Homer Simpson, Folk Christianity and “Religio-Magic”

Homer Simpson
Homer Simpson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following is a quote by Tony Campolo in the Foreward he wrote for the book “The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the Word’s Most Animated Family” by Mark I. Pinsky (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

In Homer, we find still another form of Protestant Christianity. He is one of the best examples of what sociologists call ‘folk religion.’ He is the kind of religious person who goes to church regularly, but is in reality more into a religio-magic belief system than into anything that resembles biblical Christianity. For Homer, God is like a parachute he hopes he never has to use, but he wants God to be there, just in case. When Homer is in deep trouble he turns to God and begs for miracles, but when miracles do happen, they do not make him into a man of faith or deep more convictions. Once a crisis is passed, Homer’s thinking about God is over. God, for him, is somebody you bargain with in times of trouble, making all kinds of promises to change (which are never lived out), if God will just deliver on a needed miracle.
The anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, in his book, “Magic, Religion and Science,” explains some key differences between religion and magic. Magic, he says, is an attempt to manipulate spiritual forces so that the supplicant gets what he or she wants, whereas in pure religion the individual surrenders to spiritual forces so that those forces (i.e., God) can do through him or her what those forces desire. Given these definitions, Homer is certainly into magic rather than religion.
Do not go too hard on Homer Simpson…  If you ask probing questions, you quickly will learn that most church members are into some form of religio-magic Christianity. For instance, I remember my Sunday School teacher telling me when I was a boy that, if I wanted my prayers to be answered, I had to make sure that I ended them with the right words– “In Jesus name, Amen.” Without that “magic” formula I was told I would be unlikely to get the desired results. My teacher led me to believe in a petty God who could look down on people who were begging for help and say, “I really would love to meet your needs, but you didn’t give your prayers the proper ending.” God, for Homer, is a great big Santa Claus in the sky who gives people what they want if they just remember to state things with the right incantation.

It has been noted by many that  part of the appeal of the Simpson’s TV series is not that it is a Christian show, but rather that it recognizes the impact that religion has on society (pretty much every society if you include non-organized faith groups). Additionally, the show expresses religion (and its adherents) honestly, often showing the warts that we would prefer to hide. A lot of “cultic” groups have the reputation for trying to control their image to the public, but Christians fall into that same trap far too often as well. In a supposed attempt to protect God’s reputation, we express “righteous” anger for others pointing out our (group and individual) foibles. However, we need “external audits.” Internal audits are often too generous and protective to be suitably honest.

Homer, frankly, expresses a very common Christian attitude… even that of committed Christians. Involved with seminary life and seminary training I regularly meet people that believe that praying “In Jesus Name” forces God to do what they want (a religio-magic or incantational understanding), rather than stating that they will act as ambassadors of, and according to the will of, Jesus (the Biblical and, according to Malinowski, a pure religious understanding). Some try to grab “Biblical promises,” often out of context, to try to convince God that He has been caught in a trap of His own words to do what they want, rather than recognizing the promises as expressions of His own will that challenges us to conform to them. Some believe that their prayers must be said as affirmations, as if the very praying has already made it happen. They fear that expressing any uncertainty whether God has done it or will do it, messes up the formula, rather than understanding that we are limited in time, space, and knowledge, and that God knows better than to give us the bad stuff simply because of our ignorance and foolishness. Some believe that they must bargain with God. “God, do this for me and I will do…. for You.” Often this doing is something personally unpleasant… as if God appreciates our grabbing hold of some form a random unpleasantness (often little more than sympathetic magic) thus convincing Him to respond favorably to balance out the Universe.

To be honest, I fall into the trap of being Homer as well, sometimes….

Here is the question. In missions, we are seeking genuine conversion. But what do we convert to? Many of those being reached are animistic either in primary belief, or in an underlying worldview. As they become Christians, there is the temptation to combine this religio-magic with Christianity (syncretistic) or maintained as a dual faith. I believe this is a problem… but is it realistic to squelch the confusion from the beginning or see such a phase as transitional?

Here is what I mean… When I was young, I was taught a prayer that I should say. It went like this:

Dear Jesus, Help me to be a good boy. Thank you for a good mommy and daddy. And thank you for dying on the cross for me. In Jesus Name. Amen.

As a child, I said this… religiously, without variation. As I grew older, I started praying longer prayers, but still ending with this basic formula. Eventually, I let myself go of the formula. I still end my prayer with ‘In Jesus Name, Amen” not because of obligation or theology, but habit. In fact, I rather prefer, theologically speaking, the Trinitarian formula, but some people get bothered because it “sounds too Catholic.”

Anyway, is it wrong that I believed that I HAD to pray one way? Maybe or maybe not. Maybe as a young believer I needed something simple. Perhaps what was good was that I was given something simple, but was in a nurturing environment to learn, grow, and adapt.

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