The Gospel According to Veggie Tales
Broc-co-li, cel-er-y, got-ta be: Veggie Tales.
Love it or hate it, if you grew up in church over the last two decades, you’re no stranger to the many iterations of the Veggie Tales franchise. For those unfamiliar with the show, imagine talking vegetables (and a few mislabeled fruits) acting out Bible stories and other scenarios common to the average American pre-teen’s life.
Over the years, Veggie Tales garnered quite the following in the American evangelical sub-culture. (You know, that sub-culture that only listens to American Family Radio, boycotts everything Disney, and wears cheesy Christian T-shirts that make Jesus look like a cheap product (see here for example) or a complete doofus (see here for example). These shows became staples in church ministries for nearly every age group, from pre-school to high school. In some churches they were even used as a virtual babysitter. (Insert video. Sit back. Relax. Let the talking vegetables do the work.)
Now, perhaps you are thinking that we are being a little harsh. I mean, what’s not to love about vegetable cartoon characters who teach kids to avoid bad behavior and to do good to others? Well, lots actually.
To begin with, “avoiding bad” and “doing good” (the main theme of a majority of Veggie Tales episodes) isn’t a distinctly Christian message. Almost every world religion would agree with that theme (and even most non-religious people, for that matter). Of course, not being distinctly Christian is not, by itself, a problem. We eat cereal that isn’t Christian. We celebrate holidays that aren’t Christian (Memorial Day, 4th of July, etc.). And most people listen to music and watch TV shows and movies that aren’t Christian. None of this is a problem. What is a problem is when something that isn’t distinctly Christian claims to be what it is not. When you do so, you end up confusing a lot of people about what Christianity (or the gospel) is actually about.
Secondly, Veggies Tales has a long and unfortunate history of mis-interpreting the Bible. For example, stories about Joseph, Daniel, Jonah and so forth are told as if they were all about learning important life lessons. But Jesus says these stories were written to point to him (see Luke 24:27, 44 and John 5:39-40, 46 where Jesus explains that the whole Bible is about him). The obvious problem here is that children, who learn by example and repetition, are in danger of growing up to think that the Bible is about “being good,” instead of seeing the Bible as being about the One who was good in our place. And that is the real trouble with most Veggie Tales episodes.They mix good material (Bible stories) with bad teaching and end up with something that seems like harmless entertainment for the whole family, but which actually teaches kids (and adults) to read the Bible as if it were just a collection of stories that aim to make us a little bit better behaved.
Veggie Tales is still around today, but it’s not the same company. Big Idea Productions went bankrupt in 2003, and Phil Vischer (the creator of Veggie Tales) lost ownership and creative control of the entire enterprise. So, now all of the decisions are made by studio executives who don’t possess the same worldview of the original founder. In other words, VeggieTales is even less “Christian” than it used to be.
But the good news is that’s not where the story ends. Recently Phil Vischer said in an interview that he’s had a change of heart about his former work with Veggie Tales. His words reveal a man who understands the difference between the gospel and “being good,” and a man who’s humble enough to acknowledge his role in confusing the two:
“I looked back at the previous ten years and realized I had spent ten 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 are 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.” [Phil Vischer, quoted in “It’s Not About the Dream,” WORLD magazine, Sep 24, 2011, pp. 57-58]
Vischer couldn’t be more accurate. The deadly “cocktail” that he’s referring to goes by the name of moralism. Moralism teaches that we have to be good and work hard in order to earn God’s acceptance, blessing, or favor. When you read the Bible through the lens of moralism, every story becomes a “positive example” of what you must do in order for God to love you, accept you, and bless you. This idea is one of the greatest enemies of the gospel, for it directly opposes what the gospel actually teaches. Moralism says, “I obey God, therefore, I am accepted,” but the gospel says that “I am accepted in Christ, therefore, I obey.” If you would like to read more about what moralism is and why it’s so dangerous, click here.
If you’re a parent who is looking for kid-friendly resources that avoid moralism and keep Jesus as the focus, check out The Jesus Storybook Bible. (The deluxe edition comes with CDs of the stories read aloud in a very cool British accent!)