VeggieTales “convinced kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity.” So says founder Phil Vischer in a new interview.
VeggieTales was a rags-to-riches entrepreneurial success story. Vischer and his counterpart, Mike Nawrocki, left college to pursue their dream of making wildly creative children’s videos. At the height of their success in the late 1990s, VeggieTales videos sold 7 million copies in a single year and generated $40 million in revenue. Though primarily aimed at a Christian market, VeggieTales had a broader cultural influence, pushing forward the boundaries of computer animation and children’s programming.
But success brought failure. Though Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber are still around, they aren’t the same. Big Idea Productions went bankrupt in 2003 and Vischer lost ownership and creative control of the whole enterprise. VeggieTales is no longer VeggieTales. The characters still exist – and in some cases are even voiced by Nawrocki and Vischer as hired talent – but the decisions are now made by studio execs who don’t share the vision or worldview of the original founders.
In a recent issue of WORLD magazine, Vischer acknowledged to interviewer Megan Basham that the bankruptcy and subsequent trials have given him perspective. His words reveal a man who’s beginning to see the difference between moralism and the gospel. And a man humble enough to acknowledge his role in confusing the two:
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.
American Christian[s]… 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. 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… We’ve completely taken this Disney notion of ‘when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true’ and melded that with faith and come up with something completely different. There’s something wrong in a culture that preaches nothing is more sacred than your dream. I mean, we walk away from marriages to follow our dreams. We abandon children to follow our dreams. We hurt people in the name of our dreams, which as a Christian is just preposterous.
[“It’s Not About the Dream,” WORLD magazine, Sep 24, 2011, 57-58]
I’ve been strongly critical of the Christian subculture over the years because I believe it does more to distort and discredit the gospel than almost any external threat or influence. It’s good to see one of the former saints of that subculture putting his finger on the same weaknesses. It’s even better to see “gospel awakening” in a man with such deep wells of creativity and talent. My kids loved VeggieTales, despite the moralistic overtones. Cut Phil Vischer loose with an even better, tighter, deeper theology of the gospel… and something great is bound to happen.
And now, it’s time for Silly Songs with Larry.