Thanks to the sudden death of his wife Maude, that dreamboat Ned Flanders is now a-v-a-i-l-a-b-l-e. Why are hearts fluttering and knees weak?

Take another look at our man Ned: he's got more than his share of gal appeal. He's decked out in an impeccable suit of virtues. I'm on the level here. OK, get past the adenoidal voice. Get past the round goggle-glasses. Get past the annoying chirpiness. Wait, go back to the annoying chirpiness. Sure, it's irritating, but you have to admit that it has a noble source. Ned is endlessly cheerful because he is pure in heart. He treats everyone around him with generosity and kindness, and can't imagine they wouldn't treat him the same way. He is incapable of cynicism or contempt, unlike just about everybody else in town.

That's the mystery of Ned Flanders. He may be decked out as a nerd, but it's that nerd disguise that enables him to smuggle authentic Christian virtues into world-weary homes every Sunday night. Obviously, he's set up to be a laughingstock and buffoon, a caricature of a Christian. But given that everyone on TV is a caricature of something, being a goody-goody isn't such a bad one. Indeed, it's a sign of real progress, since the most common Christian caricature had been of the intolerant hypocrite, the Elmer Gantry-type who wants to stick his nose under your covers when he's not busy breaking all the commandments himself. Ned, in that sense, represents a great breakthrough for Christians.

While he initially looks like Springfield's village idiot, the character is more complex than that. After a few episodes it becomes apparent that he's actually the nicest person on the show. He's even the most competent. In a tight situation, he's the one you'd want around. On a dangerous whitewater rafting trip you'd be grateful for old Neddie, who is smart and brave and knows how to catch a fish with a cheese doodle ("Godspeed, little doodle," he murmurs as the hook slips beneath the waves.)

It might look like Homer is the star attraction, but in a crisis, Flanders is your man. On the raft Homer repeatedly feels a panicky need to wash his socks. When Ned warns him that water supplies must be conserved, Homer responds haughtily: "What do you think we're floating on? Don't you know the poem, "Water, water everywhere, so let's all have a drink?'"

Planning a whitewater trip? Who do you want to take along?

Over and over Ned stands out as kind and brave, despite continual abuse from Homer. When the Simpsons' house catches fire, Ned risks his life to save Homer's. When a falling comet threatens Springfield, Ned allows Homer to force him out of his own overcrowded shelter. And when Ned wins football tickets he invites Homer to the game, gives him the winning ball, and buys him a hat made of tortilla chips.

How does Homer repay this kindness? When the giant advertising mascot Lard Lad comes to life and searches for his missing donut, Homer nervously directs him to Flanders's house. Here's how Homer describes the neighbor who saved his life: "A big four-eyed lame-o who wears the same stupid sweater every day."

Ned's generosity is broad and unhesitating. When Homer's brother Herb arrives unkempt and pennyless, Ned fixes him up and invites him to stay, offering to sleep on a card table. The Flanders take in neglected foster children (Homer's). Ned is not a bad-looking guy (especially in that skin-tight ski suit), and does a convincing turn as macho Stanley Kowalski in the musical, "Oh! Streetcar!" He's an asset to the town, a loving husband and dad, a faithful friend. Ned might be a fool, but he's the kind that makes the world a better place.

So why do folks dislike him so much? Maybe it's guilt. Ned is a whole lot better than we are, effortlessly, every day, and so we feel uncomfortable around him. We wish he'd slip up somehow, so we could feel better. We want to ridicule him, and if given the chance might act out our spite. Even mopey Reverend Lovejoy resents him, and coaxes his dog to relieve himself on Flanders's lawn.

Not much else in the town of Springfield is that flawlessly good. An alternative philosophy is enunciated by wealthy old Mr. Burns: "Family, religion, friendship: these are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business. When opportunity knocks, you don't want to be driving to the maternity hospital or singing in some phony-baloney church or synagogue."

Add it up: Ned Flanders is a beam of light in a depressing little town. And as the Good Book says of Somebody else, the light shone in the darkness and the darkness would not receive it. The least we can do is admit that the fault is not in them, but in our own uneasy consciences. OK, and in Ned's case it would also help if he wasn't so chirpy.

Ned easily embodies St. Paul's list of the fruit of the Holy Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." St. Paul adds, "against these there is no law;" there's nothing wrong with being like this, this is the way to illuminate the lives around us. From those who bring such goodness we can endure a few "diddly's. Come on, gang, let's join in the song! "Hens love roosters, geese love ganders, everyone else loves Ned Flanders!"

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