Saturday, November 1, 2008

the Gospel according to the Simpsons

From Mark Pinsky, co-author of The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family, with an essay/book review in the WSJ...

I haven't seen enough Simpsons to know if this is accurate or wishful thinking. In any case, it's interesting. Does someone out there have enough Simpsons experience to comment coherently?

No one would mistake Ned Flanders, the goofy next-door neighbor in "The Simpsons," for a polished televangelist like Joel Osteen. But over the past two decades the zealous cartoon character has become one of the best-known evangelicals on America's small screen....

In the inevitably intertwined world of religion and commerce, it's only natural that the man portrayed as "Blessed Ned of Springfield" on the cover of Christianity Today magazine should have his own "new testament." And so he does. "Flanders' Book of Faith," by "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, is a slim, illustrated entry in the show's "Library of Wisdom" series.

For years, the TV show's writers, fiercely protective of their reputation for irreverence, denied that they were in any way sympathetic toward sincere belief, as embodied by the Flanders character. But releasing the book under Mr. Groening's name puts an imprimatur on that kind-to-religion interpretation, long held in younger evangelical circles.

A fundamentally decent true believer, Ned is firmly in the theological tradition of Mr. Osteen, Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale in at least one respect. He, too, is an irrepressible apostle of optimism. The only time his faith has been shaken, and then only briefly, came in 2000 when his wife, Maude, was killed in a freak accident (following a real-life pay dispute between the show's producers and the actress who supplied Maude's voice). As his neighbor Homer Simpson puts it during one service at Springfield Community Church: "If everyone here were like Ned Flanders, there'd be no need for heaven. We'd already be there."

Naturally, Ned's view of the Almighty is central to the book: "God is the Alpha and the Omega, maker of Heaven and Earth. . . . God is the creator of the universe and the source of our knowledge of right and wrong. Ned maintains a very close relationship with Him, communicating His desires to anyone who will listen and asking Him favors on a minute-by-minute basis." Among God's attributes are his love for everyone, but readers are advised to "watch out for His temper."

This is not simply a book of wacky systematic theology. There is also a great deal about Flanders's personal life, which, like that of most evangelicals, is inextricably tied to his faith life....

Like many modern, suburban believers, Ned embraces popular culture in a modified form rather than simply rejecting it. He reads the novel "Harry Potter and the Consequences of Dabbling in Magic" to his kids before bed, and he listens to a Christian rock station, 102.7 BLISS FM....

In the book, Lisa Simpson, Homer's brainy, skeptical daughter -- who before converting to Buddhism often served as the voice of mainline Protestantism on the show -- asks Ned about the literal truth of the Bible. "How do we know the writers really wrote the word of God and didn't just make up a bunch of stuff?" It's all true, Ned insists, sounding like he's been reading C.S. Lewis: "If it were false, then the fellas who wrote the Scriptures would have been lying, or insane, or both."

The "Simpsons" writers have managed to navigate the tricky space between animation and caricature in portraying Ned's Christian faith. He has a dual, almost contradictory appeal. College-age evangelicals see many of their own well-intentioned foibles in him. And some secular viewers outside the Sun Belt suburbs and the heartland -- who may have yet to meet an evangelical in the flesh and may even be hostile to the rise of religious conservatives -- find him to be an accessible and even sympathetic exemplar of American evangelicalism....

The most important contribution of "The Simpsons" to the national conversation may be that it made religion safe for television -- thanks to a lovable evangelical named Ned Flanders.


At November 2, 2008 at 6:30 PM , Blogger Darrell said...

Hey Eric,

I'm a bit of a "Simpson's" devotee. I have the first 9 seasons on DVD if you would like to take a look. I also have Pinsky's book.

There are quite a number of religiously themed shows and they generally treat religion and devout people seriously. It is also true that Flanders is a sympathetic character in many respects.

They deal with religion as a part of life, which your average sitcom does not. Is it always sympathetic and fair to evangelicals? No. But it is seldom condescending and usually tweaking our foibles in a way you would appreciate.

At November 2, 2008 at 9:54 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

good stuff...thanks!


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