NEW YORK – The Simpsons are role models? D'oh!
The irreverent animated series may not be an obvious source of moral inspiration, but to many the hapless family -- and their Evangelical neighbor, Ned Flanders -- are the very picture of Christian values.
A British Christian group last month hosted a Ned Flanders Day, complete with look-alike contest and a performance by the satirical band Ned Zeppelin. And on this side of the Atlantic, a Simpsons study guide that ties certain episodes to lessons of faith was released in August.
So what is it about this the long-running Fox show that inspires such dedication?
"For a lot of younger Christians, The Simpsons was a guilty pleasure," said Mark Pinsky, author of The Gospel According to The Simpsons and the new Simpsons study guide. "Gradually it's been OK to recognize that this is a show that, in spite of its weird, perverse ways, respects God and faith and spirituality."
A spokeswoman for the show speculated the characters' visits to the Springfield church helps draw the legions of unlikely fans.
"There are so few shows where family members go to church," said Antonia Coffman, the show's publicity director. "The Simpsons go to church and it's intertwined with the irreverence. But at least they go on a regular basis."
Experts agree that despite the show's jabs at institutions like organized religion, the education system and government, the characters' morality remains resolute.
"No matter what [the] characters do, they end up accepting and loving each other," said the Rev. Corinne Baker, who has used The Simpsons to discuss faith with parishioners at the Light Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. "I think that's what all humanity is about, about really wanting to belong."
Ned Flanders, Homer Simpson's perennially happy neighbor, is an example of how the writers simultaneously poke fun at and praise caricatures.
"He's flawed and he has his crisis of faith and he is a goody-two-shoes, but he's a good exemplar of the best of Evangelical Christianity," Pinsky said. "He lives his faith. He believes in the social gospel, taking care of people, loving his neighbor literally."
Ship-of-fools.com, an England-based online Christian magazine, conducted a poll looking for the most recognizable Christian of the year in 1998 and 1999: Ned landed in the top five both times.
"The Archbishop of Canterbury barely figured," said Steve Goddard, co-editor of the magazine.
And despite Ned's nerdy persona, the group says they identify with him.
"We like Ned because we see an element of ourselves in him," said Goddard. "We think the writers could have created a [negative] caricature but there's room in it for sensitivity, for the pursuit of faith."
To celebrate his fame, ship-of-fools devised Ned Flanders Day, in which look-alikes play altered rock songs like, "Feels Like Holy Spirit," a take-off on the Nirvana hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
And despite the unorthodox icon, Goddard said he hasn't had any complaints about worshipping a cartoon character.
"If you're a bit sensitive you wouldn't enjoy this, you know if you're precious about things," Goddard said. "But we had to turn hundreds of people away [from the concert]. It is the power of The Simpsons. It's massive."
For many Christians, the show's power is in its overarching message.
"One of the endearing parts of show is it pokes fun at everyone and points out that no one is pure and holy, but in the end we're all accepted," Baker said. "In the broader sense, it speaks to that fact that we're all part of a family."
Pinsky's Gospel According to The Simpsons guide for group study is designed to uncover just such insights. The chapters, which correspond to specific episodes, include lessons on "Skepticism and Blind Faith," "Little Sins and Big Sins" and "The Power of Prayer."
Jason Santos, a 29-year-old youth minister who just moved from Lombard, Ill., to Bonn, Germany, and has used Pinsky's book, said the show's greatest contribution is that it brings faith to a generation wary of organized religion.
"It's one instance where you can have spirituality in a show and have teenagers not object to it," he said. "The way Generation-X and younger people conceptualize their spirituality, they don't identify with organized religion, but more with icons of pop culture."
And though they might not know it, millions of viewers are being treated to Christian lessons as they watch Bart torture Principal Skinner and Homer down mugs of beer at Moe's Tavern, according to Pinsky.
"You can find God in the funniest places," he said.