“Homer The Heretic” (season 4, episode 3; originally aired 10/08/1992)
“Homer The Heretic” isn’t just hilarious, human and wildly entertaining. It’s also one of the most trenchant explorations of the conflict between faith and reason, moral obligation, and free will in the history of television, animated or otherwise. At the risk of being slightly hyperbolic, it’s a million times better, deeper, and more deeply spiritual than the New and Old Testaments combined and should replace those outdated texts in all houses of worship. Hey, if Homer can wax heretical then why can’t I?
Part of the episode’s subversive genius—I don’t think genius is too strong a word considering this is the fourth season of The Simpsons we’re talking about—lies in putting some of the most persuasive and convincing arguments against organized religion not in the mouth of a smart skeptic or spiritual seeker like Lisa but rather in the dumb-ass pie-hole of one of television’s biggest buffoons. Homer is nakedly heretical throughout “Homer The Heretic”—it’s right there in the title—but damned if it isn’t easy to agree with him.
“Homer The Heretic” opens with an unborn Homer in a privileged position: dancing an elegant little ballet inside the womb before the umbilical cord is cut and he’s dragged kicking and screaming from the safest, most secure place in the world into the grim, terrifying, and unsparing outside world.
Then Homer wakes up and it becomes apparent that Homer’s dream—the first of several, each with meaning and portent of their own—is a metaphor for Homer being asked to leave the warmth and comfort of his cozy little home and trudge, zombie-like, into the freezing cold and join his family in a tedious church service where Reverend Lovejoy will preach a soul-sucking sermon about the torments of hell.
Homer generally goes to church out of a dull sense of obligation, albeit not without a fight and a whole lot of passive-aggression, but this particular Sunday he makes a fortuitous decision to rebel and stay at home while his family is forced to brave a veritable snowpocalypse for the honor of sitting in a freezing church so they can be lectured at by a scowling, humorless drone.
Homer, meanwhile, is instantly and abundantly rewarded for his blasphemy. Freed from the demands of church and family, he’s able to curl up in bed like a “big toasty cinnamon bun,” piss with the door open, sing as loudly and as badly as he likes in the shower, say “ass”, turn the thermostat up to 100, dance in his underwear like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, make his patented “moon waffles,” watch The Three Stooges (“Moe is their leader,” Homer says sagely to no one in particular) and win a radio contest by correctly guessing the name of the spoken-word album of right-wing political views from Johnny Calhoun, the man behind “Gonna Find Me A Genie With A Magic Bikini.”
Just when it appears that Homer’s charmed day at home shirking responsibilities and the dictates of an angry and wrathful Lord can’t possibly get any better, something truly miraculous occurs: A bone-dry public affairs program is interrupted by what is apparently the greatest and most eventful football game in history, a game featuring a “63-63 tie,” “nothing but razzle-dazzle,” no less than “three visits from Morganna The Kissing Bandit,” and, most remarkable of all, “the astonishing return of Jim Brown!” To top it all off, Homer even finds a penny. Best day ever!
While Homer has ascended to fat-slob heaven due to his laziness and lack of responsibility, his family is punished for their faith with an endless sermon about the lamentations of Jeremiah (the long version, naturally enough). Temperatures inside the church are so freezing they make Lovejoy’s talk of the hellfire awaiting the damned seem idyllic by comparison, and a frozen lock on the church door strands parishioners in their holy hell even after service has ended. It’s a trial of the faithful nightmarish enough to make even dear, patient Marge lose her temper and explode with rage when her car has trouble starting.
At home, Homer greets an understandably grumpy Marge with some big news: He’s had such a marvelous time not going to church that he’s never going again. Homer’s reasoning may be self-centered, but it’s also fundamentally sound. In a frothing fit of reasonableness, Homer tells Marge, “What’s the big deal about going to some building every Sunday? I mean, isn’t God everywhere? And don’t you think the almighty has better things to worry about than where one little guy spends one measly hour of his week? And what if we pick the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”
Giddy with hubris for having defied the commandments of the Lord and not only survived but thrived, Homer teasingly attempts to seduce Marge while she prays earnestly for his eternal soul. When he falls asleep, Homer encounters God (“Perfect teeth. A nice smell. A class act all the way” is how he describes God to Bart) and explains to him his newfound conception of faith: Instead of going to some building every Sunday and following a lot of dogma, he’s just going to try to be a good person and worship in his own way. Homer’s argument is so reasonable—it turns out even God is tempted to just watch football most Sundays—that even God agrees to his terms and his insurrection.
Overnight Homer makes an astounding transformation from shitty, half-hearted Christian to a prophet of his very own religion, a religion devoted to doing whatever the hell you want to do as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Marge is of course horrified, as are the stupid Flanderses, who take to stalking Homer around town in an attempt to lure him back to the flock.
But it’s no use. The scathing disapproval of his neighbors, reverend, wife and daughter can’t compare to the simple pleasures of lazy Sunday mornings spent lolling about the house reading nudie magazines and smoking a fat cigar.
Homer can’t get away with his heresy forever, however, and comes close to paying the ultimate price for his transgressions. “Boy, everyone is stupid except me,” Homer smugly enthuses. He learns otherwise when he falls asleep with a lit cigar in his mouth and accidentally sets his house ablaze.
The self-styled prophet of laziness is ultimately saved by the heroics of God-fearing folks of different faiths like Krusty, Apu, and especially Flanders, who risks his own life to pull Homer from a raging fire. For all its good-natured heresy, “Homer The Heretic” is respectful enough toward religion to put the moral of the episode in Reverend Lovejoy’s mouth when he tells Homer that God was “working in the hearts of your neighbors when they came to your aid, be they Christian, Jew, or miscellaneous.”
Many episodes of The Simpsons center around Homer and Marge’s marriage being tested and ultimately reaffirmed. In “Homer The Heretic” it’s Homer’s faith that is aggressively tested before ultimately being reaffirmed. The strength and value of religion, the episode argues, ultimately lies not in its power to force people to follow arbitrary rules or go to a building every Sunday but rather in its capacity for teaching people to listen to their better angels and love and serve their fellow man. That makes “Homer The Heretic” not just funny but also surprisingly profound. “Homer The Heretic” isn’t just a comic masterpiece—it’s also an insightful and enduring meditation on the nature of faith.
- This is the episode where we discover that Krusty is Jewish. Milestone!
- We also learn that heaven is where Jimi Hendrix plays table hockey with Benjamin Franklin. I can get behind that sentiment.
- “Don’t worry, sweetie. If I’m wrong I can recant on my deathbed” seems like a sound strategy.
- I love the graphic for the municipal roundtable. So incongruously manly!
- “Please do not offer my God a peanut” politely inquires Apu. Such a great line.
- How glorious does the show make staying at home look and seem? I want to live in that cozy, snug little world, even if it does ultimately mean going to hell.