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Today on American college and high school campuses, the name most associated with the word Christian—other than Jesus—is 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, ...

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February 5, 2001

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