The Faith of Flanders
By WALL STREET JOURNAL
Added: Fri, 23 May 2008 23:00:00 UTC
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The Faith of Flanders
By MARK I. PINSKY
No one would mistake Ned Flanders, the goofy next-door neighbor in "The Simpsons," for a polished televangelist like Joel Osteen. But over the past two decades the zealous cartoon character has become one of the best-known evangelicals on America's small screen. With Americans spending exponentially more time on their sofas watching television than in pews listening to sermons, this is no insignificant matter.
In the inevitably intertwined world of religion and commerce, it's only natural that the man portrayed as "Blessed Ned of Springfield" on the cover of Christianity Today magazine should have his own "new testament." And so he does. "Flanders' Book of Faith," by "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, is a slim, illustrated entry in the show's "Library of Wisdom" series.
For years, the TV show's writers, fiercely protective of their reputation for irreverence, denied that they were in any way sympathetic toward sincere belief, as embodied by the Flanders character. But releasing the book under Mr. Groening's name puts an imprimatur on that kind-to-religion interpretation, long held in younger evangelical circles.
A fundamentally decent true believer, Ned is firmly in the theological tradition of Mr. Osteen, Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale in at least one respect. He, too, is an irrepressible apostle of optimism. The only time his faith has been shaken, and then only briefly, came in 2000 when his wife, Maude, was killed in a freak accident (following a real-life pay dispute between the show's producers and the actress who supplied Maude's voice). As his neighbor Homer Simpson puts it during one service at Springfield Community Church: "If everyone here were like Ned Flanders, there'd be no need for heaven. We'd already be there."
Naturally, Ned's view of the Almighty is central to the book: "God is the Alpha and the Omega, maker of Heaven and Earth. . . . God is the creator of the universe and the source of our knowledge of right and wrong. Ned maintains a very close relationship with Him, communicating His desires to anyone who will listen and asking Him favors on a minute-by-minute basis." Among God's attributes are his love for everyone, but readers are advised to "watch out for His temper."
This is not simply a book of wacky systematic theology. There is also a great deal about Flanders's personal life, which, like that of most evangelicals, is inextricably tied to his faith life. There is a lightly mocking tone to some of these anecdotes. His recipe for Devil's Food Cake, for example, includes a quart of holy water and an exorcism.
Like many modern, suburban believers, Ned embraces popular culture in a modified form rather than simply rejecting it. He reads the novel "Harry Potter and the Consequences of Dabbling in Magic" to his kids before bed, and he listens to a Christian rock station, 102.7 BLISS FM.
Prayer and thanksgiving are a big part of Ned's life, the book explains. He allows a full 30 minutes for grace before dinner in his daily planner, and he gets to No. 143 in counting his blessings before nodding off. Ned's favorite things include his Rapture-ready tote bag and the "I â Jesus" bumper sticker on his 1992 Geo Metro.
In the book, Lisa Simpson, Homer's brainy, skeptical daughter -- who before converting to Buddhism often served as the voice of mainline Protestantism on the show -- asks Ned about the literal truth of the Bible. "How do we know the writers really wrote the word of God and didn't just make up a bunch of stuff?" It's all true, Ned insists, sounding like he's been reading C.S. Lewis: "If it were false, then the fellas who wrote the Scriptures would have been lying, or insane, or both."
The "Simpsons" writers have managed to navigate the tricky space between animation and caricature in portraying Ned's Christian faith. He has a dual, almost contradictory appeal. College-age evangelicals see many of their own well-intentioned foibles in him. And some secular viewers outside the Sun Belt suburbs and the heartland -- who may have yet to meet an evangelical in the flesh and may even be hostile to the rise of religious conservatives -- find him to be an accessible and even sympathetic exemplar of American evangelicalism.
"The Simpsons" has left an indelible mark on the culture. In the past couple of weeks, the show has even become a theme park ride at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and Los Angeles.
In the early decades of commercial television, networks shunned prime-time portrayals of religion as part of Americans' everyday life, largely for fear of offending viewers. The most important contribution of "The Simpsons" to the national conversation may be that it made religion safe for television -- thanks to a lovable evangelical named Ned Flanders.
Mr. Pinsky is the author of "The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family" (Westminster John Knox, 2001).
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