Everything I know about UU I learned on “The Simpsons”

I set foot inside my first UU church in Fall of 2008 and haven’t looked back since. I never knew anyone who was a UU or went to a UU church. I only knew that the churches I had grown up in and experienced for last 20 years of my life were no longer vibe-ing with the person I wanted to be and the world I wanted to live in. So, I found myself at my first UU church occurrence in my life and I couldn’t help but think of “The Simpsons”.

I can’t even begin to estimate how much of my life I’ve spent watching that show, and, to be honest, the results would scare me too much to try. For a show that’s entering its 21st season in September 2009, it’s still pretty culturally relevant. For those keeping score at home, this year “The Simpsons” will surpass “Gunsmoke” as the longest running American primetime television show. As a student of religion, I find a great understanding and fairness in the religions presented on the show. No one is spared from satire. From the Hindu religion of convenience store owner Apu, Lisa’s dabble in Buddhism, stalwart next-door-neighbor/uber-Christian Ned Flanders, even Reverend Lovejoy of the (created for the show) Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism. One of my favorite of the more religious themed episodes is “The Father, The Son and The Holy Guest Star.” It features none other than Oscar-nominee Liam Neeson as a Catholic priest. There are so many great little nuggets in that episode, it’s worth digging around YouTube for a clip. The writers on “The Simpsons” understand the subtleties of these religions but never took any too seriously that they couldn’t find something to poke fun at and the same is true of Unitarian Universalism, most commonly referred to as Unitarian on the show.

There aren’t a ton of references, but if you pay attention you can find them. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Rev. Lovejoy offers Bart and Lisa some Unitarian ice cream at a church function, the bowl is empty. Lisa notices and comments that there is nothing there. Lovejoy states that that is the point.
  • In the previously mentioned episode, Homer is attempting to confess to Liam Neeson’s priest who states he can only absolve Homer if he is Catholic. Homer asks how to join, does he have to “whale on some Unitarians?”
  • When playing a Bible based video game with Ned Flanders’ sons, Bart is attempting to “convert the Heathens” but only nicks one and he becomes a Unitarian.

The thing about well done satire is that there is always some thread, however minor, of truth or verisimilitude in it. The great irony is that “The Simpsons” show creator, Matt Groening is himself a Unitarian Universalist. Another blogger pointed out this interesting fact about religion presented on the show: when a religion is ridiculed it is done by someone who really doesn’t know anything about that belief system and serves to point to their own ignorance more than a flaw in that religion. And isn’t that what happens when we make our own judgments on those systems that may be different from our own?

So, there I was singing out of a UU hymnal for the first time and clips of “The Simpsons” ran through my head. And, you know, I think that’s alright. It’s not a terrible introduction and it sure didn’t keep me from trying, and consequently joining, my first UU church.

Several years ago Ned Flanders was on the cover of Christianity Today magazine, an evangelical publication, and in the article an interviewee argued that “The Simpsons” may be the most Christian show on television. I would argue that it’s more likely the most UU show on TV. With its fair treatment of all religions and questioning, through humor, of almost every belief system it seems to resonate with our ideals. I’ll end with this quote from Reverend Lovejoy (shock!) that might be the most Unitarian Universalist thing ever said on “The Simpsons.”

“Ned, have you tried any of the other world religions? They’re all pretty much the same.”

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