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How Ned Flanders became a role model
August 6, 2002 By Giles Wilson BBC News Online

Ned Flanders, the endlessly optimistic neighbour of Homer Simpson, has emerged as an unlikely icon for churchgoers, who say they are embracing their inner nerds.

They are growing bushy moustaches, ironing their pink shirts, and practising their “Okelydokelies”. Christians from all over the UK are getting ready to take part in a night of celebration for the most ridiculed yellow person ever to walk the streets of Springfield.

Ned Flanders chic has arrived.

Thousands of churchgoers attending the annual Greenbelt festival later this month are expected to turn up at the Ned Flanders night, many dressed as Ned lookalikes, to party to the sound of tribute band Ned Zeppelin.

Ned and Homer on being neighbours
Ned: They’re not perfect, but the Lord says “Love thy neighbour.”
Homer: Shut up, Flanders.

The band’s favourite track, Whole Lotta Ned, segues from one familiar theme song (Top of the Pops) into another (The Simpsons).

The night, organised by webzine Ship of Fools, is an opportunity for the churchgoers to have a laugh at themselves. But there is a serious edge to the event, which is now in its second year.

There really is something about Ned, says organiser Steve Goddard. “Ned is an innocent abroad in a world of cynicism and compromise. We love him because we know what it’s like to be classed as a nerd – and to come out smiling at the end of it.

“We do know what it’s like to be ridiculed and abused by the ignorant Homers of this world. We know what it’s like to try to live simply, faithfully, boringly – and not necessarily see the reward for it.”

It is one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda in the cause of sense, humility and virtue Dr Rowan Williams on The Simpsons.

The magazine has made a speciality of the friction between popular culture and Christianity, and it sees Ned as a classic icon which symbolises that clash, he says.

“What we love about Ned is that he knows what he believes and sticks by it. He might be over the top, and in a sense we celebrate his bizarre excesses, but he’s not guilty of the one thing that many people criticise Christians for – he’s not a hypocrite.”

Links between religion and the Simpsons appear to be growing all the time. After it was announced that Dr Rowan Williams was to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, a newspaper presented him with a boxful of Simpsons merchandise – he is an avowed fan.

And next week, a ten-week Simpsons study guide is being launched in the US for Sunday Schools. It involves watching eight episodes and then talking about some of the moral dilemmas raised. Publication in the UK is planned for December.

American writer Mark Pinsky, author of the Gospel According to The Simpsons – which analyses the moral messages behind the cartoon – says churchgoing students in US universities also seemed to consider Ned Flanders an icon.

“On the surface he’s a doofus, a goody-two-shoes, but he’s such a basically decent and good character that as often as Homer and others heap scorn on him and mock him, he returns it with love, which in my view is the essence of Christianity,” he told BBC News Online.

“Christian college kids here in the US seem to have adopted him. It shows they have a sense of humour about themselves, that they are really in on the joke. I think that’s one of the things that makes Ned so appealing.”

Pinsky said the producers of The Simpsons were initially a bit cool towards his work.

“At first they were a little embarrassed, what with their reputation for being edgy, cynical and sarcastic. But I think after a while they thought it was nothing to be ashamed of, to give religion and faith and spirituality a fair go from time to time.”