God and culture: 2009 remix

Simpsons religionI've only been a card-carrying Get Religion-er since August, and in that brief time I've been repeatedly drawn to articles that cover the intersection of faith and culture. And what a year it was for examining Dan Brown and the Masons, Michael Moore and Catholicism, the Coen brothers and Judaism, punk rock musicians and Islam, Ricky Gervais and atheism, Glenn Beck and Mormonism, or the online pranksters of the Assclown Offensive and Scientology.

There were also fascinating books (such as cartoonist Robert Crumb's Bible project, Andre Agassi's memoir "Open," and Carl Jung's huge (and hugely anticipated) "Red Book."

The Vatican gave a fitting postlude to the year in culture with its Dec. 22 release of a document commemorating TV's "The Simpsons" on its 20th anniversary. The Associated Press was first up with the story: "Vatican paper says 'The Simpsons' are okely dokely."

While not ignoring the show's apparent problems ("excessively crude language, the violence of certain episodes or some extreme choices by the scriptwriters") the article in L'Osservatore Romano by Luke M. Possati graciously praised the show's accomplishments:

Religion, from the snore-evoking sermons of the Rev. Lovejoy to Homer's face-to-face talks with God, appears so frequently on the show that it could be possible to come up with a "Simpsonian theology," it said.

Homer's religious confusion and ignorance are "a mirror of the indifference and the need that modern man feels toward faith," the paper said.

It commented on several religion-themed episodes, including one in which Homer calls for divine intervention by crying: "I'm not normally a religious man, but if you're up there, save me, Superman!"

"Homer finds in God his last refuge, even though he sometimes gets His name sensationally wrong," L'Osservatore said. "But these are just minor mistakes, after all, the two know each other well."

Other reports soon appeared in newspapers, entertainment publications and blogs worldwide--none of them improving on the AP's original. I can't comment on the faithfulness of these various reports to the original L'Osservatore Romano article, which I have been unable to find in English translation. But some of the reports generated the ire of Catholics, like these two readers:

You have got to be kidding. It is a crude and vile show that teaches nothing. I can't believe that the Vatican would sanction this.

Are there not enough good and beautiful works of man that we must sift through his most insulting and degrading work for one shred of value, only to be seen as "cool" in the eyes of the world?

Perhaps that's the way things will be eternally at the intersection of faith and culture. A work will evoke religious euphoria in one recipient, while another will recoil from the same work in revulsion.

Finally, I can't let 2009 end withouot praising Religion & Ethics Newsweekly for two fine reports: Rafael Pi Roman's Nov. 20 piece on Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor and Kim Lawton's in-depth look at Jewish rap singer Matisyahu.

I can't wait to see what kinds of culture faith will inspire in 2010.

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