A Surprisingly Sweet Picture of a Christian in "The Simpsons"
"The Simpsons" offers social criticism and commentary on numerous levels, but as I noted yesterday, I am interested in how cultural media addresses theology, Christianity, and also manhood. As a television show, "The Simpsons" can be fairly scathing toward Christians. I do not have a great amount of personal experience with the show, but I have enough to know that it somewhat regularly mocks Christians and Christianity. The film, however, portrayed the primary Christian character, Ned Flanders, in a decidedly positive, if kitschy, light. Flanders essentially stands for the traditional version of American Christianity--he's a dedicated family man, a committed believer, and a bit of a cheeseball. He serves up one goofy saying after another, though he does so from a soul that is clearly kind and concerned for others. In contrast with Homer Simpson, he is a loving, gentle father who reads to his sons at night and tucks them into bed. He even befriends the irascible Bart and seeks to show him paternal tenderness denied Bart by Homer's narcissistic, oafish parenting model. In short, the writers of this movie portrayed a Christian as positively as they could be expected to, and ended up leaving the audience with a positive picture of traditional Christianity as practiced by a kind, others-centered man.
What is the significance of this? Does it signal a culture shift? Is it a sign that Hollywood is warming to Christians? Is it a ploy to draw believers to the theater? I doubt whether any of these factors are much in play here. However, I am guessing that somewhere down the line, a godly person deeply affected the Simpsons creator--Matt Groening--and perhaps someone else involved with this project. I don't have hard evidence to back this up, but it is my humble guess that somewhere along the way, a kind, concerned Christian reached out to Groening in a meaningful way. Perhaps not; perhaps Flanders's character is simply an attempt at even-handedness. If so, fine. Whatever the case, I think this character shows us something. People are indeed watching us to see how we live. People are not untouched by us. They are not as oblivious to Christian life and doctrine as they might seem. When you and I seek to show kindness and concern for others, people notice. Oftentimes, that kindness might be the only positive concern shown them. Such a thought--such a character--ought to motivate us in everyday situations. When it seems that no one is watching, someone likely is. You never know what may come from such situations--perhaps a screen appearance is in order.