by Nancy Lovell
NOTE: The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything–A VeggieTales Movie, written by Phil Vischer and directed by Mike Nawrocki, opened January 2008, in theaters nationally from Universal Pictures. For more information, go to www.veggiepirates.com.
(EDITOR’s NOTE: This interview originally ran over at TheHighCalling.org ahead of the movie release.)
What does it mean when God gives a dream, and the dream comes true, and then it dies? And what if the dream envelopes a whole lot of people before it dies for them too?
And why would a man who achieved early and spectacular business success stop using the word “dream”?
At age 21, Phil Vischer had created VeggieTales to make cartoons with content. To staff the work, he incorporated Big Idea. By his early 30s, he was helmsman of the biggest animation enterprise between New York and L.A. By his mid-30s, he was in bankruptcy court. In his book, Me, Myself and Bob, the man who left his ocean-liner sized dream by life raft turns and looks back with hard-won wisdom.
Phil, you built an empire on your ability to shrink sometimes complex theology into small bites. Can you shrink the story of your career?
You want me to summarize?
I wasn’t trying to start a career. I was responding to a burden I felt to try to offset the negativity coming out in media, in pop culture—the negative messages, the unbiblical values, that saturated the amazing stuff. I wanted to make amazing stuff too. But I wanted to flip the polarity on the values.
That led to entering the world of video production, then computer animation when it was beginning, and always looking to pick up more skills and access to the tools to tell the stories God put on my heart.
That led to me attempting, in 1990, to make a kid show pretty much all by myself, in my spare bedroom, with a little help from a couple of friends. I got part way into it and realized I needed staff. And that started Big Idea productions. So I didn’t really want a company. It wasn’t a goal. It was a goal to work, and along the way I needed a company.
Then the good work took off and started going like crazy. We just kept adding to the staff and building the company, and somewhere along the line, I started reading business books. And my focus shifted from good work to the company. I decided I was going to build the next Disney and be the next Walt, and that became my new focus. By the year 2000, we were the largest animation studio between the coasts. We were named one of the top 10 studios to watch in worldwide animation by Animation Magazine. I was one of the 10 people to watch in worldwide religion named by a PBS special. It seemed like all my dreams were coming true. Three years later I was sitting in the back row of a bankruptcy court watching the whole thing put in a box and sold to the highest bidder. That was a fun three years.
Plenty of entrepreneurs have built empires that eventually went down in flames or out the door with the highest bidder. What prompted you to write about it?
That was also not part of my plan, but people kept asking me to. I started telling my story and people came up and said, “You need to write that down.” I thought, “That’s not what I do. I write fiction for children, not nonfiction for grownups.” Finally I said, “All right, God, I will right one chapter. If that goes well, maybe I’ll keep writing.” The one chapter was a lot of fun to write, and I kept going.
Did you learn anything about yourself in the writing process?
The book was a summary of what I’d gone through and what I’d learned, so there wasn’t anything necessarily new in the writing of it. Initially I was asked to deliver an address at Biola University, and I had to figure out what to say. They asked me to do spring commencement during the time I was in the midst of bankruptcy. And I couldn’t think of anything to say. So they asked if I could speak at the commencement at the end of the semester? So I said, “Okay, God, you’ve got five months to explain this to me. And in that five months, he peeled the onion, unpacked my backpack of baggage from my entire life, and showed me what I’d been dragging around.
If God helped you start Big Idea, why did he let it fly out of control? If he called you to give it life, why did he let it die?
I was trying to follow the call I felt he placed on me. Once that started working, once it became successful by the world’s standards, my ambitions grew and I began grafting on personal desires, personal goals, personal dreams that weren’t necessarily a part of God’s call. Soon I’d confused my own dreams with God’s will, muddled them horribly. I was spending most of my energy pursuing my own dreams and becoming more miserable every year.
My dream of being the next Walt Disney was not what God wired me to do. It was affecting my health, my marriage, my kids, my employees. I was increasingly miserable, run down, burned out . . . pushing a rock uphill. He never asked me to push. I think he took a step back and said, “I’ll let you run with this and find out how it goes.”
In hindsight, it was a divine mercy killing. He stood back and let my dream fall apart. I saw that it wasn’t what I needed, and that my fulfillment comes not from anything I dream up or pull off with my own power.
So God wanted the business to die to teach you what you needed to learn?
I don’t believe it was God’s intent that I run into a wall at 90 mph. But I believe he has an incredible ability to take the pieces of our shattered dreams . . . take our disasters . . . and turn them into gold. I don’t believe he planned the demise; I handled that myself quite effectively. But he was there to pick up the pieces and say, “Will you listen to me this time around?”
I can understand God’s teaching you through disaster and suffering. Why drag so many employees down with you? As you acknowledge in your book, some of them relocated to Big Idea from halfway across the country.
That’s part of the consequence of my decision, at the end of the day: His reluctance to override free will. And I made business decisions that cost many other people a great deal. In his divine wisdom, God can turn that into something good. People have told me how much they appreciate their years at Big Idea, what they learned through the layoff and getting new jobs. Some went in entirely new directions and found new ministries. Everyone is on a journey, and God is weaving everyone’s life in a story if they’re willing to listen and be part of it. What happened to a lot of people through Big Idea was largely through my choices. . . .
Did you always take responsibility or was that, too, a process?
At first, I desperately wanted to blame someone else. It’s very uncomfortable to accept the blame. Even in bankruptcy, I thought it was spiritual warfare. God was going to ride to the rescue and keep it going because what we were doing was so important. I wasn’t listening to God, pursuing God. I was pursuing impact, success—measured in fairly good terms: helping kids and families. But that was my god: success, ministry success. And we don’t have the impact God has planned for us when we’re pursuing impact; we have it when we’re pursuing God. That was probably the single biggest lesson of all: I was simply chasing the wrong thing.
Working in the Christian sphere, you think somehow you’re immune to garden variety greed and ambition.
You can be a banker or a senior pastor but still chasing the same stuff.
Also, I came from a spiritual show biz family. My great grandfather was a radio preacher, and my mother was performing on the piano for radio audiences when she was five years old. I have a heritage of being upfront and onstage. The need creeps in to look good while you’re doing it, and it’s a really dangerous thing.
During the hard years—those three dark years you refer to—when you prayed, what was that like?
My life was so noisy and . . . it’s difficult if you haven’t developed a lifestyle of walking with God and listening to him. It’s difficult in the middle of a crisis when the building is collapsing and everyone is screaming to suddenly hear God’s quiet still voice. I kept going back to my premises: God called me to do this. He’ll make it work. I never thought: what if I’m horribly off track?
But if I’m dong all the right things for all the wrong reasons, is my premise still valid?
What a great line, “if you’re doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons.” Were you still thinking of God in quid pro quo terms? “I’ve done all this for him; he must do X for me?”
I think so. It was, “I’ve got my calling, and I’m off to work. And I’m going to work very hard.” And God could do nothing but honor that.
You may have just recited the American Christian work credo.
We don’t want a relationship as much as we want a contract, an obligation, a transaction. I push this button and I get this. It’s predictable and doesn’t require a tremendous amount of time or thought about the relationship behind the vending machine. Even now people hear my story and say, “How do you hear God’s voice? How do you know?”
What’s your answer?
The secret is there’s no secret. You spend a lifetime walking with God and learning to hear his voice. Every now and then he’ll break in dramatically and you’ll build an ark—but no, before the ark Noah walked with God for 500 years. God doesn’t pick kids out of Bible college and tap them. It takes time to build a relationship with your wife or your Creator.
So in your mind, is there such a thing as a Christian business?
Business with Christian ownership, Christian values, Christian goals . . . I think a Christian business needs further definition. We had the same discussion about Christian movies. Is it a movie made by Christians? For Christians? Or a movie that has accepted Jesus as its Savior and is going to heaven when it dies?
What kind of movies do you make?
I make films infused with and illuminated by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Some will be overtly biblical and/or educational. Others will simply tell stories of life on a broken planet. But all will carry the scent of the Gospel.
From your experience, how would you say a Christian should or can approach business decisions?
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s its own book right there. I think there’s a difference, first of all, if your business is a means to accomplish a call God has placed on your life. If so, then what happens falls into one category. If it’s your means of putting food on the table—you reupholster furniture because you enjoy it and make your living that way—you’re in a slightly different way of finding God’s will in your business. He does have a point of view on your honesty and integrity, and that goes for whether your business isf your ministry or an outgrowth of your need to put food on the table.
A calling and a job are spiritually unequal?
There are good works we are called to that God has prepared us to do that may or may not involve how we earn a living.
But God gives us work.
People have done horrible things through daily work. There’s a danger in sanctifying it categorically. There’s a distinction between what you do and how you do it. Anything can be done with integrity, nobility, and charity . . .
My fear is the notion that “do all things for the glory of God,” when misapplied, can allow us to resist overcoming inertia to actually follow a path of ministry. I’ve got a great business selling insurance and I can do that for the glory of God. So that little nudge I feel when I hear about people in Rwanda—well, I’m doing this to the glory of God so I don’t need to do that.
There’s holiness to Paul’s call to lead quiet lives among the heathen, taking care of yourself, meeting your own daily needs and having that be a witness. At the same time, he was talking to people being persecuted, vilified, and blamed for the burning of Rome. And leading quiet lives was a good witness. Considering how loud and obnoxious many North American Christians have become, there’s another reason to go back to modesty and quiet. God has prepared good works for us to walk in that may involve how we feed ourselves and may not. Letting him lead us into that work is more important than finding the holiness in an accounting job. [Yikes. Feels like I’m singling out accountants.] How about . . . “Letting him lead us into that work is more important than finding the holiness in a job we have assumed simply because the pay was good.”
So you hear God’s voice and feel hs nudges. What about people who don’t?
If you’re walking with Him daily, you can’t not bump into needs. And it will be clear that you have been equipped to meet some of those needs. And that may take you out of your comfort zone. It may change your vocation; it may be adjunct to your vocation. Parker Palmer said vocation is “the intersection of my great gifting and the world’s great need.” Where I get concerned is when we aren’t looking, when we’re ignoring the world’s great need because we’ve found a vocation that’s quite comfortable. And we sit behind a verse—I can do all things for the glory of God—and the world screams out for help and we do nothing.
If you say, “I’m a hedge-fund trader for the glory of God,” and the majority of your earnings are benefiting no one but yourself, I’d say you are a trader, but I’m not sure if it’s for the glory of God. Paul said quite plainly, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” He didn’t mince words. If my life’s work benefits no one but myself, I really don’t think I’m following the teaching of the Gospel.
I’d be hesitant to say how another person should spend his money.
We are Christ’s hands and feet, ambassadors of reconciliation. The question is: how is that coming across in your life?
So how does God direct you now that you’re listening?
There’s the big arc that he’ll do in the future what he’s done in the past. You can look at what he’s done through you—and if the next thing you want to do is completely out of alignment, there may be a red flag. Then there’s scripture: what has He called us to do on a daily basis? And if every day you’re pursuing him, then you’ll hear from him. That’s biblical. Not 100 percent of the time, but you will hear from him when your decisions affect what he’s calling you into for his redemptive purposes on earth through you. He has a point of view and he’ll share it—through friends, through scripture, through circumstances. Paul very often said, “The Holy Spirit told us to leave this town.” He also said “We decided to go here.” There’s a mix of him working under more overt communication from God and his making choices based on his understanding of the situation. There’s no formula, but I have had clear direction at key moments in the last years.
Who do you want to read your book, and what message do you want readers to walk away with?
My hope is that it’s got something to say to anyone who has had a dream, whether a business dream or a life dream or a family dream. That’s really what it’s about: what does it mean when God gives you a dream and it comes to life and then it dies? We as Americans need to examine our dreams.
So say you meet a gifted 22-year-old, uncannily like yourself at that age. From the spare bedroom of his house he begins to boldly merge entertainment, theology, creativity, and the latest in technology and marketing. He turns to you for advice, and you say . . .
[Laughs] First of all, I’d say “Hey, read my book.” Secondly, I’m writing articles on my website he ought to read. Third, I’d say, “Watch what I’m going to do next, because it’s designed to help people exactly like you.”
What do you mean?
Well, now I’m working on the way kids like I was 20 years ago will get their start. The first purpose of what we’re doing next is to raise a generation of Christians who know what it means to live the gospel. The second purpose is to provide the means for the next generation of Christian storytellers to find an audience. Let’s see if we can pull that off.
You’re speaking now of Jellyfish Labs?
Yep. It’s too soon to describe quite yet, but what we’re developing is a model for how we can minister to kids through media over the next 15 years, just as VeggieTales videos and DVDs ministered so effectively over the last 15 years. We live in a changing world, and new conditions create new opportunities.
Near the end of Me, Myself and Bob, you list lessons learned . . .
If you paraphrase my whole book, no one will go buy it.
Very funny. Okay, talk about what you’re doing now and what you may be doing differently in terms of business and spirituality?
Number one, I have no long-term goals. And I will have none unless God gives me them explicitly. That’s partly a distinction between mission and strategy. Mission is your calling in the broadest sense to make God visible on earth so that others can experience his love: the way he wires me and moves in me. I’m fairly certain my personal mission involves doing that through story and kids interacting with media. So that is what will drive all my long-term thinking. I won’t say in the next 20 years I’m going to build X, Y, and Z.
Does that mean you’re not dreaming?
You mean brainstorm? I brainstorm constantly. But I don’t use the word dream because there’s too much emotional baggage. “A dream is a wish your heart makes,” as we’ve all learned from Walt Disney—either Sleeping Beauty or Snow White or Cinderella—the gospel according to Disney that has affected our society. The emotional longings we attach to our “dreams” often say more about the unmet needs of our childhoods than God’s calling on our lives.
Do you pray differently now?
My perspective at Big Idea, what drove me was always, was “how far have I gone, and am I gaining on Nickelodeon, MTV . . . the ones using the attention of our kids for selfish gain? I need to catch up with them.” I was always measuring results and comparing myself. The big difference is focusing not on results but obedience: What has God asked me to do today, and am I doing it?
To answer the question: I find I spend more time now praying for other people. I spent more of my time before praying for my plans, my dreams, myself.