The Ned Testament
Flanders' Book of Faith
by Matt Groening
Harper Paperbacks, April 2008
96 pp., $9.95
One of American television's best-known evangelicals has published a book outlining his Christian faith and practice. But it's not who or what you might expect. Ned Flanders, The Simpsons' zealous next door neighbor presents his theology in Flanders' Book of Faith, part of the long-running, animated comedy's Library of Wisdom series based on each of the show's characters.
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.
There are two running features in the book that elucidate Flanders's religious faith and its practical application. One is "What Would Ned Do?" Among the things he would do is sacrifice his son, as the patriarch Abraham was ordered to do, without question. He'd also audit his own taxes and charge himself an additional $65.42.
There is also an ongoing dialogue in which the children of The Simpsons ask him deceptively simple questions that require profound responses. "If God is love," Lisa asks, "why does he send people to hell?" Ned thinks a moment, and then explains, "Technically, God doesn't send anyone to hell, Lisa. People send themselves there. It's what we call 'free will.'" Bart scoffs that the Bible "is filled with trick questions."
Inerrancy also pops up. Bart's friend Milhouse asks how we know if everything in the Bible is true. "Because God himself spoke those words," Ned says, "and the 40 or so fellas who wrote the Bible then copied them down."
Typical of The Simpsons' brand of humor critics say it is a show that rewards intelligence Flanders' Book of Faith includes some references only Christians are likely to get. Ned has a nightmare in which his children get hold of a scary little cartoon tract in the style of Jack Chick. They take the admonitions so seriously they warn their father that even he is headed for hell, falling too short of the glory of God.
Just in time for this week's opening of the new Simpsons rides at Universal Studios in Orlando and Los Angeles, the book includes a souvenir map of Praiseland, Ned's Bible-based theme park. The devoted husband built the park after the death of his wife, Maude, in a freak accident (she was killed off because the actress supplying her voice asked for too much money), and she is remembered with a touching plaque: "She taught us the shame of joy and the joy of shame." Rides include the Holy Rollercoaster, Satan's Tunnel of Lust, and It's a Cruel World Pavilion. Shops include Bible Belts and Hats and the Forbidden Fruit Stand.
(The real-life Simpsons ride has only one fleeting religious reference: a brief cameo by the Devil, who in an early episode of the show was played by Ned Flanders "It's always the one you least suspect," he noted.)
This mix of new and recycled material from the show and Simpsons comic books is an accessible, inexpensive introduction to Christian parents uncertain whether the show is appropriate for their children, adolescents, and teens. Evangelical fans of the show will love it.