Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Gospel According to Ned Flanders

In honor of the 12-day Simpsons marathon beginning tonight on FXX, here's a column I wrote in 1994:

"Hens love roosters and geese love ganders – everyone else loves Ned Flanders!" So sings a happy chorus introducing a Simpsons cartoon short.

"Not me," Homer J. Simpson, patriarch of the popular cartoon clan, angrily replies. "I HATE Ned Flanders!"

Flanders is the Simpsons’ born-again do-goody neighbor whose perfect house, perfect kids, perfect wife, perfect life are constant reminders of Homer’s failures and imperfections – as well as those of his dysfunctional family.

At first glance, Flanders appears to be the very example of what evangelical Christians often say about network television: that they are always portrayed as cornpone airheads or greedy televangelists. Not so. Though Flanders is anathema to Homer, he isn’t exactly ridiculed in the scripts. In Ned Flanders there is no guile – at least none that can be seen by anyone except Flanders himself.

Flanders is so self-effacing that once, while troubled about a lack of humility when dealing with Homer, he called his preacher in the middle of the night for advice. As the pastor’s wife handed him the phone, the perturbed clergyman muttered, "Ned Flanders? He must have stepped on a worm."

Not quite. Flanders was dealing more with the "such a worm as I" mentioned in the pre-politically correct version of the hymn "At the Cross." Earlier, Flanders had gotten into a bragging match with Homer about which of their sons would win an upcoming miniature golf tournament. This, along with once catching himself laughing a lewd Al Bundy comment, are about the worst of his character flaws.

While the most popular character on The Simpsons, bratty son Bart, has come under his share of criticism for supposedly influencing children to rebel against authority, you’ll notice that you can’t recall hearing about any junior high school principals banning Ned Flanders T-shirts.

And why is that? Is it because Ned Flanders isn’t cool? Is it because kids would be made fun of if they acted like Ned Flanders? That’s exactly why it is. And that’s exactly why Ned Flanders should be a role model.

Say what?

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." And Ned Flanders, as much as he is laughed at, is exactly the person we all wish we could be. He’s the man Homer Simpson wishes he could be, and that’s why he despises Flanders.

Try as he might, the beer-guzzling, couch potato Homer is never able to live up to the perfect image he has of Flanders. Flanders, on the other hand, IS aware of his own weaknesses, and they trouble his conscience. That makes him a better witness to Homer than the pretentious church pastor Rev. Lovejoy will ever be.

In one episode, Home actually befriends Flanders after Flanders invites him to a football game and gets Homer the game ball. Homer then makes such a pest of himself that Flanders, trying to speed away in his car, is mistaken for an intoxicated driver. The church bus drives by as Flanders undergoes a sobriety test, and the next Sunday’s sermon is titled "What Ned Did."

But it turns out that what Ned did was to make Homer appear more righteous than himself because Homer, following Flanders like a shadow, began to perform charity work and attend church regularly – albeit not from the heart.

As the church stands almost ready to stone Flanders and grant Homer sainthood, Homer finally sees a little of the light: "If everyone here were more like Ned Flanders, there’d be no need for heaven; we’d already be there," he says.