Regarding Aaron D. Wolfs article concerning Ned Flanders’ appearance on the cover of Christianity Today (Cultural Revolutions, May): While I agree that Ned is not a flattering portrayal of evangelical Christianity, we must remember that, when dealing with The Simpsons, no one is portrayed in a manner any better than Ned. I doubt the show’s creators are ridiculing evangelical Christians the way jocks would tease and beat up the school nerd, as Mr. Wolf suggests. If that’s the case, then everyone is the school nerd, because all of the characters are mocked, not just the Christian. Ned’s exaggerated and laughable mannerisms are no worse than those of any other character. Most of the characters (with the possible exceptions of Chief Wiggum and Mr. Burns) aren’t merely targets for ridicule, but complex characters with strengths and weaknesses. This includes Ned. To quote The Simpsons‘ executive producer, Al Jean, “We don’t mock Ned’s faith. We actually think he’s a guy with a lot of wonderful qualities.”
While, as a Christian, I wouldn’t exactly celebrate Ned Flanders, I wouldn’t take offense at him either. In the end, in The Simpsons‘ world, Ned is just another cartoon character.
Elk Grove Village, IL
Mr. Wolf Replies:
Let me begin with a confession: I think The Simpsons is the best show on television (other than, say, Monday Night Football). With his revolving staff of writers (which has included NBC’s Conan O’Brien), Matt Groening has been able to keep his material fresh where lesser shows would have suffered writer’s block by now. One of my favorite characters on the show is Ned Flanders, precisely because he embodies so many of the goofy characteristics that make American Christianity—well, goofy. Effeminate, thick-mustached, always cheer-diddly-eerful most of us, if we are honest, would admit that we know one or two Ned Flanderses (especially since, as I pointed out in mv article, Flanders is a composite of fundamentalism, neo-evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, and Catholicism).
Al Jean’s statement is certainly true: The writers for The Simpsons do not paint Ned as a ridiculous caricature (like Chief Wiggum and Mr. Burns); Flanders is likable—a nice guy, just like his clones at your church or mine.
And that’s precisely the point: Christianity Today likes the cartoon caricature and has (quite literally) made an icon of it. We are supposed to laugh at the Flanders boys (Rod and Todd) when they jump on the trampoline, crying “Catch me, Jesus!” and “Each leap brings us closer to God!” Christianity Today takes it seriously: “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.”
No one doubts that, as Mark Pinsky said in his article, “Flanders is a complex and nuanced character who often raises serious issues.” What’s disturbing is that evangelicals seem to be “just okily dokily” about being effeminate, anachronistic, milk-toast believers, locked in their own subculture of Christian rock CDs, T-shirts that read “God’s Gym” and “This Blood’s For You,” and copies of Left Behind. As Pinsky put it, “Flanders is actually the physical embodiment of ‘muscular Christianity,’ a man who would be right at home at a Promise Keepers rally.” It’s hard to imagine such “muscular” Christians as these standing unflinchingly before Nero, confronting the Moors alongside Pepin the Short, nailing 95 Theses to a door (or excommunicating the one who did so), or even calling someone a heretic.