religious issues? Without a doubt, yes. But this is reality."
Anyone attempting to get a handle on the faith that is soaked into TV, movies, popular music and the rest of the mass-media universe should be prepared for surprises.
Consider the case of Homer's next-door neighbor, the uber-evangelical Ned Flanders. He is the subject of endless jokes and sight gags, as well as the occasional salute since he is clearly the town's most trustworthy and compassionate citizen.
"Everyone knows that Ned lives a Christian life. But even he doesn't talk about the heart of his Christian faith," noted Pinsky. "If you asked him how he knows that he's saved and going to heaven, he would say he saved by grace and faith in Jesus. That's how a Christian would answer. But nobody ever asks Ned that question."
Thus, "The Gospel According to The Simpsons" ultimately sounds a lot like the faith proclaimed in most mainstream media. It's the lowest-common-denominator civic faith that Pinsky summed up in five words: "Love God and do good." Another nice summary can be found in the familiar words of the Ten Commandments.
"It's ironic. You have what is clearly meant to be seen as a Christian family, going to a Christian church, constantly talking about Christian things, but the theological constant in 'The Simpsons' is Judaism," said Pinsky, who is Jewish. Anyone who pays close attention to the faith references that weave through about 70 percent of the show's episodes knows that "it teaches that people are saved by works, not by grace."
"Maybe salvation by grace isn't as funny as the Ten Commandments," he said.
This wave of "Gospel According to" books is rooted in two trends. Some evangelicals are digging into popular culture because they are willing to take risks to reach new people. Meanwhile, the fading world of mainline religion is desperately trying to appeal to the young.
Everyone wants a new "starting point," said Pinsky. The key is to find "starting points" that have widespread appeal, trigger strong feelings and stand the test of time. Whether religious bureaucrats like it or not, television shows, movies and songs are where Americans invest much of their time, money and emotions.
"Popular culture, if used properly, can be a kind of wedge into the consciousness of ordinary people," said Pinsky. "All a good pastor or a youth leader or a Sunday school teacher needs is a common set of images, a language that everybody understands and stories that they already care about.
"It's up to clergy to take it from there."