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The Simpsons take on Ecclesiology

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As this forum indicates, I am a big fan of popular culture.   I often include both veiled and not-so-veiled references in my posts, tweets, sermons, and blogs.  Thus, I was quite excited as the latest episode of ‘The Simpsons” focused on the ministry of the local church.  (Warning: spoilers to follow)

The stage is set when Reverend Lovejoy (the burned-out and emotionless pastor) is replaced by the new, young, and energetic Reverend Hooper.  He is a charismatic sort, and one clearly in touch with the current culture.  His first sermon references the movie ‘Meet the Family’ and makes the spiritual point that “In the end we love each other, and that’s all that [the Bible] really says.”  The congregation seems to come alive under his ministry.  One member erupts with the comment, “God help me I’m paying attention!”  Even Homer Simpson takes to the new minister.

This dichotomy between the ministry styles of Hooper and Lovejoy clearly set up two visions of church ministry.  What does it mean for the church to reach the surrounding society?  In one corner, there is the dry, routine, traditional, and seemingly lifeless ministry provided by Reverend Lovejoy.  In the other, the new, fresh, relevant Reverend Hooper.   The decision seems fairly simple.

This is often the popular critique of the traditional church.  The argument states that the traditional church is out of touch with the culture for which it serves.  It is seen as old and tired, and completely lacks any connection to people’s lives.  Why wouldn’t a person drift off to sleep in a sermon, or fail to pay attention during the liturgy, when the Church offers nothing relevant to anyone’s current situation?  Reverend Hooper, then, aptly embodies a change that many argue for in today’s mainline churches.

But as the show continues, it becomes clear that things really aren’t all that simple.  Despite his enthusiasm and vigor, there is a clear lack of depth to Reverend Hooper.   Defining himself as part of an ‘easy-going off-shoot of Protestantism,” Hooper seems more content on creating imaginative cultural references than dealing with the spiritual temperament of the congregation.  These connections between faith and culture may do well to spark initial interest and/or attention, but that is where it remains. Never does Reverend Hooper progress to addressing any deep spiritual issue.  Stating that Jesus’ message “really can be explained by an episode of Califorinication” may sound nice, but it is a point that essentially lacks any substance or meaning.

This dynamic comes to a head when a plague of frogs begin to threaten the church.  It is here where you see the full limitations of Reverend Hooper’s ministry.  The congregation looks to him for a spiritual word regarding this amphibian invasion, yet shuns his cultural references shouting “To Hell with your references, we’re dying here!”  As the congregation demand some deeper word, Reverend Hooper can only muster the words ‘uh  . . . Video Games! Twitter! How to train your Dragon! Fight Club!”   Reverend Hooper is clearly at a loss and his ministry has run its course.  Thank God for Reverend Lovejoy, who bursts upon the scene with the words; “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.  He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.”   The plague is stilled under the mighty words of Scripture.

So what does this episode say about the culture’s wish for the Church today?  While the culture does yearn for a sense of connection with the current trends and issues, simple cultural references are but shallow gimmicks if not undergirded by an invitation to find one’s place in the biblical story.  In the end, a ministry based solely on pop songs and TV shows does little in addressing people’s questions, desires, and hurts.   When someone feels that a plague of some type is threatening their existence, they don’t want platitudes and culturally-relevant idioms.  What they want is a word that speaks to a deeper reality.  They want a reminder that there is one who is greater than themselves, who is able to heal, redeem, forgive and save. This episode declares that underneath the desire for a more relevant church, there is a yearning for depth and substance.  In the end, the culture wishes for a church not of mere persuasive words, but one with spiritual power, authority, and witness.

It’s clear that both Reverend Hooper and Reverend Lovejoy need each other.  The church in Springfield would only be strengthened by the two working together, and learning from each other.  Perhaps that’s the point.  Our call isn’t to choose one side of the ecclesiological divide.  Rather, the culture urges us to embrace both realities.  We are called to be a body of ministry that connects with the issues, images, and stories of our current culture, but does so in order to lead people to the deeper reality of God in Christ.  It is in the embracing of both these things that people uncover not just a God who accepts them as they are, but one who calls them to transformation, redemption, and new life.

How do you see the interplay between ‘contemporary relevance’ and ‘traditional  practice?’  How is this played out in your own church setting?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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6 Responses to The Simpsons take on Ecclesiology

  1. Amen, amen, I say Amen! I’ve been really struggling with this lately, especially since reading this article, which takes it to the extreme other end, where we’re so desperate to appear relevant that we’re willing to trade our identity. My Systematic Theology prof always warns us that if we try too hard to be relevant we risk making ourselves redundant. Why would people come to church if they can get these same platitudes anywhere else? I came back to church specifically because the faith life I had chosen after leaving was not feeding me – specifically because not only was it not holding me accountable to anything or anyone (I was a solitary practitioner of Wicca) but also because I missed that sense of history. People do respect depth – throwing out a bunch of pop culture references is really more like throwing seed on rocky ground. 😉 Gotta watch this episode.

  2. Kyle Norman

    Clarity

    I will have to remember your phrase  “throwing out a bunch of pop culture references is really more like throwing seed on rocky ground.”  I think that’s a brillian image of the danger of basing all of ministry on some thin idea of what ‘relevance’ means.

    The thing that intruiged me about the episode that it didn’t get into the “this/not that” mentality.  It showed both sides in their extreme – the dry lifeless traditional ministry  and the new flashy, yet shallow, contemporary relevance one.  There must be a middle ground. (which fits Anglicans to the T!)

    You also latched on to one of the big issues of Identity.  Who are we as the people of God/ or as the church today?  For some, the answer in extreme is  ‘a symbol of how things should be but are no longer’ – others (like the ones your article references) -would argue the extreme opposite and say ‘it doesn’t matter as long as we love’

    In my opinion, both are dangerous to the future of the church, for both have a flawed understnding of who we are, who God is, and where God is in this world.

  3. Kyle Norman

    Clarity

    I will have to remember your phrase  “throwing out a bunch of pop culture references is really more like throwing seed on rocky ground.”  I think that’s a brillian image of the danger of basing all of ministry on some thin idea of what ‘relevance’ means.

    The thing that intruiged me about the episode that it didn’t get into the “this/not that” mentality.  It showed both sides in their extreme – the dry lifeless traditional ministry  and the new flashy, yet shallow, contemporary relevance one.  There must be a middle ground. (which fits Anglicans to the T!)

    You also latched on to one of the big issues of Identity.  Who are we as the people of God/ or as the church today?  For some, the answer in extreme is  ‘a symbol of how things should be but are no longer’ – others (like the ones your article references) -would argue the extreme opposite and say ‘it doesn’t matter as long as we love’

    In my opinion, both are dangerous to the future of the church, for both have a flawed understnding of who we are, who God is, and where God is in this world.

  4. Absolutely! “It doesn’t matter as long as we love” might be helpful to those who are trying to re-gain or grow an openminded spirituality, but I actually find it rather patronizing – that sense of “We’re not so different, you and I.” It may be true but it’s reductionist and (I think) inhospitable to the Other, who is being subsumed rather than listened to. And yes – the Church shouldn’t go the other way as well, where it simply models something that hearkens back to a golden time where all things made sense (which, in all likelihood, never existed in the first place).

    If called upon to find that middle ground in my own language, I would say our identity should be grounded in our proclaimed truth, which is that Jesus has risen and therefore the old reality of sin, death, fear, and hatred is no longer true but peeled away like a chrysalis. 🙂 It is our job to call those who still have their faces buried in the remains of that old skin into the new morning, regardless of what language we use to do it. We just need to make sure that, unlike Rev. Hooper, we make room in our proclamation for the hard questions of the cross. Otherwise we’re not taking any of it seriously – so why would anyone take us seriously?

  5. Dawn Leger

    I loved Loved LOVED this episode and was wondering how long it would take @Kyle_Norman to bring it to the Community.

    What I found so fascinating about this episode and what woke me up was I thought this was an in-house conversation. In other words, I thought only people, mostly clergy, but also those who engage in theological reflection in mainline churches even cared about the dichotomy between in-culture and in-tradition. I was surprised and a wee bit intimidated to see this come up in a popular tv show like the Simpsons. I’ve seen the Simpsons take on the church through the leadership of Lovejoy, but then to see an in-church debate given script and animation on TV was a shock, then a joy, then a bit of an oh boy.

    Because if the Simpsons crew see this happening in churches, and can give voice to deep spiritual yearning that popular culture just doesn’t address, what kind of job are we doing?

    I guess it just made me realize that Christianity does not go unnoticed in the world, and, in everything, we need to be aware of our witness, especially in a world that expects transparency and open critique of institutions. I thought it was a great episode and yes, it’ll preach.

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