I don’t always admit this, but I have been a fan of The Simpsons since it first appeared on the Tracy Ullman Show as shorts, some 25 years ago. One of the things consistently drawing me to the show, besides my juvenile sense of humor, has been their satire of the church. I mean, how many other shows have the whole cast in church every Sunday, and have the recurring character of a pastor as well-developed as Reverend Timothy Lovejoy (and 7th Heaven doesn’t count)? Over the years while making me laugh, they have also helped me teach some youth lessons, and I have even dared to show clips during several sermons.
On Sunday, April 28, in an episode titled “Pulpit Friction,” The Simpsons continued their clever and always funny jabbing at the church with the introduction of The First Church of Springfield’s first associate pastor. With the appearance of “the right, reverend Elijah Hooper” we associate pastors have become culturally relevant, even if it is with yellow skin and a huge overbite.
The entire town of Springfield gathers at the church for help and solace during a bedbug epidemic. While Reverend Lovejoy is trying to calm the mob by appealing to The Epistle of Jeremy and Tobit from the Apocrypha (he’s not great under pressure), the easy going Parson arrives in a golf cart and cardigan to return Lovejoy’s six-iron. Standing before the congregation the Parson introduces Reverend Hooper (voiced by Edward Norton) as “the number two man from Shelbyville,” who “introduced angle parking.” “We got in six more cars,” the Parson gloats (what we associates do is so important). When Lovejoy pushes back, saying he doesn’t need an associate, the Parson appoints Hooper anyway. Sounds like The First Church of Springfield may be a United Methodist congregation.
Everyone is enamored with the smooth-talking new associate, prompting Lovejoy call the day “the worst 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time ever.” In contrast to Lovejoy’s choice of apocryphal books to address the crisis, Hooper draws his illustrations from cultural references. For example, in his first sermon we hear him conclude, “So you see, what Jesus is saying really can be explained by an episode of Californication.”
The satirical gems keep coming in this episode, like Ned Flanders, the Simpson family’s Christian neighbor, muttering to himself while knitting, “Church songs with clapping. I don’t think this is what Martin Presby Luther had in mind when he founded our religion by sticking his three suggestions under the Pope’s windshield wiper” (OK, so maybe they aren’t Methodist). There is also Bart and Homer’s exchange:
Bart: Dad, you always hated church.
Homer: Now for the record, I hated the building, the people in it, and the spirit it represented, but I never hated the church itself.
Someone on the writing staff of The Simpsons knows something about the church.
In spite of this episode poking fun at us for doing such things, I found a lesson here. There is something to be learned about how not to be an associate from Rev. Elijah Hooper.
Hooper makes some huge mistakes – he springs things onto the lead pastor during worship, builds a following of his own rather than disciples of Jesus, and shows poor judgment selecting Homer to be a new deacon. But the most critical error that leads to him being run out of Springfield, is his lack of theology.
When crisis visits the church again, this time it’s frogs instead of bedbugs, the people gather at the church asking Hooper to minister to them this time. Unfortunately, his “easy-going offshoot of Protestantism,” as he describes his faith to Moe the bartender, has nothing to offer. He tries to appeal to “The Blindside with Sandy Bullock,” as he call it, but the crisis escalates. Finally, in the stress all he can mutter is, “Um… video games. Uh… Twitter. How to Train Your Dragon,” and as the congregants descend upon him, “Fight Club!” He’s smooth-talking, but he’s got nothing of substance to say.
Lovejoy arrives dramatically quoting Psalm 23, which somehow soothes (Homer says “bores”) the frogs to sleep so they can be swept up and removed. Reverend Tim Lovejoy has saved the day, prompting his congregants to give him a Gatorade bath with the water from the baptismal.
I guess theology wins every time. Even in Springfield.