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Simpsons Theology: #1 Pulpit Friction

I've seen every Simpsons episode there is. I've seen most of them more than twice! I just think it's wonderful. It's full of dry wit, droll humour, memorable characters, hilarious catchphrases, ridiculous storylines, and some of the best social commentary you're ever going to come across; including some rather poignant theological insights - some surprisingly agreeable.

So, why not start a Simpsons theology theme on the blog? Well, here we go then!

The Simpsons
Season 24, 2013
Episode 18: Pulpit Friction

This idea might seem odd at first. The Simpsons isn't known for its fondness of religion and regularly pokes fun at American Christianity as a confused body of illiberal, moralistic hypocrisy that only uses the Bible for the purposes of opposing things like evolution and planned parenthood.

That doesn't mean that the writers don't get it right every so often and in one of my particular favourite episodes, I believe there is a really rather useful observation to pay attention to. Hopefully, you won't find it too contrived. Do watch the episode if you can, and I'll try not to give too much of the story away.

Pulpit Friction, (a delightful pun in reference to the Tarantino film), starts with Timothy Lovejoy, Reverend of the Presberlutheran First Church of Springfield, being provided with an assistant minister, to help him relate better to the congregation. Elijah Hooper is brought in, somewhat to Tim's surprise, with his curly hair, his dog collar, and his fresh new ideas like angled parking. Elijah instantly makes an impact by spouting attractive catchphrases, referencing popular culture, and encouraging the congregation to stay at home and invite some friends round, rather than attend church, if that is how they can best love each other - which is "all the Bible really says to do anyway".

Well, to cut a long story short, Tim Lovejoy leaves the ministry and Rvd. Hooper takes his position. Conveniently, a crisis of Biblical proportions befalls Springfield, in the form of a plague of frogs, and the townspeople turn to their spiritual leader for counsel and wisdom. All Elijah Hooper can do, though, is recollect TV show plots and name social media networks, much to the annoyance of the angry mob forming around him. That ain't gonna get rid of no frogs. The people need "succour". Well, in typical (our 20 minutes are nearly done, how do we wrap this episode up) fashion, Lovejoy bursts through the doors of the church, cassocked up, Bible in hand and ready for action. He quotes from Psalm 23, and the wrath of the mob is placated. The frogs are subdued. True spiritual counsel has been given and the congregation is appeased and their fears relieved.

It appears to me that the Simpsons' writers are making a rather profound point: if religion is going to be taken seriously - if Christianity is going to be taken seriously, the church needs to stick to its principles, and not be so quick to conform to the ways of the world. It needs to stand out, to be distinctive, and show how the Gospel can make a difference. I feel like the message from the writers of this episode is, if you really believe the Bible, act like it. Because when life gets tough, if Prime Time morality is enough to get us through life, then the church really is irrelevant.

Right through the Bible, we see the importance of God's people being distinctive. The nation of Israel was called to be set apart from the pagan nations around them, to live and act in a way that showed that they follow the one true God who rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and thus proclaiming his goodness and power. They were to be distinctive by having a God who saves powerfully and to make his glory and his name known by their obedience to and joy in him. When they did mingle with the cultures around them, they took on the cultural practices of those cultures and adopted many of their worship habits. Unable to influence, they became influenced and were of no use. Instead of demonstrating by obedience and faith that living under the Kingship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was an incredible blessing, they made the suggestion that God was no more important than their gods. And if your god is no better than my god, what's the point?

This idea of being distinctive continues in the New Testament. Paul urges the Galatians to the beware of anyone preaching a different gospel to the one he preached to them. Paul here is concerned that, when seeking to bring men to God with salvation through faith in Christ, it can only be done through preaching the Gospel of Christ, where salvation is found. Any other message is to be rejected because it has no power to save, and in fact, will end up being harmful by putting even more distance between man and God. This does not glorify God.

The reason churches end up looking more like the culture around them than a distinctive, set apart, Gospel people, is because it's easy. Gospel ideas like sin, traditional Christian practices like prayer and the Lord's Supper, and Biblical accounts like the worldwide flood, the parting of the red sea and Jesus rising from the dead all sound quite fanciful, far-fetched, or just a bit weird and outdated in our modern world. And so, there will always be the danger that, in its attempts to be culturally relevant and influential, the church will begin to adopt the practices and ideas of the world around it and abandon the distinctive, Christ-centered focus of the Gospel of Jesus found in the Bible, preaching and the sacraments. It's all too easy for instance, to seek to discover a particular moral teaching from the Bible echoed in some TV show or song or book (much like I'm doing now, I suppose), and to use that as the basis for teaching and spiritual guidance. Of course, it is all well and good, as Paul demonstrated in Athens, to be able to show how the Gospel speaks to all of life, and that Gospel analogies can be found in so many places. But if we forget Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, we have not preached a Gospel at all. Instead of showing how the world should, in fact, be a mirror reflecting the glory of God, we reflect the culture straight back at it, and, in the midst of pain and suffering and uncertainty, that doesn't do anyone any good. Culture might echo in part Gospel sentiment, but it will never provide the true substance. Christ Himself is alone able to save from despair.

So let's always be sure that as Christians, as the church, we don't forget Christ. We don't need message so much as a person. And not just any person, we need Christ, who lived perfectly, died lovingly, and rose triumphantly, to provide the righteousness we need, to remove the guilt we had, and to provide the hope we have.


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