When Fox television aired a new animated show in 1989 about an odd, dysfunctional family from Springfield, no one had any idea how far it would go, how rich it would make its creators, or how engrained in the cultural consciousness it would become. Bart Simpson has become one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, politicians have occasionally felt the need to comment on the family life of the Simpsons, and academics and journalists have written books relating the series to philosophical and religious topics. (I am actually just back from the University of Waterloo where I served as an external examiner for an excellent PhD thesis on the religious viewpoints of The Simpsons, written by David Feltmate.)
Even with all that, who would have thought that the show would be so embraced by the Catholic church? The blogosphere is filling up quickly with word that the official Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano, reported that Homer and Bart Simpson are indeed Catholic. This was mainly based on a single episode from 2005, “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star,” in which Bart is expelled from Springfield Elementary and has to go to a Catholic parochial school. He ends up converting, with Homer soon following (especially since all his sins might be forgiven through this great thing called “confession”). The Osseratore report even went so far as to suggest, “Parents shouldn’t be afraid to let their children watch the adventures of the ‘little guys in yellow.’”
Wow. Where was the Vatican press when I started watching it? Actually, I was at a theological seminary about the time the show was getting going, and I remember taking a course in Christianity and popular culture. The two professors who led the course were less than thrilled about The Simpsons, and clearly felt it a mockery of religion. Indeed, that was the going trend for the decade or so of the airing of the program. In 1992, George H.W. Bush famously spoke of his desire “to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” And the unofficial U.S. cultural watchdog, Bill Donahue and the Catholic League, worked to get some changes made to the show for anti-Catholic biases (see here). Donahue himself has already gone on record to the recent Vatican report.
Times change. The new boss begins to look like the old boss. Every revolution becomes the new order. The Simpsons were sacrilegious and now they’re Catholic. George Bernard Shaw once quipped, “New opinions often appear first as jokes and fancies, then as blasphemies and treason, then as questions open to discussion, and finally as established truths.”
Where are our future truths today?