Blessed Ned of Springfield
Today on American college and high school campuses, the name most associated with the word Christianother than Jesusis not the Pope or Mother Teresa or even Billy Graham. Instead, it's a goofy-looking guy named Ned Flanders on the animated sitcom known as The Simpsons. The mustache, thick glasses, green sweater, and irrepressibly cheerful demeanor of Ned Flanders, Homer Simpson's next-door neighbor, have made him an indelible figure, the evangelical known most intimately to nonevangelicals.
A 1999 survey conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide found that 91 percent of American children between the ages of 10 and 17 could identify members of the Simpson family; 84 percent of adults could identify them. In each case, this was a greater percentage of children and adults than could identify then-Vice President Al Gore. Many evangelicals would have no difficulty in recognizing Ned and his family as their own. Gerry Bowler, professor of philosophy at Canadian Nazarene College in Calgary and chairman of the Center for the Study of Christianity and Contemporary Values, calls Flanders "television's most effective exponent of a Christian life well-lived."
Like many of the series' characters, Flanders is the frequent object of satire. An Oral Roberts University graduate who is never without a Bible and a large piece of the True Cross (which saved his life in one episode when he was shot), Ned believes that an essential element of a good life is "a daily dose of vitamin church." Nevertheless, Flanders is a complex and nuanced character who often raises serious issues.
Consider his journey of faith. The root of his turn toward a structured religious framework is a traumatic childhood. When Ned suffers a breakdown and is institutionalized, he experiences flashbacks of his child psychiatrist employing eight months of sustained, "therapeutic" spanking to control the obstreperous little boy. His parents were "freaky beatniks'' who raised their son with no rules at all. Ned's reaction to this chaotic environment mirrors many studies of those who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s and, finding the freewheeling lifestyle unsatisfying or repugnant, gravitated to religion.
Ned's daily obedience
Religion informs nearly every aspect of Ned's life, from the doorbell that chimes "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" to his air horn that blares the Hallelujah chorus. Together with his family, he prays at meals and before bed. He attends church three times a week and tithes, contributing to seven other congregations, just to be on the safe side. He belongs to a Bible-study group and keeps notes stuck on his refrigerator with a sign of the fish magnet. Like many believers, he thanks God often for his blessings, for things as small as a beautiful day.
Ned believes in salvation through grace, and he expects Jesus' return to Earth at any moment. Yet Ned is also deeply immersed in the good works of the social gospel, beginning with the random (and typically improbable) donation of one kidney and one lung. His elderly grandmother lived with the family for a time. Ned volunteers at a foster home, hospitals, soup kitchens, and a homeless shelter.
Ned's Christianity plays a major part in the way he and his wife, Maude, raise their sons, Rod and Todd. Ned does not allow the kids to use dice when playing board games because dice are wicked. He is hesitant to buy the children Red Hots candies because there is a lascivious caricature of the devil on the package. The kids' favorite games are Good Samaritan and Clothe the Leper. The young Flanders boys are total innocents; they believe they are getting closer to God when they jump on the Simpsons' trampoline, and they complain that they only get to attend church three times a week. Ned is not immune to the familiar conflict between parental instruction on morality and the exigencies of modern life, especially when it comes to lying. Todd overhears Ned tell Homer that he can't come over to their house because they are visiting relatives. The boy knows it's untruethough told to spare Homer's feelings. "Lies make Baby Jesus cry," Todd reminds his father.