Color illustration by Alex Nabaum, Deseret Morning News

They are, at first blush, unlikely spiritual guides — the bratty boy, the clueless dad, the mom with the tilting spire of blue hair. But look closely at the Simpsons, says Debbie Buese, and you'll see a family that can illuminate life's profound questions.

Buese, who attends St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City, is one of several Utah Sunday school teachers who have used the Simpsons as the jumping-off point for discussions about theological and moral questions. Questions about angels, hell, the power of prayer in the face of a crummy report card.

For teenagers, it's a "wonderful doorway" to explore issues of faith, says Dori Marshall, director of Christian education at Cottonwood Presbyterian Church. To those who might question using such a secular — some might say sacrilegious — TV sitcom as a teaching tool, Marshall points to the parables of the New Testament. "When we think about 2,000 years ago and of Jesus taking people out on a hillside to talk to them, he was meeting them where they live. Sometimes that's the only way we can learn: with language and situations we can understand."

The classes are based on "The Gospel According to The Simpsons," by Mark I. Pinsky, and its companion piece, a group study guide published last year. Pinsky covers religion for the Orlando Sentinel.

"Entry-level religion" is what professor Robert Thompson of Syracuse University calls this use of pop culture to reach people who might otherwise shy away from theological discussions. In the intro to his study guide, Pinsky admits this sometimes has its downside. "On the one hand," he writes, "resorting to such lowest-common-denominator vehicles has the aroma of desperation on the part of organized religion. It is further evidence — if any more is needed — of the evaporating attention span of most Americans, and of the general dumbing down of serious discourse."

On the other hand, it works. The list of churches and schools using the Simpsons and Pinsky's book includes a Baptist Church in Canada, a protestant chaplain on a U.S. Air Force base in Turkey, a Methodist church in Ohio, a Christian fellowship at Boston University and lots of Presbyterian churches (the book is published by Westminster Knox Press, a Presbyterian publishing house in Louisville, Ky).

The Simpsons, Pinsky argues, are a lot more spiritual than they might seem. "In many ways," writes Pinsky in "The Gospel According to the Simpsons," Bart and his family are "both defined and circumscribed by religion." They attend church every Sunday, say grace before meals, and, when faced with crises, turn to God and pray aloud.

In fact, he argues, Christians and Christianity are more a part of The Simpsons "than of any other prime-time network sitcom or drama, excluding shows specifically devoted to religion such as 'Touched by an Angel' and 'Seventh Heaven.' " Not that Homer doesn't continually try to bargain with God, and try to cheat and lie to his fellowman. Not that he doesn't make fun of his neighbor, born-again Ned Flanders.

St. Paul's Sunday school teacher Buese says that when she first watched the Simpsons with her own children years ago she only saw bits and pieces — and found it offensive. "You can't watch a minute or two of Homer or Bart and like them," she says. It takes a whole episode, or several episodes, to understand the questions the show raises and the morality it underscores. Besides, Buese says, there's the added benefit of realizing the universality of the show and its characters. "Homer might be sitting next to you at church. And there are things in those episodes that are painfully true."

On a recent Sunday morning, Buese's class watched a Simpson episode called "Lisa the Skeptic," in which Bart's 8-year-old sister unearths, at the site of a future shopping mall, what looks like the skeleton of an angel. In the mayhem that ensues, the townspeople of Springfield turn to the artifact for miracles, and Homer turns it into a pay-per-view shrine.

Lisa, though, thinks the whole thing is a bunch of bunk, and says she feels sorry for her gullible neighbors and her gullible family. To which her mother replies: "There has to be more to life than just what we see. If you can't make a leap of faith now and then, I feel sorry for you."

Lisa turns to the town's scientist for an answer. To which, the evangelical Ned Flanders replies, "Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins a movie by telling you how it ends. Well, I say there are some things we don't want to know — important things."

In a discussion afterwards, Buese's class of 14-year-olds talked about the questions the show raised. Do they believe in angels? Would an angel leave a skeleton? Is it possible to be a person of science and a person of faith? What does it mean in Proverbs 14:15, "The simple believe everything, but the clever consider their steps"?

Like most teenagers, says Peter Harris, when he reads the Bible he sometimes thinks "this doesn't really apply to me." But the Simpson family's comical, sometimes poignant, everyday clashes with morality and faith "helps put a new perspective on what you believe," says Peter, a freshman at Judge Memorial High School.

The show sometimes provides more questions than answers, and that's fine, says Cottonwood Presbyterian's Marshall. "I've always been encouraged to question and discover," she says. "It's only through questioning and discovery that we're able to internalize our own theology that sustains us . . . When you're face to face with teenagers, I think the last thing you can do and still be authentic is say you can't question."

"We talk openly about times when our faith is dry," adds Buese about her Sunday School class. "That's acceptable, certainly, in a lifelong relationship with God."