In Defense of VeggieTales

In Defense of VeggieTales August 13, 2013

If you were alive and went to church in the 90s, there is no way you can’t be acquainted with Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one.
When the computer-animated children’s series known as VeggieTales made its debut in 1993, it took the evangelical world by storm. The humble brainchild of a few creative, driven young Bible college grads bloomed into a hit franchise practically overnight. After the success of Where’s God When I’m S-Scared? there was no looking back for Big Idea Productions. At least, not for ten years. Some of you might know the heartbreaking story of how Big Idea eventually went bankrupt after accumulating a crushing debt-load for their first and only feature-length movie, Jonah. Not content with continuing to produce shorts indefinitely, founder Phil Vischer dreamed of expanding the company into something that could rival Pixar or Disney. Sadly, the money simply wasn’t there. He was left with no choice but to sell Bob and Larry to the highest bidder. The story of the company and its ultimate demise is chronicled in Phil’s memoir Me, Myself and Bob: A True Story About God, Dreams and Talking Vegetables.

However, if you hang out in certain sub-circles of evangelicalism, you might have noticed a certain irritation towards VeggieTales. Here I’m actually not talking about the liberal strand of evangelicalism, but a specific strand of conservative evangelicalism. I am including even Todd Friel, whom I love, in this group. I suspect it partly arises out of a certain brand of Reformed theology, whose adherents can be allergic to the slightest hint of “Bible belt moralism.” (Though I have also seen Russell Moore voice similar complaints, and he describes himself as a “conscientious objector” in the Calvinist/Arminian debate.) This is not because they are morally squishy (like liberal Reformed folks). On the contrary, they can, like Friel and his ilk, be quite conservative and take a hard line on a variety of moral issues. However, because they are deep-dyed Calvinists and/or just want to distance themselves from the Bible belt, they have a special bee in their bonnet when it comes to anything that might smack of a suggestion of works salvation.
The story of David and Goliath is a good example. Matt Chandler (whom, again, I love) has preached on this story saying that Christians have taken the wrong moral from it. There’s too much focus on David, claims Chandler, when the true hero of the story is God. This philosophy is commonly extended to a variety of Old Testament heroes. There are no heroes except God. To tell children a story from the Bible and then encourage them to imitate the example of a certain character is to draw the wrong moral, placing an obligation to “work” on the child’s shoulders. So the reasoning goes.
This is where VeggieTales comes in. With every story labeled as “a lesson in…” some new virtue, and every episode book-ended by didactic countertop commentary from Bob and Larry (complete with a “What We Learned Today” theme song and an appropriate Bible verse to wrap everything up), perhaps it’s no wonder the Calvinists get hives just thinking about it. David and Goliath emerges again as one specific story to draw Todd Friel’s annoyance when he spent a radio broadcast grousing about the animated series. You see, it was labeled as “a lesson in self-esteem.” Here we go, off to the races again.
In point of fact, I find that particular episode quite refreshing in retrospect. The frame story introduces LarryBoy for the first time, which at the moment is just Larry trying on a “cooler” persona because he doesn’t want to be “plain old Larry” any more. Bob convinces Larry that “plain old Larry” is actually pretty cool already. [Insert reference to that movie where Michael J. Fox turns into a werewolf here. Just for you, 80s fans.] There’s an implied comparison with the scene where Saul has “Little Dave” try on his armor, which naturally is a terrible fit. When Dave climbs out of the armor, he declares “You know, I think I should just be plain old me.”
And you know what, that’s actually a message kids need to hear. We need more of that kind of healthy self-esteem, the kind that helps kids recognize they are already valuable, without what the culture tells them they need to be valuable. And I fear that this kind of value has gotten lost in some evangelicals’ haste to pick subtle theological nits.
There are more things I can say in defense of VeggieTales. I can praise the inspiring work ethic of Phil Vischer and the small team that worked with him. If you read his memoir, you will learn how many long hours they had spent learning and honing the technical skills they ultimately used on VeggieTales before they ever thought of VeggieTales. I can praise their creative ingenuity, taking the pitiful resources they had at their disposal and creating something that was fresh, funny and looked pretty darn good. Remember, this was computer animation in the very early 90s. Don’t think “computer” like 400 gig laptop computer. Think of a computer with so little disk space that it could hold only a few seconds of a VeggieTales episode, which then had to be backed up and deleted to make room for the next few seconds. Now imagine how many times they had to go through that process to create just one half-hour short.
And did I mention that there were only about six people doing all the animation/editing/voices/music/sound effects, paying all the bills, and taking all the phone calls? In a Chicago storefront shared with a neighbor who was known to “forget” to pay his gas bill in the dead of winter? Yes, I think you’re starting to get the picture.
I could point out the delightfully quirky sense of humor that permeated each episode of the classic VeggieTales and owes far more to Monty Python than the Bible Belt. I could praise the memorability of the music, which ranged from big band jazz to blues to bluegrass to 80s soft rock. (This is largely owing to the creative talents of Phil Vischer, who has always had a gift for crafting catchy tunes, and Kurt Heinecke, who could listen to Phil’s songs and instantly provide just the right production for them.) I could extol the virtues of the Silly Song, where the unique wackiness that defined VeggieTales was distilled into three minutes of absurdly brilliant musical nonsense. I could applaud the high quality of the voice acting. The versatility of Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki alone brought to life many of the characters we know and love today—besides Bob and Larry, Archibald Asparagus, Mr. Nezzer, Mr. Lunt, Jerry and Jimmy Gourd, and the French Peas.
Finally, I’m not sorry to say that I approve of what some may call “moralism,” but I call a godsend to parents. Was the moral of the story often driven home repeatedly and somewhat exaggerated? Yes, but we have to remember the target audience. These were designed so that a 2 or 3-year-old could watch it and get it. Did they present a complete gospel message? No, but must everything? There’s a time and place for a full presentation of the gospel. A fun cartoon show that’s aiming to keep young children interested and entertained while giving them something valuable to think about is not necessarily that place. If you have small children, you know that getting them to focus on anything of moral weight is a Herculean task. Imagine someone who convinced your small child that spinach was good for him and tasted good too. Would you not be grateful to that person?
As a teenager, Vischer decided he had to be the change he wanted to see in children’s entertainment options. That was a noble and a worthy goal. And not only did he meet it, he met it without sacrificing his creative and artistic integrity in the process. Sadly, he has joined in the criticism of his own work in recent years:

I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality. . . .
And that was such a huge shift for me from the American Christian ideal. We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god. So I had to peel that apart. I realized I’m not supposed to be pursuing impact, I’m supposed to be pursuing God. And when I pursue God I will have exactly as much impact as He wants me to have.

Now, I actually think the last couple sentences of that quote are rather poignant, and if I may say so, represent a sort of psycho-spiritual working out of the fact that Vischer built a company from scratch and then watched it die before his eyes. Not that there’s no truth at all in what he’s saying here, I’m just saying the psychological factor can’t be discounted, and I say that as one who is generally not the psychoanalytic type.
Overall, I believe Vischer is being too harsh on Bob and Larry. As I saw somebody on a blog thread put it aptly, the burden of evangelizing does not rest solely on Bob and Larry’s shoulders, and it never has. He may now decry the moralism of his creation, but ironically, he is placing a new and unnecessary weight on himself in the process. Furthermore, there’s a big difference between teaching children that it’s a good idea to follow what the Bible says and preaching a full-blooded prosperity gospel—that not only should you obey God, but if you do you’ll never have any suffering or discomfort ever again, plus you’ll get everything you want and lots of money too. That’s far, far beyond anything I ever got out of a VeggieTales video (in fact, Madame Blueberry upholds the pleasures of simple living and warns against the dangers of greed). To say that it seems like a stretch to conflate the two would be an understatement.

So, a toast to Phil, and a toast to the old VeggieTales. To those who don’t share in the toast, a simple word: Lighten. Up.
This has been Defending Evangelical Cult Phenomena with YankeeGospelGirl. Tune in next time for “In Defense of Adventures in Odyssey.”

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  • Saved Girl

    As I am trying to dissect your article, it seems to me that despite all the words, you simply have one argument in defense. Veggie Tales doesn’t have to be an evangelistic tool. You don’t actually address the arguments of the dissenters; you just named them while discounting them by throwing out terms like deep-dyed Calvinist, bee in their bonnet, and grousing. When you finally got around to sort of debating them, your sole theological defense is that the show doesn’t have to present the gospel. The fact is, however, that a show that purports to teach children about the Bible should not be teaching a lopsided view of the Bible. Moralism is a very real ugly weed in the church, and I think both Matt Chandler and Todd Friel have seen the effects of it. Nevertheless, I do understand the tension that exists between teaching kids the gospel while also teaching them to behave. It’s hard and we are going to make mistakes.
    I really think that the Phil Vischer quote does sum it all up. And I don’t think he is calling it “prosperity gospel”, he is calling it what it is; moralism or perhaps even legalism. Kids are being taught to do, do, do (de da, da, da oops, sorry got off track there 😉 ) and given the idea that the good they do will make God happy with them. This Matt Chandler clip describes it pretty well.
    In closing, I wouldn’t burn you at the stake for defending Veggie Tales, but I think you are wrong. (And I trust you won’t condemn me to burning either.) 🙂

  • Ah, I’m sorry. You are a Calvinist too. I don’t condemn you. I just hope you’ll see the light one day. 🙂
    I understand that moralism can get very ugly. I’ve experienced it first-hand. I just don’t think VeggieTales is in the same category. I don’t know if this comes down to a theological difference, but it seems to me that it strikes the right balance. I didn’t spend much time defending it theologically because I think there’s really no “there there” beyond a vague discomfort with teaching kids to be good.
    Maybe this question will ruffle a few feathers, but how do you know God isn’t pleased with us when we do good?

  • By the way, I’ve seen the clip you linked before and I actually dig what Chandler is saying. It’s not that I don’t share your concern with what happens when kids are essentially lied to about what will happen if they dot all their i’s and cross all their t’s with God. But I think Chandler really is describing a kind of prosperity gospel there, and I think Phil was too. He said we’re following a gospel that tells us “God will make all your dreams come true” if you do right. I don’t recall a VeggieTales episode that said that. I think it was just expounding Scripture simply and sensibly.
    Funnily enough, I suspect that if we compared notes, you’d take an even harder line than I on things like cussin’, movies, secular music, etc. And yet I’m the one sticking up for VeggieTales. 🙂

  • Lydia

    I guess I have absolutely no idea why VT should be associated in anyone’s mind with the idea that God will make all your dreams come true. I _never_ got that picture from any of the episodes. Could it be that Phil is confusing his desire to make _his_ dreams come true and his naive faith that it would all work out (which, sad to say, it didn’t) in the company with the message of the shows themselves?
    In any event, I totally am on-board with telling kids, “Forgive, because God says to.” The Lord Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14) Jesus says things like this pretty frequently, and so does the Apostle John in I John. (I could list a bunch of references but don’t have time to look them up right now.) I don’t care whether you identify yourself as a Calvinist or an Arminian or what theological -ism, supposedly we all accept those passages as God’s Word, and it comes up again and again and again. Let the people who decry “moralism” argue with the Lord Jesus Christ himself and his Apostles.

  • Thank you for this YGG. I get the crying foul when it comes to moralism in the church. I get it. I really do – especially coming from someone who works in a very large faith-based organization.
    However, while I do agree that everything in the bible points back to the Gospel story, why can’t stories have a two-fold message? Why can’t David & Goliath be not only about God’s power but also about a kid learning who he is in the sight of God?
    Sometimes I believe these church leaders are so short sighted in their nit-picking that they forget that God can be speaking multiple things at the same time. He is God after all.

  • You’re welcome, and thanks for commenting. See, I’m not always grumpy and critical. 🙂

  • Nicholas MOSES

    Not a Calvinist (rather the opposite, actually), but while I always found Veggie Tales characters to be quite charming and the content theologically inoffensive, there is to me something a bit… “off” about teaching children abbreviated/comicalized versions of the sacred history of our faith. It’s one thing to write historical fiction or to satirize history, but with respect to deviations as obvious as that of Veggie Tales I don’t necessarily think that borrowing from such approaches constitutes an appropriate didactic tool for transmitting a real sense of history. This is especially important for scriptural stories, which explain the precedents and founding of Christianity. And since in the midst of our culture of entertainment-in-your-face, we rightly teach children to differentiate between fantasy and reality, there is a real risk that cartoony interpretations confer a subconscious impression that these events are not “real.” Biblical dramatizations should therefore in my opinion aim for as much realism (even if stylized) as possible.
    In America in particular, Protestants tend to scold Catholics for not reading the Bible and especially the Old Testament enough, though it is also true that with such dense and contextually-charged material, a little knowledge can often be more dangerous than none at all (the selective quotations and ridiculous conclusions of liberal Christians should make that much clear).
    To be sure, I don’t mean to demonize Phil Vischer, who has created children’s entertainment that is if nothing else far less objectionable than almost anything else out there, and which is rather cute and fun. But the lack of realism hurts its didactic value, and yet it is close enough to the real thing to plant bizarre ideas.

  • I can see your point, but isn’t it reasonable to expect parents to explain to their children that Goliath wasn’t really a giant pickle, Shadrach Meshach and Abednego didn’t work at a chocolate factory, etc.? My parents certainly always made it clear to me that the shows took, shall we say, a fair bit of artistic license with the initial stories!
    I also think it’s different to tell a fantasized version of an OT story versus, say, the gospels. As far as I know, they’ve never dramatized the life and teachings of Jesus in cartoon veggie form.

  • Nicholas MOSES

    Of course no one thinks that Goliath was really a giant pickle, etc. To me, however, there is something bizarre about constructing children’s first memories of these stories around such images. For what it’s worth, I’d express similar (though less radical) concerns about illustrated Bible “story books” in which the pictures are too “cartoony.”
    It’s fairly parallel to the dynamic that comes into play if children have seen “Shrek” before having heard the proper fairy tales: it thwarts the development of a good, rooted sense of folklore. (This isn’t of course a perfect parallel, not the least because “Shrek” is totally inappropriate for children. Unfortunately, that fact hasn’t stopped many overbusy parents from plunking their spoilt brats down in front of it.)
    Definitely agree about the Gospel thing. That might cross the line from bizarre into sacrilegious.