An Amusing Episode, Of Our Lives

Kenneth Burke described literature as “equipment for living”: “A work like Madame Bovary,” he wrote, “is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutis mutandis, for people to ‘need a word for it’ and to adopt an attitude toward it. Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary.”

My mother once said she felt bad about not giving my siblings and me a religious upbringing–not because she feared for our souls, but because she worried we’d miss out on all the biblical references and allusions woven through Western culture.

Simpsons Anniversary Poster

You needn’t have worried, Mom. There’s my equipment for living, there’s my vast Talmudic dictionary of allusions and parables for apprehending and articulating the world. The first episode of The Simpsons aired twenty years ago today.

(*) Just to reiterate: The worst fate Mom could imagine for her heathen kids was not hellfire and damnation, but not getting all the references. I am my mother’s son.


  1. My mother-un-law is similar. Is in England and sent her kids to a CofE primary school partly for that reason.

  2. Sesame Street is my mental frame of reference for every new experience. One, this got me forcibly expelled from a store.

  3. These references are important, they fulfill a need of experiencing shared memories. Worst post ever.

  4. A religious upbringing doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the references. I took an intro to world religions class as an undergrad. It quickly became obvious that I, the atheist, was one of the few kids in the class who had actually read the Bible. (I still remember with delight the student who complained, “Why were the ancient Hebrews so paganistic?”)

  5. Would a religious upbringing help you understand “And he left them and went out of the city into Bethany and he lodged there”? Think about it.

  6. “No Homer, God didn’t burn your house down, but he was working in the hearts of your friends be they Christian, Jew, or… miscellaneous”

  7. Three of my kids were adopted at an advanced age from a foreign country. They complained about my hitting them over the heads with “old junk stories”, but I warned them that they wouldn’t really be English speakers until they could say when a job was truly Sisyphean and when it was merely Augean.

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