Veggie Tales: “Morality, not Christianity”

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.

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  1. The fresh insight for me here is to augment both secular AND Christian culture with a gospel message for our kids.

    Watching (and talking through) Spongebob or VeggieTales offer opportunities to present the Gospel to our children in relevant, contextual ways.

  2. This is a great post!

    There are times after watching VeggieTales w/ our kids that we have to gently correct some of the moralism w/ the gospel – which I find humorous b/c it’s the same kind of talks we have after watching “non-christian” movies or shows 🙂

  3. Vischer has in fact been at work on a new project that is essentially a bible introduction series for children: What’s In the Bible? (http://whatsinthebible.com/)

    They retain the wit of the early Veggie Tales, but are aimed at walking through the shape and message of each biblical book. We have a few of the DVDs and have liked what we’ve seen so far.

  4. I don’t think you can say “The bible says” without at least implying you believe in Judeo/Christian ethics. True, teaching stories about Jesus would have been more direct, but the Old Testament stories were never portrayed as delightfully as you did them. Many, many children learned of those stories because of Veggie Tales. My youth groups loved them! They knew all the words to the songs and they were part of our Christian youth entertainment, leading into wonderful discussions about Christianity. I’m sorry the venture didn’t work out for Phil, but I am an unapologetic lover of the Veggie Tales and am happy they were around for my children. Entertaining, engaging, but with a good message – would that all movies be such “failures”.

  5. Love this post!

    I STILL enjoy VeggieTales—in fact I watch and listen to them on VHS with our daughter, who is 7 1/2 months old.

    I have used them in Children’s Ministry–even including constructing 2 giant cardboard and flannel (I’m showing my age!) Larry & Bob characters!

    One thing I did notice about VeggieTales when they were first released was that they never really mentioned JESUS. And now I realize they never mentioned the Cross or the Resurrection.

    The true “tag line” at the end of every episode was great: “Remember kids–God made you special and He loves you very much!” But—it never emphasized Jesus and the Gospel.

    I’m so thankful for this post as a reminder of these thoughts. And—I have seen promos for a recently released series (in 2011?) by Phil V called “What’s the Bible all about?” or “What’s in the Bible?”

    I will be checking those out—

    any comments on the new series?

    thanks!

    PS— I LOVE!!!!!!! Silly Songs with Larry!! 🙂

  6. I understand that Veggie Tales didn’t say EVERYTHING about Christianity. Question: Did it tell the truth? The Book of Proverbs doesn’t tell us everything either, but what it says is true in its context (the entire Bible). I applaud the new effort by Veggie Tales creator but I never relied on Veggie Tales to say it all.

  7. I am glad that Phil Vischer recognizes the difference between mere morality and Christianity. I am sad that he did not recognize it when VeggieTales was his to control.

  8. As a Christian parent, I was happy to let my children watch VeggieTales without having to filter them. My husband & I are educators & puppeteers, and found the humor & quality of the Big Idea productions very refreshing in a world of “ho-hum” Christian entertainment. We didn’t rely on VeggieTales to present the Gospel to our children–that’s our job. But by the same token, we have atheist/agnostic friends that would show these to their children. These are people that wanted nothing to do with God, but saw the value that VeggieTales provided. Moralistic? Yes. But is that such a bad thing, if it opens the door to the reason those morals exist?

  9. AS a parent whose kids watched veggie tales I can say that they were not scarred for life by them. While they (the videos) might be a little light on the Christianity side of things, they do stress morality and I’m glad they watched those instead of other choices given to us by the media. Knowing this information doesn’t really change my mind because besides showing these videos, our children (now 23 and 24) were taught christian principles at home and at church. I still have those videos and I’ll show them to my grandchildren someday.

  10. Did it occur to anyone that by Veggie Tales not mentioning the cross or Jesus or the Bible that they appealed to those who would otherwise immediately “shut down” and change the channel?

    Did it occur to anyone that the word of the Lord was still actually spread to those who had no knowledge of it?

    Did it occur to anyone that it is possible to spread the word without hitting the person receiving it over the head with it?

    The good parts came through to those who otherwise never would have listened. So many more children (and families) were able to see, absorb and apply the lessons of morality. That is a good way start. People are learning to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because someone told them to.

    To me, gentle guidance and lessons tied to real life is more true to how Jesus would have spread his message. Personally, having religious doctrine shoved in my face is quite unpleasant and does not work as effectively as teaching via Jesus’ method.

    • QuinnSmith, you couldn’t be more correct! Our home was relatively ignostic. After borrowing
      Veggie Tales from the local library (not even knowing they had moral or religious lessons), our 6 year-old starting asking questions about God and even praying before bed. Had the videos mentioned Jesus, I guarantee my husband would have asked me to turn it off! Phil Vischer is responsible for a broader ministry he doesn’t even recognize.

  11. As a child growing up in a Christian home, I grew up with VeggieTales. I can personally attest to the fact that the videos entertained me and introduced me to Biblical concepts, somewhat like the illustrated Beginner’s Bibles produced by Zondervan. However, I can also attest to the fact that these videos did NOT teach me the gospel, and that I was a sinner who needed to repent and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of my sins. Of course, I grew up watching videos about Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead for us (like the VeggieTales Easter special), but it was not until early high school that I was confronted about the need to receive Christ as Saviour (around the same time my family left the Methodist church).

    By an interesting act of Providence, it was after we left the Methodist church that I started actually reading the Bible and looking at our old VeggieTales tapes as an older kid. I was led to search for VeggieTales on Dish, found a channel that played it, and that led me to Kent Hovind’s Creation Seminar series on that channel, and he mentioned Ray Comfort, which eventually led me to Way of the Master, and on to Wretched Radio. Now, I am involved with evangelism on my college campus.

    Like any form of entertainment labeled “Christian,” parents should take care on what their children are being taught. The VeggieTales tapes can lead kids to take on a false sense of security that they are Christians because they grow up in Christian homes and practice Biblical morality (or at least SOME things that are Biblically moral). However, they can also be a great opportunity to present the Law and the Gospel if parents will follow up with their kids on what they watch.

    In the first VT video, Larry starts quoting from Luke 2:10 when he and Bob are sent on a mission to help Junior get over his fear of monsters, but Bob interrupts him because that is not the verse that he is supposed to quote. Parents can use points like that to explain the significance of the gospel and WHY Jesus came.

    My props to Phil Vischer on his reflections about his ministry; it takes humility to admit where we’ve gone wrong, and we ought to be careful to examine our own deeds from a Gospel-focused lens. If his What’s in the Bible Series has a more solid gospel presentation in the New Testament section, then maybe God might use the fame that he garnered in previous years to teach a new generation of children what they must do to be saved (Acts 16:30-31).

  12. Cordy always had a Bible verse, and Bob and Larry explained what it meant. The earlier videos would end with “God made you special and loves you very much.” That is planting seeds. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. There are so many today that do not even acknowledge that there is a God. Planting that little seed in children is crucial. Phil, don’t knock what good came from your work. You might not have made the money that you would have liked, but it is not money that you take to Heaven but people.

  13. All I know is that the VeggieTales that have come out in the past few years are the most Christian and the best produced I have ever seen. The creativity is back, especially in the songs. I’m talking about “Beauty and the Beet”, “Princess and the Pop Star”, and “The Penniless Princess”. Though “Celery Night Fever” is more of a moral tale, it also is well-produced. I’m telling you, Big Idea was in a big slump in terms of creativity before this.

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