Is The Simpsons the most Christian show in the history of TV?
This question came after I asked fellow Sweet Talker Dave a related one: is The Simpsons the last show to feature a regularly churchgoing family?
To which he responded: can you think of any other popular TV show in the entire history of the medium which did so?
I put the question to Twitter and received a handful of replies. Most, however, involved families or characters that were nominally churchgoing, but the church was kept firmly offstage. In The Cosby Show, for instance, church is a place the Huxtables are occasionally coming home from, and that is it.The more we discussed it, the more bizarre this seemed. Certainly our culture is more secular than ever now, but that was hardly the case from the start of the history of TV. People offered severaltheories, but I’m going to run with the one I found most interesting:
I think “reverent portrayals” sums this up nicely.
The bread and butter of TV from the beginning have been portrayals of ordinary American life. By making church purely an object of reverence, it became something bigger than ordinary life. So the center of gravity for shows became work and the home, almost exclusively. The role of church was relegated to special story arcs that required reverence or moral dilemmas or crises of faith, something that would grow tiresome if it were a regular feature of The Andy Griffith Show or Mary Tyler Moore.
The Simpsons, in its irreverence, actually normalized churchgoing—a strange turn of phrase, given how normal churchgoing still is in America! But relative to TV before and since its inception, “normalizing” seems the appropriate word.
Church is a feature of ordinary life in Springfield. People go there every week. Children find it boring. Adults often do, too. Reverend Lovejoy often displays a frustration with his flock expressed with dry and sarcastic wit. The church and even Lovejoy play important roles in episodes specifically about faith or moral dilemmas, but for the most part, it all just fills in the unassuming background for the Simpson family’s ordinary life.
It does annoy me, on occasion, before I catch myself and remember that the whole Christian project is a project of open futility–
About that: the Second Sunday of Easter is always Doubting Thomas Sunday, so doubt is much on my mind, being a fervent believer, liturgically speaking, meditating on the elements of my faith, which is something else, at my age, having lived through the emergence of a culture which was mostly Christian into one which is mostly not, especially up here in Western New York and the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. Doubt, right? It’s essential to the Faith.
They were upstairs, behind locked doors, afraid, those Eleven who were with him from the very beginning, and they all saw him die. Thomas, called “The Twin,” puffs his chest out, saying, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Well, Thomas, can’t you do that to a corpse?
I don’t understand the intellectual hostility to Christianity, especially when people I consider friends publicly wish there were fewer of me, less of my influence in life and culture. Why? Because there are bad Christians? And the half-baked dismissal of the fervent, you know, glib high school angry atheist stuff, always as an aside, never as a grown-up inquiry into this two thousand year old faith with a billion adherents, and growing (despite Europe and North America), which has roots in a strange Ancient Near Eastern blood cult another two thousand years hence.
The Christian project is a project of open futility, though, and I have to remind myself of that.
Nevertheless, I do take a little pleasure in some of the materialist investigations into the Faith, first transforming Christianity into a “religion,” which is a neat intellectual move, making the Faith, which dominates the life and culture of Western Civilization, indistinguishable from shamanistic druidic magicka, only distinguishing by time elapsed. When the materialists talk about ritual, ignoring my own call for distinctions within these hallowed halls—
This behavior of the materialists, all of them together, namely, wishing there were fewer of me, reducing my beliefs into a primordial pool of beliefs, and talking about my rites and rituals without making proper distinctions, creates in me a sense that a kind of recursion is going on:
The materialist sees the Christian, and comments. The Christian sees the materialist commenting, and comments. The materialist sees the Christian commenting on the comment, and so forth. To me, it’s like one of those wonderfully absurd Monty Python sketches:
Scene: Lower middle-class apartment, evening, husband sitting in comfortable chair reading The Times, wife making efforts at wifely cleaning. Two men appear in the window, dressed in safari clothing, writing in notebooks.
Wife: Herman, they’re watching us again!
Herman: Who are, Margret?
Margret: The Materialists.
Herman: Oh, that’s all right, dear, they’re just researching.
Herman: That’s right, Margret; they’ve come from a long way away just to learn about our behavior in the wild instead of in captivity.
Margret: Well, I don’t like it, not one bit. (closes curtains. The materialist safari move to the other window)
Margret: They won’t go away, Herman!
Herman: Of course not, dear, they’re Materialists.
Herman: Ask them what they want, and maybe they’ll go away.
Margret: What do you want?
Materialists don’t answer. Whisper to each other, writing in notebooks.
Margret: They don’t think we can see them.
Herman: Do what?
Margret: They don’t think we can see them.
Herman: Well, what are they talking about?
Herman: Normativity? Did you hand them a copy of Proverbs?
Margret: I told you, they don’t think we can see them.
And so forth. The laugh track is to my advantage, but you, O Materialist, have the last laugh, the true laugh.
The whole project of the Christian Faith is a project of open futility, and it is actually encoded in the Faith. Saint Paul–excuse me–the Apostle Paul, after fifteen chapters on the wisdom of God putting to shame the wisdom of the world (that would be you materialists) finishes his exposition by saying in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians, “If there is no resurrection of the body, then we are to be pitied more than all men. Send money.”
So, since miracles = impossible (cf. G.E. Lessing), and since the resurrection of the body = a miracle, then, it follows, therefore there is no God.
The materialist has the advantage in an ever-improving society and ever-progressing technology as a result of Science, material proof. The only way for me to prove my faith is for me to become a corpse.
They called Thomas “The Twin” for a reason, you know.
After last night’s annual bacchanalia, it was a pleasure to awaken groggily to Samuel Hammond’s delightful celebration of materialism, in which he channels The Preacher, known to many as Ecclesiastes, which tries to translate the Hebrew “Qohelet,” the one who calls the assembly.
It is the godless book of the Bible, disturbing in its nihilism, but it became one of the “little scrolls,” those books which are designated for use by the post-exilic Jews for public reading during their own bacchanals. This 2900 year old book was read aloud during the Feast of Booths, that gargantuan outdoor party celebrating the harvest. In short, while you are totally blitzed on new wine, engorging yourself on the fat of the land, and looking lustily upon one another, as commanded by Moses, The Preacher shouts over the landscape: “Meaningless!”
“Status competitions are our main, if not only, source of meaning in the universe.”
“So meditate if you have to, but don’t be afraid to day dream a little, too. It may fill you with anxiety, and it definitely won’t make you happy, but later in life you just might find yourself building a spaceship to Mars.”
And The Preacher:
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:10 ESV)
Adam Gurri has been pestering me to write a defense of Christianity here in the hallowed halls of Sweet Talk, but I have thus far demurred, being unmotivated to do so in the midst of those who are so certain, but Sam’s stimulating post has evoked a little something irresistible.
If I may categorize (naturally, drawing distinctions simplifies, and the elements of this taxonomy will, in real life, overlap):
There are those who see the world as it is and celebrate it. Thus Samuel Hammond.
There are two classes of those who see the world as it is and mourn over it as broken.
Class One copes, meditating.
Class Two will not cope, continuing to mourn, in the hope for a restoration of what is broken. Christians define this class.
For Christians, the brokenness of the world is best mourned in the body of Christ, who stands crucified, in which Christians participate by means of the mystery of the sacraments.
This mystery is articulated by one Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, who persecuted the Body of Christ with all his might until he had a vision of the Crucified One, and he writes about him whom he saw:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17 ESV)
It is important here to note a few boundaries. This is not a refutation of the science of evolution, but it is a declaration of pre-eminence, which is offensive. Note carefully that the Christian view of creation is cast not in terms of material manifestation, which Christ says is vapor, but in terms of dominion, rulers, authorities, i.e., that rascally elusive normativity.
More than that, since the universe is held together in, with, and under a human body, the material world is transformed into a world of relational interaction. To wit: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and equally (because God is a human in Jesus, and we are in him and he is in us), love your neighbor as yourself.
A rocket-size measuring contest is the epitome of pursuing meaninglessness. Meaningfulness is measured in interpersonal relationships, beginning with the male-female relationship, which perpetuates the species, and also embodies thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities, beginning at home, which is broken and should be mourned. Normativity dominates; it does not love, nor does it allow for distinction, only ruthless conformity, as evolution teaches: we adapt to strength, not weakness.
The relationship of a man to a woman is hopelessly weak.
Who doesn’t know you’re not supposed to ask for whom the bell tolls? Long ago, OG Existentialist John Donne answered the question for you: it tolls for thee.
I wonder about that.
He’s absolutely correct, in a sense, that we are all connected to each other, and that the ebbs and flows of humanity affect us all, the logical conclusion being that, inasmuch as when a single individual advances, we advance together (the tide lifting all boats); so also when a single individual is removed to Davy Jones’ Locker, we all shall surely find similar breaches in the hulls of our seaships. Experience teaches us that John Donne is essentially correct: the bell tolls for thee. In this way, blood is thicker than water.
“No man is an island unto himself,” he furthermore teaches. I beg to differ. Those of us who have the water have been cordoned off by water so that we are, indeed, islands unto ourselves, each separated out unto lonely spits of sand and coconut trees, being sustained by meager provisions, shouting with disunited voices to all the ships passing by that we can see the breaches in their hulls, but without unity, we are subject to futility. Alas, the bell is tolling for humanity: it is a gigantic ship struck by Kraken the great sea monster so that it is sinking even as it is rising, the shouts of the exulting in the aft decks drowning out the screams of the drowning in the fore decks.
Perhaps the laughter of those who have slipped away from the surface of the cruel sea is a mocking laughter, that the work done by Kraken is beneficial to those who by great strength of reason chose the aft decks (being incidentally born there to choose them), so that those who are now perishing were stupid, foolish, superstitious. But such is the connection of blood: it is indeed thicker than water, and denser. The sea will exult over the wise and the foolish together.
Not so those who have the water. The water separates us from the blood. As the bell tolls across the water, our faint voices, separated by a different connection that cannot be fathomed by any instrument which plumbs the seven seas, are largely ineffective. Lonely isolation makes a man crazy after a while, each in his own way, so that none of us can join our voices together in a single warning klaxon. A scattered few hear, however, and they jump ship, realizing in the joy of escape that the bell is indeed tolling a death knell for them, for to escape the connection of blood is indeed the death of blood, a death in the briny water apart from evil Kraken. After that, it is sweet fresh water, but drunk on an island unto himself, without the tolling of the bell for thee or for me.
Let the reader understand that I am raising my hand in an oath that cannot fail: I promise you I will never die.
The “Bastogne” episode of HBO’s Band of Brothers does some heavy lifting when it comes to Christianity’s relationship to society, as tested by the fires of absolute warfare. The setting is December 1944, in Bastogne, Belgium. The 101st Airborne Division is tasked with defending Bastogne from conquest by the German Army in the definitive battle of World War II known as “The Battle of the Bulge,” a counteroffensive launched by Hitler to break the steadily advancing Allied lines.
Here I’ll frame the episode with observations interspersed periodically with commentary.
Instead of a rehearsal of battlefield events, “Bastogne” is a drama overlaying a historical event, complete with a clear plot progression, character development, and with rising and falling action. Everything following this paragraph is a reveal. I encourage you to watch the episode, read this, then re-watch it under the magical influence of the power of suggestion.