In my bible college years, I watched The Simpsons three times a day: reruns came on at 5, 5:30, and 11, and I watched them all. The Simpsons came out during my high school years (though I, having been an early adapter of the new Fox Network, was aware of their shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show).
The folks at my home church regarded The Simpsons as a bad show; watching it was a sin. For that reason, I had not watched much of it prior to Bible college. On my first night at college, though, which was a lonely and scary night for me, I found and watched an episode (I didn’t have many choices; I had just moved in and hadn’t gotten cable yet, so I was stuck with network TV). I watched the show incessantly after that moment all through my Bible college years and even into my ministry years.
I lost touch with The Simpsons after moving to California. It’s been more than a decade since I watched an episode, either in prime time or syndication. For some reason, though, I stopped on The Simpsons tonight while channel surfing (something I rarely have the time to do anymore) and saw the back half of an episode. For some reason, this episode ended with Ned Flanders doing a closing song to the tune of “The Beverly Hillbillies Theme”. You can hear most of that song if you forward to the end of this video (sorry, couldn’t time stamp it for some reason).
In that song, Ned says that if we don’t worship God, we will burn for all eternity, and that this burning is part of God’s great love for you and me (I’m paraphrasing, but I think I got the words right there, and I know I got the gist right). Oddly enough, this was nearly identical to something I heard a couple years ago. I was (again) channel surfing on a Friday night and hit an episode of The Squidbillies. I’m not nearly as familiar with that show as I am The Simpsons, and I really don’t understand most of what I saw, but I know it was some sort of creature singing a song in church which told listeners that if they didn’t love God they would burn in hell (I tried to find that one and couldn’t).
There is a backhand critique in both of these songs/jokes. Both of them are implying that there is something wrong with God/the Christian idea of God, that the reality of punishment for sin and/or Hell is contradictory to the reality of a loving God/a genuine relationship with God. It is an argument against The Faith, in other words, suggesting that the principles of The Faith are inherently self-refuting and that The Faith must therefore be false.
And with that, the writers of The Simpsons and The Squidbillies had me. Those quick song/jokes were so insightful that they immediately destroyed my faith in the God of the Bible and in any similar God.
No, actually both these song/jokes just made me want to ask the creators of those shows two questions. Those two questions are:
- Are you sure you understand The Faith correctly? The creators of these shows clearly have problems with certain tenets of The Faith (either the love of God or the punishment of sin or both). What they fail to realize, though, is that having a problem with something doesn’t necessarily mean there is a real problem with that something. If you have a problem with something, the problem may be actually be you instead. I think this is the case here. I think the creators of these shows (and the many who will no doubt parrot their assertions) don’t understand The Faith, particularly The Faith’s teaching about the punishment of sin. I don’t blame them for that; many Christians misunderstand these things, too. But if you give it just a few seconds thought, you can easily come to a better understanding of them. The life to come, The Faith asserts, is a life in which people spend an eternity with God. Many people aren’t interested in spending an eternity with God; they wouldn’t accept it even if it was offered to them (which is constantly is). And so there is naturally a life for them as well. That life isn’t that great; no life without God is. But that’s the life they have chosen, and that is the logical conclusion of their choosing. Hell and/or the punishment of sin, then, is not so much a threat God uses to force people to love Him (which is how these show creators are presenting it); it is instead a reality God is desperately trying to prevent His children from experiencing. These show creators have not understood this. They have misunderstood this, and thus their backhanded critiques based on their misunderstanding is not legitimate.
- What alternative can you offer me? Let’s say that’s not the case, though. Let’s say the show creators have correctly understood The Faith and effectively undermined it with their backhanded critiques. That’s still not the end of the story. It is not enough for them to destroy my faith; they must also provide me with an alternative to my faith. My faith gives me a way of life (not just “rules” to follow but goals to pursue). My faith gives me meaning and purpose. It gives me hope and peace. In other words, my faith does a whole lot of good for me. What are these show creators, then, offering in place of that faith? What are they offering that can do all these things for me? Are they offering me anything at all? I don’t think they are, and even if they are, I don’t think it can do what my faith does. And if they aren’t offering any alternative, anything to replace and compensate for my faith, then what good are their critiques? If they don’t have any sufficient alternative to my faith, how can their critiques possibly be correct? I don’t think they can.
I probably will never get to ask these show creators these questions, and that’s too bad. I can ask them of you, though, you who have heard these critiques along with me and maybe been influenced by them. I can ask you to ask these same two questions of these and any similar critiques. And I believe that if you do, you will come to very different conclusions than the ones the creators of The Simpsons and The Squidbillies are offering.