Ned gets star status in Groening's new book, 'Flanders' Faith'

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The opening of The Simpsons ride at Universal Studios here and in Los Angeles is a vivid and cheerful reminder of the deep and enduring impact the long-running, award-winning television series continues to exert on American culture. Son Bart is a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, and the bad boy's trademark expressions, like "Cowabunga, dude," "Don't have a cow, man" and "Underachiever and proud of it" have entered the informal lexicon -- not to mention the T-shirt hall of fame. More formally, Homer's expression of hapless chagrin, "D'oh!" is now in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But one of the greatest contributions the show has made is Ned Flanders, the Simpson family's zealously religious next door neighbor. For the millions of Americans who may never have met an evangelical in the flesh, the man Christianity Today magazine once called "Blessed Ned of Springfield" is the best ambassador they could hope for. This is made delightfully clear in Flanders' Book of Faith, a slim testament by Matt Groening, the series' creator, that makes a great introduction to the show for anyone who has not yet watched a single episode.

Like much of the humor in The Simpsons, the book has it both ways with Flanders. In cartoons and text, some new and some repeated from the show, Ned is presented as the ultimate true believer and -- thanks to rigorous exercise -- a literally muscular Christian. He is blissfully intolerant of anything that deviates from his notion of traditional family values, and is often, well, a doofus. Yet at the same time, Flanders is an apostle of optimism who lives out his faith and is never a hypocrite. Whatever scorn Homer heaps on his neighbor, Ned returns it with love.

There are serious issues addressed in the book, albeit with a light touch. Lisa Simpson, who often served as a stand-in for mainline Protestantism in the show (before converting to Buddhism), asks Ned about the evangelical concept of biblical inerrancy, the belief that every word of Scripture is literally true.

"How do we know the writers really wrote the word of God and didn't just make up a bunch of stuff?" the brainy, skeptical daughter wants to know. It's all true, Flanders insists. "If it were false, then the fellas who wrote the Scriptures would have been lying, or insane, or both."

Sometimes it seems that, in the funhouse mirror world of The Simpsons, art imitates life imitating art. In one episode years ago, the family won a trip to Orlando to visit a theme park that seemed an awful lot like Disney's Epcot, which it proceeded to satirize to shreds.

Now, one of the most entertaining parts of the book is an annotated map of "Praiseland," the amusement park (thought by some to be based on Orlando's Holy Land Experience) Ned built to honor the memory of his wife, Maude. A plaque reads: "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.

Sentinel religion writer Mark I. Pinsky is author of 'The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family' (Westminster John Knox, 2001). He can be reached at mpinsky@orlandosentinel.com.

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