Thankfully, the folks over at Busted Halo have decided to tackle that question for us, with this illuminating essay by Mark I. Pinsky, author of “The Gospel According to the Simpsons.” Pinsky offers a little character deconstruction, and a Sunday school lesson or two:
Ned Flanders, Homer’s evangelical neighbor, naturally comes in for his share of ribbing. When he sees a pollution-mutated raccoon with a thousand eyes, he marvels, “Who am I to question the work of the Almighty?” It is, he concludes, a manifestation of the “genius of Intelligent Design.” Flanders’ faith is unshaken as Springfield faces annihilation. He takes his children to the church, where they are alone in the sanctuary, and prepares them for the end. “When you meet Jesus, be sure to call him ‘Mr. Christ,’” he tells them. “Will Buddha be there?” one of the boys asks. No, he snaps, with characteristic intolerance.
And yet there is a sympathetic three-dimensionality to Flanders’ depiction that is characteristic of both the movie and the series, and which raises the emotional stakes for the viewer—part of what has made The Simpsons so addictive for so many years. Flanders may be literal-minded and narrow, but he risks his own life to save the Simpsons from an angry lynch mob. He also provides a father figure for Bart when Homer ignores him, but urges the boy to return to his real father when Homer tries to make amends.
It is The Simpsons Movie’s willingness to depict all the different sides of us—the good, the bad, the cynical and the reverent—that makes it so rich and funny on our complicated, all-too-human relationship with religion.
Or as that reluctant theologian Homer Simpson likes to say: “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.”
What’s also funny, and true, is my resemblance to a character on “The Simpsons”. Be afraid. Be very afraid.