What Would Ned Flanders Do?
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It's a slim, illustrated book, less than a hundred pages, and it presents the title character with the same mixture of affection and mockery with which Ned has been portrayed in the series for nearly two decades. What is interesting, however, is that the credited author is Matt Groening, the series creator, and the publisher is HarperCollins, a division of Fox. Together, this puts an imprimatur on the basically favorable view of believers that The Simpsons' irreverent writers have been running away from for years. That is, Ned Flanders is an exemplar of good-natured and (literally) muscular Christianity.
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.
But telling you that was just an excuse to plug an article I did for Sojourners magazine waaaay back in 2001, titled "Don't Have a Sacred Cow, Man," in which I compare and contrast Ned Flanders and Rev. Lovejoy as representatives of incarnational vs. institutionalized Christianity. (Update to my tagline at the end of that article: My complete Simpsons archive is still up to date, but I've made the switch from VHS to digital. And though he's gotten a little grayer, my dad still kind of looks like Ned.)
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web editor for Sojourners.