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 are 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.”