The Simpsons is the longest-running prime-time network television series by a wide margin. At thirty-years-and-counting, it has already eclipsed Gunsmoke and Law & Order by ten years. Family Guy is the sixth longest-running, at sixteen years and counting. And South Park, which airs on cable, celebrates its twentieth anniversary in 2017. David Feltmate’s choice, therefore, to focus on these three series is excellent, as they have aired almost twelve hundred total episodes over their combined sixty-six years on the air. What Feltmate has written is a thought-provoking and extremely detailed analysis of these three extraordinary cultural touchstones. Given the longevity and popularity of these programs, Feltmate is correct in asserting that the way these programs have depicted religion over the decades has impacted our national conversation about certain religious groups or practices.
Feltmate watched and catalogued over one thousand episodes in order to quantify the presence of religion in all three series. His data says that “more than 95% of Simpsons episodes, roughly 84% of Family Guy episodes, and about 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit references to religion” (1). He later acknowledges that some of those references are very slight, for example Abraham Simpson calling Homer “no angel behind the wheel,” but Feltmate argues that in order to understand this reference you need to understand what an angel is, and thus it qualifies as a religious reference (26). Given that, you would be hard pressed to find three other series that have both the amount of cultural cache that these three command, as well as the same level of religious intertextuality.
One of the most useful and innovative features of Feltmate’s book is that he has organized it not around the shows themselves, but around larger meta-themes. This allows him to provide incisive and detailed, side-by-side analysis to guide the reader through the different thematic shifts. He begins with what he calls the “sacred centers” of all three series, trying to identify the moral starting point for each show. In all three he seems to identify a general opposition to religious profiteering or hucksterism. While all three do not seem equally opposed to organized religion as a whole, Feltmate argues that they all oppose, consistently and in many forms, religious organizations that make money off of their faithful.
The second chapter focuses on race and ethnicity, specifically the treatment of Native Americans, Hindus, and Jews. Chapter 2 and chapter 5, which look at the treatment of cults and Muslims, are obviously the most complicated and synthetic. Neither in life nor on TV are Jews, Hindus, and Native Americans the same, and even more so with Muslims and New Religious Movements [NRM]. Feltmate clearly acknowledges this difficulty, and he does not conflate the various groups in his own analysis. Nevertheless, these two chapters read as slightly more unbalanced or unfocused than the other three.
Chapters 3 and 4 are where Feltmate’s analysis really shines. These two chapters are on iterations of American Christianity. Feltmate correctly identifies this as making up the bulk of the “religious references” in the shows, and spends the most time on these references. Religious “others,” especially on South Park and Family Guy, are usually lampooned as a way of highlighting ignorance or bigotry in the general populace. Cartman’s virulent anti-Semitism, Homer feeding peanuts to Apu’s statue of Ganesh, or Peter’s attempt to get a Bar Mitzvah for Chris are all critiques that are focused outward, not on the religion. Judaism, as is so often the case, occupies a gray area in that “when Judaism is characterized as being racially exclusive or unavailable for consumption, it is treated negatively” (86). But Christianity is nevertheless depicted as much more dangerous and insidious. The subtitle of chapter 3 is “Backwards Neighbors,” and chapter 4 is subtitled “American Christianities as Dangerous Threats.” Feltmate goes into great detail breaking down the many and varied Christian groups and ideologies that appear in the shows, and draws the fine, but important, distinctions between them.
If there is a primary critique of this book, it is that no one book can expertly cover such a wide range of topics, so for the specialist in various fields there are errors or lacunae that may cause the book to not be the excellent resource it will surely prove to be to scholars of television and popular culture. For religion scholars the uncritical adoption of a Jamesian definition of religion could prove problematic, as could small errors such as anachronistically calling William Ellery Channing a Unitarian Universalist (116). The pedagogical work that would need to be done in the classroom to bracket out Muslims from cults, and for that matter, to separate Christian minority movements such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter Day Saints from NRMs might make chapters 2 and 5 difficult to use in a religious studies classroom. And although Feltmate does good work with humor theory, humor theorists—like religion scholars—may find gaps in the work. Feltmate is ultimately setting out to create “a theory of satire that will help you to understand why you laughed and what you learned” (1). But the limited references throughout to the foundational theorists such as Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, Elliott Oring, or Linda Hutcheon make it difficult to fit Feltmate’s theory into a larger context. Feltmate claims he has developed “a new theory of religious satire” (17), but in focusing on incongruity and superiority he misses benign violation theory, which is a major part of the way animated series in particular generate humor and satire. Theories of religious satire are vital in a media culture that increasing blurs the line between “real” and “fake,” or “serious” and “satiric.” Had Feltmate engaged with other contemporary books doing the same thing—such as Terry Lindvall’s 2015 God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert (NYU Press)—it would have been easier to have a truly robust sense of what Feltmate is bringing to this important conversation.
Jennifer Caplan is assistant professor of religious studies at Towson University.
Date Of Review:
June 29, 2017
David Feltmate is associate professor of sociology at Auburn University at Montgomery where he conducts research in the sociology of religion, the sociology of humor, religion and popular culture, religion and mass media, and sociological theory.
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