Ned Flanders—the gregarious, effeminate, Bible-thumping next-door-neighbor of Homer J. Simpson—has been canonized by Christianity Today, the leading voice of American evangelicalism. On the February 2001 cover, “Saint Flanders” is depicted in a Byzantine icon, holding a jewel-covered book in his left hand and making the sign of the Holy Trinity with his right. Marge and Homer (who holds the sacred doughnuts) appear as angels over his shoulders. “The Simpsons‘ Ned Flanders is the most visible evangelical to many Americans—and that’s just okily dokily,” reads the caption. No, sadly, this is not a joke. In fact, the folks at Christianity Today are right on track: Ned Flanders is the paragon of American evangelicalism. It’s just too bad that the joke is on them.
The piece in CT is adapted from a book forthcoming from (of all places) Westminster/John Knox Press called The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of America’s Most Animated Family by Mark I. Pinsky, w ho describes himself as “an observant Jew raised in a Northeastern suburb.” He recounts (brilliantly written, hilarious) snippets from Simpsons episodes, which together give us a sort of profile of the man Homer calls “‘Saint Flanders,’ ‘Charlie Church,’ and ‘Churchy La Femme.'” This article on the man Pinsky describes as a “complex and nuanced character who often raises serious issues” includes such subheadings as “Ned’s Daily Obedience,” “Ned’s Dark Side,” and “Ned’s Tests of Faith.” Under the latter, we are admonished that, “In one episode, too much gratitude from Homer turns out to be a deadly thing. Again, prayer plays a central role as a plot device.” Yes, we’re still talking about a cartoon character.
American evangelicalism, like that nerd in high school who always tries to get in good with the popular crowd, has been aping popular culture for years, trying to legitimize itself in the eyes of broader “mainline” Christianity, as well as secular popular culture. Ned Flanders is a caricature scribbled by the jocks on the side of a locker and laughed at by the cheerleaders; still, apparently, the nerds at CT are just so thrilled to be noticed that they have turned a blind eye to the fact that everyone is laughing at them, not with them.
Christianity Today was founded by evangelist Billy Graham and scholar Carl F.H. Henry in 1956, a time when a growing number of evangelicals were making every effort to distance themselves from the real “dorks”—such “fighting fundamentalists” as Bob Jones. It was intended to be the evangelical answer to the secular Time and the mainline Christian Century. The movement that grew around Christianity Today and Billy Graham (whom the fundamentalists promptly excommunicated) came to be called the “new evangelicalism” and was known by the tenets enumerated by Harold Ockenga: a “determination to engage . . . in the theological dialogue of the day” (which came to mean: “Start a Christian rock band”); the “reexamination [read: repudiation] of ideological problems such as the antiquity of man, the universality of the Flood, and God’s method of creation”; a “summons to social involvement” (passing out tracts in bikinis with Campus Crusade for Christ); and a “ringing call for a repudiation of separation” (i.e., separating from everyone who looks like a fundamentalist—even right-wing Lutherans and Catholics). Bob Jones, Jr., characterized the new evangelicals as saying, in effect, to the liberals: We will call you ‘Christian brothers’ if you will call us ‘doctor,’ ‘professor,’ and ‘scholar.'”
If CT is still the organ of (new) evangelical officialdom, then the heirs of Graham and Ockenga have a ways to go—though at least they now have an “indelible figure” representing them in the person of an animated cartoon character. Actually, Ned “Churchy La Femme” Flanders really isn’t an evangelical (what sort of evangelical brews beer in his basement and carries around a relic of the true Cross?): He’s a composite of everything the revolving, talented writing staff at The Simpsons find lampoonable about Christians—Catholic, mainline, evangelical, fundamentalist, and pentecostal.
The controversial cover drew many angry responses, particularly from Orthodox Christians, who accused editor David Neff of “desecrating an icon” and “attack[ing] . . . the Incarnation of Christ himself” Neff’s reply was flippant and condescending: “This lighthearted cover had its theological side,” he wrote, while citing the Protestant understanding of the priesthood of all believers—as if that would absolve him for “borrowing an artistic form historically reserved for extraordinary saints to say something important about the salt-of-the-earth believers next door.” In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, he went on to say that “religion doesn’t have a lock on self-importance.”
Perhaps today’s (new) evangelicals should be the ones returning bitter responses to CT, such as “Thank you for helping me realize that all of mv attempts to be a hip, contemporary Christian have done nothing but degrade Christianity and make me look like cartoon super-geek Ned Flanders. Please cancel my subscription.”