Monday, February 1, 2010

Images of God-The Simpsons

I'm teaching my first postgrad course in Milltown on Images of God in Prophetic Literature. It's fantastic to have a course with postgrads (even though there's only five of us in the group) who are only too eager to share their ideas. The fact that they actually do the readings and assignments helps! As usual it's me who does most of the learning out of the course and one thing that it's renewed my interest in is the images of God (as in the physical images, rather than the metaphorical) that we come across in out daily lives and how these images shape our understanding of God.

One of the images I find most interesting and that is useful to those involved in second-level education is the character of God in the hugely popular Fox network television cartoon The Simpsons. While God does not appear on the character list on the official website he (and God is very much depicted as male) has appeared in several episodes as a reoccuring character , including "Homer the Heretic", "Thank God It's Doomsday", and a quick scene with him, Buddha, and Colonel Sanders in "Pray Anything".
The characeter is voiced by Harry Shearer and is normally seen as portrayed in a very traditional depiction of the Abrahamic God in the Western world: a gray-haired Caucasian man in a white robe with a booming voice. Though is is worth noting that God in The Simpsons is yellow-skinned (like the main “human” characters, but is clearly not of a different race (for instance dark-skinned like Carl, or Asian, like Apu).

In one episode, "A Star Is Burns" that he speaks in "Flanderese", responding to Ned Flanders' "Thanks, God!" with "Okely-dokely!"). His face is only seen in a picture owned by Homer in "Pray Anything" (though this was likely an artist's depiction), a picture owned by Ned Flanders in "Alone Again, Natura-Diddily", and the opening sequence for "Treehouse of Horror XVI". In all other episodes, only his beard is seen as the camera only films him up to the shoulders (God is a head taller than everyone else). His body is usually surrounded by a glowing light, and his robes float around him, though not always. He always wears old-school sandals.

He does not seem to be all-knowing; for instance, when referring to his son, he states that he does not know "what you people did to him" but "He hasn't been the same since". Also, in the Treehouse of Horror XIV segment "Reaper Madness" Homer tricks God by dressing Patty up as Marge. In the episode "Simpsons Bible Stories," where stories in the Bible are played by Simpsons characters, Ned Flanders plays the character of God in the story of Adam and Eve while Homer and Marge play Adam and Eve. In this episode, God's voice sounds like that of Ned Flanders; and while he is not actually seen we do see God's arm pop out of a cloud wearing Ned's trademark green sweater. One of God's distinctive features is that he is the only Simpsons character to be drawn with five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot, though not always (there have been scenes where God has only four fingers like everyone else in the show).

The Simpsons has a surprising amount of scholarly work on the idea of religion and the use of biblical texts. The show is very useful as the episodes are widely available, most students (and teachers and chaplains!) have seen the episodes in question at least once and due to the nature of the cartoon, it is easily to show either entire episodes or some snippets in order to spark debate or find another angle of looking at a biblical passage or concept

Some Internet Links for Resources on the animated series and the film:

Article on The Simpsons Movie and Religion
The Simpsons Archive

Religion on The Simpsons

Blessed Ned of Springfield by Mark I. Pinsky

Simpsons Movie Search for “Simpsons” and you get over a page of results-articles and graphics.

Springfield’s Saints by Cary McMullen

The secret of The Simpsons by William Langley

What would Homer do? By David Crumm
One DVD I have found particularly helpful is The Simpsons Classics "Heaven and Hell" available from lots of outlets including Amazon.

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